1. Interference Book 1
  2. Interference Book 2
  3. The Blue Angel
  4. The Taking of Planet 5
  5. Frontier Worlds
  6. Parallel 59
  7. The Shadows of Avalon
  8. The Fall of Yquatine
  9. Coldheart
  10. The Space Age
  11. The Banquo Legacy
  12. The Ancestor Cell
BBC Books
The Compassion Arc
A Story Arc

Published 1999-2000

Synopsis: The TARDIS has foreseen events to come and linked with new companion Compassion. The Doctor finds himself powerless in the face of politics and someone has rewritten his past.


The Arc of Infinity by Robert Smith? 14/9/00

The story of Compassion forms the biggest arc story yet seen in the novels (even the Psi Powers arc only lasted eight books; this runs twelve). The arc can be neatly bisected at The Shadows of Avalon, with the first six and a half books dealing with one theme and then a dramatic switch of events for the remainder of the arc.

It begins with Interference, the two-volume juggernaut from Lawrence Miles. This book is by turns brilliant, epic, bloated and could have sorely used an editor who knew what he was doing. It's tragically, desperately flawed, of course, but that seems almost inconsequential. The sheer scale of things alone gives it points and there's still a lot of good stuff to be found.

Compassion starts off as a villain and her joining the TARDIS crew is such a surprise that Lars Pearson doesn't even notice her existence in I Who. Her development and the Doctor's ineffectuality in the face of politics kick off the first half of the arc. Compassion adds a much-needed level of danger and interest to the books, but the Doctor's story is appalling. The end result is that he's completely impotent for the next six books, which makes for a positively awful run.

On the other hand, the third Doctor is great and I really liked the Dust stuff, with the so-called dangling retcon. This and the Faction virus mainly form background material throughout the arc, rather than being the main focus as many expected. Lawrence's ideas are so strong that they can sustain the book even when he gets bored and stops writing a story around them.

The Blue Angel takes a turn for the weird. Paul Magrs brings post-modernism to Doctor Who, with a great many things to say about the series, our interpretation, continuity and storytelling conventions. It's a book with an incredibly lame Star Trek parody (that might be deliberate), an incredibly troubled Doctor in his own strand of reality and it has no ending whatsoever (or does it?). An astonishing book, not to everyone's taste, but lots of fun once you figure out which bits of it you're not supposed to think too closely about and which bits are incredibly deep.

The Taking of Planet 5 should have been brilliant, it should have been the pivotal arc book that told us that the EDAs meant business and it should have had some sort of actually entertaining story to wrap around its stream-of-consciousness style. It has some absolutely huge ideas, but it forgets that we mere mortals might like little things like characterisation and a grounding of the fantastical in some sort of understandable context.

It's the flipside of something like Divided Loyalties: pushing the series forward for no reason other than it can. It proves beyond all doubt why no one other than Lawrence Miles should be allowed to publish this sort of thing - although sadly that's a lesson the arc would not learn with this book. It's screaming "Love me!" so desperately it hurts. Some very nice scenes, none of which last more than a page and are stuck between at least 30 pages of bad stuff.

It's all rather tragic to watch and leaves a particularly unpleasant aftertaste.

Frontier Worlds, on the other hand, comes out of nowhere to be the surprise hit of the year. It does something rather different, by managing to be DW in lots and lots of ways, has a story that actually entertains all the way through instead of trying to show off big and clever ideas with nothing to help us appreciate them.

This is probably the only post-Interference book of the entire arc to get Compassion right, but it really goes all out with her. It's also a beautiful Fitz story, the first one to give him any sort of focus at all since Demontage. It's a shame the arc means the Doctor has to be so impotent yet again and the ending is a bit off, but this is still really good stuff.

And then we get the entirely skippable Parallel 59. Alas. Everything about this book feels like you can see the editorial meetings going "No, really, we can save this!" complete with clinically depressed flies on the wall. It has some redeeming features, but they all involve Fitz and coming so soon after a truly excellent portrayal of a romance in Frontier Worlds, even that seems rather lacklustre and shallow. Steve Cole's glorious vision for the series is revealed when he... um, has the Doctor and Compassion naked in a cell together, contributing nothing whatsoever for the first third of the book.

The first half of The Shadows of Avalon is yet-another-grind where the Doctor doesn't know what to do, Compassion has no character and the situation really isn't that interesting to begin with.

And then, suddenly and shockingly, the book hits overdrive and the whole arc comes together swimmingly. The Doctor is fabulous, the Brigadier is wonderful and enough interesting stuff happens to Compassion that you can almost forgive the author for not giving her any character whatsoever before this.

The new and improved Compassion is one of the most fascinating characters the series has ever given us. She's both more and less human than before and her existence allows the Doctor to be heroic for the first time in ages.

