Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #43 – Set Piece by Kate Orman
By Kate Orman
Heck, why beat around the bush with spoilers? Ace leaves, for real this time. To discuss Set Piece without mentioning it would sort of miss the point.
Besides, even if you didn’t know you’d probably pick up on the signs. The New Adventures have been foreshadowing this for a while now, with the Doctor noting that there’s “not long now” in St. Anthony’s Fire, and Ace quite methodically pondering her departure in Parasite and Warlock. Set Piece adds a few more logs to the fire before the denouement. The question becomes not so much “Will she leave?” as “How does it happen?”
Kate Orman knows that, so she tackles the whole issue askew. Rather than gradually explode the relationship by having too much closeness – again – she separates the TARDIS crew for most of the book (they meet again on page 175), sending both companions away on a dark note. The Doctor appears dead, and even if he isn’t, he may not be coming to their rescue. Rather thoughtfully for a story all about leaving, it’s mostly about wanting to be together again. “Suddenly, the TARDIS did not materialise.” / “Suddenly the Doctor did not walk up and say hello.” / “Suddenly one of the tourists did not turn out to be the Doctor.” / “She wanted to show it to the Doctor, hear him say clever things about weather and butterflies and grains of sand. She kept thinking of things she wanted to tell him.” Even with the foreshadowing in previous books, leaving isn’t her first instinct.
And even when she makes a decision (“‘I’m not from Perivale,’ she whispered. ‘I’m an Egyptian.’”), it’s not the end of the process. She becomes a palace guard (the best, naturally), falls in with a cult, and in an even darker moment she reflects on whether she can have a place anywhere. “‘There are little boxes which an Egyptian man can fit into. He gets one from his father, right, a little box with a label saying SCRIBE or PEASANT or PRIEST or SCULPTOR. For women there are only two boxes. Right? They’re labelled WIFE and WHORE.’” She floats about and considers her path, and whether there’s hope ahead.
What all this does is get Ace (and covertly, us) used to the idea of a life without the Doctor, even if it’s not a certain or a happy one. When we finally reach the fork in the road, it’s simultaneously as if she’s leaving on a whim and the satisfying end of a process. Ace wants to belong somewhere and make a difference, even if it means accepting that you can’t change history. She won’t try to avert any catastrophes or stop wars, but she’ll help those in the thick of it, because lives matter. It’s not very different from what the Doctor does – she can even time travel! – and the way she lives by his example is very sweet. They can even still see each other, via a low-key time travel quirk that pre-dates River Song by 20-odd years.
And it’s such a mighty relief to send her away on good terms. Not that there’s a problem with making things darker, but well, we’ve done that. In many ways, Set Piece is a celebration of the Doctor and Ace. It’s certainly not above referencing their past, particularly their accomplishments in literature. Ancient Egypt reminds Ace of Gilgamesh, and her first trip away from telly Who; life and death make her think of Jan and Alan; she proudly notes that she survived Peladon, Belial, Antykhon; time travel makes her remember the not-that-fascinating Time Soldiers; given a chance to time travel, she looks in on Christián, and inevitably Manisha. She even shares her older adventures to pass the time, noting that “Sometimes she didn’t care for the weight of history at her back, going over it again and again.” Heck, that’s New Adventures nostalgia in itself – time was, a book didn’t go by without a nod to Remembrance Of The Daleks! Even the other characters get in on the action, with Bernice remembering the catharsis of Lucifer Rising, the Doctor remembering people he met in Transit and Iceberg, and even referencing the subplot of Witch Mark. (“‘The cat tried to warn us.’” Nah, still not convinced.)
I normally hate references, but they serve a purpose here, wrapping up Ace’s New Adventures journey. Reading the books in sequence, it packs a real punch. There’s a moving and exciting scene when Ace’s memories jumble up as she prepares to do something unthinkable, which would work brilliantly on TV; topping that, there’s a bit where a feverish Ace dreams of her dying father, finally admitting the place the Doctor has in her life, as he finally takes his place, says he’s there and holds her hand. Every time the book shows us the relationship at work, Orman doesn’t shy away. When the Doctor or Ace is mortally wounded (or thereabouts), it’s them that shows concern for the other. Even though the Doctor knows, because he knows everything, that Ace will leave, he still tries to take her away and keep her safe against all reason. It’s utterly beautiful. And then Sophie Aldred goes and mirrors the first New Adventure by writing the afterword. My god – she’s really going, isn’t she?
I’ve often complained about Ace sticking around long past her sell-by date. I stand by that: for most of these books, the writers didn’t know what to do with her besides writing Futuristic Bitch Leela, and her presence usually meant shoving a brilliant new companion unfairly into the wings. (Damage they may not be able to undo.) But Ace is still a strong, layered character, and Set Piece shows off her best qualities, and what she brings out in the Doctor. Despite a lot of caricature and a whole awkward three’s-a-crowd era, I’ll miss her.
