Planet of the Spiders
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BBC Books
The Ancestor Cell

Authors Stephen Cole and Peter Anghelides Cover image
ISBN 0 563 53809 0
Published 2000

Synopsis: Faction paradox prepares to move. The Doctor is about to become one of their own. The Time Lords have a mission for him too... but the Doctor's options are running out.

WARNING: This book is so big and eventful that it's difficult to discuss without some spoilers. Proceed with caution.

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A Review by Steve White 17/12/16

The Compassion arc finally ends with the game-changing The Ancestor Cell by Peter Anghelides and Stephen Cole, which serves to draw time on the Eighth Doctor range as we know it and tie up as many loose ends as it possible can. Sadly, the novel is overshadowed by Lawrence Miles, who threw his toys out of the pram after having his ideas and intellectual property dealt with in a way he didn't deem appropriate. Personally, I side with Miles, who has delivered consistently great books and actually succeeded in taking the range into new and exciting directions, but, over 10 years on, it really is a moot point. Needless to say, you need to have read a fair few books in the range to get the most out of this novel, so I'm going to assume most people have and am reviewing with that in mind.

So the TARDIS crew are sans TARDIS and on the run from the Time Lords, who are trying to force Compassion, who is now a new model of sentient TARDIS, to breed with other TARDISes. They are doing this to win a time war against a nameless enemy, although it's 100% not the Daleks and not THAT time war. When they are finally captured by the Time Lords, the crew are split up, with the Doctor facing his infection with the paradox virus, Fitz facing a Satanic ritual and Compassion going into a state of shock. The Doctor then gets asked to help the Time Lords, now led by a visibly and morally changed Romana, in dealing with a strange bone flower that has appeared in the sky and is causing temporal anomalies on Gallifrey. It appears the structure is keyed to the Doctor's biodata, so he agrees, under the proviso that he can use their resources to help fight the paradox virus and that they agree to look for other ways to cultivate sentient TARDISes without forcing Compassion to breed. Meanwhile, Fitz is shown his future by the cult as a 2000-year-old Father Kriener and is unwittingly involved in resurrecting a dead Time Lord president, Greyjan.

The Doctor finally gets aboard the bone flower, and it becomes clear it's his old TARDIS which has been helping protect him and the universe from the paradox virus ever since events in Interference. It's changed though, thanks to its apparent destruction in The Shadows of Avalon and is protected by bone spiders who are quite happy to kill anyone other than the Doctor. Other Time Lords make it to the structure, now known as the Edifice, and succeed in finding Compassion, who takes a technician called Nivet inside her (not like that), as she can somehow sense he can help her heal. He does so, and Compassion shows the Doctor the future, the war with the enemy and its effect on the universe. Meanwhile, the cult summon Father Kriener, and one of its members is revealed to be working for the Faction. At Romana's Reaffirmation Ceremony, Greyjan make a stand against her, wins and Romana gets thrown into prison, along with Fitz.

As the Faction's plan comes to fruition, the enemy make their move, killing millions, including Greyjan. The Doctor fights with Father Kreiner, and Grandfather Paradox appears, along with the Shadow Parliament, brought into existence through the energy of the enemy's attack. It is revealed that Grandfather Paradox is a version of the Eighth Doctor who did succumb to the paradox virus. Father Kriener saves the Doctor, wanting him to change the future and undo his previous miserable 2000 years but is killed by the Grandfather for his betrayal. Gallifrey falls, and the Doctor is close to succumbing to the virus but destroys his TARDIS, which is holding the two timelines together. This destroys Gallifrey, the Faction and the enemy, but Compassion is able to save a comatose Doctor, Fitz and Nivet. She leaves the Doctor on a train in the 19th century, leaves Fitz in the future to meet the Doctor once he recovers and takes Nivet away with her to keep her company and repaired. She also leaves the original TARDIS, now a small cube, with the Doctor so they can heal together over the next 100+ years.

