The Heralds of Destruction by Paul Cornell

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An alien invasion draws the Doctor, Jo and UNIT into a battle against an old foe.

A new Doctor Who story from acclaimed writer Paul Cornell is always cause for excitement, but when the gorgeous cover above Third Doctor title was released anticipation reached new levels. This now feels like a story to really cherish, since the announcement Cornell tweeted between publication of the first two issues:

It’s not the first time Paul Cornell has seemed to say farewell to the character. On this Radio Free Skaro interview in 2013 he suggested that IDW’s final Who story, The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who, might be his last one too, having now used all of his big ideas from the days of writing for the Virgin New Adventures. It was with some relief, then, that 2015 saw the publication of Four Doctors; Cornell’s epic multi-Doctor tale for current title-holder Titan. However this time it seems like he has drawn a more definite line under his writing for characters who aren’t his own creations. He explains in more detail in his blog of 13th December.

Reflecting on Paul Cornell’s long association with Doctor Who, I vividly remember first encountering his work with  Timewyrm: Revelation in 1991. I was twelve years old when I read this book, and it really fired my imagination. Its imagery and ideas resonate through the rebooted series: buildings on the moon, a child in an spacesuit, a digitally-created afterlife, and the idea that the Doctor can ‘see’ alternative time lines as he did in The Fires of Pompeii and Kill the Moon. The use of a church as a place of sanctuary is a thread through the author’s own work, though Father’s Day and again, here, in The Herald of Destruction.

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Cornell’s influence on Doctor Who has been huge, particularly in creating Bernice Summerfield, the most rounded and memorable ‘expanded universe’ companion, who effortlessly works across the various licences. He had the Eighth (Seasons of Fear), and Tenth, Doctors (Hopes and Fears of all the Years) exclaim ‘Geronimo’ before the Eleventh Doctor claimed it as his catch phrase. It feels like quite a blow to lose both Cornell’s and Steven Moffat’s contributions to the Doctor’s adventures in the same year, but we can still looking forward to exciting work from both them. Hopefully Paul will remain the open and charismatic presence he is on Twitter; and if you haven’t sampled Paul’s Shadow Police or Witches of Lychford stories, I’d strongly recommend them. His highly-anticipated novel, Chalk, is also out later in 2017.

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The Doctor gives a lovely speech at the very end of The Heralds of Destruction which chimes perfectly with this juncture in Cornell’s career, and with this point in the Doctor’s history. Setting this story just after The Three Doctors is important for establishing a precedent for the appearance of another incarnation, but also addresses the strength of his ties to Earth now that he can once more travel the universe freely. He doesn’t seem so attached to our planet until his exile. There is a scene in Voyage of the Damned where the Doctor explains that he knows about Earth because, “I was sort of, a few years ago, I was sort of made, well, sort of homeless, and, er, there was the Earth.” This scene always makes me think of the UNIT years, rather than what (I assume) was intended: that Earth became his adopted home after the apparent destruction of Gallifrey.

I don’t want to reveal the main story here, because it’s a fantastic cliff-hanger and genius idea (although one of the various covers for the fifth issue rather gives the game away). Cornell expands on familiar elements from the televised stories; so we see Jo Grant finally get the date with Mike Yates which she got all dolled up for in The Curse of Peladon. Meanwhile the Doctor is to be found at his club, holding court as he plays chess. None of this is pure fan-service though: Another key player is also seen at the club, and the Doctor referring to Pol Pot as ‘Polly’ recalls him dubbing Napoleon ‘Boney’. Taking away some of his adversary’s power with nicknames is something that continues in the current incarnation, with ‘Rusty’ and ‘Zygella’.

Yates’ choice of a Thai food for his date with Jo reminds us that the Doctor’s exile is (possibly) set later than the time it was being produced on television (by 1970 there were only two Thai restaurants in London), and even the villain gets a UNIT dating joke. The apparent alien menace are dubbed ‘micro machines’ by the Doctor for the benefit of his human colleagues. They are clearly nanotechnology, but the term that wasn’t coined until a year later in 1974.

