‘Nightshade’ is an excellent little novel, Gatiss telling a story that has the same adult themes that most of the other ‘New Adventures’ do (racism, sex, etc.) but it’s no more explicit than in, for example, ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ on TV. Consequently, ‘Nightshade’ feels very much like the Doctor Who we were used to seeing on TV during the last two seasons.
The novel’s greatest asset is how Gatiss masterfully handles the characters of the Doctor and Ace – he clearly knows them inside-out, and although he places both of them in slightly unfamiliar situations (Ace falling in love with Robin and the Doctor wanting to retire) he writes them so well that you can see how the Doctor’s desire to ‘stop interfering’ and Ace’s need to be loved seem like a logical progression not only from the TV series but from the previous ‘New Adventures.’
The supporting characters are also exceedingly well written, in particular the Edmund Trevithick / Professor Nightshade character, who when I was reading the book (I’m sure intentionally on the part of Gatiss) I couldn’t help but think of William Hartnell. A bit-part film actor who made it big with a cult science-fiction TV show in his later years? A bit of a grumpy old sod? The parallels are certainly explicit, and add a touch of nostalgia to the novel.
The actual sci-fi/horror part of the story is nothing mind-blowingly amazing, but it works very well. Having the villagers haunted by their troubled pasts, dearly departed etc. provides some scenes of genuine horror, stuff like the ‘tar baby’ reminding me very much of the infamous ‘troll doll’ sequence in ‘Terror of the Autons.’ Moreover, to have the Doctor himself haunted by Susan’s apparition is a masterstroke, showing us that the often cold and calculating seventh Doctor has these deep feelings of guilt and loss. I also found it interesting how Gatiss implied that Susan may not be the Doctor’s biological grand-daughter (something followed up much later by Marc Platt in ‘Lungbarrow.’)
I only have one real criticism of this book, though I’m afraid it is a massive one. The ending is horrible! Much like the first Doctor did all those years ago with Ian and Barbara, the selfish seventh Doctor practically kidnaps Ace, taking her away from her new love, Robin, forever. Now I actually quite liked this twist; what I didn’t like is how it wasn’t really followed up in the next novel. At the beginning of ‘Love and War’ the Doctor and Ace act as if nothing has happened – perhaps it’s set months or even years later than the events of this novel, but even so an explanatory paragraph would have been nice! Of course, this isn’t the fault of Gatiss, so it’s not really fair to cite it as a criticism of this book (more of the ‘New Adventures’ range in general) which is an absolutely first-class read.
It's hard to write a review of 'Nightshade'. Somehow, I suspect you're all hoping for something a bit meatier than the words "wonderful", "brillant" and "perfect" repeated over and over again. Reading 'Nightshade' is an utter delight, and one it's very hard to pick holes in. I'm going to give it a shot though...
The Doctor is in a melancholy mood, and talking to Ace of retirement. The TARDIS delivers the travellers to the Northern English village of Crook Marsham in 1968, where the Doctor hopes to get some time to himself to think. Soon however, the villagers are being plagued by ghosts from the past. Teaming up with the staff of a nearby radiotelescope and Edmund Trevithick, star of that popular old science fiction serial 'Nightshade', the Doctor and Ace set out to discover what is going on.
Mark Gatiss' first novel is a masterclass in Doctor Who fiction. It *feels* authentically Doctor Who-ish, in a way that many novels (and a few audios) fail to. The tone and style of the novel is a logical and very effective progression from season 26, and the Doctor and Ace feel, sound and behave exactly like the Doctor and Ace should. The horror is all very effective - the image of the Tar Baby or the zombie soldiers sticking in my memory years after first reading the book, and the novel as a whole is very atmospheric and creepy. The prose is pleasant and strangely old-fashioned, instantly giving the book the feel of the best Target novelisations. I suspect this is more than coincidental, the paragraphs that veer off to give a little background on the supporting characters being very reminiscent of the early Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke novelisations. This fits in perfectly with the novel's central theme of nostalgia. Virtually every character is plagued at some point by manifestations of their guilt, grief, regrets or hunger for their glory days. Even the Doctor is haunted by his past, fleeing an apparition of his granddaughter Susan. This is a rare insight into the Doctor's psyche, and is both convincing and emotive.
The sixties are lightly but effectively sketched. The novel's other great theme, institutionalised racism, is very well portrayed and sensitively handled. Crucially, racism doesn't mean you're a bad person in 'Nightshade', as demonstrated by various sweet old ladies and gents, it's just the way things are for these people.
