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Wonderland

Telos Novella #7
Greg Bobak

Wonderland is Doctor Who on acid, and perhaps my only regret... is that the Doctor doesn’t get to take the drug himself." -- from the foreword by Graham Joyce

Before I go ahead with Wonderland, I suppose I should state my reviewer's criteria regarding Doctor Who: the author must remember that he or she is penning a Doctor Who story. It doesn't have to be traditional - if it is traditional, the elements that compose that tradition will essentially define the story as Doctor Who - but if you're going to write a story in which the Doctor essentially serves as a guest star, you *must* get the character of the Doctor right. If you don't, you haven't produced Doctor Who at all, just science fiction with some guy in it calling himself "the Doctor." Wonderland isn't that bad, but it's obvious that Mark Chadbourn is more concerned with telling a story about the sixties than bothering to tell a Doctor Who story.

Graham Joyce's foreword is excellent, providing a fine parallel between '60s culture and Doctor Who. I especially loved this:

"There was this other box of inner space, larger on the inside than it seemed on the outside, and the door to this alternative TARDIS was opened by a chemical key."

That's great stuff, and it far outshines anything Who-related that Chadbourn tries in the novella proper.

This is not to say that Chadbourn has offered something poor to the range. In what is by far the shortest novella of the first seven published, at only 82 pages of actual story, Chadbourn evokes the best setting to date. Whereas Dave Stone's Hokesh failed at the microscopic level and Louise Cooper's seaside village didn't really come across as a macrocosm, here Chadbourn's Haight-Ashbury gives you both a perfect view of the area itself as well as the people living therein. Simply through Summer's narration, you understand how the people of 1967 San Francisco think, how they live, how they behave. Darkness here is scary, a shadow encroaching upon a hippie paradise. And even before the nature of the threat becomes clear, the enemies are obvious: business, government, everything the "counterculture" stood against.

Summer, meanwhile, is an excellent character. I've never used LSD but her descriptions sound a lot like those given to me by more experienced friends - there's a scene in which she learns the meaning of life but knows she'll forget it as soon as her trip ends; I had a friend who told me this exact story. While Louise Cooper's Nina was something of a stereotype - the misunderstood teenage girl trapped in an "oppressive" world - Summer is a fully three-dimensional character, a poet caught out of her element, railing against the perceived injustices of the world.

Furthermore, the modern-day "flash-forward" sequences are utterly brilliant. Summer is here totally disillusioned and burnt out, moving from place to place, staying one step ahead of a death she knows will eventually arrive. The final scene where her only remaining decision is the means of her own death is heart-wrenching and beautifully written. Honestly, I'm amazed that Chadbourn could put so much into such a short page count.

But despite all that, I cannot give this novella a fully-positive review. Why? Because the "regulars" are either totally wrong or totally unmemorable. I don't know who "the Doctor" is supposed to be in this story, but it definitely isn't Troughton. Sure, he claps his hands together and grins every so often, but so do I. This Doctor is, at various times: a smartass that delights in showing up his companions, an utter jerk that ignores the plight of those around him, a dark manipulator that emerges from the shadows only to gather information, and a gentle person underneath it all. That's supposed to be Troughton's Doctor?! That's awful, that's what that is! I know it's hard to capture Troughton on the page, but generally authors get the bat on the ball - Chadbourn's swung and missed so hard he's fallen on his rear. Ben and Polly, at the very least, sound like Ben and Polly when Chadbourn bothers to describe them: Ben's a square and the muscle, Polly's "with it" and sweet.

Furthermore, we don't even know what the Doctor does! He spends the entire book in the TARDIS being mysterious while Summer learns things that aren't particularly helpful, and when it comes time to save the day, the Doctor does it offscreen.

As if all of this complaining wasn't enough, the book should have ended on p.90. The line "The worst thing is that nobody will care" is a perfect line on which to end the novella, leaving the means of Summer's death ambiguous and underscoring the text's bleak outlook on the future of the hippy culture. The reference to the "Sometimes I dream of San Francisco" opening line occurs just two paragraphs earlier, and I was nodding appreciatively as the novella ended.

Except it kept going, with a ridiculous coda featuring the fourth Doctor. Three problems with this: First, if you're going to have a character coaxed off the brink of suicide, do you really want Tom Baker's Doctor there doing the coaxing? Why not McCoy? Or Colin? Or, really, ANY of the other Doctors? Second, this subverts the entire novella, allowing Summer to escape her fate by journeying into the alternate reality that utterly failed to save any of her fellow hippies. Third, what was with the last paragraph? It works as a meditation upon the nature of the Doctor within a text and the escapist function he provides for the reader, and as he's real to Summer he can provide a literal escape for her, but isn't this just a deconstructionist shattering of the fourth wall? Does it even work?

I'll say this: Wonderland made me think about my review more than any other novella thus far in the range. It's an excellent work of literature, but unfortunately it's got these godawful Doctor Who segments crowbarred in. Much like Ghost Ship, then, it's a great story (and much better than GS), just not great Doctor Who.

Still strongly recommended, but... something greater could have been.

Lawrence Conquest

Dropping the Doctor, even one as unruly as the 2nd, into the middle of ‘60’s hippy culture doesn’t immediately seem like a good idea. My fears that this would be a light-hearted comedy, with all the characters sounding as groovy as though they’d stepped straight out of a Scooby-doo cartoon prove unfounded, and though it does climax Carry On Camping style at a music festival, Chadbourn plays this admirably straight. The opposite fear would be a book filled with anti-drug diatribes – PC messages for all us kiddies reading – but again, this novella manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls.

