By Matthew Kresal
Some of the first exposures to alternate history people often come across are when popular franchises tell such tales, allowing writers and actors a chance to step outside the confines of their typical weekly storytelling. It's something that we've seen in comics with DC's Elseworlds or Marvel's What If...? or in the various Star Trek episodes set in its Mirror Universe. One of the earliest examples of this came through the BBC's long-running series Doctor Who, which featured Jon Pertwee's exiled to Earth Third Doctor crossed over into a parallel fascist Britain where much of the supporting cast appeared as fascist versions of their characters in the serial Inferno. The world of that serial and a number of its characters made a comeback in 2020 as part of Candy Jar Books Lethbridge-Stewart spin-off novel range in Robert Mammone's I, Alastair.
Why Inferno and why this range? It's due to how the serial has become famous in Doctor Who fandom. Don Houghton's scripts (revised to an extent by then script editor Terrance Dicks) presented a compelling world and rich characterizations for both the cast and the show's production team to bring to life. Perhaps none more so than Nicholas Courtney, the actor who played the recurring character of UNIT's UK commander Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart throughout much of twentieth-century Doctor Who, playing an eye-patch-wearing version of his character. The eye-patch, and one particular on-set gag involving Courtney’s cast mates, would become a convention staple for decades to come prior to his 2011 passing. So it's no surprise that since acquiring the rights to feature the Brigadier in prose in 2015, Candy Jar Books would dip into the Inferno well from time to time, having first done so in the range's sophomore outing David A McIntee's The Schizoid Earth. Mammone's novel went further in exploring the alternate history and world created a half-century before.
Mammone picks up on many of the elements used in McIntee's earlier novel (itself building upon McIntee's 1998 Past Doctor Adventure The Face of the Enemy for BBC Books), as well as Inferno itself, to explore this fascist Britain. One of his successes, and one that practitioners of alternate history fiction, in general, could learn from, lies in his world-building that avoids the worst excesses of info-dumping. Most chapters open with an excerpt with an epigraph taken from "An Unpublished Memoir by [redacted]," which fills in some of this timeline's details. The details include the potential point of divergence in the failure of the Russian Revolution, Hitler's assassination by members of the German military in 1938 (negating the cliched Nazi victory in the Second World War idea), and how the nature of the Party ruling Britain changed after the assassination of Oswald Mosley. Mammone sprinkles in references throughout the novel that are intriguing in their own right, from the mention of "the 1789 Resistance movement" in France to terrorists destroying Nelson's Column in 1962 and the fact the American capital is in Richmond instead of Washington DC (which suggests an even earlier divergence for this world, again picking up on a reference to an American confederacy in MacIntee’s 1998 novel). There are the odd details that don't quite make sense in this alternate history, such as the existence of Chinook helicopters and the Uzi submachine gun, something easy to overlook given the overall strength of the novel.
It also helps that I, Alastair is very much a Doctor Who-inspired thriller piece. With this Lethbridge-Stewart being a member of the Republican Security Forces, the fact that he spends much of the book facing down a resistance group that's resorted to terrorism makes perfect sense. It's also full of intrigue as various factions within the government vie with one another for power as the resistance steps up its campaign. And that's without mentioning where the novel delves into what is perhaps inevitable SF territory which, oddly, is its biggest weakness as the inclusion of it feels forced into an otherwise Earthbound thriller (not to mention riffing heavily on something that Modern Doctor Who did in 2005). And there's the semi-frustrating epilogue, which deals with the remaining plot threads but promising readers a whole other future novel for them to read. Even so, Mammone crafts a compelling thriller with plenty of twists and turns,
For all the world-building and plot, Mammone doesn't lose sight of one thing that has made Inferno near and dear to generations of fans: its characterization of its alternate Lethbridge-Stewart. As the novel's title might imply, this book's focus rests heavily on that character, at the rank of Column Leader. Just as Courtney (who declared Inferno his favorite Who serial in numerous convention appearances) relished his chance to play a nastier, angrier, but at times cowardly take on the character, Mammone does so in prose. Building on both the earlier novel and Inferno, Mammone explores more fully why this Lethbridge-Stewart is the way he is, getting to the heart of the matter through complicated family dynamics, including a politically ambitious and distant father pulling his strings. Yet Column Leader Lethbridge-Stewart is never entirely sympathetic, a soldier still too willing to follow orders and employ violence (or perhaps simply unable not to say "no" to doing so). The contrast to the character fans have known for decades is clear, and it's another reason why the book reads so well.
Indeed, fans of Classic Doctor Who and the Candy Jar range reading the novel will also spot many alternate versions of familiar faces popping up. Among the TV characters are Anne Travers and her father Edward, Ben Knight from the Brigadier's debut serial The Web of Fear, and even UNIT stalwart Benton in a pleasing nod toward his role in Inferno. From the novel range is the Brigadier's father Gordon and, most poignantly of all, love interest Sally Wright, both offering emotional weight to the narrative. As is often the case with these types of stories in various franchises, long-term fans will be the ones to pick up the most on the nuances offered by Mammone's choices. Yet newer fans or those who haven't necessarily read every single book (and this reviewer counts himself amongst the latter category) will still find plenty to enjoy in its brisk, thriller narrative.
Indeed, whether you're a fan of Doctor Who or not, there is plenty to recommend giving it a read as a well-paced alternate history thriller with a science fiction twist.