The Council of Eight arc
A Story Arc
|Synopsis: The fallout from the destruction of Gallifrey has created opportunities for anyone who wants to time travel. But at what cost to the timelines?|
A Review by Joe Ford 27/6/05
Eater of Wasps
The Slow Empire
The Adventuress of Henrietta Street
The Infinity Race
The Domino Effect
The Last Resort
Father Time doesn't really have anything to do with the Council of Eight arc but it does show how far in advance Justin Richards was planning his stories by featuring a scene with the Doctor getting a few glimpses of the future. A large robotic arm (Silver from Hope), violin music in the heart of a storm (the dramatic climax to Year of Intelligent Tigers), a swarm of wasps (the enemy from Eater of Wasps), a crowd of people in renaissance clothing (Book of the Still)... but the most important here is the appearance of Sabbath as the man in the bowler hat, which is his disguise in Anachrophobia.
Although it is never specified it is highly likely that Kala and her motley crew of time travellers from Eater of Wasps are employees of Sabbeth ala Roja and Jaxa from Trading Futures. They have similar sounding names, similar weapons and their mission to stamp out temporal anachronisms mirrors Sabbath's goals to a tee. Page 113 of Trading Futures makes the link ("You're time agents aren't you? I've met your type before. England in the nineteen-thirties, a place called Little Marpling.")
The Slow Empire is where it really all begins although the book is so interested not being a book (ie it has little plot, no characters) that the dramatic entrance of the COE (that's Council of Eight not Caught on Earth!) flies by practically unnoticed. This is where we first get an inkling that there is something dangerously wrong with the time vortex as the vortex wraiths dramatically punch into out reality to escape whatever has set up shop there ("But whatever they found there, it would be better than the thing from which they were desperately, all consumingly trying to escape from."). Plus we get another fleeting glimpse of Sabbath; somehow caught up in the machinations on the planet Goronos who helps Anji out of a sticky situation in a virtual reality environment ("You know perfectly well who I am. In a sense, anyway. And as to what I did... you know how it is when you have any number of pets. Familiars, Chimeras, creatures of hideous, diabolical and slitheringly unutterable evil, that sort of thing. One has to let them out occasionally. One has to keep them fed. It's a bit of a pain, to tell you the truth, but it is rather expected of one."). He refers here to his ape-like creatures that travel on his time ship, The Jonah, with him.
Readers must have been boggled by the lack of an explanation for the behaviour of the Vortex Wraiths in the next book; indeed it doesn't arrive until Sometime Never... that was 20 books later. This is a strength and a failing of maintaining an arc over such a long stretch of books, when you look back later you can see how well plotted and ambitious the storyline was but at the time, what with the books cut down to one EDA every two months, it felt like it would go on forever. When you take a look at the list of titles at the top of the page there actually was not that many books that comprised this arc and eleven of them were excellent (although this is only my point of view).
Things start to make sense at last as we venture into The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, a brave move for Lawrence Miles to write a novel entirely in the form of a historical thesis and one which was greeted with mostly critical acclaim. We are introduced to Sabbath as a Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes (his villainous status is even more heightened by an appearance by the Master who says he has little interest in battling the Doctor these days) and believes he, more than the Doctor, is responsible for protecting the Earth from his enemies. He has the ability to time travel in the Jonah, a sailing ship in appearance only. He has the help of ape-like creatures, the Babewyns, who are the muscle to his brain. His masters are elusive at this point but it is clear that he is working to some sort of plan. That he was saved from his death is enough to suggest that he is in league with higher powers.
This is the book where the Doctor loses his second heart. There are two explanations to this, one that was offered in Adventuress of Henrietta Street (that the Doctor's second heart has been withering since the destruction of Gallifrey, that he has been growing ever weaker with the heart that technically should never have had existed) and the explanation that was finally revealed in Sometime Never... (that the Council of Eight tried to control the Doctor's actions just like they control the actions of every person on the planet but being so random and unpredictable his body rejected their attempts to make him safe and poisoned his second heart to tear free from their control).
