I’m not ashamed to admit that Beautiful Chaos almost made me cry, several times. It isn’t the plot--which is engaging and brings back a past enemy with the surprise factor of the Macra in “Gridlock”--but rather the human interaction, the “domestics” that the Doctor dislikes so much. Gary Russell, like Lance Parkin, is a writer from the era of the “classic” series, though I can’t recall ever reading a novel by him before (prose, certainly). Did he put together the proposal to write Beautiful Chaos? Or did the Powers That Be specifically seek him out? I don’t know, but I really enjoyed this book.
We’ve all (well, most of us) had our savage moments toward Donna and again, most of us have recanted. I have, in part. Some of her more grating jokes never fail to get on my nerves. But episodes like “Turn Left” and “Forest of the Dead” really showed the woman behind the brassy façade, and she’s someone I can identify with, almost as much as I could with Martha. Of all the retribution ever wreaked upon a companion (I said this before, in my “Journey’s End” review), I think what was done to Donna was the cruellest and most poignant thing done to a companion. In part it elevates her to the point that Lori is putting her up there with Sarah Jane and Ace with her companions. I wouldn’t go that far, but if I didn’t already have some connection to the loss suffered by Donna, I wouldn’t have enjoyed Beautiful Chaos so much. Or perhaps not at all.
Beautiful Chaos doesn’t have traditional chapters. It starts off in the aftermath of Wilf and Donna’s mother Sylvia and the “old” Donna, the thoughtless, selfish, self-absorbed bobble-brain. Whatever it was the Doctor had done to her memories made her brain accept the story and find away to fit it together so she was convinced that was indeed what had happened. The mention of Hetty, Wilf’s lady friend, pushes both Sylvia and Wilf into gloom and anxiety. The reason why will take us to the end of the book. The real story, then, begins on a Friday, somewhere during Donna and the Doctor’s TARDIS adventures together. Page 23 summarizes their relationship as familiarity, friendship, and fun, while Donna doles out her caustic wit that could be funny, could just be galling. You decide. (Though she does have a tour-de-force on page 196 reminiscent of her showdown with Davros.) What I did decide is, strangely, even though Donna’s a bit older than I am, we actually, maybe, have a few things in common. Because she can change--which “Runaway Bride” Donna never seemed capable of--and can self-evaluate, you know that Donna’s become a proper character. God. How shallow was Donna Noble before she met the Doctor again? . . . Had she been useless at home because her parents had always let her be, or did her mum think she was useless because she was?
I don’t know if discussing it will jinx it, but one of the essay proposals I wrote for a Doctor Who nonfiction book had to do with RTD’s creation of horrendous mothers for his female companions, and for me, Sylvia Noble really took the biscuit. However, reading this book, I’m beginning to reevaluate this judgement. Wilf, though he repeatedly tells the Doctor no one messes with Donna, idolizes the Doctor and keeps saying how the Earth needs him to keep it safe. It was a nice ending to “Journey’s End,” but to have him constantly spitting it out gets tiresome. On the other hand, Sylvia hits the nail on the head: ‘That’s a lot of faith to put in one man, Dad. And a lot of responsibility.’ Russell (and Donna, and the Doctor, in parts) try to rationalize Sylvia because a) she’s lonely; b) someone Donna has never met her expectations; c) she’s a widow; d) she has to take care of her slowing-down parent; e) she has to deal with Wilf’s forgetful friend Netty; f) Donna gives few explanations for the Doctor; g) Donna, even “new” Donna, exacerbates the situation simply because she’s her mother’s daughter. Fair enough, those seem to be quite a few reasons. I’m not wholly convinced, but Russell’s definitely taking stabs at further characterizing what we saw on screen (that’s what novels are for!).
Ever since “Aliens of London” and Jackie Tyler demanding of the Doctor that he guarantee Rose’s safety, Who companion mothers have been on the warpath against the Doctor putting their daughters at risk. Sylvia slaps the Doctor, becoming the third mother to do that (that we know of)--overall, the Doctor is jumpy, uncomfortable, grandiose, a bit angsty, and clever, in Russell’s depiction. He connects with the two Carnes brothers--frankly, other than to enact a few happy coincidences, I don’t know what the point of them is--and dresses up to go with Wilf to his star-naming ceremony. All the good Who settings are here--an astronomic observatory, connected to the Tycho Project of SJA; the Astronomical Society dinner; a hotel complex with lots of computers--as well as the default characters: Dara Morgan (I pictured him as Ed Byrne), Caitlin his PA (Diana Goddard from "Dalek"), Miss Oladini (DeeDee from “Midnight”), etc. (To be fair, Dara and Caitlin’s relationship is about the ultimate kind of revenge, which is a good twist on the whole enslaved-by-aliens thing. But when you’re in love, you grasp at anything, you believe that one day you’ll wake up and they’ll say, ‘You know what, I’m wrong, you’re right, you are the person for me.‘) There are epic enforced walks across London (made me think of “Dalek Invasion of Earth”).
But there’s also Alzheimer’s. I remember how stunned and impressed I was at how Sarah Jane Adventures tackled this issue in its first season, and a similar amount of thought has been put into it here (though it’s never saccharine). The way Russell portrays the “love” between Donna and the Doctor puts me in mind of Seven and the mature Ace, though put through a Katherine Hepburn blender: The Doctor was serious. He took her hands in his. ‘[You] made me a better person.’ Donna pulled her hands away, resorting, as always, to her standard jokes. ‘Now then, don’t touch what you can’t afford, spaceman.’ There is a certain poignancy in the notion that the Doctor and Donna can never be serious with each other because that would make them both vulnerable (I suppose you could say it was a bit the same with Rose in the second series. Support for this comparison comes on page 232, where Donna says, You asked how long I plan on staying with him. For ever.) Again I’m going to make the leap and say why I feel an eensy kinship with Donna. She loves her family, even if they make her crazy. If she were truly altruistic, she’d be taking care of them. But she wants to do what makes her happy, even if it’s short-lived, and that’s travelling with the Doctor. Wilf says, ’I won’t let our sadness at you not being around stop you living the life you’ve chosen.’ To carry the comparison, I’m over here, living for myself, not taking care of my family like I probably should, even though I love them deeply (and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say they make me crazy, they have their moments). Clearly this means I’m going to get amnesia!
But maybe that’s what made me almost cry, several times. Travelling with the Doctor is, after all, beautiful chaos.