The Fall of Yquatine is perhaps Compassion's best book. It goes all-out with the consequences of its predecessor, actually thinking through the implications of all this. Compassion is dangerous and deadly and the Doctor's actions have drastic consequences. It's overlooked by many, but Compassion's story turns an enjoyable sub-Babylon 5 tale into a fascinating and unputdownable minor masterpiece.

Sadly, the next book is Coldheart, which not only sidelines Compassion in a rather contrived way, it also tells just about the most traditional tale it possibly could. That would work if Compassion were developed properly to balance the two, but it's clear that the author simply isn't interested in entertaining us very much. It's not actively bad, but it could have been filmed convincingly with six actors in latex, a quarry and a couple of standing sets. I'd guess that even die-hard traditionalists would find this one a slog.

The Space Age is even worse, in some ways. While the story it tells isn't as traditional, it sets up enormous potential that it consistently fails to deliver on. It leaves Compassion out of the action by literally having her stand still for the first half of the book and has lots of macho posturing in an effort to look like a drearier version of West Side Story. It twists and turns every time it threatens to entertain the reader, creating a bizarre hodgepodge of deliberately wasted opportunities. Ultimately it has some worth, but you have to actually fight the author to get it.

On the other hand, The Banquo Legacy is superb. You can tell it's written by two professionals at the height of their powers. At first it barely seems to feature the regulars and Compassion isn't herself at all, but it comes together surprisingly well, combining an interesting development in the arc with a thoroughly entertaining story. It plays with an interesting theme and has a story told from two nineteenth century points of view, but this is carried off with expert skill.

And then, at last, we come to The Ancestor Cell. Which is a shame, because it clearly demonstrates that even the editor had no idea at all what was going on. It resolves all manner of arc things, from the dangling retcon of Interference, to Compassion's status, to the end of The Shadows of Avalon and most of its conclusions are moderately satisfying, but it's impossibly dull. This is the novel equivalent of Arc of Infinity and even the Big Events don't liven it up. It ends the arc, but by this point we're just glad to be rid of it. And that's a shame.

The arc is a bizarre one. It tries to juggle far too many Big Ideas for its own good, and few of them are executed in any decent way at all. The impotent Doctor story was a mistake, in my opinion, and the fascinating setup from Interference gets a mediocre-at-best resolution.

On the other hand, Compassion is fantastic, despite the attempts of certain authors to sideline her from the possibility of being more interesting than anything they could come up with. And at the end of The Shadows of Avalon, the arc is nail-bitingly good.

The books also feel important, for the first time since, well, ever. If the ultimate contribution of this arc is the sense that - finally - the EDAs have lifted their game, then the time has not been wasted. But next up is something completely different and it's not a moment too soon.

Arc-life by Mike Morris 22/10/01

Classified as one arc, the Compassion/TARDIS arc is really two. The first, from Interference to The Shadows of Avalon, is more concerned with the Doctor and his motives than with Compassion. She's there, and she's a good presence and a good companion, but the arc isn't really about her. It's in the second part of this arc that the emphasis shifts, becoming (in theory) specifically about Compassion and the changes she goes through (no, not the menopause. Stop laughing down the back).

Somehow, the arc also became about the Lawrence Miles universe, about The Enemy and Faction Paradox and all that malarkey. Only three books actually concerned themselves with all that area - Interference, Planet 5 and The Ancestor Cell - but this is where the Lawrence Miles universe really took hold. Introduced in Alien Bodies, most of the concepts were largely ignored, but in this arc they're somehow an integral part of the landscape, even when they aren't referred to.

The first story arc is easily the best. The Steve Cole era has taken a lot of criticism, and quite lot of it is justified. Much criticism rests solely on The Ancestor Cell, which suggests that there was less of a masterplan than was expected. Be that as it may, let's not forget that the run of books from Interference to Avalon was nothing short of astonishing. Some books divided opinion, particularly the first two, but the only one with a really lacklustre reception was Parallel 59; which is one of the two books I haven't read, so I can't really comment on it.

The other books were largely controversial, but mostly they were saved by one factor; the sheer quality of the writing. Interference had uncomfortable themes, sure, but it is fundamentally a well-written, well-conceived novel. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's brilliant. Lawrence Miles may have an ego so big it's got its own gravity, but the boy can write. Faction Paradox, who made such a stunning debut in Alien Bodies, acquire a new depth and range. The Enemy lurk in the background, waiting on the fruition of a plan of unbelievable scale. The Doctor saves the day. I'll repeat the last one again. THE DOCTOR SAVES THE DAY.