Sabbath escapes the book with Juliette in tow but mysteriously she fails to appear in any subsequent book. It transpires in Sometime Never... that she was taken out of time and placed in a Schrodinger Cell (that is a method of holding somebody out of time in a state where their existence is indeterminate and pending a decision by the Council Eight could go either way) because she was a distraction to the Council's plans for Sabbath. (You have to admire how none of these niggling details were forgotten but piled up to make the end of the arc a non-stop thrill ride of twists).
We don't meet Sabbath again for another two books and when we do it comes a complete surprise as he turns out to be the mysterious Mr Mistletoe who heartlessly aids the Doctor, Fitz and Anji throughout Anachrophobia. In a narrative knife in the gut it turns out that the beings that have infected Station Forty and turned the crew into frightening parodies of clocks are not attacking but evacuating the time vortex ala the Wraiths from The Slow Empire ("I arranged a... situation whereby this race would become a threat to the Doctor, and his friends, and to his sentimental outlook on life. Then with a little manipulation of circumstances... the Doctor would destroy them for me.") Sabbath goes on to explain that his associates now control the time vortex and all other dwellers have been expelled. It would appear without the sanction of the Time Lords the vortex is now a battleground in which only the strongest race can survive. Plus this book features the first mention of the journal of Fitz's Siberian account, which becomes very important later on.
Trading Futures confirms the belief that Sabbath has started hiring to aid his crusade to marshal the Earths timeline. Their task is to assess whether the supposed time traveller Baskerville is a threat to Sabbath and his goals. It turns out Sabbath really should have looked elsewhere because they both die horribly. Trading Futures proves that the background threat of Sabbath is constant and reminds us there is still much to learn about his motives.
History 101 features a new spin on Sabbath's activities, where he is on the offensive for a change, seeking to bring down a network of information called the System, which effectively chronicles all his dealings in time and could be accessed and used against him. He sends in one of his agents to prevent the historical recording of events in Spain in the 1930's. He effectively destroys the System by contaminating an Absolute, one of the creatures who sends the data to the system. (Had he set the whole thing up? Used the Doctor in some way? He's let people die horrifically and it had all been part of one of Sabbath's little games?)
Both History 101 and Adventuress of Henrietta Street contain visual references to a white eye watching over events. In hindsight it is obvious that this in reference to the Daleks who were originally supposed to be Sabbath's masters but whose appearance was scuppered by decisions made by the Nation estate. It is worth noting however that considering how events turned out this could also be Octan watching over the events he intends to destroy in order to allow his people to survive.
Camera Obscura reveals what happened to the second heart that the Council of Eight poisoned, Sabbath stole it and snuck it inside his own body, an act which they did not sanction but knew all about, Sabbath on the misapprehension that he has secured his first rebellion. This proves vital however as the Doctor is almost crushed to death and it is only the fact that his second heart is beating inside Sabbath that he survives the ordeal. Sabbath is offered the chance to kill the Doctor here and refuses proving no matter what sort of annoyance he is, his masters still have a use for him. It becomes clear that the preservation of history is vital to Sabbath's plans and he intends to use the time machine everybody is after to collapse the timelines together into one (ie wipe out all those parallel universe out there). For what purpose, nobody knows. (As ever the EDAs take their time in dishing out answers but the build up of anticipation is practically unrivalled in Doctor Who history.)
This is the point where books become properly serialised as we reach a six-book epic, a storyline that follows from on book to the next (with a bizarre break for the attention-grabbing Emotional Chemistry between Timeless and Sometime Never...).
Time Zero pushes off the arc with a story so packed and audacious it is astonishing that it fits into 280 pages. Sabbath furthers his ambitions in Camera Obscura, hoping to wipe out all other parallel universes by harnessing Maxwell Curtis who is slowly becoming a black hole and using it to kick-start the Big Bang therefore creating one unmalleable reality. His efforts are, as usual, thwarted by the Doctor who points out that Sabbath's plan (and science) is totally wrong and that the black hole exploding at event one would destroy the universe. ("Because," he said, swinging round to address Sabbath "the universe works the way I say it does, not the way you assume. If the TARDIS really did split reality, nothing I did would ever have any meaning or consequence. There would be no point!"). In his efforts to stop this though (and involving a lot of complex scientific gobbledegook) the timelines get collapsed and shuffled and the climax of the book reveals that "our" timeline is now lost and another has slotted into its place.
