Before I had decided to embark on the incredibly expensive task of collecting and reading all of Virgin’s highly regarded series of “New Adventures,” I had only read two odd books from the series – “Iceberg” by David Banks and the infamous “Lungbarrow” by Marc Platt. The close continuity of the books was lost on me, but the stories were exactly what I thought nineties Doctor Who should be and frankly, the books blew me away. However, I had a particular interest in both those novels, namely the creation of the Cyber Controller in “Iceberg” and the unravelling of some of the mysteries of the Doctor in “Lungbarrow.” I went into “Timewyrm: Genesys” knowing nothing about the plot and not knowing what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed at all.
The historic first-ever Doctor Who novel simply had to be good, and John Peel delivers a fast, compelling, action / adventure story that is grounded firmly in the Doctor Who mythology. Moreover, Peel seems to have an in-depth knowledge of the Gilgamesh legend that comes across extremely well on the page. He gets the little details woven into the narrative so well (for example, detailed descriptions of how people bathed, the food the ate, etc.) that the story has a strong sense of realism despite being fantastical. I’d compare it to “The Lord of the Rings” in that respect – the detail really brings the whole ancient world to life.
Peel handles the regular characters of the Doctor and Ace very well, and he uses a clever plot device of having the Doctor ‘accidentally’ wipe all of Ace’s memories (before later restoring them) giving him as a writer a chance to re-establish the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the whole premise of the series. Although the story make it’s explicitly clear that this novel takes place immediately after “Survival,” this clever introduction makes the book really feel like a new beginning.
The Timewyrm, or Ishtar, or whatever you want to refer to her as is an exceptional villain. Her realisation would have been tricky to say the least on the show’s ‘modest’ TV budget, but on the page she wields the double-edged sword of being both an imposing and terrifying creature in her own right, and on top of that having a ruthless, completely and utterly evil personality that puts even the Master to shame. She also has the ability to control the minds of others, and towards the end of the novel she seems so powerful that it honestly seems that she will prevail. It’s exceedingly well written.
Her horrifically beautiful, elegantly evil appearance also plays to the strong sexual undercurrent in the story, which I thought added an extra layer to the usual elements you get in Doctor Who, not to mention bolstering the credibility of the story. Gilgamesh is portrayed superbly as a huge, powerful, dominant man with equally large appetites for everything – food, conquest, even the women of Uruk (and any others he may bump into.) I don’t think his character would have been anywhere near as convincing and animalistic if the more sexual parts of the story were skipped over. Besides, if on the page they can get away with a female character running around topless for three quarters of the story than on TV then I’m all for it!
As I mentioned earlier, the story is heavily grounded in the mythology of the show and is littered with continuity-references, probably a little too many for my liking. The apparition of the fourth Doctor is a nice touch, as are the odd references to deceased companions (Adric, Sara Kingdom, Katarina) because they fit in well with the story. References to recent adventures the Doctor and Ace have are well-crafted into the story, and I often thought it strange when on TV seldom did the main characters chat about ‘what they did last week.’ I did think the Doctor’s regression into his third incarnation was a bit much though at the story’s conclusion, however I am more than happy to read a novel littered with continuity references than one completely devoid of them.
The book has really whet my appetite for the remaining seventh Doctor novels in the series. I was engrossed by this novel, surprised by it (I was quite taken aback when the Doctor knocked out Ace with a punch to the jaw!), and thoroughly entertained by it. I’m looking forward to reading “Timewyrm: Exodus”…
The year is 1991 and an eager 23 year old Doctor Who fan has taken a day off work in anticipation of a very special event, the purchase and reading of the very first original Doctor Who novel, aside from the indifferent ‘Companions’ series, to be published. That novel is Timewyrm: Genesys by highly regarded Target author John Peel. The novel was indeed purchased and devoured that same day and there was a feeling that it had been a good faithful continuation of the TV series and a promising start for what would hopefully be a long running series of original Doctor Who novels.