Of course, he fails the test that's set for him. Against the politics of twentieth century earth, the Doctor remains helpless. And forget Compassion, forget the Faction, that's what this arc is about. The Doctor fights politics, and mostly loses. This theme is incredibly strong through all the books, and makes this arc the most cohesive one seen in Doctor Who yet. Whereas Virgin had arcs with the Doctor facing the same villain for four books, or fighting an unknown foe who turns out to be the meddling Monk in otherwise completely different stories, the Steve Cole era was the era of big ideas and this arc is an arc about A Big Idea. The Doctor fights political villains, and finds himself helpless.

So, after Interference it's off to the Obverse, where the Doctor finds himself in a complex mingling of societies that he's unable to alter. Lots of alien races and their in-fighting, kings and Glass Men and actions from the future affecting the present. In it, the Doctor is quite literally sidelined. It's a sort of magic-realist version of Interference, where Arms Dealers give way to Elephant-headed tyrants and their lost sons. It continues to be one of my favourite Doctor Who novels, even in spite of the hopeless Star Trek parody. There's a lot of chat about continuity-busting whenever these books are mentioned, but more than anything The Blue Angel shows that it's the quality of the writing that's important. The Blue Angel is a great book because it's astonishingly written with marvellous imagery, not because of its, um, inter-hyper-postmodern-meta-textual-thingummy - something that Paul Magrs forgot when he came to write Verdigris. Hopefully he'll remember again (The Stones of Venice suggests he has).

After that, it's The Taking Of Planet 5, and this time the politics take the shape of Gallifrey's future. The Enemy, the Celestis, Future Time Lords; it's all here. While the war goes on, the Doctor finds himself trapped in a future TARDIS and helpless to affect events. So far, so thoughtful.

The problem is that the red-herring of "continuity" rather messes all this up. There's too much stuff about Mictlan and not enough about the conflict itself. The Fendahl Predator is a nice idea but completely underdeveloped, and the whole thing lacks discipline. The authors don't seem to have enough confidence in their own ideas, and instead keep returning to Lawrence's like some sort of security blanket. We get pages and pages about Mictlan, but no description of the (more interesting) Swimmers. The result is at times frustrating, but often brilliant, a book that's good but not the amazing work it wants to be. Hit-and-miss, but worth a look.

After all this, things calm down. Frontier Worlds gives us politics, this time in the form of a huge corporation, not something Doctor Who has ever shied away from. But Frontier Worlds is subtly different; rather than taking on a small branch of The Company, the plot is about Frontier Worlds itself. While the Doctor's nowhere near as impotent as in the three previous books, the theme runs on; he spends a lot of time bouncing from person to person, getting shot at by nobodies in uniform and running away, while Fitz and Compassion find themselves being absorbed by Frontier Worlds rather than bringing it down. Frontier Worlds is a fine book, very Who-ish, that manages to be a rather exhilarating adventure even as it sticks to the themes of the arc itself. Quite an achievement.

Now it's the gap in my knowledge; Parallel 59. And on to The Shadows of Avalon.

Ah, The Shadows of Avalon. The book that turned it all around. The book that fed off five previous books to make itself wonderful. It's in The Shadows of Avalon that the Doctor's character went through its apotheosis. The Doctor spends half of the book being completely unable to act, reaching a point where all he can possibly exist as is a beautiful but meaningless symbol, doomed to die. And then he undergoes rebirth; he saves the world "because I choose to. Because I can." The EDAs have had their high points, sure, but for a single beautiful moment nothing comes close to touching that; except possibly the Brigadier's saving of a UNIT soldier in the same book. The Brigadier is brilliantly used in his own way, his degeneration and rebirth mirroring the Doctor's; whereas the Doctor finds himself impotent and outside the system, the Brigadier has been swallowed up by the system and becomes a good man acting in a villainous way.

What shouldn't be neglected, though, is that The Shadows of Avalon is as good as it is at least partly because of what came before. The Doctor's rebirth is so emotive because he has been rendered impotent, more or less, since Interference (and quite a few of the books beforehand). And of course there's the Compassion angle, although that interested me rather less. The links back to the previous books are, well, tenuous and unconvincing. This is often called the Compassion/TARDIS arc, but until the end of The Shadows of Avalon the arc isn't really about Compassion, any more than the stories from The Time Warrior to The Hand of Fear could be called The Sarah Jane Smith Arc. Up until now the arc is very much an examination of the Doctor, and it's so tight and so successful that I was really impressed at the strength of direction. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the books from Interference to The Shadows of Avalon had so much cohesion, purpose, unity and quality that they are the best story arc ever to grace the novels.

