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Doctor Who: Wolfsbane Paperback – 1 Sep 2003
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One of the strengths of this book is the beautiful characterization of the regular cast, at least for the most part. The Fourth Doctor, notoriously hard to "get" in a novel (Tom Baker's performance on television is hard to catch in prose form), is actually pretty good. He's moody at times, always quick with an absurd witticism when it seems appropriate. The escape from the scientists' lab is one beautiful sequence showing the Fourth Doctor at his best. However, there are times where he seems a little too distant. He barely seems to register the fact that they've left Harry behind, and Sarah's understandably angry with him. However, while the Fourth Doctor is decent, the Eighth Doctor is wonderful. This adventure takes place, as far as he is concerned, during his 100 years stranded on Earth, with his TARDIS slowly growing back from a featureless blue box and with no memories of who he is or what he was (explaining his not knowing Harry), Rayner captures him beautifully. Especially noticeable is the need to fight evil wherever it is, even if he doesn't quite know why he must do so.
However, this is not either Doctors' book. Instead, it is Harry and Sarah's. Harry is the perfect person to be stuck in a "proper" English household, always trying desperately to do the right thing, use the right spoon, and not intrude on private moments. He even has the language down, with "very good of you...but, mustn't intrude - house of mourning and all that." He and George Stanton make a wonderful pair for dialogue when they're in a scene together. Harry's comfortable allowing the Doctor to lead the way in the investigation into what's going on, but he keeps having doubts that this is *his* Doctor and so has trouble trusting him at times. Harry blunders along, trying to avoid the passes that Emmeline Neuberger, a German woman who appears to be looking for a man so she can stay in England, and Harry would make the perfect match. He shows a wonderful mixture of intelligence and naiveté that is the hallmark of Harry. Sarah, on the other hand, is determined, willful, and the perfect embodiment of what Lis Sladen brought to the role. She is independent, but understandably scared when something really awful happens to her. She's a wonderful character that springs off the page whenever she's on it.
The plot is a smorgasbord of stuff, from werewolves to Arthurian legends, along with the aforementioned British aristocratic comedy, and the tone of the book is slightly off at times when Rayner doesn't seem to be able to control the mixture. The scene transitions are jarring at times, from the dark foreboding of Sarah's search for the truth about Harry's death to the Stanton family and their stiff upper lip. While the overall atmosphere is very well done, it doesn't always fit. The other problem is one that may not be a problem for some. This is a Doctor Who novel solidly in the horror/fantasy genre. There is no rational explanation for any of the things that happen in the book. Instead, all of the explanations are magical in some way, either nature spirits or the werewolves themselves. If you're a Who fan that can't stand any kind of "magic" in your stories, you will hate this book. Personally, I'm on the opposite side of the fence, but I think Wolfsbane went a bit too far toward the magical side.
That doesn't take away from an otherwise excellent book. The characterization, aside from the regulars, is rather spotty and thin, but the intricate plot and atmosphere shine off the page. While reading, the plot doesn't really seem that intricate, but I loved how Rayner sometimes related the two different timelines; Sarah finds out something in her investigation and then we see the real story of what happened for that event with Harry. This often makes up for the jarring transitions. Especially atmospheric is the story of the Night of the Long Claws, where the Germans rounded up the werewolves, starved them, and then set them loose on a town outside Munich on the night of the full moon. This chapter, told by the wolf, is exceptional, and well worth the read by itself.
So, Wolfsbane does what it sets out to do: tell an entertaining story with a good use of the Who regulars. While it's not a standout, there are enough excellent bits in the story to definitely make this worth a read.
We have both the 4th and 8th Doctors in this, but the 8th is in the early stages of his post Ancestor Cell amnesia, with the TARDIS still a strange blue shape, and nothing more. The 4th is represented here very strongly, and I can almost hear Tom saying the lines (something that is always a good sign for me).
If you are looking for a daring sweep of continuity, then this is not the book for you, but if you are looking for a damn fine read, then this is as good a book as we have seen of late.
The characterisation of the fourth Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane are great. I found Tom Baker's voice drifting through my head - and I'd stop for a moment and go back to allow him to reiterate a point he'd already made in the appropriate voice. Harry's stable Naval background flowed through his thoughts and deeds, and you could empathise with him when the point came between choosing the path best trodden, by the rules of common sense, or the heroic solution, appropriate to someone who has got tangled up with the Doctor.
However, I found myself hankering for a slightly different tact on characterisation and storytelling - and The Burning came to mind. When I read that book I could envisage the Hammer Horror version of the events being portrayed - and somehow this book too, with its veins of madness, witchcraft and slavering werewolves, demamded the same kind of approach. The pacing seemed to rob the piece of any tension or horror, and instead I felt I was a little plodding in places. Or at least I was desperate to move on and find out what was happening to the other characters.
