1991: Doctor Who – Looking Back At THE TIMEWYRM SAGA - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1991: Doctor Who – Looking Back At THE TIMEWYRM SAGA

Matthew Kresal returns to 1991 and the launch of the New Adventures for the Seventh Doctor.
On the sixth of December 1989, viewers watched the third and final episode of the Doctor Who serial Survival, featuring Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred's Ace facing off against The Master in Perivale. At the episode's conclusion, McCoy's Doctor delivers a short monologue declaring, "Come on, Ace, we've got work to do!" The end credits played, and viewers might reasonably have expected Doctor Who to return to screens in 1990.

Except, of course, that it didn't. New Doctor Who wouldn't appear on BBC Television until 1996 (or 1993, depending on how one counts Dimensions in Time), and then not as an ongoing series until 2005. But in June 1991, something appeared that would begin to offer more adventures for the Seventh Doctor and Ace, albeit on the page. Published by Virgin Books, the New Adventures would pick up roughly where the series left off before launching into "stories too broad and deep for the small screen." They would do so with a series of four linked novels: the Timewyrm saga.

It was a move that had a certain logic to it. Three of the four writers were established Who authors, with John Peel and Nigel Robinson having written Target novelizations, as had Terrance Dicks, who had a history with Doctor Who on TV dating back to the Patrick Troughton era. The fourth novel would come from newcomer Paul Cornell, who had made a name for himself in eighties fandom and scripting entries in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip. It was a gathering of writers who represented both where Doctor Who had been but also where it might be going, something that was to make itself felt in the novels they would pen.
Peel's novel, Genesys, would launch the series and the Timewyrm arc. With three decades of hindsight, it's hard not to wonder if Peel was channeling An Unearthly Child to some extent, with the novel being set so much in Mesopotamia circa 2700 BC. In some ways, Genesys is at its best when Peel focuses on the details of the time and place. The characters come across as perhaps less than fully developed but serve the plot well enough for the most part, except for how Gilgamesh is written as nothing more than a drunken, sword-swinging idiot. The Seventh Doctor and Ace often feel as though they're versions of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah under different names, rather than the characters McCoy and Aldred had played on-screen just two years earlier.

There is also the thorny issue of continuity. Peel starts and ends Genesys with a load of references to the television series, including a cameo appearance by the Fourth Doctor and the use of the Third as well. Along the way, there are references to countless companions and events seen on-screen, often without enough context to have them used, outside of "Wouldn't it be cool to mention this here?" Weirdly, the Timewyrm itself barely features at all, bookending Peel's novel but contributing little else to proceedings. Genesys feels like an attempt to bring fans of earlier eras of the series into the McCoy era, at the time chalk and cheese in the eyes of the fandom, with the result being an odd compromise between the two.
Terrance Dicks' Exodus followed in August 1991 per the bi-monthly schedule of the early New Adventures. Moving forward in time, Dicks took the Seventh Doctor and Ace to 1951, only for them to land in a much altered Britain occupied by the Nazis. It sends them on a journey back to the Nazi's early days and, at last, a reunion with a villain from the beginning of Dicks work on the series.

Dicks long experience writing for Doctor Who shines throughout the novel. Early on in Exodus, for example, there's a moment where the Doctor sits in the remains of the British Museum, piecing together where history changed, almost sensing as it changes around him and the Timewyrm behind it. The characters, both in the form of the Nazi leadership and Dicks' own returning villains, likewise come across as more richly drawn, including filling in what's happened to the villains since viewers last saw them more than two decades before. Though, like with Genesys, the Timewyrm itself feels more like a background element, something inserted into the novel rather than the driving force behind events.
By the third novel, Nigel Robinson's Apocalypse, it becomes clear that the early New Adventures had some recurring pros and cons. Namely, some authors had a better grasp of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and also understood how much continuity was the right amount to sprinkle into the novels. Robinson's entry, where the Doctor and Ace pursue the Timewyrm to the planet Kirith at the end of time, highlighted the issues of characterization and continuity with the harshness of a prison searchlight.