The Fall of Yquatine proved me wrong about the 'strength of direction' thing, though. Not a bad book; at times a great book. Overwritten, perhaps, too much going on leading to half-tackled themes, and it neglects its two most interesting characters in a very odd way (Lou Lombardo and Arielle, in case you're wondering); but nonetheless, not a bad book. However its theme is so perverse, and so badly conceived, that I disliked it far more than I otherwise would have done. What's the point of having a huge arc if the subsequent book just ignores what is was about? The Fall of Yquatine is all about how, well, sometimes bad things happen and there's nothing you can do about it. This is an odd theme in the realm of Doctor Who for a kick-off; the Doctor saves planets for god's sake. But coming right after the turnaround of The Shadows of Avalon it's unforgivable.

The Fall of Yquatine redeems itself in its treatment of Compassion. The Doctor fitting her with a randomiser, and her reaction, is a marvellous passage; and the FEAR section where Compassion flits though the universe is masterful. This is the Compassion arc proper, and it really is excellent.

After this, though, it never quite reaches those heights again. Coldheart passes by like a lazy weekend, pleasant enough but unremarkable. Compassion is likened to the living dead but that's all we get really. More successful than The Fall of Yquatine as a novel, but that's largely because it's less ambitious. When Baxendale tells about Slimers and Spulver Worms he does well. The Doctor is also excellently written. But he seems incapable of dealing with the Compassion angle.

The Space Age got too many bad reviews on this site from people whose opinion I respect. I skipped it.

The Banquo Legacy is excellent, but again it doesn't really get to grips with Compassion's character. At the end she's recognised because she says "obviously", and that's not a good sign. Apparently a rush job, it's stylishly realised, but doesn't really contribute anything to the Compassion arc. In fact Compassion is sidelined for most of it - and so, oddly, is the Doctor. We're left with an excellent murder-mystery and, latterly, monster story, which uses a lot of the old tricks; isolation, a Victorian setting that allows for a healthy dollop of scepticism, a huge old house with lots of rooms, and mysterious characters who aren't what they seem. The Who element is integrated seamlessly into this, and if there's a bit too much running around towards the end that's forgivable. But, aside from the epilogue, the arc doesn't really get a look-in.

The feeling at this stage? Um, "tailing off" is the closest I can get.

Maybe that's part of the reason for The Ancestor Cell. Justin Richards era was a new start, and why not? But, after The Shadows of Avalon, the Compassion arc failed badly. It really didn't seem to know what it was about, and apart from Nick Walters no-one ever really got to grips with Compassion; and worse, no-one really had the courage to completely ignore her either. And then there was that Faction Paradox / The Enemy stuff which was floating around in the ether. The Faction Virus; we were wondering about that too. So along came The Ancestor Cell to tidy up an arc which had began with a strong sense of purpose, but became more and more disjointed as time went by.

The Ancestor Cell has shipped a lot of criticism, from many sources including me. It's not a good book, really, but it's difficult to see how it could have been. To be the book we wanted it to be, it needed an extraordinary writer with a lot of time and six hundred pages to work with. But it was apparently something of a rush job, and at times that shows. Some of the decisions the authors made - such as re-introducing Mother Mathara - were questionable, only complicating their task. However, Steve Cole and Peter Anghelides did as well as could be expected, given the constraints they were working under.

Discussion of The Ancestor Cell isn't in short supply, so I won't duplicate arguments here. I was a bit miffed it mucked up my pet theory - that the Faction virus had already taken hold of the Doctor in The Shadows of Avalon, but its effect was that he was able to save worlds again - but, well, what can you do.

In the context of the arc, however, The Ancestor Cell was a disappointment. Not because it was a bad book, but because the ideas floating around deserved more time than they got. Lawrence Miles' ideas had, for better or worse, been the cornerstone of the EDAs for a long time. They deserved more than the hurried killing off they received. Yes, maybe the continuity had become too bloated, but it could and should have been wrapped up with more style and care. A universe was torn down to make way for a New Direction, and yes, that New Direction is probably better than the old one. There was no need, however, to rip the old universe apart so brutally. We could have dismantled it piece by piece. So the conclusion feels unworthy to what went before, leaving a sour taste in the mouth. The ending was understandable, necessary even, but this arc deserved more.

And that's our arc, The Arc That Ate Itself. Frequently it was brilliant. Up to The Fall of Yquatine it was the best story arc we ever got. But it was too much to expect so many authors to live in the same world, a world that inhibited the go-anywhere nature of Doctor Who fiction. The arc became so disjointed that, towards the end, you could hardly call it a story arc at all. The themes became more than the authors could handle; the questions posed became too difficult to answer. And so ultimately The Compassion/TARDIS arc failed, not because its ideas were bad, but because they grew too powerful to control, and were eventually killed off before they suffocated the very people who created them.