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The Great Escape!
on 7 February 2000
At first, I thought I wasn't going to like this book. Its initial premise seemed too much like the 1989 television adventure, Battlefield. It certainly has similar elements: the Arthurian legend (although Avalon is pre-Arthur), a missing nuclear missile, the Brigadier, and Doris. A homage to Battlefield is not an image which conjures much hope for this as a piece of fiction, since Ben Aaronovitch's story was a disappointment after his excellent Rememberance of the Daleks. However, I've discovered that this novel doesn't leave you after you've finished reading.
The Brigadier here is quite different from the character of the same name in Mark Gatiss' Last of the Gaderene. This is not to say that either of these authors have got him wrong. In Gatiss' book, the Brigadier is the character that we knew and loved from thirty years ago. The Shadows of Avalon presents the Brigadier as he is now (well, now as in the future - it's a temporal thing). For one thing, Lethbridge-Stewart has been promoted to General. However, everyone still calls him 'Brigadier'. For a moment, you can imagine that Paul Cornell has been delving into the files of Police Squad, ready to reveal that Lethbridge-Stewart was christened 'Brigadier' (like Frank Drebin's (sic) first name was always 'Lieutenant'), but he resists this. Due to events in past novels ('Happy Endings'), the Brigadier has also been rejuvenated, and there are some interesting scenes with him and an aged Munro. But although the Brigadier is youthful, he is far from happy, for his wife has died. This is on the back cover blurb, so it's not a spoiler.
So, the Brigadier finds himself in the mythical land of Avalon, along with the Doctor. Avalon's home to the Catuvelauni, a Celtic tribe who fled there from the Romans. Also living there are the Faeries - don't groan - who are the original inhabitants. These Fair Folk bear little resemblance to popular images of fairies, and are more familiar in a malignant sort of way. With their presence, it would certainly seem that Avalon is a good bolt-holt for people running away from things, and it's as good an explanation of dragons as you're likely to find in the Doctor Who universe. It's not long before the Brigadier is caught in the midst of a civil war between these two peoples. Shadows of Avalon retains the contemporary political feel of recent EDAs, since this does resemble Kosovo at times.
There was a great deal of fuss prior to the publication of the Shadows of Avalon due to Cornell's decision to portray a black Time Lord. In this aspect, it also resounds with Battlefield, since that story had a black woman as Brigadier. Initially, I thought Paul Cornell had failed in his good intentions, since the only explicit reference to Gandar's skin tone is one character describing him as a 'darkie'. However, this comes from a character whose perceptions have been affected by his living in our society. No one refers to Gandar as 'black' on Gallifrey, because his skin tone isn't an issue there. Most of the time he and his fellow agent, Cavis, dress up in disguises to perform their duties as agents, whether that means wearing monsters suits or the full Celtic look. Like every other character in this book however, Gandar isn't static - like the Brigadier, he develops and evolves with a great deal of compassion. Paul Cornell deals with racial conflict within these pages with a high degree of sophistication.
So, like a lot of Doctor Who books nowadays, Shadows of Avalon opens at a relatively gentle, some might even say dull, pace. As usual, we're introduced to a lot of new characters who require some time to empathize with. But if you leave your copy of Shadows on the 08:47 from London Bridge to Hastings after scanning just a few opening pages, then you'd be missing the point. Doctor Who has graduated from the regular twenty five minute cliffhanger. Now the books tend to build up to a barnstorming end - and this is where Shadows of Avalon excels. The ending is a bungee jump into oblivion, with adrenaline even approaching excess.
There are a few things which jar - one of the greatest elements of Doctor Who disappears with a whimper rather than a bang, and maybe the two Gallifreyan agents are a little too groovy to be taken seriously, like something out of Buffy. But then again, one of the agents is preordained Cavis, which I think must derive from Latin (what was that mosaic in Pompeii? 'Cave Canem'?). When you think about the Latin elements of the story, it soon becomes clear that there couldn't be a more appropriate setting for this story. There are ironies within ironies, until they alchemise into gold. Judging by the reaction of one of the characters, the Enemy has to be feared. This is a most stimulating novel, one which will stay with me for a long time. It's part of the ongoing story, stopping off here and there, like The Armageddon Factor of twenty year ago, and resounds with such quality as Edge of Darkness. These two aren't name-checked by Cornel, but I think I can see them. The Great Escape is certainly referred to, but given the nature of this novel, it's hardly gratuitous. Shadows of Avalon seems to resemble a classical work: there's a justification for every idea here. And combined with elements from Lawrence Miles' story arc? Sweeter than eye of newt.
Of course, one can only imagine the Doctor's reaction to seeing Ian Chesterton in a German POW camp, but that's another story. Maybe it's the beginning. Whatever. I think that we can certainly let Paul Cornell get away with this one.