Andrew Cartmel seems to have a very bleak vision of the near future; unfortunately the way things are headed his bleak vision might come to pass. Nevertheless, I enjoyed “Cat’s Cradle: Warhead” immensely. It pushed the envelope much further than, say, “The Green Death” on the environmental issue, it vividly describes a future that is frighteningly real, it features some excellent and memorable characters, it truly lives up to the mantle of being “…to broad and too deep for the small screen,” and most importantly of all I just couldn’t put it down.
Behind Cartmel’s beautiful and evocative prose lies a very simple plot; O’Hara, amoral owner of the multinational Butler Institute, fears death and seeks immortality. The Earth is dying, and so he reasons that to survive the human race needs to transplant its consciousness into machines. It’s up to the Doctor and Ace to stop him, and to do so, the Doctor plans to use a child with strange powers, Vincent, as a warhead, and Justine (a young ‘witch,’ for want of a better word) as his emotional ‘detonator’…
Like in the previous novel, Marc Platt’s “Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible,” the Doctor is absent for most of the novel. However, I think that his absence works far better in this book for a couple of reasons. Firstly, early in the book Cartmel does not write from the Doctor’s perspective; he is always the stranger encountered by (to us, the audience) a new character. In contrast to the previous story, this method of writing enhances the mystery of the Doctor in a way that I didn’t expect. From stories like “Remembrance of the Daleks,” “Silver Nemesis,” and “Time’s Crucible” the mystery of the Doctor came from hints towards the secrets of his apparently dark past. Here, however, the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’ takes a whole new direction as it isn’t the Doctor’s past that is a mystery; it is the Doctor himself. Moreover, his actions often engender doubt in the reader – why is he doing that? He can’t do that! His motives are unclear… at first.
As the book progresses, in true seventh Doctor fashion he is revealed to be the man with the plan – setting traps; manipulating people; actively seeking out evil with the intention to put it right – whatever the cost.
Despite his masterful handling of the Doctor, Cartmel places the focus mostly on brand new characters. This makes the novel difficult to get into in the early chapters, though with hindsight some of my favourite parts of the novel feature his characters like Justine, Vincent and Stephanie.
Justine was very interesting – a believer in black magic and the occult, drawn into the Doctor’s ‘trap’ through an article he wrote to help ‘detonate’ his warhead. What I liked about her most was her relationship with Ace – in all her travels through time and space, she had always believed that the Doctor’s powers came from science. Suddenly she is (and as the audience, we are) put in the position of facing the possibility that the Doctor merely says he is an alien, says he is a scientist, because he thinks that is what she will most easily accept, when in reality he may be something else…
Of course, we know that the Doctor is a Time Lord, possibly more than just another Time Lord, but at the end of the day a two-hearted being with thirteen lives from the planet Gallifrey. In her heart of hearts, even Ace knows that, but Justine sews that little seed of doubt in her that deepens the mystery of the Doctor just that little bit more…
Although Cartmel never explained where his inner power came from, or even the nature of that power, the teenage boy Vincent worked brilliantly. We follow his life from an ‘incident’ with his Father at a very young age, through his obsessive collecting of computer games and limited edition magazines (a poke at Doctor Who fans, perhaps?) to his eventual kidnap. The way Cartmel writes the character is wonderful; he is thrust into the middle of all these massive global events, yet his concerns are primarily those of any teenage boy. His computer games. His magazines. Women. Why he’s in a bath naked with Ace…
Stephanie also stuck in my mind as a particularly memorable character. An employee of the Butler Institute; not actually evil, but ambitious; superficial; selfish and utterly devoid of morals – more than anything else, a victim of her time. For example, she thinks nothing of breathing with another woman’s lungs – a woman who was killed and harvested to save Stephanie just because she wasn’t as important.
If I had to pick fault with this wonderful novel, I’d have point out that like in “Time’s Crucible,” aside from a contrived reference to a silver cat (which felt very, very forced) I don’t see anything that links this novel to the previous one. It doesn’t detract from the novel, but it does beg the question, why persist with this “Cat’s Cradle” tagline? Maybe my view with change after reading the final book in the trilogy, though so far it certainly lacks the cohesion of the “Timewyrm” saga.
