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Doctor Who: Suns of Caresh Paperback – 5 Aug 2002
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In England a hotel worker has been turned to stone, an ancient lake has vanished, and the inmate of a mental hospital is being terrorised by unseen creatures. In Israel, in the shadow of Masada, an archaeological dig unearths something that should have stayed buried. The Doctor is sure he is dealing with a local and relatively straightforward temporal anomaly. Troy Game, a refugee from the planet Caresh, is not so certain. She believes the impending destruction of her home world is somehow linked to the events on Earth, and she is pinning her hopes on the Doctor to avert the catastrophe. But can the Doctor interfere with a planet's destiny? And should he risk his new-found freedom to do it?
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For once though, I don't have to ponder the cover in the hopes of ignoring the story, as it's not all that bad this time. Taking place in the era right when the Doctor got control of his TARDIS back, he wants to explore without rocking the boat too much and so of course winds up getting involved in Time Lord intrigue. Turns out that Lord Roche is trying to save the planet Caresh and in doing so it might have gone awry, which means he's not on the run from deadly hunters sent by creatures from the vortex. Meanwhile, someone from Caresh is sent to find him and quickly fails at that job. And then there's a time fracture. At some point the Doctor gets involved.
I will say, as much as I liked it, it's more due to all the elements making up the plot than the plot itself, which remains a weirdly unfocused beast. There are times when it seems like the author is just throwing things together in the hopes that it will cohere or the book simply grows bored with the current concept and moves onto the next one. Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the book is the early scenes, where local boy and regular guy Simon finds alien Troy Game and proceeds to show her around Earth as she attempts to acclimate and figure out her mission. Those scenes are both funny and touching as Simon has to deal with a fairly hot alien and the alien tries to make sense of Earth. I'm not the first person to note that I would have liked to have seen more done with this plot, since it touches upon a lot of themes that "Doctor Who" doesn't always address, especially how weird the world really is when you don't see it through a Time Lord's eyes. Amusingly, the ground level view of aliens presages a lot of what the current show does (along with things like aliens who you don't remember until they try to come kill you) and would have made for an interesting working class novel with SF overtones.
But just as it starts to get scary in its reminding how you really can never GET aliens, the plot gets summarily dismissed and Simon, having served his purpose, is dispatched on a narrative level in about two sentences, a rather ignoble and odd end even by "Doctor Who" standards, like the author had just gotten bored with him and had to get him out of the book in the most perfunctory manner possible. But most of the secondary characters seem to suffer that fate . . . a man who due to the time fracture might be aging backwards in time (not in the achingly romantic Benjamin Button fashion, but literally traveling against the grain of time) is brought up, shown how it happened and then mostly ignored for the rest of the novel until the situation is rectified. Same with a group of lads who meet a bad end (or do they?) exploring an old TARDIS . . . they're described in great detail to us and then never seen again. It makes for an odd experience.
And yet, not a bad experience. What works in this book works well enough to overcome that. The plot holds real mystery, the presence of the Third Doctor and Jo feel like a return to that era without becoming a slavish recreation of it or a homage to all the stuff we thought we'd like (I did enjoy the reference to Jo thinking of herself as "Mrs Jo Yates", considering the direction the character went in later). Its maybe the first time in a while where Time Lords are used in a non-annoying fashion and the interactions between the Doctor and the Time Lady are a good example of how Time Lords can be interesting when you get them off Gallifrey and start turning them into characters again. There's a sense of the Doctor existing in a functioning universe filled with moving parts, as opposed to holding all these wonderful toy planets that are just waiting for him to saunter on by and mess up. I like the idea that stuff is going on around him that he isn't even involved in. The plot does get lazy later on in the book, becoming a hodgepodge of elements or people running around and being chased by stuff and once things get to Caresh it becomes oddly linear and run of the mill as the Doctor just plods along to the end intent on wrapping things up. But by that point the book had generated so much goodwill that I was able to let it coast to the finish. For once, someone proves that it isn't that hard to craft a novel that gives you a reason to keep turning the pages and considering the near woeful state of the last few Past Doctor Adventures, this at least is a step in the right direction.
Now, when I read reviews of "The Suns of Caresh" online, I'm actually reading reviews of two different books. There's the school of thought which celebrates "Caresh" as a nifty 80-page novella, set behind a largely unmemorable 200-page trailer. But there's also the school of thought holding "Caresh" as 200 pages of an inventive science-fiction novel, let down by an 80-page coda that has little to do with the elaborate set-up.
I'm going to join the latter group, and say that "Caresh" had me right up until the page 200 mark -- or maybe page 149. I believe that, if the back-cover blurb had been redone, I would not have felt that way. The blurb really gives away the game all the way up through page 200, thus setting up the seemingly disconnected 80-page Caresh sequence. We know going in that Troy Game "is pinning her hopes on the Doctor", but she doesn't even meet him until well after the halfway point. The effect of all this is that "Saint" has given us an inventive novel with loops and twists... but it just doesn't seem that way, since we know too much before we even start.
The book I enjoyed is not even hinted at on the back. It's about an alien who falls from the sky and has to adjust to working-class England. It's also the story of "Doctor Who"'s quintessential poor shlub, Simon Haldane, a factory worker with a strong SF bent, whose fantasy comes to life when the alien moves into his bedroom. Simon believes her story and starts working with her (thanks to some nifty computer graphics that might've looked great on TV) to phone home. The Doctor and Jo are a million miles away from all this, but it's OK. Meanwhile, Simon has a problem... he's been so conditioned by the culture that all he can do is count down until the inevitable moment when the nympho alien, stranger in a strange land, will seduce him. Only that never happens, and when Simon tries to (drunkenly) force the issue...
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jo are getting involved in some Time Lord intrigue of the kind the EDAs can no longer provide. There's a renegade Gallifreyan lording his scientific advances over another exotic alien planet. There's his one-time consort, a Time Lady who (thankfully) is nothing like Iris Wildthyme. The Doctor's on a rescue mission for the Time Lords, but this time, the CIA is not involved, and there are no men in funny hats telling him what to do.
The back cover blurb, naturally, ignores both these stories, and instead leads off with three oblique mysteries, all of which are incidental to the story I just described. Meanwhile, Simon is casually tossed aside in a two-sentence parenthetical, thus giving him the PDA equivalent of Liz Shaw's departure scene in "Inferno".
"The Suns of Caresh" is evocative Pertwee, with gadgets, a sympathetically-drawn Jo Grant, and interesting TARDIS mythology. It's also, however, a victim of the six-part format that plagued stories like "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" and "The Time Monster", as the shifting focus knocks the original story clear off the table and brings in something far less interesting to end the day. Why couldn't Simon travel to Caresh? Why is Masada mentioned on the blurb when we leave that locale for good on page 13? When the Epilogue causes all of the story's Earthbound catastrophes to unhappen, why isn't Simon brought back?
Anyway, these are first-novel excessives compounded by an editorial blunder. "Caresh" is endlessly inventive and fairly readable. Let's let this Saint pseudonym loose on the UNIT gang and see if we can't turn out anything better than "Eye of the Giant" or "Amorality Tale".