Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Duncan reviews Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles

The Doctor Who novel by Michael Moorcock.

(Warning: Spoilerish)

I feel as though this book was written just for me. The Doctor, my childhood hero, adventures in a universe populated by themes, events and characters straight out of my favourite of my favourite author's novels. How could it fail?

Michael Moorcock, although my favourite author, I still consider to be hit-and-miss and there are books (and whole series of books) of his I can't stand and won't ever read again. So the possibility of him producing a stinker was always there, and I ordered the book with some trepidation. But if I'd never read it then I would never have known for sure.

The "Second Ether" trilogy (Blood, Fabulous Harbours and The War Amongst the Angels) seem to me to be the biggest Moorcock influence on the setting of The Coming of the Terraphiles - a far-future that is built using the infinite budget of the author's imagination. This does not attempt to emulate the TV series Doctor Who, it knows it is a novel and plays accordingly.

The next most obvious influence, to me, is Dancers at the End of Time, set so far in the future that technology is indistinguishable from magic and its wielders are as gods, imagination their only limit ("I'd be dead in a week") and the only thing denied them is knowledge of their own history. The Coming of the Terraphiles is not set quite that far away, but far enough that corporations terraform planets Magarathea-style to their customers specifications, and the titular 'Terraphiles' reenact the games and customs of Earth's past (well, 20th Century Britain's) to the best of their understanding - much to Amy's amusement at how limited this is.

The ambiguous characters - never quite sitting comfortably in the traditional hero, villain, ally or antagonist roles the pulp space-adventure plot seems to call for - also echo, as do a few names, the Jerry Cornelius stories that I have known and loved and failed to fully wrap my head around since I was a teenager borrowing the books from the local library when it ran out of Elrics.

The story can, I think, be broken down into three rough Acts: Act 1 is a space-Edwardian mystery wherein the theft of a hyper-expensive hat is more important than it seems. Act 2 is a race through the sea of space to get to the planet Miggea in time for the most important game of pseudo-space-cricket in history. And the final act is this game itself, played with the fate of the multiverse (of course) at stake.

There is more than a hint of the Adams/Williams era to this story - I could imagine Tom Baker just as easily as Matt Smith playing the Doctor’s part, and it would be a small step from Amy to Romana (Lalla Ward’s, probably) in the Companion role.

Amy is written with a few of her character traits in place - being Scottish myself I wonder if there were a couple of references she makes that would pass a lot of readers by - but with no mention of Rory at all it makes me question how much Moorcock knew about the events of TV season 5 when writing this. Though “quite generically written Companion” is hardly a devastating criticism of a Doctor Who story.

The Doctor is the Doctor. Moorcock could have been writing Doctor Who for years, he fits so well. It makes me want to re-read the Second Ether books and look for all the hidden references to the Doctor that I know aren’t there but which if I look hard enough I’ll find anyway.

How comprehensible would this book be to someone who hasn’t read the Second Ether stories or at least possesses a working knowledge of Moorcock’s Law/Chaos/Balance cosmology, let alone any children reading this (risqué in places but that wouldn’t be my first concern) complex work? I cannot really answer that. I would hope that the explanations provided by the Doctor (to Amy, naturally) would suffice, but my instinct suggests that I’m being optimistic and that there’s a good chance Moorcock’s style would be confusing and perhaps frustrating to those not used to it - he leaves a lot of interpretation to the reader and that is not something you get in just any book.

From my point of view this is a strength, one that makes the best Moorcocks so re-readable as each time you take something new to the book and find something new within it. I look forward to re-reading The Coming of the Terraphiles many times in the future for this reason, and because it’s a bloody good story in the best traditions of Doctor Who.

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