Friday, November 7, 2008
What I loved about “42”: “Burn With Me!” Oh, David, I would . . .--Emily Bridewell, letter to Doctor Who Magazine #384
Suddenly, he looked up at her and took his glasses off. ‘Martha,’ he said, his tone suddenly very different.
‘You mentioned babies,’ he said.
Whoah! thought Martha, suddenly thrown. Where had this come from?
--Mark Michalowski, Wetworld
I’m not sure if it was the unfamiliarity with the author or the premise of the book, but I didn’t have very high expectations for Wetworld. I was pleasantly surprised and found it an enjoyable read with a fascinatingly creative premise, a kooky handle on the Tenth Doctor, and one of those plots you could easily imagine seeing on TV—yet works all the better for being a novel.
It seems to me that what I’m beginning to demand of a good Doctor Who book is a good plot, decent secondary characters, good pacing, strong understanding of Ten the bouncy-yet-serious sexy nutter, ideally humor, and good insight into the companion of the moment. I’d say Wetworld does all these things, particularly with the plot and the writing of Ten. As you know, I always prefer historicals because that’s just the way I’m hard-wired. But for a futuristic, off-world adventure I thought this was excellent. The planet where the Doctor and Martha land is actually called Sunday, which was chosen instead of the vetoed Wetworld. While the derivatives abound—as they seem to with every Doctor Who novel, such as The Sparrow, “42,” and the Enchanted Swamp in The 10th Kingdom—I loved the way both the Doctor and Martha landed on Sunday. Convinced that the Doctor was taking her to breakfast at Tiffany’s—which for some reason the editor decided to italicize; clearly they meant Breakfast at Tiffany’s but simple breakfast at Tiffany’s doesn’t make any sense—Martha dressed up Audrey Hepburn-style before, in true companion fashion, falling into the mud and being pursued by razor-clawed otters. The Doctor, meanwhile, loses the TARDIS is a Degobah-like swamp, a clear shout-out to “The Curse of Peladon,” which I absolutely loved.
The Doctor’s first contact with one of the planet’s human colonists is similarly smashing, as he answers her Morse code and then shows up, covered with muck and sporting a “manic” grin. What I love about this book is that I can see so much of it happening, as if it really were on TV. The Doctor’s ability to go from loopy to tender—his eyes suddenly looked incredibly gentle. Incredibly fragile—is perfectly captured. Simon Guerrier wrote that the way he found it easiest to capture each different Doctor in prose was focusing on certain details. I recall in The Pirate Loop that often meant lulling me into la-la land with descriptions of the Doctor’s high cheekbones and foofy hair—which Michalowski does, to a lesser extent. (Indeed, while it’s the otters who squee at him, at least someone takes the hint and squees. Should we start calling female Tennant fans otters?) One criticism I had of The Resurrection Casket was that Justin Richards—who wrote a damn fine Troughton and a good Eccleston—seemed to struggle with Ten. He used reams of paper describing mannerisms and rather clunky banter when there are swifter ways of getting to the character. Sometimes Mark Michalowski veers into that territory, but on the whole, his Ten is naturally zany and comic. In a very Fourth Doctor way he also keeps deliberately calling the human villain by the wrong name.
As for Martha, there are some moments of real genius like the Tiffany’s thing. Otherwise, though, she seems to revert to Polly-mode (even getting the Doctor tea at one point though he makes an ironic comment about it) by spending half the adventure tied down to a gurney in monster-savage-companion style. I guess it’s a side-effect of giving Tennant a chance to do his possessed-acting—any dedicated follower of the past few series (oh, any of the series really) will recall the Doctor’s propensity for getting into situations where he must writhe and scream and go savage and drool onto his shirt. I practically expected him to say “burn with me” (is Michalowski just messing with us, making possessed!Doctor so . . . er . . . attractive?). Also, I found Martha leaving the hospital abruptly after her experience difficult to believe, especially as she is a doctor (nearly). Cresting a wave of otters as they squeak encouragement to her is somehow prescient of “The Doctor’s Daughter.”
And the otters! Well! On one hand, you gotta wonder why Michalowski wasn’t allowed to bring this baby to the small screen, since the otter-bear things on the aquatic planet Sunday (the Doctor wants to name them jujubes) are cute, cuddly, and a little terrifying (see the Adipose) as well as intelligent and slick. Then you realize TV—especially CGI—could never do the otters—nor the squelchy nightmarish things, whose description Michalowski has genius for and clearly revels in, that cause all the havoc on Sunday—justice. This a good contrast to Wooden Heart, where I found many of the more cerebral concepts difficult to visualize.
As for the secondary characters, I hate to bring up the old chestnut of Dr. Flowers from The Monsters Inside, but she was kind of there again in Ty Benson, nurse-turned-zoologist, played perhaps by Queen Latifah were the story televised, and just a bit interested in old rat-boy. If they [Martha and the Doctor] were a couple, Ty thought wryly, Martha was one lucky woman. It always amuses me to what extent the authors pursue the “modern” Doctor’s sex appeal, especially considering most of the authors are heterosexual men—Michalowski somewhat alludes to Martha’s unrequited feelings, I mentioned the wryly humorous Ty’s take, and Candy the teenager decides to peck the Doctor on the cheek for no apparent reason. I can’t decide which is more amusing and more pleasing: the Doctor in a knife-fight with the badger pirate queen in The Pirate Loop, or the Doctor pursuing mutant otters in the mud using his jacket as a net and getting really annoyed when he rips it, here. I found the other characters mostly forgettable though Candice “Candy” Kane was decently interesting (until she walked into the forest for no apparent reason, just to spite the Doctor’s authority basically).
It was a bit of a slow-burner, and like several of the other books I found the climax and dénouement a bit harried and less-than-satisfying. It certainly had its moments of humor and horror in equal measure, which is really how Doctor Who should be. I hope to see more by this author.