Sci-Fi Review: Doctor Who – Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel

In 1989, the unthinkable happened.

After a twenty-six year run, garnering countless fans all over the world, who tuned in week after week to see what lay in store for their favorite time traveller, Doctor Who vanished into the ether, leaving behind only memories. The series, which had suffered a slow decline in ratings several years in a row, found its head on the chopping block, and the BBC brought down the axe.

But this particular parting of the ways, as with all the previous times when the Doctor had moved on to a new incarnation, was bittersweet but hopeful. The last show of the final season, Survival, featured a closing monologue by Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor to Sophie Aldred’s Ace, reminding her of all the adventures still ahead of them: cities made of song, injustices to sort out, people made of smoke, skies made of flame, and tea losing its warmth. “Come on, Ace–we’ve got work to do.”

Those eight words ended an era–it would be seven years before the Doctor materialized on the airwaves briefly to regenerate into his 8th incarnation in a made-for-TV movie, and a further nine before Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor met Rose Tyler and the world rejoiced like at a long-lost lover’s return. Doctor Who was back!

But it never really left, did it? Target books continued publishing novelizations of the teleplays after the series was axed, but while it may not have been in the budget to film new adventures, the BBC had no intention of letting such a key franchise go quietly into that good night. They turned to Virgin, who were only to happy to snap up publication rights to further Who escapades, and in June of 1991, John Peel’s Timewyrm: Genesys, the first of what would be dubbed “The Virgin New Adventures”, arrived on store shelves. So you see, the Terminator franchise wasn’t the first to come up with that ridiculous spelling after all.

Timewyrm: Genesys is the first of a four-part series serving to re-introduce the Doctor and Ace, but this wasn’t all the company wanted to do. With the essentially unlimited special effects budget available through prose and the restrictions and censorship the property no longer faced on broadcast television, Virgin’s mission was to give readers the experience of a darker, more mature Who in keeping with the direction Andrew Cartmel had been guiding the series before its cancellation. While this was a good idea in theory, and one the BBC themselves would take once they began publishing their line of Eighth Doctor adventures, the New Adventures are very much products of their time, and it’s impossible for me to relate today, when Doctor Who is back on the air, just what these unofficially official stories from the 1990’s represented. I hate resorting to the phrase ‘you had to be there’, but in this case it’s appropriate. Without that mindset of these being the only way to experience the Doctor after he’d been torn from the airwaves, these books make for very different, if not entirely unexpected, reads.

The ‘mature’ themes are on full display here practically from the get-go. The Doctor and Ace exit the TARDIS into the world of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, where human beings are taking their first steps towards building a civilization. No sooner have they disembarked then they are met by a bare-breasted thirteen-year old (hey, look, boobs–now you see how edgy and mature we are!) who serves as their guide around the city, and just so happens to be in cahoots with the king’s fourteen-year old daughter. These two are already plotting against the big bad of the story, so that’s convenient! In any case, the TARDIS has taken the Doctor and Ace to this point in history to meet up with Gilgamesh, another king of legend, who goes upon a legendary journey in an effort to save the life of his friend Enkidu.

If you’ve never read the Epic of Gilgamesh you can still enjoy the story, though as with most historical Who adventures you get more out of it if you’re at least familiar with the material they’re cribbing. Gilgamesh, in this story, is far from the epic adventurer he’s portrayed as in legend–instead he’s a rather randy guy who’d rather spend time trying to get into Ace’s pants than actually doing anything required of a king. The Doctor has to not only put Gilgamesh on the path which will lead to his Epic being passed on through oral and written tradition, but deal with a cunning adversary whose presence on Earth in this time could foul up the time stream horribly. This adversary is an alien cyborg whose ship crash-landed in the desert. Using her access to superior technology and an understanding of the Mesopotamian religious culture, she’s passing herself off as the goddess Ishtar while she plots to take over the planet. It’s up to the Doctor, with help from Utnapishtim, another cultural outsider, to steer Gilgamesh on the right path while ensuring the faux goddess gets what’s coming to her for impersonating a deity and mucking with another planet’s timestream.

Since there are three other parts to come after this one, we can reasonably assume taking care of Ishtar isn’t going to be the one-and-done the Doctor would like it to be, and in fact it turns out the Doctor himself is responsible for turning this already powerful alien into the titular Timewyrm, thereby making his and Ace’s lives even more complicated. Whoops…

I’ll say this for Peel: he had an unenviable task in penning this first of what would eventually become a sixty-one novel series, and if he’d fouled it up there’s no telling what might have happened to Doctor Who in the meantime. He doesn’t knock it out of the park, but the 230 pages he delivers do their job satisfactorily. Timewyrm: Genesys, as a story, stands alone as well as any individual story from the ‘Key to Time’ story arc did during the Tom Baker era, or ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ did from McCoy’s run, but obviously you’ll only get the full effect if you read the next three in the series.

What’s done right? Well, Genesys certainly revels in its more mature content. Battle scenes are vicious and brutal, with limbs hacked off, entrails spilled, and skulls caved with abandon. The priestesses (read: temple whores) of Ishtar wear exceptionally revealing clothing, as noted above. There’s also no denying that Peel can nail ‘weird’, as Ishtar gradually transforms her temple and much of the city into something far exceeding the technology of early Mesopotamian civilization, covering the walls with wrought copper in the form of circuitry which is centuries beyond what these people should have access to at the time. Scenes where she ‘feeds’ to renew her energy are downright awful, especially the one witnessed by the temple priestess early in the book, explained tearfully to the king’s daughter.

The primary downside to this book is that Peel’s much better at writing action than he is at writing drama. The story starts with a bang, and Ishtar’s impersonator is a great villain in her own right, but the middle of the book drags something fierce with lengthy conversations about things characters should not need to tell one another. The main running gag in the book also didn’t age well: Gilgamesh basically takes every chance to try and molest Ace throughout the story, as he’s attracted to both her looks and attitude, but instead of telling off the roving-handed one, the Doctor gives Ace a sort of “boys will be boys, and this is just how humans behaved back then” talk, and leaves her to fend for herself even as she’s begging him not to be left alone with the guy. Doctor Who wasn’t always as progressive as we thought, unfortunately, and while that sort of gag could fly in 1991, it’s excruciatingly tone-deaf twenty-six years later. That said, if you enjoyed the episodes of classic Who most when they were offering up a history lesson, there’s plenty of love about Peel’s treatment of these legendary times. The sole exception: I know it’s fiction, and was addressed early in Eccleston’s run, but Peel never explains how the Doctor and Ace can step out of the TARDIS and instantly communicate with people speaking ancient Sumerian. The Doctor’s a Time Lord, and a master of so many other skills we might as well give him the ability to comprehend a long-dead language, but Ace’s specialty is in bomb-making, not cuneiform, yet her street slang is mostly understood by this vanished civilization.

I know, I know: quit nitpicking and enjoy the story. I really did, I promise, just wanted to throw that out there.

Again, you ‘had to be there’ with this one. Having read it at the time of its release, I can pop myself back to that period with the proper mindset to experience it as it was, and in that regard it was a serviceable piece of fiction which paved the way for a whole litany of Who stories in book form that continue to this very day. Back then, this was all we had for new Who adventures. It worked, but this was very definitely not your daddy’s Doctor. Amusingly, almost three decades later, there’s a good chance this actually was your daddy’s Doctor, depending on how recently you were born. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff indeed!

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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