Fast forward to the year 2005. That same fan is still reading original Doctor Who fiction, now published by BBC books, and still looks forward to each new book. John Peel is not a now a highly regarded Doctor Who author by most fans, having blotted his copy book with two continuity heavy Dalek novels. In anticipation of a very special event, the start of a new series of Doctor Who on BBC television that fan is now re-reading selected Doctor Who novels and has decided to start with Timewyrm: Genesys. What is his opinion of that original Doctor Who novel now?
Timewyrm: Genesys actually comes across as a simplistic, straightforward Doctor Who tale lacking the sophistication of most of the New Adventures and many of the BBC novels. With the tagline of the New Adventures being “stories too deep and too broad for the small screen” one wonders if this novel is guilty of breaching the Trade Descriptions Act. There is really nothing in this novel to suggest that it could not be yet another novellisation of a TV story, save for a few elements I shall come to shortly that do little to add to the story and much to detract from its ‘adult’ pretensions, despite being included with precisely the opposite intention.
In truth this novel is a mess, with very little to commend it to today’s readership. Its introduction to the Doctor and Ace is, frankly, embarrassing and totally unnecessary. Peel has taken the approach, possibly dictated by the editorial team of the time, that the reader of the book knows nothing about Doctor Who resulting in the frankly stupid notion of the Doctor having removed all Ace’s memories by accident giving the excuse for huge chunks of totally unnecessary exposition about who the Doctor is etc. Seven pages of a novel that is slim anyway are wasted in this way.
The plot, once the novel finally gets going, isn’t particularly complex, but this does not always make for a bad novel. A simple plot can often be a good thing if the novel is full of rounded characters who feel as though they could be real people and, in the case of a TV spin off novellisation, are true to their onscreen personas or are, at least, logical extrapolations of them. Unfortunately Timewyrm: Genesys massively fails in this regard. The Seventh Doctor is almost totally unrecognisable and one has the feeling, as with ‘Legacy of The Daleks’, that John Peel is actually writing for the Third Doctor rather than the actual incarnation physically present. As the Third Doctor actually puts in an ‘appearance’ in the novel via the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits with no recognisable difference this impression is confirmed. Ace is a little closer to her TV persona though she is almost a caricature of herself rather than a believable character.
Of the major original characters only Enkidu is truly believable. Gilgamesh comes across as an amalgamation of every overacted Brian Blessed character and one can almost hear him bellowing every line he utters in an unconvincing manner. Instead of a flawed hero who was great enough to become king we get a blustering fool who fails as a real person on almost every level. With one exception the other characters are totally unmemorable and scarcely worth commenting on.
The exception is the villain of the piece, who begins life as Quataka, then becomes Ishtar for much of the novel before finally becoming the Timewyrm. Compared to later villains in the New Adventures she is remarkably unsophisticated, but is, on the other hand, far more convincing in terms of motivation and complexity than the villains seen in the latter years of the Doctor Who television series. Her main motivation in this book is survival at any cost and she views others as merely a means to achieve that end. She is not so much evil in the classic sense as amoral, though she does possess an innate cruel streak that manifests itself from time to time. Virtually everything she does can be viewed in terms of ensuring her own survival and as a motivation this is far more believable than, say, the Master’s stated aim of wanting to rule the universe. Ishtar is, perhaps, this novels saving grace, a good concept rising through the morass of mediocrity.
No review of this first New Adventure can be complete without some comment on John Peels’ attempts to make this novel ‘adult’. Mr Peel seemed to equate the word ‘adult’ with sex rather than with sophistication of plot and characterisation and the result is a novel that is actually very juvenile. Peel seems to take great delight in mentioning bare breasts as often as possible, in gratuitously portraying Ace in the nude at one point and in lingering on Gilgamesh’s wandering hands. He also seems to be rather obsessed with the concept of sacred prostitution. Rather than thinking that this improves the novel one is left with the impression of a small boy shouting ‘bum’ in order to grab some attention. It really is rather pathetic.
Read in 2005 Timewyrm: Genesys comes across as a rather poor novel with few redeeming features. It is a novel I had fond memories of and those memories have now been spoiled.
I vaguely remember reading Timewyrm: Genesys a few years after it came out – I was slow on the uptake with the New Adventures because of my university studies, and rather ploughed through them first time round in a disposable way once I graduated. So now around ten years on I am intrigued by the prospects of a slower re-reading of the series from the beginning.