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Cornell has worked with artist Christopher Jones to craft this glorious, full-blooded evocation of the Pertwee era. Each frame is rich in detail and vivid colour, and he’s clearly having a ball with all these great characters. He even gets to show us the famous Pertwee goggle-eyed being-strangled face. Cornell and Jones go all out with action, using all the military hardware at UNIT’s disposal. In this informative interview on the Doctor Who: The Writer’s Room podcast Paul Cornell talks about this aspect of the story:

“I think the circumstances of production really dictate the shape of that thing… for example I always think if you’re doing a Troughton comic strip and you’ve got amazing vistas of many spaceships and gloriously drawn aliens you’re really letting the side down. You should be in a very small base with a very small budget, no matter what medium you’re in. Because that informs the shape of the story-telling, and it doesn’t feel like Troughton unless you deliberately put on budgetary restrictions which you do not have. But with the Pertwee era there’s a strange and interesting exception to that: which is they really want to suggest tanks and platoons of army and airstrikes and things like that. So I’ve thought, ‘Okay, let’s go just a little beyond the fringe of the television and show some of that because we now can.’ Because the show itself would go, ‘Yes, yes. That’s what we were going for. Go for that.'”

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No pastiche of the Third Doctor’s era is complete without the original Master, as played by Roger Delgado. He’s enjoying a small renaissance this year, also having a new adventure in the Doctor Who Magazine‘s comic strip Doorway to Hell (published concurrently with The Heralds of Destruction). Cornell and Jones have great fun with the Master’s penchant for disguises and masks. He even impersonates the Brigadier at one point, which brings back pleasant memories of Out of the Green Mist in the 1974 annual (“Eh?’ snapped Dr. Who. “How can it be the Master, child? Last I heard of him he was supposed to be up to some sort of skulduggery on the far side of Pluto. He can’t be here. Besides, that’s Lethbridge-Stewart’s uniform! By the Seven Pleiades, it is the Master! You scoundrel, what are you doing here? Drop that gun, you slimy reptile!”).

I was interested to see if Paul Cornell would have the Doctor exclaim during a Venusian Aikido bout, after this Twitter exchange with Christel Dee, host of the exuberant Doctor Who Fan Show, last year:

Personally I can’t hear the ‘K’ when Pertwee says it, or when Capaldi says it in Robots of Sherwood, and Cornell has stuck with ‘hai’ in this story.

Another element which informs Mr Cornell’s writing is described in his Writer’s Room interview: “As recent critical approaches have revealed, notably from the Verity! podcast, Jo is doing a very 70s thing of actually being very competent, and being very competent from the outset, and trying really hard to hide it so she doesn’t threaten the men around her.” In episode 86 of the Verity! podcast, The First of Peladon, the hosts discuss The Curse of Peladon. In particular they discuss Jo Grant. Deb Stanish points out, “She does that thing, that Jo always does […] is that she’s very much working within a toolbox of the time of how a woman and a character is supposed to behave. And she does a lot of this nodding and agreeing and, ‘Absolutely I’ll do exactly what you tell me to do’ and then she immediately goes off and does what she thinks she should be doing anyway.”

The story really captures Jo’s spirit, and every other character, perfectly; even the villain’s mannerisms and speech patterns feel utterly authentic. It’s a genuine joy to see them all interacting again in a new surroundings and situations. It’s particularly satisfying to have the Master spend time with the UNIT family, as he did to great effect in The Claws of Axos. Many of the Pertwee-era stories have environmentalist and anti-war messages which are still relevant today. British and American readers may particularly recognise the demagoguery we ultimately see in this story, as the villain of the piece hopes to win favour with fantastical promises of prosperity, and by playing on xenophobia. But in Doctor Who intelligence and rationality triumph.

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Order Heralds of Destruction:

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One thought on “The Heralds of Destruction by Paul Cornell

  1. Pingback: Chalk and Saucer State

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