One real reservation I have is that Ace has suddenly turned from a rebellious and brave teenager into one kick-ass woman. She spends a good chunk of the novel on her own having fights to the death with Kurdish terrorists, which seems like a huge jump from the Ace of the TV series and early “New Adventures”. Perhaps her experience with the Phazels in the previous novel made her grow up (and toughen up!), or perhaps this novel is set (relative) years after “Time’s Crucible” for the Doctor and Ace. Who knows?
What matters to me is that I thought this book was fantastic, another triumph for the “New Adventures.”
In the near future a corporation named the Butler Institute is working on a cure to the problem of the damage that has been caused by the human population to the Earth's environment. But this 'cure' doesn't involve repairing the damage already caused, but instead is a way for humanity to continue to survive in the environment that it has created for itself. One step ahead of the Butler Institute is the Doctor, who is assembling a weapon of power to stop them. Ace has been sent to Turkey to retrieve one of the components, but time is running out if they are to stop the Butler Institute.
Although Warhead is part of the 'Cat's Cradle' trilogy it also forms the first part of a trilogy with Andrew Cartmel's other New Adventures Warlock and Warchild. As was typical with some of these early New Adventures the Doctor's presence in the book is kept to a minimum although this makes his few appearances more spectacular. The book has an ecological slant which revolves around the Butler Institute's plan to revolutionise humanity so that they can survive the poisoned atmosphere of Earth safely. The head of the Butler Institute, Matthew O'Hara, has struck a deal with the other major corporations to remove the problem as he sees it. Humanity has evolved beyond it's bodies and the Earth can no longer support them in this manner, but with the developments in technology that the Butler Institute has brought about humanity have no longer any needs for their bodies as they have the ability to remove their minds to computers.
The Doctor doesn't feature that much in Warhead, as he spends most of the book behind the scenes setting everything up for the conclusion. The brief appearances that he makes though are some of the best parts of the novel. Here he is at his darkest and most manipulative and lives up to his name as Time's Champion. He knows what the Butler Institute are up to and he knows how to stop them and the book details his quest to assemble the weapon that will stop their plans. Cartmel works this well as it becomes much more disturbing when one of the components of the weapon is revealed to be a teenage boy named Vincent.
Ace spends quite a lot of the novel apart from the Doctor, as he's sent her to Turkey to retrieve part of the weapon. These scenes are quite detailed in their examination of Ace and her time in Turkey, but the problem with these sections is that there seems to be very little life in them. There seem to be many pages of description, with very little dialogue and this causes this part of the novel to come across very dry and a little uninteresting.
Cartmel's own characters are just as important in this books as the main characters of the Doctor and Ace. His creations of Vincent and Justine are important to his trilogy, as they will appear in both Warlock and Warchild, and it is fitting that they are possibly the two most memorable characters in the book. Vincent is a teenager who has been cryogenically frozen for a considerable amount of time and this leads to some interesting scenes when he is recovering from this process. He also has a power of a sinister and dark nature. He has the ability to channel other peoples emotions through him and use it against other individuals. Justine is drawn to the Doctor's house in Kent on Allen Road, after she reads an article in a fanzine that had been specifically put there to attract her attention by the Doctor. Her character is haunted by the death of a friend who was run over when they were both very young. One of her best scenes is where she confronts Ace about her beliefs about the Doctor as Justine believes the Doctor to be some kind of magician who has been able to bring about the demon that she thinks is inside Vincent and ridicules Ace for her belief that he is an alien time traveller when she can't accept Justine's point of view.
Although the characters in the Butler Institute don't appear very often, their appearances are memorable. O'Hara, the chief executive of the Institute, with his hate of his own mortality and flesh and his blindness to the nightmare that is his plan to ensure that humanity no longer has to rely on this flesh for survival. Stephanie, an employee who O'Hara allows to work with him closely after she is found hacking into the Butler Institute to learn more about their inner workings, is a good character who works well in this book and her reaction to O'Hara's plan is quite chilling.
