In the interest of full disclosure, let me quickly mention that this is only the second of the Telos Novellas that I've read. The first was Kim Newman's exceptional TIME AND RELATIVE. I hear it's a great, mature line of books and I'm eagerly looking forward to the rest.
This entry, though, didn't quite live up to expectations.
Before we get to anything else, let's cover the book's most obvious failing. Author Stephen Cole (under the pen-name Samms) sets his novella not long before the start of the tv series and, for some some reason, takes it upon himself to reveal the origins of the Doctor's title and Susan's name. Now, before you get all excited and prepared for a mind-blowing origin story, let me just say that both come in such a casual, off-hand way that I was left scratching my head and wondering, "That's it?" It does bring a certain real-world irony to the situation, but I'd rather have a better writer explore the origins in a way that twists into continuity and makes me re-evalute everything that came before. And he does have the chance. A perfect opportunity to do just that. I'll tell you what it is below.
On to the story.
The Doctor and Susan find themselve separated on a planet called Iwa, where a refuge/school has been set up to teach undesireables. You see, in the future, a new form of eugenics has arisen. Children can now be screened in the womb to see if they feature any traits indicative of future criminal behavior. Those who can't be cured with potentially-mutating hormone therapy are sent to this school to see they are raised in a positive way. Unfortunately, most of the adults are the cruelest, coldest batch of "Brick in the Wall"-type teachers who probably do more to drive kids toward a deviant life than away.
Classes are no longer in session, though, since the refuge has found itself under attack by an indiginous species of "fox" -- huge tooth-and-claw creatures that form without warning from stray strips of fabric and flesh which drift along the desert air. Since the school has also been denied supplies, the children have all been "plugged in".
Plugged into what? There exists, in this future, a dream chamber into which surgical patients can be placed while undergoing a long series of computer driven operations. The system is now being used to hold all non-essential personel in a type of virtual hybernation. This, of course, brings about another problem in the form of a child who has telepathically linked the dream chambers into her own terrifying nightmare world. A world in which both the Doctor and Susan soon find themselves.
The major strengths of Cole are his human characters and simple, poetic prose. Half the story takes place in a learning center protected by nurses, teachers, and cooks who find themselves forced to take up arms. Their skirmishes with the foxes are brutal and often lethal, splashing the anti-septic white walls with crisply described gore. That story alternates with an exploration of the nightmare world where an army of rats swarm through a pyramid with floors of cheese, a beautiful baby produces a maggot from her nose, and everyone's mouths rapidly rot away, forcing them to speak with a hidden, inner voice. There are some truly disturbing images painted for us, and much of it involves Susan, which could potentially upset unprepared readers. It's beautifully handled, though, and makes for an intriguingly unconventional Who adventure.
And it is a good story, but a glaring problem is that Cole doesn't know how best to incorporate our two main characters. Susan disappears for most of the first half and, when we eventually find her, acts as nothing much more than a spring-board to the telepathic child's exposition. And the Doctor? He just pops in, acts all cantankerous and secretive, and quickly solves everyones' problems. They never explain why the people are so willing to buy his weak cover story and welcome him into the group. And with such a prominent rank! Though I do like the way he solves things only insofar as it'll bring Susan back. Other than her involvement, he could care less about the refuge's predicament, a trait quite faithful to early Hartnell stories.
In the end, the Doctor and Susan are superficially crammed into a story that would have worked far better on its own as a separate, original piece. But I do applaud Cole for trying to write Who in a bleaker, more nightmarish style. Better luck next time.
Oh, what about that perfect opportunity I mentioned above? The way in which the book COULD have offered a more significant twist to the series? Well, I think a better (though more controversial) take would have been to make the telepathic child be our very own Susan! Thus the story becomes the tale of how she and her future "grandfather" first meet.
Would Cole have been able to pull it off? I don't know. But I'd still read it.
And, if we're going to talk change, the story passed on exploring another potential opportunity. Cole sets up a refuge full of future criminals but, other than the telepathic girl, doesn't let us get to know any of them. Heck, for the entire piece, they're sealed away in the dream chambers. An interesting revision would be to have the Doctor and Susan come across the school and find that all the teachers have been killed and these potential delinquents are left fending for themselves against the horrific foxes.
In the end, despite it's story faults, the beautifully disturbing prose itself is more than enough to earn my recommendation.