To Robinson's credit, he captures Ace very well. Her scenes with the characters of Mirli and Raphael are highlights of the novel, invoking the Season 26 version of the character rather neatly. It's with the Seventh Doctor that Robinson stumbles. This is in large part because, like Peel before him, his characterization feels like earlier Doctors, albeit different ones depending on the section in question. That said, in the last few pages of Timewyrm: Apocalypse, Robinson gives the Doctor and Ace a beautiful scene where Ace confronts the Doctor about his actions, how he knew what was going on all along, and the Doctor tries to explain himself. It's a wonderfully written scene, one that sets up a key plot point later on in the New Adventures, as tensions between the two would reach a boiling point. This is the exception, not the rule, sadly, something that undermines the novel.

Other problems likewise are apparent. Perhaps the biggest one is in the prose itself, which causes the 201 pages to not so much flow as plod-on without any real sense of tension. Adding to the novel feeling out of step, Robinson draws heavily from Christopher H Bidmead, who script edited Season 18. The fact is that the Apocalypse starts with an epigraph taken from the novelization of Logopolis, gives the reader a sense of where things are going. Indeed, Apocalypse wouldn't have been out of place within that final Fourth Doctor season with the themes of oppression and alien races with dark secrets in their past that occupied so much of Season 18 put to use here. Sadly, the lack of tension and laborious descriptions of the Kirith undermines otherwise good work. Factor in another underuse of the Timewyrm, and it leaves the novel feeling oddly dull.
December 1991 saw the release of the final Timewyrm novel, Paul Cornell's Revelation. It was to prove an apt title and not just for bringing an end to the saga. Indeed, Revelation is arguably where the New Adventures kicked into high gear.

For the first time, the characterizations of the Seventh Doctor and Ace were genuinely stretched, pushing the envelopes on who these characters were. The Seventh Doctor becomes a man whose past haunts him, as does what he may have to do not only in the present but in the future as well, something that Cornell's use of past Doctors brings to the fore. Cornell also takes Ace to her limit, as she faces threats not only from her past (in the form of a childhood bully) and present but from the Doctor himself. Yet it is Ace who brings out what is best in the Doctor in the end, presented in one of the most dramatic pieces of writing for the series that you'll ever come across. Finally, the Timewyrm comes into her own as the titular villain after being in the background of the previous three novels, coming across as both a genuine threat and considerable presence within the pages she occupies. All of which marks a change from earlier books with their hit-and-miss approach to these characters.

Cornell also handles two of the biggest problems of the previous novels very well and turns them into pluses: previous Doctors and continuity references. The titular Revelation also refers to the earlier Doctors, especially the Third and Fifth, with Cornell exploring what happens to the past incarnations once regeneration occurs, influencing generations of Who writers in the process. Cornell takes the Whovian canon at the start of the nineties and creates some chilling sequences from it, arguably the most effective featuring the Doctor facing those who have died because of his actions. Or, at one point, helping sow the seed of the Cartmel Masterplan into the New Adventures, something that would only bear fruit when the range ended in 1997. Cornell avoids the feelings of the novel being littered with references, and things that weighed down previous books elevate this one. Something which, in doing so, set the tone of the dozens of New Adventure releases that were to follow.

Thirty years on, the legacy of these opening Timewyrm novels is apparent. Despite a sometimes rocky start, the saga set the tone of telling "stories too broad and deep for the small screen" for the New Adventures, something they would carry on until 1997. Their legacy can be found, not only in countless Whovian literary spin-offs (such as the Lethbridge-Stewart range Peel has written for) but successive ranges at BBC Books, carrying literary Doctor Who into the 21st-century. For anyone who enjoyed the Wilderness Era novels, or even the New Series Adventures of more recent times, a debt is owed to these four books. They might not have been perfect, but they sent the New Adventures off and running to live up to their name.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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