The above was meant to be a brief plot overview, but as I was summing it up it became clear just how complex the plot of The Ancestor Cell is. Overall, I really enjoyed the plot, and it mostly made sense, which with paradox stories is never a guarantee. I liked how the Doctor is back on Gallifrey and yet again gets roped into helping out, the fact the Edifice is his old TARDIS and the links back to Interference. Fitz's bits felt boring at first, although it picked up when they did get round to resurrecting dead people, and his scenes with Romana were a joy to read. The final showdown was very confusing at first, but it makes more sense when you sit back and analyse what you read. As for the Doctor losing his memory, I'd have preferred a more down, sombre Doctor, but it's a neat idea that in hindsight sort of worked.

Onto the characters, and I found them all to have been handled well. The Doctor is obviously a little fraught, given that he has no TARDIS, is back on Gallifrey and has Faction Paradox trying to claim him for their own. The fact he is Grandfather Paradox felt a little wrong, and I guess this was one of the issue Lawrence Miles had. For a start, the "dark Doctor" has been done before with the Valeyard, so to have it repeated isn't exactly original, but my biggest issue is that Faction Paradox are one of the best villains in the series, so to have them lumped with this huge cliche is just plain wrong. It's like Steven Moffat deciding that Davros was the Doctor all along. The Doctor's ultimate sacrifice is done well, and we now have a blank slate to work from, which I didn't really like at the time, but it's grown on me since.

Fitz has long been a favourite of mine, and here he really does shine, first as an unwitting pawn in the resurrection of a dead president and then as a sidekick to Romana. What's great about him is that his loyalty to the Doctor is unfaltering, despite knowing the Doctor left him for dead back in Interference, which made his original self Father Kriener. More on him later on. It's also a bit sad, since this is the last we see of Fitz for a while, as the next few books are solo Doctor adventures.

Compassion doesn't quite get the same love from me, as she isn't really a likeable character, but it is nice to see her have a happy ending. Likewise, it's fairly clear to see that she does care for the Doctor in her own way and sets things in motion to protect him from his own demons, to restore his TARDIS and even meet up with Fitz. I did feel she was more plot device than companion at times during this novel though. The door is left open for her reappearance at some point, but I can't say I'd like her back really.

I'm going to put Romana in with the companions, as technically she was, and it's actually really good to see her again. Yes she's changed and is now a totally different person as president, but you never quite see her as a villain. I like the way that, despite Gallifrey being under serious threat, the Time Lords still like the pomp of her Reaffirmation Ceremony and refuse to put it off. After she is deposed, she is much more like the Romana of old, and, as previously mentioned, her rapport with Fitz was very good indeed. I usually dislike digging up old companions for the sake of it, but here it actually works. Should Gallifrey be saved, I'd be happy to see more of her.

The rest of the supporting cast are fairly generic cult members and Time Lords, but I will mention Nivet, who Compassion heads off with. I liked the character, but he did feel a little two-dimensional, due to the masses of other stuff going on. It's nice to think of the two of them off having adventures of their own though.

The Faction are as good as ever, despite not being written for by Lawrence Miles. The plot with Greyjan is a nice idea and he is written well, although he is featured all too briefly. Father Kriener's rage at the Doctor and then his eventual forgiveness and aid is done really well, and it's nice that Fitz still loves the Doctor, even after all he's been through in 2000 years. His death was sad, especially as he is technically the real Fitz. I've already mentioned my disdain for Grandfather Paradox being the Doctor, but the role itself is undoubtedly a good one, and it's a shame it was written out this way, as the potential for future stories is great.

Overall, I was quite happy with the way The Ancestor Cell dealt with the plot lines, and, whilst the resolution wasn't to Lawrence Miles liking, it was still a fairly decent ending. Yes, I'd have preferred Lawrence Miles to have written this book, and in hindsight I do wish he'd taken over as range editor at this point, but it was still a decent effort. For a book that had a lot to do, it did its job, and did it very well.

It is also worth mentioning that the new series of Doctor Who borrows heavily from the plotlines of this novel and the range as a whole. The time war in the novels is called the exact same thing in the new series, but the nameless enemy is shown to be Daleks. The resolution of the war in the novels is achieved by the Doctor sacrificing his entire race for the fate of the universe, again copied directly in the new series. To me, this shows The Ancestor Cell has some great ideas and, despite not being the end Lawrence Miles envisaged, was the right thing to have done.