Retrospective: Eighth Doctor Adventures’ Casualties of War

I originally read the Eighth Doctor books on the train commute from Bedford to St Albans (isn’t that interesting?); they’re uneven, but this is one of the best.

Actually – and this is probably a heresy – I prefer the BBC’s original novels to the Virgin ones (NDWAs and the Missing Adventures). I know the Virgin books have a passionate following, especially the New Adventures. While there were exceptions, I didn’t wholly like them; the tone often seemed to veer too far from the TV series and they just didn’t feel like Doctor Who. Their tagline, ‘Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen’, was translated by SFX Magazine as ‘potty talk and shagging’: reductive, but not wholly untrue. They could also be more interested in the series’ continuity than in just telling good stories; generally, the BBC novels avoided this temptation.

Seems to me, anyway, that two comments shouldn’t be forgotten when writing Who in any medium: Barry Letts’ saying that ‘the Doctor is a highly moral man’, and RTD’s insistence that Doctor Who is an optimistic series. These two rules, if you can call them that, were often broken by the Virgin novels (and sometimes, though less often, by the BBC ones): the Doctor was allowed to behave in an unethical way, and the series’ optimistic and positive tone was simply drowned out by the level of violence. Of course, people do get hurt and they do get killed in the TV series, but the violence isn’t dwelt on; the emphasis is on the defeat of evil, not on the violence that evil inflicts. Some of the violence in the Virgin books was almost ghoulish; the cruelty was concentrated on to such an extent that it verged on the sadistic. (This is also why I don’t like Torchwood; its utilitarian ethic – that you can justify anything if you get a good outcome – wasn’t the Doctor’s morality at all, and the violence was sometimes no more than revolting, especially when it was directed against children.)

So, climbing off the hobby horse and relinquishing my prissy moral high ground, what about Casualties of War, first published in 2000?

It’s very well written.

casualties-of-war-bbc-books

Emmerson’s prose style is terse and to the point; lots of writers stick in stuff that’s so badly written it just jolts you out of the story. No such jolts in this book. The backdrop of the First World War is evoked well; it doesn’t deal with the fighting as such: the setting is a hospital for soldiers traumatised by shell-shock, and the local village. The depiction of severe mental illness (we’d probably call it PTSD today) is well handled; Emmerson’s clearly done his research thoroughly. As someone with mental health problems, I particularly appreciated the sensitivity of his approach. Mental illness isn’t a defect of character; it’s real, it’s ghastly, and Emmerson shows it to be just that.

But this is Doctor Who, so there are other nasty goings-on…

The dead are walking. Soldiers killed on the front are stalking through the countryside at night, semi-conscious, lashing out in their agony against the locals’ livestock, and then against the locals themselves. No-one knows what to make of it, until the Man from the Ministry arrives. And he calls himself – you’ve guessed it – the Doctor.

Emmerson perfectly captures McGann’s portrayal: the Doctor is quirky, vibrant, attractive, generous and kind. You can easily imagine Paul playing this story. The rest of the cast are well-realised, too. There aren’t a huge number of them: the village bobby, the tough farmer and his wife, and the villainous Dr Banham, whose experiments in new forms of therapy unleash things he hadn’t bargained for. Pity the Doctor’s going solo in this book; Fitz is away, which is a shame as he’s one of the best characters in the 8DAs. (If you haven’t read them, he’s a bit like Rory, but grungier).

All good stuff, then. A simple, straightforward narrative; a strong story; a disturbing concept that nevertheless stays true to the limits of horror for Doctor Who. I don’t want to give too much away because it’ll spoil your enjoyment when you read it. Casualties of War would work well on TV, though it couldn’t get the Human Nature treatment as there are too many (unintentional) similarities to that story: the Great War setting, and also the fact that we have another nurse who falls in love with the Doctor. (The non-romance is well drawn by Emmerson, too.) It’d be great if Big Finish could have a go at it, though.

Highly recommended – even though the ending doesn’t quite work.  And the 8DAs went up a blind alley with things constantly going pear-shaped with the Tardis; here, it’s a featureless blue box and is consequently about as interesting.

But it’s still a belter of a novel.

PS:  Totally irrelevant, but I’m currently watching the 1983 BBC’s dramatization of Dombey and Son on YouTube, starring Julian Glover, Roger Milner, Emrys James and Jenny McCraken – so that’s Scaroth, Annica, Aukon, and Clare Daly all in one show. The baddie is played by one Paul Darrow. The producer and script editor? Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, of course. Do not miss!