Timewyrm: Genesys is, if anything, an honest beginning to the Virgin New Adventures series. While not poor, it is an unspectacular and workmanlike novel; perhaps this isn’t unexpected – given it is the first of a completely new series (and, for Doctor Who, new concept). However, the novel reads as if it were written prior to the scope of the New Adventures series being set down; so aspects of characterisation and context appear slapped onto the existing ideas which results in a rather disjointed and sometimes unfulfilling effort.
This isn’t helped by the characterisation of the two leads – where emphasis was placed on the New Adventures following in the stead of the Cartmel era and its more mysterious Doctor – the Doctor of Timewyrm: Genesys is only sometimes recognizable as his TV familiar; he is more a hybrid of what he was with what he will become which reads more jagged than seamlessly. Ace is handled less well; Season 26 portrayed her as a young adult grown up from the street-suss and sometimes naïve teenager of Seasons 24 and 25. Here, she regresses back into teenager ‘nitro-9’ mould with her young adult persona getting few cameos – mainly through efforts to keep Gilgamesh out of her pants.
Throughout the novel John Peel attempts to inject a more ‘adult’ flavour in scenes and characters that had been virtually absent from the TV series and subsequent Target novelisations (except for, maybe, those written by Ian Marter). These range from the gratuitous to the religious as the author tries to develop a sense of realism; there is an early nude scene with Ace, Gilgamesh is fond of the odd tickle and grope and a supporting character is a 13 year old bare breasted priestess whose function is to have sex with different men as offerings to a goddess. While there is nothing wrong with this type of writing at all (one could probably argue John Peel was writing under editorial instruction) it doesn’t really contribute anything to the novel. If anything, it seems tacked on for shock value if anything and isn’t really coherent with the prose as a whole.
These things said, the plot holds itself together reasonably well throughout, although the Doctor and Ace are given a terrible in TARDIS lead-in. The ending of the novel could be considered drawn out – I certainly thought it was (with the exception of the last chapter and the epilogue). However, what comes in between is readable and enjoyable – it just unexceptional. Two things do stand out though – the rehash of the Noah’s ark story into a futuristic (albeit occurring in Earth’s past) setting is original, as is the snake in this particular galactic utopia’s grass. Additionally, the idea of making the Doctor responsible for creating the Timewyrm is an unexpected twist – although the ancient Gallifrey stuff associated with this creature on the back cover blurb and in the early chapters doesn’t really fit in with the ending at all (perhaps it is explained in one of the three other novels in the Timewyrm series).
Not too bad a job then for the first of a new series – but there is plenty of room left for improvement, particularly in the characterisation of Ace and The Doctor. I see Terrance Dicks is next, so I’m not holding my breath.
In retrospect, you have to admire John Peel's courage in taking on this project. After all, this would be the first official Who story since the series ended and you can guarantee that no matter what he'd written, there'd have been someone complaining about it. Wisely, he realised this, and didn't go too far away from what was expected. That's not to say Genesys is just another Who story - it clearly takes advantage of the freedom of the new format - but it's still close enough to the original to reassure fans while pointing towards new directions.
The temptation for many authors would have been to start this book straight after the end of Survival, but Peel instead takes us into two seemingly disparate scenes - a space battle and then, back in Earth's past, Gilgamesh's meeting with (and refusal of) Ishtar - before venturing inside the TARDIS. If you know even the basic story of the Epic of Gilgamesh then Peel's intention is already clear by this point and it's a neat reversal of the format of the old Who historical stories. While they often played fast and loose with the established facts of history, here Peel presents the 'real' story that history played fast and loose with. "Chariots of the Time Lords", perhaps, for those of you who remember Von Daniken.
It's definitely interesting to read a Who story set on a much wider scale than we ever got to see on TV. Not limited to what the BBC special effects department can conjure up (or emulate in a quarry somewhere in the South East), we get entire Mesopotamian cities, huge temples, mile-long buried alien ships, evil Goddesses from somewhere between Alien and Terminator 2 and Gilgamesh portrayed by a young Brian Blessed. Well, that's how we comes across to me, smashing down doors, shouting loudly and hamming up every scene he's in.
