22 September 2021

Review: Doctor Who: Father Time by Lance Parkin

Published: 2000
Acquired: January 2021
Read: March 2021

Doctor Who: Father Time
by Lance Parkin
Reading this shortly after another "caught on Earth" arc novel, I could see that one of the real benefits of this storyline was how it let you see Doctor Who from the outside. This happens in three ways. One is that, since the Doctor is spending a century on Earth, and the stories are spaced decades apart, each can use a new, outsider viewpoint character. Some of my favorite Doctor Who stories are ones that introduce you to the Doctor from a new character's perspective: "An Unearthly Child," "Rose," The Harvest, "Smith and Jones," certainly others I am forgetting. The premise of this arc means that literally every story can take this approach! Here, we follow Debbie, a schoolteacher who takes refuge at the Doctor's house after a car accident, and becomes enraptured by him and his world. She's a well drawn character; Parkin makes her and her world feel very real, and we get the sense of an ordinary person seeking an escape that Russell T Davies would often use to excellent effect on screen.

It also is Doctor Who from the outside in that the Doctor himself doesn't know who he is. Now, amnesia has become a bit of an overused trope in Doctor Who tie-ins, especially for the eighth Doctor, but it's put to good effect here. He's Doctorish... but not exactly the Doctor. Here, he's a man who settles down with a daughter and does business consulting in the 1980s! But the kind of business consulting he does is pretty amazing.

Which leads me into the last way these stories really work. They are not traditional Doctor Who stories, but they still feel like Doctor Who stories. As a friend said, paraphrasing Elizabeth Sandifer, there are Doctor Who stories that "speak[ ] Doctor Who fluently, but with a charming accent you haven’t heard before." These "caught on Earth" stories are among them, and Father Time is particularly good at it. This has a lot of Doctor Who tropes you'll recognize, but in a new, unfamiliar context. How does the Doctor deal with evil aliens from the far future attacking the Earth to find another alien who's in hiding... when he lives on the Earth and lives with the alien? I've read four of the six caught on Earth books (five of the seven if we count the retroactively inserted Past Doctor Aventure Wolfsbane), and, except for the utterly mediocre finale by Colin Brake, they all do this successfully to varying degrees... but I think Father Time does it best of all. There's a particularly great bit where, when the Doctor realizes his daughter has been kidnapped into Earth orbit, he basically just shrugs and goes, "Well, I guess we're off to Cape Canaveral to steal a space shuttle." It's the kind of audaciousness you can imagine a Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat story having on screen... but the way the Doctor steals the shuttle is very different than what they might do because this is a Doctor without his usual technical resources.

The issue I have with the book, however, is that it's not long enough. It's divided into three sections: 1980, 1986, 1989. The first section runs about a hundred pages, and it is the best of them: strongly atmospheric and character driven. But the last two sections thus only get half the book between them and must be squeezed into fifty pages apiece; I felt the character work suffered as a result. Debbie, who really drives the first section, fades into the background. (Imagine if, having been the focus of "Rose," Rose spent the rest of series one just standing there and asking questions like a Chibnall companion. Why do all that set-up and do nothing with it?) And though there's a lot of focus on Miranda, the Doctor's daughter, the one thing I didn't quite see enough of was her relationship with the Doctor. They are usually separate in the actual novel; most of their time together happens off-page between the 1980 and 1986 sections. But if the 1986 and 1989 sections had got 100 pages apiece just like the first, I think this would have gone from a verging-on-great Doctor Who novel to surely one of the greatest of them all. The potential is all there in the first part, but the rocket doesn't achieve the heights it could.

Still, this is a blast. I always enjoy a Lance Parkin Doctor Who story. He knows how to blend cool concepts with over-the-top storytelling, and I wish we heard more of his voice these days.

Also, this is one of a few pre-2005 Doctor Who novels to get an official ebook release, for which I am immensely grateful. It seems to average $13-20 on the secondary market, but you can get it for $7 on Amazon.

I read an Eighth Doctor Adventure every three months. Next up in sequence: EarthWorld

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