Reviewed: Lethbridge-Stewart – The HAVOC Files

I really love the Lethbridge-Stewart range’s short story incentive initiative: this means anyone pre-ordering or subscribing gets some free downloads. In some cases, these stories are free even to those not purchasing, as a taster for anyone who wants to see what all the fuss is about.

An added caveat to this is The HAVOC Files. Free downloads are great, but for me, you can’t beat a physical book. I can keep those lined up on the shelf, all neat and tidy and beautiful until I’m an OAP. The HAVOC Files, with a limited run of just 300 copies, collects the first year of short tales together for the completists among us who prefer to pore over actual pages, not flick a screen.

It’s a great sign, if further were needed, that the great folk behind the Lethbridge-Stewart line knows their audience. I’d hoped the short stories would be released in a physical format, and that wish has been granted. I can only hope the practise continues for a long while yet.

I’ve a confession, then: I’d held back reading those downloadable tales in the hope of a proper collection. Was it worth the wait? Without a doubt.

The collection actually starts off with something a little special: The Enfolded Time, a new 34-page tale exclusive to this book that clears up the infamous UNIT dating problem. It’s an issue some won’t have considered, but it’s concerned plenty of Doctor Who fans: it stems from Mawdryn Undead, the 1983 serial that says the Brigadier retired from UNIT in 1976 – before UNIT officially first appeared in The Invasion‘s 1979 setting. Further troubles around dates crop up, but this is the one that irks fans so much.

The Enfolded Time by the range editor, Andy Frankham-Allen provides a neat, believable explanation that might not come as too much of a shock but is nonetheless satisfying. You’ll remember the tale whenever you feel a spider’s web on your face, go to brush it away, then find there’s actually nothing there…

The Ambush Lethbridge-Stewart

It’s nice to flash-forward to later on in Alistair’s life, but the rest pull you back to the range’s main setting. The Enfolded Time, then, is a short but sweet tale that shows the series’ dedication to fandom. It slots events nicely into both the Brigadier’s timeline and that of Doctor Who, even including a lovely allusion to Kate’s “dating protocol” line in The Day of the Doctor (2013).

A good knowledge of the show is a must for any readers, but that’s no criticism: with the limited stock, this will attract aficionados. Three stories – The Cult of the Grinning Man, The Dogs of War, and The Fright Before Christmas – are quite accessible anyway, but others rely on some awareness of The Abominable Snowmen (1967) and, primarily, The Web of Fear (1968).

Should you read the four “Year One” books in the Lethbridge-Stewart series before The HAVOC Files? You certainly should’ve read The Forgotten Son, the entry point to the range, and The Schizoid Earth too; beyond that, your enjoyment isn’t impaired at all if you’ve not read Beast of Fang Rock and Mutually Assured Domination. If you’ve not even bought them, though, this will undoubtedly push you into doing so.

Norma Ashely’s Legacies will be the most confusing if you’ve never read The Forgotten Son. It’s basically the range’s Turn Left (2008), imagining if the Doctor, Lethbridge-Stewart, Jamie, and Victoria had died in The Web of Fear. It’s largely concerned with the Great Intelligence, and surprisingly enough, the TARDIS. It includes references to a few other stories, and while being an entertaining enough tale, doesn’t work well enough as an introduction to that first book.

One Cold Step, meanwhile, is a great prequel to The Schizoid Earth. Written by Andy Frankham-Allen, it’s not massively eventful but is an effective teaser. It’s a rather nice piece of character work, actually, centring on Anne Travers and her father, Professor Edward Travers. We also meet Anne’s brother, Alun, in a lovely flashback scene; it’s backstory like this that makes the Doctor Who universe seem so alive and so relatable.

See, it’s not all about Lethbridge-Stewart himself! The range is carefully building up a great cast of background characters.

Cult of the Grinning Man Lethbridge-Stewart

Rick Cross’ The Creatures in the Cave follows Edward Travers straight after The Abominable Snowmen as he totters after the Yeti. It essentially connects the dots between that serial and its sequel, but doesn’t really add anything surprising, sadly. The Great Intelligence lives. It fills that gap nicely, but is far from a must-read.

It’s followed by another gap-bridging short, The Ambush, once again by Frankham-Allen who’s established himself as a reliably-strong and thoroughly-readable author. Set between episodes two and three of The Web of Fear, it was originally published in the Doctor Who Magazine as a sort-of taster for the Lethbridge-Stewart range.

“Every now and then, something happens that appears to be so ordinary yet turns out to be, in hindsight, one of the most defining moments of one’s life.” This is just prior to the Brigadier’s first meeting with the Doctor, so there’s a certain weight, an importance to the slight story. Again, it’s not an essential read, but it aids your next rewatch of The Web of Fear and is a great insight into Alistair’s mindset during the Yeti’s invasion of the London underground.

It’s not the most successful of the collection, however: that accolade goes to either The Cult of the Grinning Man or the fan-pleasing Dogs of War, the latter of which tidies up more continuity. The main draw of it is Lethbridge-Stewart meeting Ian “Chunky” Gilmore from the Counter-Measures Group, introduced in Remembrance of the Daleks (1988).

It goes without saying that Frankham-Allen knows his Doctor Who, and he expertly handles this historical first encounter.

Alistair naturally doesn’t trust Gilmore, and it’s a situation that reminds me of the distrust we’re supposed to hold for Lethbridge-Stewart himself in The Web of Fear. With hindsight, we know both characters are altruistic, but it’s interesting to see such parallels. Anyone who has read The Schizoid Earth can understand Alistair not immediately trusting authoritative strangers.

But it’s The Cult of the Grinning Man that’s the stand-out story here. It feels rather edgy, perhaps even adult, and very sinister too. It’s an unusual tale, and it’s great to have Lethbridge-Stewart in such a different setting. You’re reminded of The Daemons, The Masque of Mandragora, and a particular episode of Torchwood as well (one that mentioning specifically would spoil the big reveal).

Moon Blink Lethbridge-Stewart

It’s not perfect, of course – there are a few too many repeated words, for example – but I really, really hope writer, Tom Dexter gets the chance to stretch his creative muscles on the main range. He could give us a truly chilling horror book.

Dexter’s second short story, The Fright Before Christmas is unfortunately underwhelming, and feels a little too similar to The Runaway Bride (2006), but it remains enjoyable enough – certainly for the image of Alistair trying to make the crowds flee, while wearing an uncharacteristic Santa suit.

As a festive tale, it’s fun but not exceptional; it remains worth a read if you’re trying to summon the spirit of Christmas into a too-hot summer evening. Have a glass of sherry while you’re at it.

The HAVOC Files concludes with extracts from the three upcoming novels, Sadie Miller’s Moon Blink, Jonathan Cooper’s The Showstoppers!, and The Grandfather Infestation by John Peel. Miller is offering a more personal tale for Anne Travers; Cooper promises Nazis and the return of journalist, Harold Chroley; and Peel gives us pirate radio.

It looks like we’re in for a few treats over the next six or so months. The range is seemingly going from strength to strength. All three appear vastly different but just as bristling with potential.

The HAVOC Files is a brilliant bridge between Series 1 and 2 of the Lethbridge-Stewart range, showcasing superb writers and giving us a great taste of the books that deserve their popularity among fandom.

While the initial print run of 300 is sold out, you can still get some of the short stories from the Lethbridge-Stewart website. Alternatively, you can keep a close eye on eBay.