All the characters are well-realised. Edmund Trevithick, the former Professor Nightshade, is a masterstroke. Gently pushing at the 'fourth wall' without ever kicking through it, even if he is meant to be more of a Quatermass than a Time Lord. The relationship between Ace and Robin Yeadon is particularly affecting. Sweet and tender, awkward and painful, it is as faithful a recreation of young love as I've ever seen in print. The final, rather shocking scenes as this romance is abruptly torn apart are deeply affecting, and changed the way I look at this incarnation of the Doctor forever.
If 'Nightshade' can be criticised at all, it is because the conclusion of the story is a little bland. Whilst well worked-out and perfectly satisfactory, I felt it was lacking something, and the sudden ability of the creature to time-travel seems rather convenient and possibly even tacked-on. Still, this criticism can be levelled at 99% of all Doctor Who, and so it's not something I'm going to lose sleep over.
Ultimately, 'Nightshade' is a stunning Doctor Who novel, a genuinely pleasurable read, and up there with the very best of the TV series. In the twelve or so years since it was published, it has rarely been matched, and arguably never bettered. 10/10
Why is Nightshade so popular? I don't get it. It's fondly regarded and I've never heard a bad word said against it, but it's essentially a bog-standard runaround of a kind that's ten-a-penny nowadays. It's the first consciously trad book... but perhaps that's why it went down so well. In a series of books like Time's Crucible, Warhead, Transit and The Pit, it's easy to see Gatiss as a breath of fresh air. However I reckon something like Shadow in the Glass or Last of the Gadarene could have had this kind of reputation just as easily by being published in August 1992 instead of Nightshade. I don't see much difference between them, to be frank.
Don't get me wrong, though. Nightshade is charming. It's well written, in a way we don't seem to see so often these days. The characterisation is warm, with the author seeming particularly fond of Edmund Trevithick (a seventy-year-old former actor who played the eponymous Nightshade). Crook Marsham in 1968 is nicely painted, giving a solid sense of place and time that's more specific than the usual thatched cottage and oo-arr yokel. Today it seems most reminiscent of Relative Dementias, which similarly describes the inhabitants of an old folks' home. There's a solidly written cutaway to 1644 and the English Civil War, which is of course an era Gatiss would return to in The Roundheads. (The cover is atmospheric too.)
The soul-sucking menace is thematically interesting. It feeds on nostalgia, which is reminiscent enough of Doctor Who fandom that I think the book is stronger for not making the connection explicit. There's Trevithick and his happy memories of his days as Professor Nightshade. There's the old folks' home and its occupants, particularly the World War One veterans. There are even darker characters like Hawthorne, also dwelling in the past... albeit in a way that highlights their own prejudices. These people die. To survive these people must look forward, not back - which is a slightly surprising message from an author whose four books to date have been rather on the trad side.
Storywise Nightshade is pretty much on a par with an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, down to including a "research in the library" scene. It's a straight-ahead plot that rarely serves up any surprises. You might remember its set-pieces (e.g. the Tar Baby) but you'll soon forget the book's actual events. There's a Big Nasty on the moors that wants to eat everyone. That's pretty much it. It's a slim book with a leisurely pace - not in itself a bad thing, but it does mean the story doesn't need many digressions.
Ace gets a romance, which is pleasant but no more. It's rather low-key. The ending doesn't really make much sense to me, while what I think is an offstage sex scene (between pages 110 and 117) is handled with such a light touch that one kinda overlooks it. I can imagine some readers arguing that it never happened at all. Robin's a nice lad, but I wasn't really that fussed when Ace carried on to more Virgin adventures. This was the first companion romance in the novels and I suspect this gave it more weight in 1992 than it perhaps deserved. Though having said that, the book sneakily pretends to be building up to a companion departure... had Ace left to settle down in 1968, this would have been a rather nice send-off.
In-jokes are mostly absent, thank goodness, though I spotted some suspiciously familiar surnames. The 7th Doctor is mostly well written, but occasionally goes a bit over the top and made me wonder if Gatiss actually liked the character. There isn't that much to this book, to be honest. It's a good thing it's nicely written, because otherwise it would have been a bit bleah.
"He had wished everyone and anyone a very merry Christmas"
It's Christmas as I write this. Goodwill to all men and Virgin NA writers. I have just finished reading a Christmas Who book. And I say this. As much as the success of "A Christmas Carol" on publication was due to the fact that the public read the book full of seasonal turkey, goose and brandy sat around a crackling fire (feeling guilty) in a flammable parlour, so its continuing success is the adoption of many a TV network and major studio of a simple tale told well, whether this be told in hysterics by Bill Murray or with the all singing, all dancing flim and flam of Antony Newley. And, of course, Nightshade, is a parallel example of a simple tale told well. The simple-village-under-threat-by-unknown-enemy-cut-off-from-the-outside-world-at-Christmas tale. It innocently does not pretend that it is anything other than that. Of course, these were the giddy Virgin days when you could keep it simple and the editors wouldn't foist an arc on you to spice it up to keep the fanbase guessing. And as I said, it is Christmas as I write this. So, even if simplicity and holiday reading trend towards the mordant at least Nightshade's execution sticks rigidly to the style and the flavour.