Warhead is certainly a different type of Doctor Who novel, but it works. Cartmel's style of writing takes a little while to get used to, but when it does happen, then this book becomes excellent. With the Doctor manipulating events from behind the scenes, his actions are at the heart of what happens, and the idea of the Doctor's fight back against those who wish to alter the course of evolution in this manner is a good one. As part of the Cat's Cradle trilogy, it seems to have very little links with the previous Time's Crucible or it's predecessor Witchmark, aside from a brief appearance by the silver cat in one scene. But as the introductory part to Cartmel's trilogy it is a fantastic piece of fiction, which promises much for the other books, particularly by establishing the relationship between Justine and Vincent. As a book in it's own right, Warhead is a disturbing novel but certainly a very entertaining one.
Andrew Cartmel's Warhead (let's drop the Cat's Cradle from the start - there is no trilogy here in any meaningful sense) is set on an Earth of the near future where mankind has all but destroyed the environment through pollution, and violent crime is endemic. A ruthless businessman, John O'Hara, is developing technology that will enable humans to give up their bodies entirely by transferring their mind into a computer. The Doctor, knowing that once this is achieved there will be no hope of mankind ever cleaning up the environment, devises a plan. He needs to assemble a powerful weapon for which he needs two young people, Vincent and Justine.
Warhead has been described as 'cyberpunk'. Not being familiar with that particular genre I can't say whether that is a fair description, but this is certainly a tough, gritty, relentlessly macho thriller that actually works quite well in its own terms. Unfortunately it is much less successful as a Doctor Who novel.
The story is structured as a series of set pieces with the Doctor flitting in and out of the action weaving together the various threads of his plan. This is the 'mysterious Doctor' that Cartmel cultivated during his time as Script Editor with the TV show. Even the Doctor's means of transport is left ambiguous here. At one point the Doctor leaves the character, Maria, and walks round a corner. She then sees 'a blast of blue light' and hears 'a sound she couldn't describe', after which, when she peers round the corner, the Doctor is gone. This ought to be a description of the TARDIS taking off, except that it is later made clear that the Doctor's craft has been out of commission for months. So is the Doctor using magic now, or is this, perhaps, meant to be the Doctor, pre-'Time's Crucible', putting the pieces of his plan into place?
I find the 'Man of Mystery' routine somewhat irritating, but it is, at worst, a distraction. What is far more unacceptable is a Doctor who strays so far into amorality that he verges on the immoral.
This is a Doctor who refuses Maria's plea to 'Take me with you' because she knew what went on in the King Building and did nothing. She is just a cleaner and she's dying, but Cartmell's Doctor appears to lack either compassion or any capacity for forgiveness. This is a Doctor who is happy to use the child killer Bobby Prescott and then leave him to be murdered by a gang of street kids that the Doctor himself has hired. The Doctor should never condone murder, least of all by children, whatever the sins of the victim.
Most fundamentally, perhaps, this is a Doctor who is prepared to use Vincent and Justine as his weapon of destruction, putting their lives in extreme danger in the process. If this were the only available option then it might be acceptable but it is, in fact, entirely unclear why he needs to use the pair at all. Unless I've missed something the Doctor's aim is simply to destroy O'Hara's computer facility. He usually manages this sort of thing without too much difficulty and certainly without playing God with people's lives. One is therefore left with the impression that Cartmell's Doctor is manipulating people simply because he can.
Ace is similarly unrecognisable from the petulant, insecure teenager of the TV show and the earlier New Adventures. Suddenly she is a sophisticated gun-toting adult quite comfortable travelling alone around Turkey liaising with Kurdish terrorist groups. I'm all for character development. Ace needed it badly and there had been signs of her starting to grow up in the previous two novels. This, though, is not so much development as a complete character transplant.
There is actually a lot that is good about Warhead. Cartmel is an accomplished writer. His vision of a bleak future is frightening and all too believable. Each of the original characters in this novel, some of whom appear only for a few pages, is rendered three dimensional and utterly convincing (although they are also, almost without exception, utterly unlikeable!). The action scenes too are well written, taut and exciting.
Ultimately though I can't help feeling that this would have been a better novel freed from the constraints of the Doctor Who franchise. I don't have a problem with Who novels being tough, gritty, violent and tackling controversial issues. The Doctor himself, however, should always be a moral figure and here I feel that he behaves little better than those that he is striving to defeat. I can't bring myself to give Warhead more than 6/10.