THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Ancestor Cell
BBC Books
The Gallifrey Chronicles

Author Stephen Cole Cover image
ISBN 0 563 48624 4
Published 2005

Synopsis: The Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey has been destroyed. The Time Lords are dead, their TARDISes annihilated. The man responsible has been tracked down and lured to Earth in the year 2005, where there will be no escape. But Earth has other problems a mysterious signal is being received, a second moon appears in the sky, and a primordial alien menace waits to be unleashed...


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 13/6/05

That was unexpected! Just when we were all expecting a big event book, out comes a fluffy piece of throwaway nonsense. Admittedly Lance has a track record of this kind of thing, but even by his standards this is staggeringly trivial. I'm sure he found the plot on the back of a cereal box. A sneeze would blow it away.

This may sound like I'm winding up to bash The Gallifrey Chronicles, but actually I quite enjoyed it. Two factors for me raised this above the level of The Dying Days or Trading Futures. Firstly I admire the cheek of the idea. We've seen plenty of self-consciously "epic" event novels that fell flat on their faces, but even so it takes a certain level of chutzpah to take such a pivotal slot ("The Eighth Doctor's Last Adventure!" according to To The Slaughter's inside back cover) and turn in an extended Target novelisation.

The other thing I liked about The Gallifrey Chronicles was its agenda. Admittedly it's a really stupid agenda, the kind of thing any sane author would swallow razor blades to avoid, but that's not Lance's fault. He's wrapping up the 8DAs in all their suicidal wrongheadedness. You've got to admire a man on a mission, and at least the result is a book that's about something. The Dying Days and Trading Futures were about nothing at all. The Gallifrey Chronicles can feel undercooked, fanwanky or just plain annoying, but at least that's better than undiluted vanilla.

It explains away the post-Burning 8th Doctor being a wazzock! Having said that, I'm slightly sad about the ingenuity of Lance's retcon, in the same masochistic way that I miss Sam Jones. The books' 8th Doctor unintentionally evolved into one of the most distinctive Doctors we'll ever see, i.e. a mentally unbalanced drama queen. The likes of Tom Baker may stretch normal definitions of eccentricity, but the 8th Doctor needed professional help. (My dad's a clinical psychologist and we once spent the best part of an hour discussing diagnoses for the 8th Doctor.) Alas, no longer. Lance's solution is blatantly a rabbit from a hat, related to the assumptions of no previous author, but it's almost beautiful in how neatly it ties everything up.

The book takes Fitz and Trix somewhere... sort of. The most startling bit of their story has already happened offscreen before the book begins (!), which seems like an odd choice to me but there you go. Lance is no longer even pretending that Fitz has anything new to offer, but Trix has come on in leaps and bounds since her vile beginnings. I no longer hate her. She's merely a charmless nonentity without even any background for the writers to fall back on. (Lance hints at some backstory, but never follows up on it.)

My only real grumble about this book is its lack of closure. Despite the hopes and prayers of sentient beings as far as the Andromeda Galaxy, Lance writes an ending that leaves the door open for further 8DAs... so his ideas are explanations rather than resolutions, while Fitz and Trix inexplicably fail to get their intestines pulled out by mad druids and wrapped around a tree. Even more bizarrely, neither companion gets skinned alive, fed to piranhas or bled to death in a crocodile pit. A shocking oversight, I call it.

The book can be tiresomely wanky. There's also a scene set on Gallifrey (which isn't a spoiler; it's a flashback scene) which will have you clawing the walls and cursing Hulke and Dicks for inventing the bloody planet in The War Games.

Oh, and regarding the amnesia itself... despite the Doctor's claims, there's an escape option so obvious that it's hard not to believe Lance didn't put it there deliberately. p254 153841 v 153842.

To be honest, the clever retcons and explanations aren't particularly interesting in themselves. The real entertainment is in watching Lance hurl himself through hoop after burning hoop as he tries to make sense from nonsense. There's a retcon of The Ancestor Cell which is much more inventive than the version we actually got. Also, no less importantly, there are a couple of funny jokes and a writing style that slips down like ice cream on a sunny day. This book is unbelievably easy to read. The pages drift by as if in a dream and you've finished almost before you know it. Terrance Dicks would be proud.