Of course, it does have its flaws. While I'm sure the teenage prostitution and bare breasts of the Priestesses of Ishtar are probably historically accurate, I'm not really sure Peel needed to mention them so often. It seems too much as though he's waving a flag emblazoned with 'Look! This is an adult book!', as though he's not convinced his plot in itself is enough to justify that title. And yes, there is Naked Ace in this book, and no, I'm not going to discuss it.
Still, Peel's characterisations are good, and the Doctor and Ace are recognisable as the same people we saw on TV, though with greater depths than may have previously been encountered in a Doctor Who book. The story's also good fun. While there's no doubt that the Doctor will win in the end, and history will proceed as normal, Peel manages to establish enough doubt as to how he will do it, and there's always the sly smile as you see how he incorporates the Epic (and previous Who continuity) into the story. And of course, not being restrained by budget, the availability of actors or acting talent allows Peel to bring in a couple of previous Doctors for cameo appearances, though while the Fourth Doctor's appaearance at the start is logical in terms of series history and relevant to the plot, the appearance of the Third near the end seems more like a bone thrown to the fans that a necessary plot development.
It's an interesting start to the New Adventures series, and one can easily imagine a much worse way for them to have kicked off the series. Genesys was always going to be groundbreaking in terms of being the first 'official' non-televised Who novel, no matter what the actual story inside it was, and Peel overcomes the potential pitfalls to deliver a solid start to the series.
You know, I can't think of a better man to write Timewyrm: Genesys than John Peel.
Think back to all those Who novels set in the Victorian era. Yup, the politically correct ones. All these authors who think no one's ever said before that the 19th century had poor people, sexual inequality and racial prejudice. It gets repetitive after a while, doesn't it?
Mesopotamia in 2700 BC would give these people a heart attack. You have mindless violence, wanton abuse of power and a paedophilic fantasy of sexually active thirteen-year-old girls. Any normal author would hyperventilate in horror at the problems inherent in trying to address such a setting. Twenty thousand brands of political correctness would burst from their bleeding ears.
But luckily for us, John Peel doesn't care about that! It's the arrested teenager of the Doctor Who authors, sniggering and nudging us in the ribs at every opportunity. In Ace's first scene, she studies herself naked in the mirror and sets the tone for the book. Underage topless prostitute-priestesses? No problem. De nada. Nowhere is there any suggestion that there might be anything dubious about this. (Ace at one point tries to raise En-Gula's consciousness, but on the level of career choice rather than whether or not it's suitable for a thirteen-year-old.) Similarly Gilgamesh's slaughterings are depicted with joyful glee, like Robert E. Howard writing Conan the Barbarian.
Basically, John Peel thinks 2700 BC is really cool. And you know what? He's right! Unrestrained by conventional morality, this book is a blast. The Doctor is aware that you'd hope to find different standards in most other civilisations, but his non-judgemental acceptance of Mesopotamia feels surprisingly right. However Ace's reactions are even more entertaining! Her exasperated relationship with Gilgamesh (more Neanderthal than the Neanderthal) and her outrage at anything and everything (e.g. bathtime) make this book a laugh riot. I roared.
I enjoyed the characters. Gilgamesh is a cartoon in all the best ways... overbearing, self-obsessed, over-impulsive and perfect for driving Ace nuts. Enkidu is charming. The girls (Ninani, En-Gula) are probably the best female characters in a John Peel novel, and they're quite good too.
Ishtar, aka. the Timewyrm, is of course the belle of the ball. Played by Kate O'Mara if you believe Andrew Skilleter's cover illustration, she's vicious and vibrant enough that you'd happily read four novels about her (not to mention the unofficial fifth Timewyrm book: Happy Endings). Unfortunately this would be Ishtar's only appearance as herself. Hereafter she was merely the Timewyrm, a vague technobabbly thing of power but no personality. This book would have been stronger if it hadn't had to set up the following books, to be honest. The ending's a bit crap. Ishtar gets trapped in the Vortex, then the book ends. It's logical and it makes sense, I suppose, but it's still lame.
