Cat's Cradle: Warhead
By Andrew Cartmel
Difficult to know where to start with this one. I didn't make a lot of notes or scribble much of it down, as I was pretty much in its thrall the whole time. I thought I'd have little more to say about the way it's written than "Yep. This is good."
Okay, I'll try a bit harder. Warhead is an urban thriller, which is a potentially hackneyed setting for a sci-fi story and a potentially unsuitable one for Doctor Who. Andrew Cartmel, the show's Script Editor and lead creative voice in its last years, clearly isn't interested in perpetuating what is usual for Doctor Who. He relishes the chance to establish a grim future for humanity, taking all opportunities to enrich it and make it feel lived in, put up with. The people feel utterly real and so does the situation, in no small part because we come to it so late. This is a future where we're almost at the point of no return. There are very few people trying to save it – they’re simply trying to get on. It makes the Doctor all the more necessary. (It is interesting that the Doctor is aiming to save it now, rather than popping back to avert the whole ugly mess. Interestingly, I probably wouldn't think to question it if this wasn't set on Earth.)
Cartmel's prose is to-the-point and satisfying, especially after the expressionistic whims of Marc Platt. This is thriller territory: characters think and feel and you're absolutely in there with them, while the story moves with cinematic clarity. The writing often slips neatly between forensic detail and emotion, lending refreshing weight to so-called "villainous" characters. For instance, when a vengeful Kurd meets his doom:
"The uncontrolled laser beam needled out slightly, barely visible in the dusty air of the summer night. It went in through the front of Massoud's eye and into his brain, through the frontal lobe and sweeping into the motor and sensory areas. Massoud saw a brilliant light. It filled his vision. It was the sun over the shoulder of his sister."
...and we're treated to a bit of back-story just as we lose him. (It continues on for a bit but I don't want to quote too much. That's why I refrained from writing loads down. I'd be reproducing pages.) There's a lot of this stuff, and it works beautifully at mixing action, or more usually death, with insight. It's a very successful writing style; I was hooked.
It's a very grim story, which is arguably part of the New Adventures remit. These novels have been sneaking in swearwords, sex and violence (or at any rate, more than you'd expect on telly) since Genesys, and all appear rather more graphically in Warhead, but with (I think) the greatest success so far. (Though there are moments of eyebrow-raising gratuity, like a hallucination featuring a severed head gargling in a urinal.) This feels like science fiction for a more mature reader. But it's not too divorced from Doctor Who as we know it: McCoy and co. were shaking their heads at corrupt, broken-down worlds in Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.
The approach to the characters is just as bracing as you'd expect from Andrew Cartmel, who knew the Seventh Doctor and Ace better than most. The relatively cartoonish character traits of the first three Timewyrm books feel like ancient history for Ace, who methodically follows the Doctor's instructions and puts his plan into action. I've seen her characterisation here referred to in unflattering terms, and I think that's a pity. Though she does kill, her remorse is obvious and not at all trivialised. Earlier, she outright refuses to do it. She's no mindless killing machine. Also, her relationship with the Doctor is as lived-in and matter-of-fact as Cartmel's horrid future. The two barely need words any more.
Ah yes, the Doctor: grand chess player, juggling people's lives without flinching. He's not a very nice Doctor, but I do think he's a very believable one. This stuff suits him. (And it's hardly gone away. I recently heard Big Finish's LIVE 34, which followed a similar pattern of the Doctor and Ace working to save a nearly-doomed society from its corrupt elders, again from the sidelines. I wonder if James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown read this.) He's not in the book much, especially the first half, but his influence is there. I was always keen to find out what he was up to, but I wasn't bored in the interim.
Even so, the pacing can be a little uneven. You're introduced to quite a few characters near the start, mostly police-types beginning with M, and they go away for most of the novel as we get back to Ace and then the Doctor. By the time we meet up with them again, there's a small degree of "Who's who?" (call me childish, but did he really need so many M names?), and with the action ratcheted so high for so long, there's no space reserved for an epilogue. It's over, and hopefully things will get better. Warhead is an appropriate title: we’re here for the explosion, not for the fallout.
(Speaking of resolutions, just what the hell is Cat's Cradle all about? The cat's briefly in it again – something to do with the TARDIS's warning systems? – but I can't see much else connecting this to Time's Crucible. As series-plots go, it's almost comically obscure.)
Warhead was a pleasure to read, though of course, it is not a pleasant story. Dark and violent, but more resoundingly sad, it manages to evoke various sci-fi sources (the choking cityscape of Blade Runner, the eerie deserted countryside of a zombie movie) whilst adding its own authorial stamp. It's an intelligent way to handle an environmental message: no one likes the problem, there are no easy fixes, hard choices are necessary to make it better. And it's a fairly bold way to tell a Doctor Who story. It's one of those that really deserves the "New" caveat, as it pushes confidently at the show's comfort zones. It's seriously unhappy stuff – I’d have a nice lie down on standby – but I admire it a lot.