By Matthew Kresal
Part of the interregnum.
Picture courtesy BBC
Across its original 26 years on television, Doctor Who only rarely delved into the idea of alternate histories or parallel Earths. After the series went off the air in 1989 and it was kept alive by spin-off media, that began to change. Novelists and their editors, in particular, seized upon them as fertile creative ground across numerous novel ranges across different publishers. That included a journey to a Britain on a world seemingly trapped in the technology and social mores of the 1950s into the early 21st Century with David Bishop’s 2003 novel The Domino Effect featuring that ultimate creature of Doctor Who spin-off fiction: the Eighth Doctor, as played briefly on-screen by Paul McGann.
Not that the Eighth Doctor should have been that way. The 1996 TV Movie that saw his debut, a co-production between the BBC, Universal Television, and the Fox Network has a complicated production history with potential reboots and abandoned scripts that would take up an entire article all by itself. Suffice to say, Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor regenerated into McGann’s Eighth and the TV movie was intended to be the launch of a continuation of the series in North America. Seeing a potential goldmine, the BBC elected not to renew Virgin’s licence for Doctor Who fiction, deciding to take the books in-house via BBC Books starting in 1997.
The TV Movie wasn't a goldmine. Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.
Picture courtesy BBC.
Except, of course, the TV Movie didn’t lead to a new series. Though a success in the UK, the TV Movie had only a limited impact in the US (something which was due in no small part to a combination of Fox’s promotion of it and its scheduling). Once again, the series was off-air and this time with a main character who had only appeared for about two-thirds of the movie’s runtime. But there was a new Doctor in town and the splash he made was clear as McGann’s incarnation would at one time have four separate continuities going at once, two of them being comics in different publications.
One of those contradictory lines of Eighth Doctor continuity would be from BBC Books in a range imaginatively known as the Eighth Doctor Adventures (EDAs). Launched in June 1997, the EDAs picked up after the TV Movie and, having initially taken readers down memory lane in the opening novel before introducing teenage companion Sam Jones, began as a series of standalone adventures.
With the publication of Lawrence Miles’ novel Alien Bodies, however, an arc took shape involving the time-travelling voodoo cult known as Faction Paradox and a coming war in the future between the Time Lords and a foe known only as “The Enemy.” An arc that, having driven much of the opening 30-odd novels of the range, led to the destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords (something that might strike a chord with those familiar with modern Doctor Who). After a century on Earth with amnesia and no TARDIS, the Doctor regained some of his memories and the TARDIS and, with companions “Fitz” Kreiner and Anji Kapoor in tow, set about time and space until they encountered the rogue 18th Century British spy Sabbath with a stolen time machine of his own altering history at the behest of mysterious benefactors. It’s in the midst of that arc that Domino Effect kicks off.
Though for a chunk of its opening third, readers might not have known that. As, indeed, does companion Anji, who takes quite a long time to realise that she’s landed in an alternate history. Reading the novel in isolation as this reviewer did, the fact that Anji took so long to catch onto the fact despite noticing a lack of modern amenities and the casual racism of those around her in what is meant to be 2003 Edinburgh felt odd. For readers more familiar with the novels, it came across as downright weird. Even so, the opening chunk of the novel drops the reader and the TARDIS crew alike at the deep end of a history very different from their own or ours.
How much so becomes clearer to readers than it does for the characters, despite how heavily Bishop lays on hints in descriptions and dialogue. Namely, this is a world without modern computers, trapped for all intents in the pre-information age. One where progress has been actively suppressed in the name of preserving society, in this case the British Empire.
But while “Britannia rules eternal” passes the lips of those in charge, this is a Britain coming apart at the seams, straining at the limits imposed upon it. And, as such, has led to repression, resistance, and terrorism that has become a dystopian nightmare. One in which the Doctor and Anji try to navigate while Fitz finds himself imprisoned by the government and accused of being a terrorist bomber. A nightmare built around a prisoner in the Tower of London and a secret that could change the world.
The Domino Effect offers up a heady brew of a novel. The world it creates is a fascinating one, with echoes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the film Brazil, and the comic V for Vendetta. Being Doctor Who, of course, it finds its own way to put a spin on the idea of a dystopian (then) modern Britain by bringing them all together. Something that was made possible in part by the characteristics of the TARDIS crew, all outsiders here, but also the science fiction nature of the franchise allowed Bishop to present little interludes hinting at the alterations to the history. Bishop covers much of this alternate Britain’s society, from the librarian Hannah that the Doctor meets to the nurses around Anji when she’s injured to the security service thugs that Fitz encounters, and cutaways to the Prime Minister and a member of the cabal behind him (who may or may not be the familiar figure of the Brigadier, albeit unrecognised by a still somewhat amnesiac Doctor). Written a thriller, albeit with SF elements (especially towards its climax), it also moves along at a fine pace, unfolding across a few days in a very different April 2003.
As a novel, however, The Domino Effect’s execution can be lacking in places. Though it moves at quite a lick, there are times when the various portions of the narrative feel disjointed from one another. It came as no surprise, then, to read that Bishop experimented with this novel, writing each of the main character’s section separately before bringing them together in the edit.
It’s something that the author sometimes gets away with, but at other times it can be a jarring experience. Anji’s aforementioned inability to realise she’s in an alternate history despite clear signs wears very thin, as does how heavily Bishop lays on clues that his characters only grasp the meaning of very late in the narrative.
Though the greatest offense might come in the novel’s closing thirty pages when, having been a largely standalone thriller with the odd reference to the wider arc, said arc arrives with a thud and the prose is weighed down by exposition. It’s perhaps no wonder that Bishop himself has since expressed disappointment with how the novel turned out, particularly in light of the strength of his original pitch.
Reading the EDAs, it’s always curious to look at how authors handled the Eighth Doctor. McGann only appeared as the Doctor for two-thirds of the 1996 TV Movie, giving prospective authors only a hint of what his Doctor might have become. As such, there are times in the novels (and in the one being reviewed) when the Eighth Doctor becomes something of a cypher that authors could do with as they wished. There are certainly moments of lightness, even in the midst of the dystopia, that were a hallmark of McGann’s TV performance and that would come to fruition when he began playing the role on audio for Big Finish two years before The Domino Effect was published. Yet there remains a colder, bordering on cynical streak to the character that feels at odds with McGann’s performances, something which has become a dividing line in regards to fan perceptions of who the Eighth Doctor is as a character. Perhaps influenced by the early audios, Bishop finds a middle ground here that suits the narrative well, as highlighted by a conversation late in the novel between the Doctor and Anji. It still feels off in places, but the Eighth Doctor in his more established form is present here.
The Domino Effect remains a curious read, even after twenty years. Fairly standalone in the midst of an arc, it’s a dystopian thriller with an interesting premise. One that’s weighed down by the way in which it was written and when it brings the arc back to the fore. It’s a vision of a world without computers, stuck in something approaching the 1950s, held up by repression and false nostalgia, remains compelling, even with its flaws all too apparent and a Doctor that never feels quite there, either.
Comment on this article Here.