Still, the story engaged me, the characters entertained me and I'd didn't come away from the experience never wanting to touch another Doctor Who novel again. I did feel the final few pages were surplus to requirements and didn't add anything to the tale - but otherwise, I thoroughly recommend the rest of the book!
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However, there's subversion and there's just outright using werewolves, which is the tactic this novel uses. And I'm not sure that's a really good idea. Especially with the presentation given here.
Rayner's written one "Who" novel that I read already, "Earthworld", that had its moments but was redeemed by a gut-wrenching coda, but here without the emotional hook of Anji's recent grief she seems a bit lost at times in how to center this. To some extent it seems like she was handed a jumble of concepts and told "Make something out of this" . . . considering how complicated she attempts to make it I do give her credit that any of it is at all coherent but it seems mostly to hover in its own momentum, only proceeding because fictional inertia makes it possible.
What gives? There's problems from the onset, where Harry Sullivan is stranded outside the TARDIS because . . . people forget? So the Doctor leaves without him and by the time he manages to finagle the TARDIS back to the start, it turns out that Harry is dead and buried, apparently killed by a werewolf, along with a whole bunch of other people. From there the story shifts back and forth in time, with the Fourth Doctor's and Sarah Jane's investigations paralleling Harry's own travails as he not only encounters possible werewolves but a mysterious man in velvety clothing who has a big blue box that definitely isn't bigger on the inside than out.
Yup, it's the Eighth Doctor (something I missed right away because I didn't read the back cover that closely) in the midst of his "Do I know who I am?" period, tantalizing Harry with the possibility that this guy who calls himself the Doctor may indeed be another version of THE Doctor, but . . . nah. Honestly, I first thought it was meant to hint at a future incarnation (shades of "Battlefield") and only reading other reviews and actually looking at the back cover copy did I realize. Which isn't a good thing, since for the most part the Doctor comes across as rather bland, only occasionally showing flashes of himself and often kept at a distance. In fact, this could go for both Doctors, in that the Fourth Doctor seems unnecessarily subdued. To me he should be a booming presence, indulging in getting attention while performing slight of hand, dazzling and confusing in equal measure. Here it seems more perfunctory, like he knows that he can't do anything to affect the plot so keeps going through his paces until the book is over.
The whole novel feels like that, honestly. The split nature of the plot is intriguing at first, especially when we don't know what the heck has happened, but none of the secondary characters are very compelling, and don't get anymore revelatory when they appear in later guises. So Harry sees them, and we see them later and then have to wait until the book tells us how they got from there to there. Which means that Sarah Jane and the Doctor go in circles most of the time waiting for Harry's plot to do something so it can be revealed. Which means the Doctor gets to drive cool cars and rescue werewolves while Sarah Jane gets hungry, tired and cold, digging up graves and freezing and being generally miserable, which doesn't make her feel like an integral part of the plot so much as giving the lady something to do.
Ultimately, it's not just the werewolves that become problematic. The core of the problem seems to be an angry earth and winds up not just involving the wolf-people but Arthurian legend and dryads, among others and unfortunately comes across as an awkward attempt to fuse the magical strangeness that works so well in the Eighth Doctor stories with the horror that often informed Tom Baker's tenure. However, it's a bad match as this kind of dimensional mythological weirdness doesn't work for his Doctor and its telling that he's kept far away from it as possible, not really having to talk to, say, the dryads. Which means that the story wants to give us both concrete and vague explanations at the same time, instead giving us an ending that feels like a whole bunch of ideas for an ending without really resolving anything. There seems to be no sense of urgency or drama at times, once it becomes clear that Harry isn't really dead, it's a matter of waiting for the Fourth Doctor to come in and tidy up, meaning all the time twisty complications don't add up to a whole lot (unlike, as others have noted, the Fourth Doctor novel "Festival of Death", which takes the temporal choppiness and makes it work).
As a solo vehicle for Harry Sullivan, it works just fine and he acquits himself well. It probably would have warmed dear Ian Marter's heart were he still with us. There's no embarrassing missteps, but it hangs together too loosely, so much that you can see the strings holding it together. It doesn't work as a pure Eighth Doctor nor a Fourth Doctor adventure and the hoped for amalgam of the two eras winds up being somewhat less than the sum of itself, alas.