Christmas. Songs of Praise from York Minster in the melted glow of candlelight; cosy fires in cosy pubs with cosy villagers who are isolated as much in themselves as to others; the whole Northern snap in the air which is presented in Nightshade reeks of English nostalgia. This point is reinforced by Trevithick's delight at the re-runs of his classic hit TV show which, naturally, trade one reality against another to achieve a slight sophistication in parallels which, in turn, warrants the hark back to plot celebration and the Pertwee years. The Seventh Doctor and Ace pit their wits not only against the foe on the page, but against the adversary that is Gatiss. They are battling against nostalgia. If the Virgin NA's were an attempt to broaden the style and extent of the Doctor's adventures, then Nightshade is an, albeit temporary, roadblock that refuses to give up the ghost - as much as Scrooge has his and the villagers have theirs. And because it is Christmas, because we spend that time with our families and friends, it is entirely forgiveable. Nightshade goes back to the very roots of Doctor Who - only experimental in that already the Seventh Doctor's adventures had outgrown this approach. Whilst it is interesting that the Doctor considers retiring on an assumption of the value that he adds, he considers this in an adventure that retreads familiar ground. Gatiss is aware of the irony in this and plays to it effectively, but the constraints of the formula prevent it from ever being a serious consideration. The Doctor is caught in his own nostalgia trip and it is quite appropriate that he should feel frustrated by this. He fails to control the situation or understand it until the last, and by then too many people have died. The great puppeteer didn't often behave this way, but then, arguably, he hadn't planned to behave in any way. Nostalgia got in the way.
In a sense Nightshade and its place in the Virgin NA canon is now consigned to the nostalgia bucket of history. The overlaid McCoy logo; the draw-the-casual-reader cover and the comical (sic) advertisement for DWM all recall a different more manageable audience. Fan writing has developed and with hindsight this novel would probably not be comissioned in 2000 by the BBC. It is too reverential to television programme history, it takes pains to draw in threads of prejudice, association, faith and futility from the latter mid-latter McCoy stories, and it has in-jokes aplenty to the Rayner Sisters and Mr. Peel et al which would appear too precocious for the modern editor. The conception of the indiscriminate entity that kills for life (but kills too often) is only slightly manifested into anything credible. The lack of explanation is not post modern, it is blase. It is also deliberate. That's the way with Christmas stories.
The characters that populate Nightshade are there to push Nostalgia as far as it can go. Whether it is for shark mauled brothers, or, indeed, lost brothers in arms - the construction reaches saturation point early on and then keeps going. The tar baby, the lost child - ghosts from a much borrowed literary past that give final restitution to those who succumb to emotion and the entity. Trevithick's fight against his memories and how they inure a sense of dread in him are the pivot point - which makes it tragic that he can longer fight them at the end. Yet, because Trevithick is the closest to the DW parallel the message buried in the carnage is that we all fall foul of our personal sense of nostalgia before long. With hindsight, this is perhaps the most on message prediction that Nightshade offers, especially considering some elements of fandom today.
Gatiss handles the treatment of imminent threat well, the confusion panic, and isolation - but the experience varies in depth resting solely on the characters exposed to this threat. The Abbot is left unfleshed by his lack of faith which is handled scantly, as too is the one true love for Holly (sic) whereas others (i.e. Vijay) just about jump the two dimension divide. Even Ace, usually a favourite in the range for fleshy treatment is curiously opaque - a few choice traits pulled from a character card to make her more action orientated. But there are problems even here. From a Nostalgia perspective her dewy eyed love for Robin is more akin to Jo Grant. It is well that she is not written out in this way because it would have been with a glow that doesn't belong to her. The one cunning aspect of Nightshade is that the Doctor knows this, and prevents it, manipulating Ace to the point of taking choice away from her. Nostalgia can be overwritten and impacted, it seems. The Seventh incarnation back on form.
But all this happens at the end of the novel - the slow build from one death to another and the limited choice of locale makes this a simple read. Yet, as I said, the very core of Nightshade (i.e. nostalgia) is the the one thing that manipulates suffciently to make it impossible to be overly cynical about the experience. Each memory of Christmas may be different, but there is something re-memorable for everyone in this novel. Whether that be Cathedrals draped in snow, old television shows or warm beer there is a little bit of tinsel trickery for everyone. Which is, of course, the skill. This is a simple tale told well - one well armed against criticism as to deny liking it would require denying something in ourselves about Christmas that is as old as the concept and approach here.