Now the Doctor and Sabbath are fighting for the same goal but for different reasons. Sabbath wants reality back on track and in a determined state for his masters' plans and the Doctor wants the right universe to win the battle for reality.
The mightily unpopular (for the most part) alternative universe arc starts here...
The sluggish Infinity Race proves that the timelines have become completely unstuck with Sabbath once again cocking around with grand science to manipulate the timelines to his will. Once again he is foiled. Just what is he up to? ("I see what you're up to all too clearly. This ridiculous aim to collapse the whole of myriad time into one single linear road. Nonsense. Utter nonsense!")
The undervalued Domino Effect features another fresh spin on Sabbath and his machinations, this time a parallel Sabbath who, similar to the one we love to hate, is trying to protect the Earth but for entirely different reasons. ("The Sabbath we know works for the benefit of some shadowy, unknown force lurking behind the Vortex. This Sabbath is trying to protect Earth from the same force...") The events of this book cause an even greater threat to the multiverse, Sabbath hinging his plans on the death of Alan Turing which causes the universes to shatter into a form of domino effect, each overlapping the other ("According to the TARDIS, the history we saw has been replaced by a multitude of alternative histories - all vying to become the real history of Earth.")
Reckless Engineering continues the alternative universe run of stories with some awkward storytelling but does not really affect the arc at all except the beautiful shadowing of Sabbath's story in Sometime Never... When it is revealed that Sabbath has been used by the Council of Eight to bring about humanity's destruction it is rather cheeky to see that very idea in play here with Malahyde being manipulated by Watchlar. Well you can't say they didn't warn you.
The Last Resort is also far more standalone than it at first appears. Admittedly it does take the multiverse to breaking point and screw about with reality to a point where we don't even know which we are following any more. This is however all contained within this book and has no relevance on the arc at all, its status unchanged from the beginning to the end.
In fact this entire mini-arc is nothing more than a diversion from the main storyline of the Council of Eight (okay so they wanted to collapse the multiverse so they could have one single unmalleable timeline but that could have been achieved in one book rather than five) attempting to survive in the time vortex. At least the alternative universe has been done to death now and we won't see any more stories like that for a while. Please.
Timeless sees that end of this repetitive alternative universe nonsense and starts the wrap up of the Sabbath storyline, which has been continuing far too ambiguously for some time at this point. It is the first appearance of one of the Council's people in the form of Kalicum who has been helping Sabbath for some time. Now the Council have secured a single, unchangeable timeline they start their real plans, having Sabbath arrange for a special delivery diamonds to be taken to the beginning of the universe and having them become a part of the universe, existing in its very fabric. At the last minute Kalicum turns on Sabbath and tells him his help is no longer required, that he has done what is required of him. It is only now he fears that he has been duped all along ("But now you're wondering... since he's turned on you at this crucial stage, perhaps your agendas are different after all.") It would appear that the mysterious powers in the time vortex have achieved their goals and that Sabbath is superfluous to requirement...
Standby for answers (and about bloody time!)
Sometime Never... is the climax to the arc and the story in which Sabbath's mysterious masters are unmasked to be the Council of Eight who have set up shop in the time vortex since the Time Lords were destroyed (so technically this arc stretches back to The Burning).
They are crystalline beings and exist in the Time Vortex in a station, which is in the shape of a crystal, but mathematically in a way so its surface area approaches infinity and its mass is zero and it turns out that the crystals the Council had implanted into the universe are sending information to the time station constantly.
They were the ones who drove the other forces out of the Time Vortex; they were the ones who wanted reality crushed into one timeline so they could manipulate it without a hundred other possibilities popping up in its place.
The Council want to exist, nothing more. They have seeded the universe with their crystals so they can gather energy from their predictions of the Earth's history. With each prediction they make the more energy they gain to create their Schrodinger Cells which power the time station.
They wish to tame the Doctor (or the Rogue Element as they call him) and seek out his companions and place them in Cells and plan to use them as bargaining tools. They also retrieve Miranda, his daughter.
