This book is a great example of why the ‘New Adventures’ series was so compelling. It lives up to the mantle of being impossible to put on the small screen (and in 1992 I doubt it could have been done convincingly even on the big screen!) and it also picks up where Season 26 left off as regards the ‘Cartmel Masterplan…’
As great as ‘Ghost Light’ was, truncated into three episodes and with all the exposition on the cutting room floor Marc Platt’s atmospheric story always had something lacking. With this novel, the written word allows Platt the freedom to tell his story – a story, I would argue, that is far more complicated than ‘Ghost Light’ – at a slower pace, making it far easier for the reader to understand.
To me, the brilliance of ‘Time’s Crucible’ can be summed up in one word – Gallifrey. This novel is the first story since ‘The Deadly Assassin’ to deal with the Time Lord civilization satisfactorily. I found the segments set on Ancient Gallifrey so compelling that when the narrative cut to there for a mere few pages at a time, I found myself disappointed when the narrative cut back to the main adventure.
I was enthralled with the idea of a Gallifreyan Space Empire, on the verge of a new era, sending the wonderfully named ‘Chronauts’ into time. This linked in beautifully with the Doctor’s reference to early Gallifreyan time experiments in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” continuing the final production team’s plan to make the seventh Doctor more mysterious. How Platt depicts the time leading up to the ‘Time of Chaos’ (Rassilon’s rise to power and the fall of Pythia) is a joy to read. He cleverly links the Pythias to the Sisterhood of Karn and explains how Gallifreyans are created genetically in a ‘loom,’ being born as adults with thirteen life spans – and more importantly, why! Another important question answered is with regard to Gallifrey’s apparent continuity; as many have reasoned, it is illegal for Time Lords to travel back into their own history as it may corrupt their future, hence all ‘Doctor Who’ stories set on Gallifrey occur chronologically. With this the case, imagine the Doctor’s predicament when he finds himself trapped inside his dying TARDIS (which has been transformed by an aggressive alien ‘Process’ into a horrific city) with a crew of telepathic Chronauts from his own history… some of them eager to learn just how they will become Lords of Time…
Despite the brilliance of the Gallifreyan scenes, I found the bulk of the book slow moving and to be honest I still have no idea what the Process was or how it got into the TARDIS. Perhaps the next two books in the series will shed some light on this. Platt does succeed in creating horror in the most surreal ways, and the fact the book makes any sense at all is an immense credit to him considering that the TARDIS/city is split into three different time zones, which are all running concurrently! The amnesiac Doctor, however, is an annoyance, as in the few occasions where he is actually involved in the plot he doesn’t know who he is. This makes for an explosive and very satisfying climax once he regains his memories, though it takes a long time to get there. Once again, Ace is handled far better by Platt and steals the show – her relationship with the Chronaut pilot Shonzi is fascinating, the surreal multi-temporal nature of the story forcing Ace to experience a lifetime’s worth of feelings for Shonzi within this one novel.
I hope I haven’t unjustly short-changed the book with this review as I do like it very much; it’s a first-class read that can’t really be missed. In particular, this novel is the first to hint at Ancient Gallifrey’s ruling triumvirate: Rassilon, Omega and ‘the Other…’
In darkest 1992, the callow youth that would one day become yours truly read this novel for the first time. And frankly I hated it, thinking it pretentious, a "hard read", and unforgivably Doctorless. I gave up on it halfway through.
Now, as a wise old cove of 26 summers, I've just finished rereading it for the first time. And what a difference eleven years makes! This is now established as one of my favourite NAs.
The plot that I once found confusing now seems ingenious. The way that the strange behaviour of time in the three cities is handled in the narrative is a real tour de force from Marc Platt, and the way all this is brought together with the parts about ancient Gallifrey (which are very interesting in themselves, for those with an interest in the Cartmel Master Plan) which dovetail nicely with the rest of the plot by the end.
This novel is chock full of incredible imaginative concepts- the time paradox of three cities and three versions of the same people from different times interacting with each other, The Process with it's two footmouths, and the vividly described culture of ancient Gallifrey under the Pythia. These manifestations of Marc Platt's extremely fertile mind make this novel a joy to read.
A word of caution, however. Not everyone will like this novel. The Doctor is absent or amnesiac for much of it, and although this is understandable given the nature of the plot, is still a drawback. And the plot, based heavily on complex time paradoxes, can appear surreal and confusing at times. Everything is explained, but the reader has to pay attention to what is going on.
It is also worth mentioning that this novel is all about plot rather than characterisation. Although Ace is well characterised and characters like Vael and the older Shonzii are given the illusion of depth, this is a novel about time paradoxes and ancient Gallifrey rather than people.
All this aside though, this is an excellent novel which I heartily recommend!
Marc Platt, the writer of the daringly original TV adventure, Ghostlight, here produces another story to make the reader's head spin. I'll avoid too many spoilers (mainly so that I won't have to try to explain what is going on!) but suffice to say that the main action is set in a bizarre city existing simultaneously in three different time periods within a collapsing mini-universe that is ruled over by a giant leech, the Doctor has lost his memory and the whole thing is somehow linked to events in ancient Gallifrey!
I love the parts of the book that deal with Gallifrey and it is a shame that these are so short. Marc Platt skilfully brings the Doctor's home planet to life as he tells the story of the events that ended the reign of the matriarchal line of Pythias and brought Rassilon to power. This pre-Time Lord Gallifrey is a pulsating cosmopolitan place sitting at the heart of a great empire. Platt's writing evokes brilliantly the contrasting hopes and fears of a civilisation on the verge of cataclysmic change.
The main part of the book, set within the city, is, unfortunately, a little less successful. The principal weakness lies in the book's setting and its supporting characters. The city, for all its strangeness is actually rather dull. This is clearly, to some extent, intentional as the author makes much of the city's greyness, but it does give the book a somewhat flat feel. In addition the Doctor is absent, at first physically and later mentally, from a large chunk of the book. This leaves Ace and the Gallifreyan crew of the Time Scaphe to carry the action. Whilst the characterisation of Ace is fine the Gallifreyans are, with the exception of Shonnzi and Vael, a pretty uninspiring bunch. As a result of this I found that the first half of the novel dragged somewhat.
On the plus side though the excitement builds during the second half of the book and the climax, as the Doctor recovers his personality and takes control at last, is genuinely thrilling. Marc Platt's writing is also excellent, with beautiful, evocative prose that verges, at times, on the poetic. In addition he is a skilful story-teller and he handles the complexities of the multiple time lines so effectively that, against the odds, it all mostly seems to make sense in the end. What's more the author never condescends to the reader by having the Doctor explain everything. You really do have to work it all out for yourself. There are, perhaps inevitably, a few loose ends. I still don't have much of a clue about the origins and nature of the Process or why it was turning people into insect-men, but I guess you can't have everything.
In summary then I have somewhat mixed feelings about this one. In the hands of some authors it would have ended up being distinctly average but the quality of the writing and the Gallifrey segments in particular drag it up a couple of notches. I'll give it 8/10.