WOLFSBANE is told in two parts simultaneously. In the beginning, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah accidentally become separated from everyone's favorite bumbler, Harry Sullivan. Harry wanders off into adventures of his own, quickly teaming up with the amnesiac Eighth Doctor in the middle of his Earth Arc. Meanwhile, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah land a few weeks into the future trying to find a clue as to the whereabouts of their friend. Generally speaking, Harry is the star of the first subplot, while Sarah gets the spotlight in the second. Both strands concentrate on the same plot, as apparent werewolves terrorize the obligatory sleepy English village and its obligatory sleepy English sheep.
The two companions get the lion's share of the attention and they're both extremely well portrayed. Sarah seemed much more alive than she did in the last PDA/MA I read that featured her (okay, that was EVOLUTION, but still...), appearing both capable, human, and certainly recognizable as her television counterpart. But (and I'm not the first to point this out) the real revelation is Harry Sullivan. I always liked this character and here, with virtually an entire half a book told from his point of view, he absolutely shines. This is great! His reactions are fun without being over the top and his thought patterns are magnificently entertaining. This book deserves praise simply for Harry Sullivan's contribution alone.
Few of the other characters come alive quite like the companions do, although I found Emmeline's story touching. The eventual villains just barely manage to avoid falling over the cliff of cliché, but even at their worst, they're still endearing.
This sort of narrative structure where the story takes place in two coupled time zones is not wholly original to this book. But it's a fun gimmick as well as rare in Doctor Who novels and therefore a welcome addition. Rayner plays with her narrative; for instance, at the beginning of Sarah's subplot we're given some giant clues as to what will happen at the end of Harry's story. The result is a success. My only real quibble with this is that the changeovers tend to jar. She has a habit of jumping from scene to scene quite haphazardly, and it can be difficult at first to figure out which time zone a given sequence is taking place in.
The other slight distraction I found is that the two halves of the story are told in different styles, although the more I think about them in this way, the more I'm seeing how the two parts informed each other. For the most part, the Harry Sullivan subplot is a fun action-adventure thriller, where well-meaning Harry plays Nigel Bruce to the Eighth Doctor's Basil Rathbone. The werewolf portions are mostly the stuff of horror films and pulp novels. On the other hand, the Sarah Jane Smith subplot deals more with the psychological aspects of the werewolf menace as well as getting a little deeper into Sarah's head. One feels lightweight and fluffy, while the other goes for a more gritty approach, which can be a little disconcerting when alternating in rapid succession. (For an example of what I'm talking about, look at the opposing ways in which the book approaches food and physical distresses. There's a descriptive passage where Sarah, who hasn't eaten for a while, hungrily longs for any sustenance. And in a later scene she almost freezes to death. But on the other hand, the only similar scene in Harry Sullivan's adventure is where the sideburned one encounters a situation where he must think hard to remember which fork to use at a formal dinner.)
I started off the previous paragraph as a complaint, but the more I think about it, the more appealing I'm finding Rayner's delivery. She's really played up the strengths of both characters and gave each an aspect of the story most suited for them. She approaches the basic werewolf tale from two angles and gets the most out of each. It's something that I didn't appreciate while I was actually reading the book, but it's something I've now been dwelling on afterwards. The styles may have clashed somewhat, but now that I think about it, I feel it was worth it. The pieces that the two subplots have in common do go some way towards smoothing out the rough patches.
Apart from that, I found this a really fun adventure. The descriptions are quite good, and Rayner's prose is certainly compelling. It isn't the greatest writing ever seen in a Who novel, but I'd place it above the average. The ending I found a bit confusing (and I'm not sure I quite understood one aspect of it), but it was nothing that marred my overall enjoyment.
Which brings us to the question, where is the Doctor?
The book starts with Harry Sullivan being left behind a few days time in England, while a werewolf is tearing people apart. A few days later, The 4th Doctor (who seems to disappear after a few chapters) and Sarah Jane Smith arrive, finding Harry's tombstone. Sounds good, but alas, it was not meant to be.
The rest of the novel jumps from Harry to Sarah Jane, while the Eighth Doctor pops up and renders Harry aid (although the only reason you realize that he's the Eighth Doctor is because it says so on the back of the book). Sarah Jane goes on a maddening search, trying to discover what happened to Harry. Once in a while, Tom Baker's Doctor will show up and say something, but he never acts like that particular incarnation. Swap the clothes and hair out, and it could be any number of Doctors. Heck, quit calling his character the Doctor and suddenly he's just another guy in the town. His role is that small.
The only things saving this book from being a 1-star book was the fantastic description, and a pretty clever ending. If you like Sarah Jane and Harry enough to read a book just about them, grab "Wolfbane". If you want to actually read about Doctor Who, stick to your trusty copy of "Festival of Death".