So there you have it, the end of the 8DAs. Weary and battle-scarred, we can look back and reflect on nearly a decade of sloppiness and appalling judgement that may yet have killed Doctor Who in the form of full-length novels. The Eight Doctors may contain some of the horrible writing ever perpetrated, but in terms of entertainment it's almost a highpoint of the range. As the 8DAs stumbled to their deaths with ever-widening gaps between releases, it became hard even to remember that you once cared about them. The Dying Days was Lance's tribute to a respected series of novels that had integrity and ambition (albeit more than a few missteps as well). The Gallifrey Chronicles is once again the capstone of an ongoing Who novel series, but this time it's more like the final gasp of an alcoholic old fool who used to be a good friend before he went blind and incontinent.

There's still a role for the books. The new TV series is excellent, but they can't take time out to smell the roses. I miss those little scenes that helped to flesh it all out in our imaginations. Novels have the scope to tell stories and explore settings that would be impossible in a television episode, but please Lord, let them be PDAs. I'm sure they'd start selling again if BBC Books overturned tradition and started publishing good novels.

So... The Gallifrey Chronicles. It's all right. You'll probably enjoy it if you're not expecting literature. However it's curious to observe that out of the four most recent Doctor Who books, Lance's "proper" novel is far more like what a good children's book should be than one or two of the Richards-Rayner-Cole hardback 9DAs...


Wow! by Joe Ford 2/8/05

When the BBC shop phoned me to let me know this book was ready for collection I nearly wet myself! This was it; this was the one it had all been building towards for the last four years. This was going to be the ultimate Doctor Who book.

Which is why I was oddly disappointed when I first read it. I am such a fool; in my haste I pretty much speed-read the whole thing so I could get to the goodies. And I ended up missing all the details that make this book such a treat. Anyone expecting a Dying Days type action adventure, the sort Doctor Who does so well, to climax the eight Doctor range on will be sorely disappointed. This is much more than that. It's a thoughtful, contemplative puzzle book, one which provides you with all the answers to all the questions that have been building up regarding the 8th Doctor range, but only so long as you work for them.

The reviewer of The Gallifrey Chronicles in TV Zone said this wasn't the accumulation of his adventures in print and I could not disagree more strongly. The book spends a lot of time exploring the Doctor's past (notably the events in The Ancestor Cell) and gives you hints about his future too. It also lavishes time on the ground he has covered (with a visit to Sam's grave, a flashback to his time on Earth with Miranda and a cameo by Anji) and hints at his life in the DWM comic and the TV Movie too. Bizarre then that Big Finish have put the mockers on any references of their audios in the books because that would have made the set complete. This certainly explores a good deal of the eighth Doctor's life and it is quite surprising to remember just how far he has come since The Eight Doctors.

Parkin did not have an easy task, writing this book for a pre and post TV series audience but he has struck upon an ingenious answer to this problem. By telling much of the story from Castellan Marnal's point of view the reader gets to discover with him the loss of Gallifrey, the Doctor's involvement, Faction Paradox, his amnesia, his life on Earth... it is effortlessly easy for a newcomer to be brought up to date with the development of the novels over the past five years. I daringly gave this book to Simon to read (he adores the new series... I wanted to know how he would find Doctor Who fiction) and whilst he had a few questions (bizarrely they were about Sam Jones and K9) he understood pretty much everything and after that cliffhanging ending was eager to read the next one... oops! Guess I gave him the wrong one.

Talk about tying up loose threads! Writing the last of the continuing adventures of the eighth Doctor is not a task I would thrust upon anybody but clearly Parkin is up to the challenge and this is far from the series of explanations that it would have been in the hands of a lesser author. Two things help this book immeasurably, the hints and clues early on that help the reader to understand the BIG REVELATIONS at the climax and the fact that the answers were GOSH WOW OH MY FUCKING GOD!

