History is set in stone, yet is also fluid. While the facts of history never change, our interpretations of those facts are forever mutable. Doctor Who, being a time-travel series, has the capability of examining history that few series have. While our time-traveling heroes are always worried about changing the past, we never really hear them discuss what might happen if the past starts changing around them. Are there any such things as absolutes in history? History 101 addresses that issue with style and flair.
The Doctor, Fitz, and Anji are in 1937 Paris having a holiday. Along with the tourist attractions, they decide to visit the Paris Exposition, similar to the World's Fair and where every European country has an exhibit. Upon arriving at the Spanish exposition, they discover a vivid painting: Guernica, by Picasso. Only it doesn't quite have the passion and the effect that they remember it having. In fact, the copy of Sartre's The Age of Reason that Fitz is reading has a cover reproduction of the painting, and it has much more of an effect than the real one sitting in front of them. How can a copy have more of an effect then the original?
It seems that something strange is going on (isn't there always?). The events at Guernica don't appear to have happened quite the way everybody knows they did. But then again, maybe they did? The uncertainty of this prompts the Doctor and his companions to travel back to this horrible event. The Doctor wants Fitz to witness it first-hand so that he can report what actually happened. Is this an alternate reality? Or is somebody warping the real one? The Doctor and Anji end up in Barcelona 5 months before Fitz arrives at Guernica (isn't time-travel wonderful?) and have to wait for him. The TARDIS has decided to shut down and monsters appear to be roaming the streets. Are these linked? And will the Doctor and Anji survive to meet up with Fitz again, or will they get caught up in a bloody civil war where no side has a monopoly on the truth and all sides want to kill the other.
History 101 is Halliday's first novel, but don't let that stop you. It's a wonderful book that keeps you guessing at all levels. It's also not one that you will breeze through, as Halliday discusses all the issues mentioned above. While there have been Doctor Who books and episodes dealing with historical settings, this is the first one I can remember actually examining the whole concept of history. Is it possible to know everything about historical events? Those trying to catalogue the truth could go crazy trying to decide if it is, especially when propaganda is streaming forth from every avenue.
Halliday uses the time-honoured Who tradition of separating everybody so that each side can be shown. While the Doctor and Anji are ostensibly together, they spend a lot of time apart interacting with other characters, whether they be foreign journalists, Bolshevik agitators or Spanish Nationalists. Fitz meets up with the mysterious Sasha, a Russian who knows a lot more then he's telling. Sasha helps Fitz get to Guernica (even though Fitz is his prisoner at one point) and seems to be serving a different master then the Communists. Halliday handles the myriad characters very well, making each one at least somewhat distinctive. There were so many sides in this conflict (plus the two additions to the historical line-up), that it would normally be hard to tell who was doing what. Despite the fact that some allegiances change, I still had little trouble doing so. A credit to Halliday's work.
The main cast is also great. Anji has a couple nice asides to the Doctor about his being able to steer the TARDIS at times yet not being able to get her back to 21st century Earth. Then again, I didn't realize that she was trying to get back, and it's unclear whether she just wants to go home or go back for a visit. The asides are wonderfully portrayed but they came out of left field a bit for me. The Doctor takes more of a part in the proceedings then he has in the past. He's much less passive (though he does spend a bit too much time brooding about the TARDIS and how she's not working). Fitz is great, though. He really comes into his own, the dialogue with Sasha crackling, especially when he realizes that there's something anachronistic about Sasha's knowledge. He alternately feels offended that Sasha's lying to him and then sheepish when he realizes that he's lying to Sasha as well.
Even better is how the regulars react when events start happening around them. Barcelona explodes in factional fighting, and all three of them have to adapt and protect themselves. In the fighting, the Doctor finally has to deal with what's going on behind the scenes. It's interesting how there isn't really a "villain" in this book, especially with all the other violence going on around the characters.
History 101 is not an exciting romp, with action filling every page and keeping the reader entranced. Instead, it's a bit more introspective, its ideas keeping you wanting to read "just a little bit more." It's a fascinating take on history, and it's a great adventure for the Doctor Who fan. Give it a shot.