Snowglobe 7 was an okay Doctor Who book, as I said before—high concept, somewhat bland characters. By contrast, Mike Tucker’s first book for the new series, The Nightmare of Black Island, is one of the best I’ve read of the BBC books. I’d definitely rank it with my favorites from last year, The Many Hands, Sting of the Zygons, The Pirate Loop and Only Human. It just does everything right, which is difficult enough to do with a normal book, not to mention a Doctor Who book!
You know the teaser that sets up nearly every on-screen Doctor Who? We meet a hapless person who is eaten by a monster, or possessed by a monster, or in danger from something, and we know the Doctor will be on the scene soon to save the day. Despite the fact it starts with such a cliché, I find Nightmare manages to make me care about poor Carl Jenkins and scare the heck of me (fishing hooks?!?) at the same time. Plus there’s a funny quip about Wales: Paying the toll [over the Severn Bridge] was like putting coins into a laundrette washing machine: no sooner had they clunked into the slot the water started to pour. Oh yes, this is possibly the first story since “Boom Town” that’s set in Wales, and I find it neither snarky nor condescending.
Tucker can easily conjure up Ten’s manic, silly moments, but also his anger and doom-pronouncement. ‘Gonna take orders from a commander who can’t even count, hmm? From someone who thinks that she’s such a clever clogs because she found a way of using the local kids as resource but didn’t make sure she had all the facts. You’ve made a lovely big monster with huge pointy teeth, but it’s not got all its marbles, has it? You missed a bit, thicko!’ Tucker not only writes Ten with perfect conviction, he writes Rose like she was his creation, and what’s even more impressive, he writes their relationship with a consummate ease that I haven’t seen since The Stone Rose. Their scenes together are absolute fun from beginning to end. I may have reservations about season 2 as a whole, but Tucker takes the best aspects of that era and brings them superbly to life. Intriguingly, when we meet the Doctor and Rose, she’s dreaming. The unspoken tenderness is a subtext in this book, neither ignored as some male writers tend to do, nor highlighted as much as in Jac Rayner’s books (you know I love her writing, though). Our two intrepid adventurers will need their absolute trust, as they meet the monsters early on. And they’re much scarier than werewolves, Clockwork Robots, Daleks, Cybermen, Slitheen. To be honest, the mechanism of the monsters is so close to being repeated in Martin Day’s Wooden Heart, I’m surprised they let that latter novel fly.
I can’t say that all of Tucker’s secondary characters are that much of an improvement on the ones from Snowglobe 7, but I do feel proud to have been the second person to give the Doctor a companion named Bronwyn. Plus, though bad child actors can be just as annoying as badly written children, I find Tucker gets the many kids in Nightmare just right—not too cutesy, not to scamp-like. Though it’s also a cliché for the Doctor and companion to separate (either by accident or design), I think Tucker makes the most of it when he has the Doctor and Bronwyn take a boat to Ynys Du (Black Island) to look at the lighthouse, while Rose takes a secret tunnel with Ali the feisty little girl to investigate sinister goings-on at the rectory. You can see already that this story has prestigious roots: “Terror of the Zygons,” “The Empty Child,” “Horror of Fang Rock,” of which Tucker is no doubt aware. His intent is to take the best of those, I believe, and scare us all. Which he does. Some crawled on squat legs, others writhed on tentacles. Spider shapes and dinosaur shapes mixed with strange combinations of scales, feathers and fur.
At the heart of it, though, is not just another boring monsters-want-take-over-the-Earth story. The human villain has real motivation this time, and in a much less obvious way than most do—it’s a horrific, considered bit of character development that’s more akin to “Human Nature” or “Adrift.” It also takes that witty line from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” about the Doctor being the nightmare, and twists in a subtle and grimly smart way. Rose has an encounter with a rather indefinable presence of evil but, in contrast to a similar entity in Wooden Heart that I really couldn’t understand, Tucker allows Rose’s sheer horror to be felt by the readers. The Doctor, meanwhile, ends up having to mildly inconvenience children—in a way fans of “Blink” will understand—in order to save the day. In addition to the somewhat Dortmun-like Nathaniel Morton, the alien menaces—that is to say, separate from the monsters—are religious warrior-zealots, a subtle jab at modern religious crusaders of all creeds.
Mike Tucker has worked on the show itself with effects, so he should know his monster stuff. But in his acknowledgments, he includes a wonderfully heartfelt: [to] Christopher, David and Billie (for bringing it back for a new generation). Though it could be argued that few who write for Who aren’t fans, Tucker is perhaps more a fan than most, yet he’s created the very opposite of fan wank in The Nightmare of Black Island (and I even like the title).