For a start Parkin had to prepare the book line for the upcoming ninth Doctor range, a series with a different looking TARDIS, a non-amnesiac Doctor, a restored Gallifrey (so it can be destroyed all over again) and the Daleks. It pleases me to report that The Gallifrey Chronicles manages to address each of these WITHOUT the eighth Doctor range tucking its tail between its legs and admitting it was wrong to push the show in its unique direction. Needless to say the last few pages of this book don't see the ninth Doctor destroying Gallifrey in a Dalek invasion and popping to Earth to discover the dead body of Clive the chief electrician in Henreiks store. Anyone who was expecting this, get your heads examined!

The Gallifrey Chronicles grabs hold of threads from loads of old books and pulls them into a coherent and satisfying whole for regular readers...

All of these issues are handles with great aplomb and provoked some hilariously emotional reactions out of me.

It might come as a shock for some people that Fitz and Trix have started going out with each other. I found it pleasantly surprising and a good justification of their life together these past twelve books or so. And given their intimacy in To The Slaughter and Trix's offer for Fitz to stay with her in The Deadstone Memorial, it was only a matter of time. This is Lance Parkin we're talking about so their relationship is handled with great sensitivity without being sentimental and I found their discussions of building a life together quite heartwarming. Certainly it was good to see Fitz finally come into his own, decide to move on from his life with the Doctor and find happiness with a woman he loves (and one who doesn't get killed before the end of the book). The novel does some surprising things with Fitz and I shan't spoil the surprise but needless to say at the end of chapter nine my jaw hit the floor.

Trix never really had much of chance to develop considering how short her run has been but she has had the great privilege of being around during the fantastic run of books since Sometime Never... The one misfire The Gallifrey Chronicles makes is not answering the big question of what Trix is running away from. No, I take that back, we do get sort of an answer but it isn't elaborated on or explained. A shame because she is excellently written otherwise, clever, funny, intelligent and most importantly extremely humane. This should put an end to all those people who thought she was Romana... Trix is her own woman and whether she is taking Fitz out to dinner with Anji and Greg, trying to survive a plane attack or bathing herself in monster smoke to protect herself, she is great fun to be around and far more interesting than I ever thought she could be. I certainly wouldn't mind Trix PDAs in the future.

But of course this book belongs to the eighth Doctor and boy does it do some great stuff with him. Most importantly, in a twist of audaciousness The Gallifrey Chronicles manages to vindicate the amnesiac eighth Doctor, not by excusing what he did to Gallifrey but by providing a new answer to his amnesia that sees him leave the book as the ultimate hero. I have said before this is the incarnation most likely to sacrifice himself for the greater good and the sacrifice he made in The Ancestor Cell is astonishing. Has a novel range ever managed to wrong-foot its audience to such an extent before? Has the Doctor ever had such a turnabout in character? This twist manages to turn the Justin Richards period of books into a much more worthwhile (especially to one irritating chap called Jack Bevan) place to explore because the Doctor is no longer a coward or ignoring his destructive actions but protecting some far greater than himself. Totally, totally brilliant in every way. Whoever thought this idea up, a big snog from Joe.

And while there will probably be some people who are annoyed that the Doctor takes so long to get involved in the main invasion plot that isn't what this book is about. It is a personal journey for the Doctor, one where he can finally get some answers about his life. His scenes with Marnal are some of the best of the book, as they fight over the Doctor's previous actions and the consequences. I literally stopped breathing when the Doctor was shown firsthand his actions during the last minutes of Gallifrey's life and his reaction was very surprising.

The Vore plot doesn't turn up for ages but is cleverly woven into the book with Marnal and the Master each doing their part in the invasion of Earth. There are some fast-paced action scenes of mass devastation which always make for good reading but the Vore plot is only really there to remind you there are still monsters for the Doctor to fight and he will keep on fighting no matter who he is and what he knows. I did find the trip to the second moon to be rather exciting though. The Vore themselves were icky enough to work, I hate flies and the thought of giant ones swarming about slicing roofs of cars, bringing down planes and turning humans into vomit is enough to make anyone squirm.

