Engines of War by George Mann

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During the last great time war, the Time Lord formerly known as the Doctor crash lands on the planet Moldox. There he uncovers a Dalek scheme that threatens to wipe the Time Lords from history.

The following contains spoilers.

Featuring Gallifrey in a story has often been used a signifier for epic in Doctor Who stories. Since the Time Lords’ first appearance re-defined the Doctor’s character in The War Games and were brought back to celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary in The Three Doctors, they have become shorthand for some serious shit going down. Big Finish went down the same route for the fortieth anniversary with the Eighth Doctor range, then on TV The End Of Time and Time of the Doctor have presaged regenerations.

Author George Mann has taken elements from across fifty years of Doctor Who, as befits an outing for the incarnation of the Doctor created specifically for the half-century celebration. He’s taken sets from The Five Doctors, the zero room from Castrovalva and the only thing worth recycling from The End of Time, Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon. The problem with visiting the Doctor’s home planet is that erodes the mystery of the character. When he meets Runcible in The Deadly Assassin, there’s some vacuous TV presenter who knows who the Doctor is because he was at school with him. The central mystery that the show is named for rendered prosaic.

While there’s a lot of pleasure in picturing the imperious Rassilon stomping around the council chamber and his former tomb in the Death Zone, it seems like a wasted opportunity that Mann hasn’t brought anything new to the table. The Gallifrey-set portions are very much a root through the Gallifrey toy box of mind probes, politicking and even the time scoop ante chamber. At least the Doctor’s mum doesn’t put in an appearance. It would have been nice to see something new, like Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow. Platt was of the opinion that he should have as much freedom to envisage Gallifrey as Robert Holmes had; but Mann is incredibly careful not to deviate from, or add anything to, that which has gone before.

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As well as the Dalek’s de-mat gun two other weapons of the rival factions are plundered from Who lore, the Possibility Engine takes a big cue from The Parting of the Ways and the Daleks have a sort of proto-Pandorica waiting in the wings.

Another wasted opportunity is the option to show some of the Time War itself. When it was depicted as a straight-forward firefight in The Day of the Doctor, this was in part explained by the line about the Omega Arsenal being empty save for the Moment. It seemed the Daleks had just battled through to assault Gallifrey itself through sheer force of numbers. Here, though, there are battles raging in space, and I bit disappointed to see that they were largely just TARDISes and Dalek ships shooting at each other. I’d rather imagined the two races trying more clever and esoteric than this, maybe trapping each other in time loops, paradoxes or time scooping Raston Warrior Robots into Dalek command centres. The Doctor’s TARDIS won’t bear arms, so he just smashes through saucers with it. This is a ship with such awesome capabilities as a tractor beam that can pull a planet through space while keeping it’s atmosphere intact.

I’m aware I’m being negative here, which isn’t really my thing. This really isn’t a bad book. It’s an enjoyable enough adventure, but frustrating more than anything else. I guess there’s always the danger with spin-off media that if you deviate too far, your ideas are eventually contradicted by the televisions stories. It seems unlikely to be the first in a War Doctor series, as it’s set fairly late in his tenure, so I came away feeling it was a wasted opportunity. Given that we saw he was a relatively young man post-regeneration in Night of the Doctor, there are presumably centuries of conflicts, involving The Nightmare Child, The Crucible, The Could’ve Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres. These are things that would have been difficult to realise on the screen, but given the limitless budget of the written word, could have been something spectacular.

I kept having to remind myself which incarnation I was reading about. While I could imagine John Hurt saying most of the lines he’s given here, theres just nothing to mark him out as different to the others. This is partly a problem with the medium. All the characters call him The Doctor, as does the author when referring to him in the text. It’s hard to think of an alternative, given that the character didn’t come up with an alternative moniker. But given that we saw the First Doctor try to stove a cave man’s head in, the Second and third Doctors gun down Ice Warriors and Ogrons respectively and the Fourth Doctor snap a man’s neck, not to mention the Seventh Doctor deploying the Hand of Omega and the Nemesis statue, there’s very little to show that this guy is a bad-ass warrior who doesn’t deserve the title ‘Doctor.’ He’s just a bit grumpy, but frankly not as grumpy as he was in The Pyramids of Mars or The Horror of Fang Rock.

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Doctor Who: Engines of War

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