The Doctor Trap
This is a unique book in the canon of the BBC range, and I can imagine the commissioning editor getting very excited about it as Simon Messingham pitched it. I was told in my radio drama writing course that almost all plays start in one of a handful of ways: about a character; about a plot; about an idea. While you’d think the idea books would be plentiful in Doctor Who novels, most of them are really about a plot. The Doctor Trap is more about an idea, and as such I would say it’s at the more mature end of the range.
It does have a plot, of course, and it does have characters, though the antagonist certainly outshines all the others (since the others are, by and large, robots). The plot sees a mysterious being named Sebastiene (the extra ‘e’ drives me bonkers!) convene a group of world-class (or should I say universe-class?) game hunters and exterminators who kill for sport. He wants them to hunt the Doctor, and to make it easier for them, he’s lured the Doctor onto Planet 1 and made Donna the collateral. This premise, and the subsequent way the hunters act, made my stomach turn at first. The idea is a dark one and full of violence. The Doctor has taken on a legendary status, and while that would seem to make sense with the amount of times he’s saved the world, it’s a bit ridiculous—how could have any freedom of movement (and how could he go anywhere without being recognized) if his mythical status had gotten this out of control?
What really makes the plot thicken is Baris. Now, we all know the sharp, sarcastic bite of satire on fandom enacted on the Fan in “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”—as the number one fan of the Psychic Circus, he is so excited to finally meet his mecca—and dies for the privilege of it. Baris is certainly shaped in that mold of cruelty—as the Doctor’s number one fan, he not only knows everything about the Doctor (which Clive and members of L.I.N.D.A could be said to aspire to), he’s been surgically altered at the behest of Sebastiene to look like the Doctor (down to DNA and an artificial second heart). The darkness factor just got increased. I don’t know if Messingham was aware of the Doctor/Donna and the meta-crisis clone pawned off on Rose in “Journey’s End,” but the idea of two identical David Tennants playing off each other not only has precedent, then, but it’s got a lot of dramatic (and comic) potential.
Like the Doctor Trap itself, the book then reveals its many layers of meta-fiction that the readers, the Doctor, Donna, Sebastiene, and Baris have to untangle. Like the very funny Batman comic that saw a tipsy role-player in fancy dress believing he actually was the Caped Crusader, Baris spends most of the novel trapped in the death zones of Planet 1 telling himself “I am the Doctor and I have to find Donna!” The real Doctor, masquerading as Baris, helps to keep Baris alive, but he’s playing a dangerous game—fortunately, he has mysterious (and never, to my mind, fully explained) help. Is Baris out to kill his hero? Or out to help him in the only way he knows how? How exactly he manages to survive as long as he does must be testament to some kind of strength of character.
Donna gets about ten pages of snatched-from-the-TV faithfulness before she spends most of the rest of the book with a crushed spirit and acting amazingly un-Donna-like. To be truthful, I think this book could have used almost any companion. It’s easy to empathize with Donna’s imprisoning in an alternate level of reality that isn’t a travel lodge in Bracknell, only pretends to be. Still, it puts the companion in a situation of true helplessness.
There are some nice touches, including a Raston Warrior Robot in Sebastiene’s trophy case (how did he manage to kill it, I’d like to know). In the final showdown, Sebastiene decides to go slightly steampunk, though I wonder if that was written in to match the cover, rather than the other way around?
It’s a fast-paced, well-written, very thoughtful book and rather turns the formula on its head.