The novel pulls out a fantastic ace at the climax, allowing the Doctor to bring people back from the dead. It is a subtle reminder of the TV Movie (one of many) and provides the book with an overwhelmingly optimistic climax, allowing the Doctor to be a magician again. The scene in which he joyously knocks on doors and reunites families is extremely touching and his ability to bring joy back to Trix slapped a huge smile on my face. What's more the uplifting climax with the Doctor and his three companions reunited and ready to face the monsters kept me grinning for the rest of the day. I am grateful for Lance Parkin for not bringing the eighth Doctor's life to a close like Marc Platt's Lungbarrow did for the seventh... with all the answers he now has it is clear the eighth Doctor has a lot of work ahead of him and I would love to be able to explore some of that at a future date.

Other worthy mentions...

  • Fantastic digs at the book range (convoluted and impenetrable), Gallifrey (the Doctor nearly falls asleep after reading half a page about this dull planet) and continuity (why the hell does it matter if Ace remembers her visit to Paradise Towers?). The issue of continuity is especially interesting as I have made it clear that I hate it when writers drop in a million and one references into books that don't need them. The Gallifrey Chronicles, of course, has a huge amount of continuity but the difference is it is not there just for its own sake; it drives the books, allows us to explore the eighth Doctor's life and gives his adventures a nice sense of closure. Criticizing this book for its use of continuity is like criticizing the new series for using the Daleks... it would not be half of what it is without it. The Gallifrey Chronicles (and there are a good handful of others) shows you how to get continuity right.
  • Caustic Compassion? I'd never have a companion like that.
  • Somehow the flashback to the destruction of Gallifrey was far more exciting and made much more sense than it did in The Ancestor Cell. There was more of a sense of scale and by cutting out all the excess trappings that made The Ancestor Cell such a chore, it comes across as a simple, dramatic face of between good and evil. What it should have been all along really.
  • A conversation between Fitz and the Doctor finally puts to rest that old moan about why Fitz knows about Gallifrey sometimes and other times he doesn't.
  • Guess who owned the TARDIS before the Doctor?
  • The first line of the book is a huge hint towards the revelation at the climax. The Gallifrey Chronicles was everything I could have asked for and more. This is a triumphant climax to the eighth Doctor's continuing life in print and a fantastic follow up on some well worn ideas.

    Breathtaking.


    Six Out Of Ten by Jamas Enright 19/4/06

    I finished this book a few days ago, and I'm still not sure what I think of it. Lance Parkin had a formidable task, namely to bring back the Doctor's memories as well as tidying up the whole arc started back in The Ancestor Cell and refresh everything so the EDAs could become PDAs. Somehow, although Lance does do this... he doesn't.

    In many ways, I'm reminded of the last MA, The Well-Mannered War. Gareth Roberts wrote that as much as an 'eff-you' to the BBC Books as well as an ending to the MAs, and it's easy to see The Gallifrey Chronicles as an 'eff-you' to the Ninth Doctor. (I'm not saying that Lance intended this book as such, but the events in this book aren't exactly conducive to the Ninth Doctor stories.) The second moon (which is mentioned on the back cover, so I'm not revealing anything here), and what that brings to Earth is something that should have a long-term effect and be mentioned, but will it? Of course not. (On the other hand there are plenty of other stories that never get referred to again past their original occurrence that should have had impacts on every other story around.)

    There are two basic plot lines to this book, which eventually intertwine. One involves Marnal, who the is one to bring the Doctor face to face with his past. Which isn't as simple as it seems. And by that, I mean, Lance spends a large page count on this story without getting anywhere, and it wasn't until I came to describe the story to someone else that I realised just how padded out Lance had made this. It also makes me wonder how much Lance brought into the idea of being the one to end this arc (was he basically picked as one of the better authors and given the task of resolving events?).

    The other story involves Fitz and Trix. And how much they get together and spend their life with each other. The hey? Why? When? What? I can only assume that Lance had to tidy these two up and decided on the best and quickest way was to just put them together for no reason than it gave him less tidying up to do (simplifies the number of threads to keep track of). Certainly I never wanted to see them together, and indeed would have been perfectly happy with them being killed off. In fact, is the next Eighth Doctor story (and I can't say EDA anymore) still featuring Fitz and Trix, 'cos I'm kind of puzzled about how this ends...