However to ensure they survive the collapse of the universe and are pushed into the time vortex their leader Octan devises a brilliant but horrific scheme that will allow them to survive. ("You gather energy from future events, events you predict will happen and work to ensure take place. But if you have indeed survived the end of the universe, if you have been able to survive here in the Vortex in this impossible structure, predicting and manipulating and interfering, then there is only one event that can have fuelled your tyranny. Only one event that can have given you life after death. Total destruction on a massive scale. The Death of History.") Octan intends to destroy history with a star-killer, a device of death that will ensure his people have enough energy to exist as the new Lords of Time. ("When I destroy Earth's sun in time before mankind even ventures forth from the planet's surface, when I ensure that it never existed in the first place, all history will change, will bend to my will." "With that power, with the knowledge and talents that we already have we shall become lords of Time itself and outsit eternity!"
Unfortunately to power the star-killer they need to ensure that one last prediction comes true. Concerning the Doctor and Sabbath. Excellent use is made of Sabbath here as he finally comes to realise just how badly he has been fooled into bringing about the destruction of the planet he wanted so much to protect. Octan has predicted which one Sabbath will shoot with the Vortex gun, the Doctor or Octan himself. All of established history holds his breath as Sabbath makes his choice. (If you have been following the arc closely you can see how Octan has manipulated events cleverly to bring Sabbath to this point, he has ensured Sabbath's ego has been sufficiently bloated so that he feels he is the protector of Earth and suddenly has all that snatched away from him in Timeless and made to feel cheated and betrayed. Seething with anger, Octan predicts that Sabbath will pull the trigger he himself will die). "You may think that you have control, but I for one believe in free will. Even in a single universe there is room for Sabbath to do what he believes is right. To make a choice. If it happens to coincide with your wishes, well then bully for you. But that's not prediction, that's not qualification for universal domination. That's just luck" rebuts the Doctor.
In a spectacular twist Sabbath shoots himself and erases himself from history thus failing to meet Octan's prediction (When he spoke the Doctor's voice was controlled, quiet. But it had a hard, sharp edge. "You couldn't predict the head of a double head coin") Thus the Vortex gun is not powered, History is not destroyed and the Council of Eight must cease to exist. The Doctor's companions are retuned to their correct time and place but tragically Miranda sacrifices herself rather than be used as a tool against the Doctor ("You killed, caused the death of my daughter." Now his anger was apparent. Now he shouted back, just as loudly, just as vehemently: For nothing!")
Before the Vortex Station is utterly destroyed the Doctor aids Soul to reach Schrodinger Cell number eight and release its contents. Joyously the multiverse springs back into being allowing for a universe of every possibility to exist. The Doctor has returned free will and unpredictability back into the universe.
The Doctor wins. Just as it should be.
The Council of Eight arc is pretty breathtaking when you look at it as a whole. There are some problems there, undeniable ones, but for telling a grand story over so many books you cannot fault the ambitions of editor Justin Richards. If only it could have been completed whilst the books were still two a month so it didn't feel as if it stretched on forever (but then you cannot blame a commissioning editor for that, he clearly has to book writers waaaay in advance and cannot cancel their contract just because it might stretch out an arc a year longer than intended!).
The alternative universe mini-arc is the real problem and practically unnecessary in the long the run. This is the only point in the arc where readers got truly fed up, there were some underwhelming books in there and it is really nothing more than a diversion, in truth the range could have skipped from Time Zero to Timeless without losing anything that special (although I still adore the madness of The Last Resort). The story certainly would have flowed easier and the story would have been wrapped up before readers got fed up of waiting for the answers.
But when you look at the key points of the arc, The Slow Empire, Adventuress, Anachrophobia, Camera Obscura, Time Zero, Timeless, Sometime Never... you have some pretty fantastic books there and a build up of tension in the range that climaxes with superb drama in the last book of the arc. Standalones were still told but the arc gave the eighth Doctor range real structure and depth and certainly kept me reading to see what would happen next.
It was a flawed experiment but with too many high points to write it off as a failure. For the introduction of Sabbath and the deviously clever Council of Eight I am very glad this arc took place. It was an arc of ideas, trying to turn Doctor Who into something fresh and interesting. The eighth Doctor got the story he deserved and it was certainly a huge improvement on that terrible divergents arc over at Big Finish.
We now have an enjoyable clutch of standalone stories to finish the eighth Doctor range on but it is the Council of Eight arc that I will remember the most.