What we are left with is actually quite a sombre tale, as the idealistic ‘60’s dreams are gradually destroyed to secure the position of those in power. This overview is provided by narrator Summer, with her adventures with the 2nd Doctor, Ben and Polly recounted in flashback, (and it’s here I’d like to raise a slight niggle – as an American girl is narrating this story surely the numerous references to ‘trousers’ should have been amended to ‘pants’?). Breaking the story down into its most basic form there’s really nothing novel at the heart of this novella’s plot, but it’s enlivened by some wonderful writing and fine characterisation. The flashback narrative framework also helps the storytelling; aside from breaking up the main narrative this device also adds tension as a nameless…someone…from the main 1967 story tracks down Summer in the present day. To say whether this results in an upbeat or downbeat ending would give the twist away, suffice to say that the identity of the pursuer came as a surprise to me…

As with Rip Tide this is a straightforward ‘easy to read’ tale – but unlike that novella I never felt condescended to as a reader, which makes all the difference. Wonderland could never be considered as a radical new take on Doctor Who – but when a story is as well told as this it doesn’t need to be.

Finn Clark

I'm a bit ambivalent about the Telos novellas. Leaving aside the rubbish ones, they've tended to fall into two categories: (a) quite good I suppose, and (b) Kim Newman's Time and Relative. My problem is that "quite good I suppose" isn't what I'm looking for in these slim hardbacks. I want something special. The BBC Books in 2002 were better, more interesting and more innovative than Telos's four 2002 novellas, which some might say is the wrong way round. Admittedly the BBC had nineteen full-length novels to play with, but if you're buying Telos's deluxe editions then each publisher's total output would have cost you about the same.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I think Wonderland might be my second-favourite Telos novella to date. Maybe. I'm still undecided.

My reservations mostly concern the Doctor. I have no objection to Dark Troughton, who's always fun, but this Doctor is insensitive, thoughtless and largely oblivious to the heroine's distress. Uh-uh. Nope. Sorry, I don't buy it. Not in his second incarnation. It helps that he's kept offstage for much of the book as in Cartmel's War trilogy (Ben and Polly acting as his representatives), but it still felt wrong for Troughton. Mark Chadbourn emphasises the Doctor's alien nature in heavy-handed ways we've seen done better elsewhere, but I might have reacted better to them had I found his portrayal intriguing or plausible in the first place. There must be thousands of ways to write a scary, enigmatic Doctor, but this could be the most ill-chosen of them all.

As an aside, this is far from the first Telos novella to keep the Doctor offstage and mysterious. It's becoming a trend. However Kim Newman and Dave Stone did it with the 1st and 7th (good choices) respectively and in both cases 'twas an important part of the book. Wonderland gave me the impression that it was shoving Troughton out of the way because he would have been a fifth wheel in most scenes.

Polly and Ben were interesting. Putting them in a 1967 flower-power context allowed us to see them through then-contemporary eyes, so instead of just being "a sixties Cockney" Ben arguably became more alien to Jessica Willamy's worldview than the Doctor himself. I can't say that I found much depth in their characterisation, but that's not unforgivable. We're talking about Ben and Polly here. They did what they had to do in the book and worked fine.

What's great is the book's 1967 Haight-Ashbury beads 'n' bangles groovy kind o' love. There's something irresistible about the notion of the Season Four TARDIS crew interacting with the culture into which their shows were being broadcast. Yes, I realise that The Faceless Ones and Evil of the Daleks use a contemporary setting, but that was Squaresville, c/o BBC TV Centre, and I'm talking about counter-culture. It's intoxicating to imagine the Doctor of the Macra Terror going to town on bongs, free love and anti-Vietnam protests. It's such a fantastic idea that I can't believe it's never been tried before. (The Left-Handed Hummingbird and Revolution Man don't count.) Wonderland doesn't quite follow through on the Doctorish half of the equation, but we get at least 70% of what I was imagining and that's still pretty good.

I can't complain about the sixties setting. The afterword claims that Chadbourn is noted for his extreme research and here he evokes his chosen era in impressive detail. On a simple nuts-and-bolts level, I never doubted the frills and details: musicians, poets, street signs and drugs. We get the hippy idealism, but also a proto-X-Files conspiracy phreak's view of Who Really Runs The World that's no less characteristic of the 1960s. In a more grounded book one might have coughed and spluttered at that, but in the psychedelic worldview on display here it's completely in tune. It feels like an authentic time capsule, perpetrated in 1967 by some brain-fried space cadet and only now uncovered four decades later.

And most importantly, the book has Opinions about its chosen era. Chadbourn is taking a hard look at featherheaded sixties idealism, contrasting it with a harder, more cynical point of view that's hammered home in some pretty bleak framing sequences set in a later decade. I won't give away where the book ends up with respect to this argument, but our journey to get there takes in some pretty dark scenery. This hippy paradise has all kinds of serpents - not just the fascist pigs and bread-heads, but self-serving sacks of slime like Goblin. The result unfortunately is to undercut the sixties idealism on display. All these "it's the revolution, we'll change the world" kaftan-wearers look pretty stupid, really. In fairness they *were* stupid. The sixties was an era of laughable mush-for-brains and it's hard to get around that, but I might have loved Wonderland had it truly engaged with hippy philosophy and sold me on its good points instead of undercutting it.

Overall I found this novella interesting, more than any since Time and Relative. The plot's a bit of an afterthought, but that doesn't matter. Its Doctor Who-ish bits are comfortably the book's least successful elements, which is more of a problem, but eventually I forgave that too. I really liked the ending, which builds up to a weighty conclusion instead of the usual hasty wrapping-up of loose plot threads, and there's some nice mood on display. The definitive flower-power era Doctor Who story still hasn't yet been written, but Wonderland is an interesting and different excursion into the territory.