    The two other characters of note are Marnal and Rachel, who's job, as far as I can tell, is to provide a contrast pairing to the Doctor and companion, and show how good the latter pairing is. In any other book, I would nearly expect Fitz and Trix to leave and Rachel to be taken on as the next companion (and she is already a more interesting character than either of the other two companions), which says a lot about the ones we are getting rid of. Marnal is more irritating than anything else, and I don't at all believe the final revelation between him and the Doctor (then again, I can remember the I M Foreman revelation in Interference).

    Speaking of, I don't believe the revelation about what happened at the end of The Ancestor Cell either. The Gallifrey Chronicles had a job to do, and I don't think it's done it. And I don't think Lance was trying that hard either.


    A Review by John Seavey 1/5/06

    So... now I know what it would have been like if Lance Parkin had written War of the Daleks.

    This might seem like a superficial analogy, since both of the novels have to try to resurrect a planet that went very irrevocably boom, but it's actually not about the retcon. It's about the way that the novel sinks, plot, characters, and all, under the weight of the author grinding his personal axes. The Gallifrey Chronicles could be an excellent novel, but it's just too self-indulgent.

    The biggest problem with the book is that it never seems to actually want to tell you what it's about. There's a mysterious black hole in the heart of the TARDIS that keeps rubbing its hands and cackling madly at the Doctor, but Parkin is doing everything possible to avoid telling you who it is. There's a mysterious figure that appears in the Doctor's pseudo-flashback to the last moments of The Ancestor Cell, but we dance around who it actually is. Parkin dances around the Daleks for copyright purposes, around Marnal's origin because it's part of his own personal endless inside story about the Doctor's parents that is now officially getting as annoying as Keith Topping's endless Johnny Chess references, and around the ending because this is an EDA, and even if the series ends here, the bloody story arc NEVER CAN. (Although I'll admit, it is strangely fitting as an ending for the EDAs that they still don't bother completely tying up all the loose ends and leave stuff that the "next novel" will have to deal with.)

    On top of all that, it's a big meta-textual love letter to Doctor Who... which, through no particular fault of Parkin's, is just something that I think is played out by now. Between him, Paul Cornell, and Kate Orman, we've had so many "Isn't the Doctor Who series great!" subtexts that I honestly think it's now just a distraction from the actual story. Pages 130 to 131 have what could be the worst example of this in the series ever, with Parkin just deciding to break the fourth wall for a paragraph or so and tell us all how great the TV series is. Thanks, but I think we know that already. It's time that could have been spent more productively on the actual plot.

    But underneath all this, there's some good novel waiting to get out. Parkin's solution to the Gallifrey issue, and his final answer to the amnesia question is elegant, intelligent, long-overdue, and redeems the character from a guilt-raddled coward to a hero again, and I do have to stand up and cheer it. Marnal has a lot of potential, even if it is all pretty much squandered by his being part of Parkin's "I can't tell the reader about it; then everybody would know!" history of Gallifrey. The Vore... well, they're pretty standard DW monsters, but there are a few clever tricks in there. If they'd been introduced into the novel earlier, instead of just popping up at the third act because Marnal can only gesture with a gun so many times without us getting bored by it, they might have really worked. Fitz and Trix's romance works about as well as it can under the circumstances (those circumstances being that it comes out of absolutely nowhere, and that Trix continues to have all the personality of a cardboard standee.) It's got great prose, because Parkin is incapable of turning out an actually bad novel. But this is as close as he gets.

    Ultimately, it is the celebration of the end of an era in Doctor Who. And because of that, it repeats a lot of the mistakes of that era, and because of that, it does feel a bit like the same thing we've heard before, only with an elbow in the ribs telling us to enjoy it. (Oh, look -- the interior of the TARDIS is destroyed... again...) It's frustrating more than actually bad. But it makes the Doctor into a hero again, and I can't be totally down on that.

    Plus, any novel that shows us that Sam is definitively dead can't be all bad.