Ideas I hated in 1993 make more sense in the context of other novels. The idea of the 7th Doctor summoning the 3rd Doctor's ghost because he's Peel's favourite is annoying, but it's almost a kind of foreshadowing for Timewyrm: Revelation's dreamscapes. What's more, the book follows on beautifully from the Perry-Tucker PDAs! Ace's memory-wipe in her first chapter could be the Doctor's way of healing damage caused by the timeline-warping of Loving the Alien. He claims it's accidental on pp21-22, but he protests too much.
This notion even explains the p81 revelation that Ace is a fantastic singer with perfect pitch! I don't remember this extraordinary factoid appearing anywhere else, but for a post-Loving the Alien Ace all kinds of character details could be up in the air.
One feels that John Peel put more effort into this than usual. There's even stylistic experimentation, with the equivalent of a psalm halfway through. The story is straightforward, almost simplistic, but that's no bad thing. This TARDIS crew is also better than in any of Peel's subsequent novels, with Ace circumventing the bad language barrier by coming up with pungent metaphors instead of just lame non-swear words. I chuckled at "professional ceiling inspector" on p100. I've read criticism of Peel's 7th Doctor, but I rather liked him. I was even charmed by the poor proofreading, which harks back to an era when typos were typos rather than the collateral damage of spellcheckers on the rampage.
This book is a lot of fun. Admittedly at times it feels like the work of a sniggering schoolboy, but I suppose it could have been worse. Ace might have had to pretend to be a topless prostitute-priestess. (You know, on reflection I'm slightly surprised that never happened. A missed opportunity for more juvenile gags, methinks.) Peel's later Who novels left me dumbstruck with horror when I reread them, but this was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed it.
Eons ago, when I was a mere fourteen years of age and there were still hopes of "Season Twenty-Seven" being just around the corner, I read this novel for the first time and, shock at the appearance of sex in a Doctor Who novel aside, quite enjoyed it. Now, twelve long years later, I've reread it. And frankly it's the biggest pile of tosh I've read in years.
Am I perhaps being a little unfair here? After all, we've all been used to quality Who fiction for over ten years now. When this was published, Who fiction meant Target novelisations. Perhaps I should be treating this as an original, extra-long Target novel and judging it by that standard? Whichever standard we judge it by though, this novel is plain awful. It opens with a continuity-filled TARDIS scene in which Ace loses her memory and has to have things explained. This seems to be a device to introduce the series to new readers, but it falls flat; the gratuitous use of continuity (worse, some of it is annoyingly and blatantly wrong!) can only have put off casual readers.
Things don't improve much when the TARDIS lands in ancient Mesopotamia. The supporting cast are poorly characterised; Gilgamesh is a deeply unlikeable one-dimensional thug, whilst characters such as Enkidu, En-Gula and Utnapishtim are cardboard ciphers for whom the reader cares not a jot. Worst of all though, the Doctor and Ace are unrecognisable. Indeed, John Peel all but admits his inability to characterise the Seventh Doctor when he has the Doctor possessed by his third incarnation. This passage is utterly cringeworthy. The prose leaves a lot to be desired too- at one point En-Gula thinks of the Doctor as a "strange stranger". And although Peel has clearly done a lot of research into the historical period and it shows, he never really manages to evoke any sense of historical flavour. But of course none of this caused as much controversy at the time as the appearance of sex in a Doctor Who novel. Now, expectations regarding Who and sex have changed since 1991, and personally I found it considerably less shocking than I did back then. But the whole treatment of En-Gula and the Temple Of Ishtar seems designed more to proclaim the novel as being "adult" than to make any real point about the position of women in ancient Mesopotamia.
There are things to like about this book. I found the basic plot to be well handled, if overshadowed by the poor characterisation. And Ishtar is a fantastic villain, cunning, malicious and, in a departure from the norm, brilliantly characterised. All in all this is a very poor start for the New Adventures. Fortunately, however, it would be immediately followed by one of the most enjoyable Doctor Who novels ever written.