Doctor Who: 11 Doctors 11 Stories book review

Neil Gaiman and Charlie Higson triumph in the Doctor Who 50th short story collection

It’s something that ever writer to tackle Doctor Who, whether for TV or audio, book or comic, need be reminded of every now and again: just because the Doctor can do anything, it doesn’t mean he should.

Sure, the sort of story you can tell with a character blessed free movement around time and space is theoretically limitless, and the tone of show has shifted both subtly and abruptly over its five decades in light of this, but that doesn’t mean its been always welcome or always successful,

Perhaps more because of the high calibre of contributors and the charity nature of the piece, personal whims are being indulged a little more than would be the case for many licensed projects. In places it even comes slightly too close awkward indifference of Michael Moorcock’s The Coming Of The Terraphiles, a perfect case study of an author simply shrugging and introducing the character to his dusty desk drawer of second hand characters and reheated themes.

The worst example of this in 11 Doctors 11 Stories is Michael Scott (The Secrets Of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel)’s Second Doctor short, in which the Master makes a deal with Lovecraftian Many Angled Ones, and Who fans are confronted with the tonal dissonance of plucky Highlander Jamie McCrimmon feeling his stomach heave as he gazes upon imaginable horrors in a dead city made of mirrors.

The idea of shoehorning Doctor Who – an inherently hopeful universe – into the world of the Chthulu Mythos is far less appropriate then were his story about the Second Doctor teaming up with Optimus Prime to fight Darth Vader. In fact, it’s pure snobbery that adding Mythos to things isn’t flagged up as the indulgent fan-fiction it obviously is, albeit masked with cultural cache.

Nor does Eoin Colfer (Artermis Fowl)’s First Doctor story feel quite right, almost if it were written with a more dynamic later Doctor in mind and then awkwardly retro-fitted to the more glacial William Hartnell.

Marcus Sedgwick (Floodland)’s Third comes fairly close to the character, but the setting is cold and unconvincing and the pacing uncertain. It’s superficially similar to the Woden’s Warriors strip from the TV Comic Annual 1976. Richelle Mead (Vampire Academy)’s Sixth Doctor story is perhaps the last truly bad one, although Malorie Blackman’s Seventh deals with some interest ideas, but sacrifices pacing and characterisation, while Patrick Ness’ Fifth is similarly fascinating, but falls short by barely having the Doctor in it.

It takes until Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines)’s Fourth Doctor story for it to start feeling like an episode. Indeed, there’s echoes of Face Of Evil (a problem in itself, as the book’s crying out for Leela to acknowledge that her people thought the Doctor was a malevolent demonic being too and you get over it) and a smidgen of Full Circle and State Of Decay.

All of which sort of makes 11 Doctors 11 Stories sound a bit crappy, and not quite the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary extravaganza you were hoping for.

It’s not a bad collection at all, but big authors have big ideas, and they pull in so many directions that a failure to measure up to expectations is inevitable – even Neil Gaiman (Sandman)’s Doctor Who episodes don’t get a free pass, so there’s no reason to expect his short stories to either.

Fortunately though, Gaiman’s entry is one of the standout offerings – the dialogue is impossible to read aloud without giving Matt Smith’s delivery an amateurish stab of your own, while the timey-wimey one-step-ahead reveal is perfectly in keeping with the current incarnation of the show.

Alex Scarrow’s (TimeRiders) Eighth Doctor tale is sort of similar in that respect, the Americanised X-Files vibe fits some of the BBC Books New Adventures, and given the era of the 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie – filmed in Vancouver with a US audience in mind – it’s not impossible to imagine this being the sort of direction that the ensuing series would have taken.

On the subject of New Adventures, there’s a hint of Steve Lyons’ sublime Virgin New Adventure Conundrum to Derek Landy’s (Skulduggery Pleasant) Tenth Doctor story, and to his credit he namechecks the Land of Fiction, creating a perfect meeting ground between the tone of the series, the promise of the expanded universe, and the heritage of Classic Who. While Charlie Higson (The Enemy)’s Ninth is a strong all rounder – good ideas, good characterisation, and the sort of overreaching naffness (in a nice way, obviously) that fits the Saturday night glee of Russell T Davies era.

Writing licensed fiction – especially for a property as big, as prestigious and as laden down with tropes as Doctor Who – is strangely egalitarian. It doesn’t matter if you if you have your own comfy chair half-way up the New York Times bestseller list; if you’re incapable of capturing the world of Doctor Who, you’re going to write a bad Doctor Who story and that’s a fact.