Sending a “main show” character away for good, and doing it well ought to be achievement enough, but Set Piece does need a plot as well, even if that is plainly a secondary concern. And I wasn’t bowled over by the glue holding Ace’s farewell together. The mechanical ants you can see on the cover are a wacky, yet somehow faceless and dull foe. They serve an organic time-ship that poses a horrendous threat to the universe, sure, but it’s still just pootling along and serving a mindless mechanical urge. It prefigures The Empty Child, gives off a slight whiff of Cybermen or Borg, only it’s not as scary as any of the above. Various characters come and go, some of whom are (willing?) cogs in the ant plans; their moral duplicity isn’t developed very far, since some of them are machines anyway. The Doctor’s plan, when it eventually checks its watch and shows up, is of the hurry-hurry-book’s-nearly-over variety. The Doctor must keep mum for plot reasons (there’s a surprise) which helps pad out the pace. (There’s another surprise.)
And yeah, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I love character stuff, I almost always wish there was more of it, but there comes a point when even Ace wonders if the Doctor is doing a little too good a job of keeping his intentions secret, since nothing is happening. (Of course this is also a hint that he might be dead. Eh; we know he’s not, as ever.) Meanwhile Bernice is in historical France trying to find the other two, and being terribly witty about it of course. The Doctor is recovering from some traumatic injuries in… historical France as well, actually, but a bit earlier. No one’s moving anywhere fast.
Kate Orman is no stranger to chopped-up time travel, and Set Piece juggles time-zones along with our place in the narrative, which at least gives it the appearance of a frantic pace. I had to re-read the first 50 pages just to get it straight in my head, no thanks to certain characters remembering things in the wrong order, but I’m not convinced it’s all as clever as it seems, so much as complicated. There’s a motif of dreams on top of everything else, and I hate those in books; what a relief, so does Bernice. “‘I hate this Jungian stuff.’” Hmm, though; a bit like Ace’s “why isn’t anything happening?” moment, that sails a bit close to underlining the book’s indulgences and/or flaws. Speaking of which, good god, ditch those epigraphs! You can be witty with them – she often is – but they’re just too much like homework. I have to concentrate on not skipping them. And sure enough, Orman lampoons those as well: “I hate quotations. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, May 1849.)” Heh? Why do them, then?
There’s a lot of slow recovering in this – after some brutal treatment by the ants and their slaves, there’s plenty of reason for it. There’s also a theme of characters slowly waking up and acclimatising, which is a canny way into a chapter (and often a big help), but it does sound familiar after the third or fourth time. Ditto the strange habit of dipping and repeating in the middle of a sentence: “‘Someone’s using that, that fracture.’” / “They were short, shorter than her in some cases.” / “His arms and legs were melting, melting into the sweet heat.” Repetition is something to be wary of and use sparingly, and it kept flagging up here. Of the two Kate Orman books I’ve read, Set Piece definitely has the less impressive prose. (As well as an obsession with making “Cruk” happen that borders on irritating.)
But then, maybe it could have been revised. After all, Set Piece has an absolute litany of proofreading howlers that should have been cleared up. There are speech marks missing or appearing in different fonts, too many indentations or too few, typos; probably worst is a single misplaced word during Ace and Bernice’s last ever conversation, god damn it, since it raises the horrifying possibility of missing dialogue at a crucial moment. Set Piece just wasn’t ready for the publishers. (I suppose that, too, offers a bit of symmetry with Ace’s first novel. Albeit unintentional!)
Unsurprisingly, this works best during the character moments. All the Doctor and Ace stuff is gold, but don’t forget the Ace and Benny stuff. Those two get on really well nowadays – phew – and Bernice is just as horrified at the thought of losing the Doctor, reverently lugging his hat around as it’s “all she has left”. She’s over the moon at finding a note from Ace, just as Ace wishes she could pick her literary buddy’s brain about the wonders of Egypt. Set Piece occasionally made me wonder about Bernice and about the future; of course that’s part of Ace leaving, looking ahead. Added to that, we’ve got a returning character from another novel, one of those awkward would-be companions from just after Love And War, plus a reference to another one. It’s nice to see her, and offer the promise of more adventures and more development to come. Thematically it all adds to the change in the air, but good god – could we look at Bernice once in a while?
As ever, she’s dazzling and funny, carrying the story when she’s on her own, hiding her nuances and miseries under a protective shell; she’s effervescent enough to win people over, smart enough to pretend she’s terrified just so she can (literally!) pull the rug out from under you. She’s brilliant, and for the novel to spend a significant amount of time going “Hey, remember her?” about somebody else seems like lunacy to me. But it’s par for the bloody course, innit? I’m looking forward to the brief stint of Doctor-and-Bernice novels, but let’s face it, when she eventually leaves there won’t be a lot of emotions flying about. Or not at this rate. I just hope these authors figure out what they’ve got right under their noses; maybe they can get as excited about the present as they are with the past and future.
Set Piece sets out to do something, and does that brilliantly. As a novel, and as a Doctor Who story apart from its emotional mission statement, I’m not sure it’s all it could be. Next time I read it, I might figure out if that really matters.