Doctor Who: The Cabinet Of Light, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The Cabinet Of Light, Review

Matthew Kresal returns to the wilderness years.
Coming to wilderness-era Doctor Who books, as I did with this one recently for the Police Box in a Junkyard podcast, often make for curious reading. Sometimes they feel like artifacts from another age, trying to define the series in a time before its 21st-century regeneration on-screen. Other times they feel like prototypes for things that came later, pre-echoing things that have come to pass in Modern Who. Reading The Cabinet of Light, one of the entries in the Telos range of novellas given a second life with some minor edits as part of their Time Hunter series, offers all of the above and so much more.

Published in 2003, Cabinet of Light fits into an intriguing moment in the history of Who in prose. The Virgin books were long gone with the BBC ranges that succeeded them being several years old and had taken the (then) radical steps of blowing up Gallifrey and giving the Eighth Doctor amnesia. Keep that state of affairs in mind because, otherwise, it seems incredible to think that a license to publish Doctor Who books ended up with a small publisher. Someone willing to push things in the direction that something like Cabinet of Light could take Doctor Who.

One of the secrets of Doctor Who's longevity is its ability to adapt to seemingly any genre. In the case of this novella, Daniel O'Mahony brought Who into noir. Or, perhaps more of neo-noir in the vain of the seventies and eighties when the genre got a second life in an era without production codes and more lenient standards. It's hard not to feel that influence on the depiction of 1949 London and the characters that populate it, from a Nazi-affiliated stage magician to a landlady abusing her amnesiac tenant for not helping her get money from journalists. It's not a pleasant world by any means, one that former American GI turned "fixer" Honoré Lechasseur navigates the reader through, the potentially moral, yet imperfect, man on a journey into this seedy world.

Into all of that, O'Mahony drops the genre elements. In particular, there's the eventual villain and their henchman, the organic/mechanical hybrid Abraxas, described as eight feet tall and as someone who "stank of oil and musty dinosaur hide." The final third of the novella, as O'Mahony builds his narrative toward its climax, has the feel of a Lovecraftian nightmare, a sense of lingering horrors and wonders on the edges of human understanding. Cabinet of Light is recognizably a Doctor Who story, even in this Time Hunter reprint where the Time Lord becomes "Dr. Smith," and the description of a blue box is impossible to miss.

And that's where the feeling of Modern Who kicks in. With Lechasseur as the main character, In many ways, Cabinet of Light feels like a precursor to the Doctor-lite episodes, particularly Steven Moffat's acclaimed 2007 episode Blink. This novella isn't a story about the Doctor or their companions. Indeed, the Doctor barely features in it and is so vaguely described you could put one of many incarnations into this story (personally, I heard him speaking with the voice of Paul McGann). The Cabinet of Light is the story of what it's like to be someone on the edges of one of the Doctor's adventures, a sentiment summed up neatly at one point:
"He thinks he flits through the world leaving no waste and no tracks behind him, but he does. You're stepping in them."
How O'Mahony handles the Doctor likewise pre-figures Moffat. There's a mythic feeling to how the Doctor (or Dr. Smith in this Time Hunter edition) is referred to and seen throughout, a phantom or trickster running throughout history. There's an intriguing re-telling of the events of An Unearthly Child, for example, early on that presents it as a legend with all the details off by varying degrees, which wonderfully demonstrates this approach. How far some would go to meet him or confront him, too, is here almost a decade before the likes of The Pandorica Opens or A Good Man Goes to War. Cabinet of Light presents variations on those ideas, and in a self-contained story that crams so much into the page count of a Target novelization, making it a tale ahead of its time.

Perhaps that's why, reading it in spring 2022, it resonates so much, no mean feat for a nearly 20-year-old book. Plus, thanks to its becoming the basis for the Telos Time Hunter series, it's part of a select group of Wilderness Era novels n print once more. True, the more overt references might have received tinkering with, but you can recognize them outright.

So do yourself a favor: give this a read and hear what my fellow podcasters had to say about it.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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