21 February 2014

BOOK: A Big Hand for the Doctor

Official Description: London, 1900. The First Doctor is missing both his hand and his granddaughter, Susan. Faced with the search for Susan, a strange beam of soporific light, and a host of marauding Soul Pirates intent on harvesting human limbs, the Doctor is promised a dangerous journey into a land he may never forget... 

A Big Hand for the Doctor is more enjoyable than the above synopsis might make it sound. Due to its nature as a short story, there is relatively little event in this book, having only four main scenes really. But this isn't damaging, as it has clearly been designed around these rather than feeling like a chapter from a longer story, or such a tale condensed into a lower page count. It terms of structure and plotting, Colfer does very well.

Where he arguably falls down is his characterisation of the First Doctor, and his world in general. I fully appreciate that Colfer is simply trying to make the history of Doctor Who one cohesive canon, but even so, the mentions of Gallifrey and the Time Lords just feel out of place given how far removed from that area of the Doctor's history Hartnell's era was. Colfer's First Doctor uses far too many contractions - don't get me wrong, I know he did use them, but here it often feels like Tennant or Smith's incarnations talking - and has technology that's simply unrealistic for the period of the show this is supposed to slot into (before An Unearthly Child). The main example of this is some sort of wrist-communicator. If the Doctor had these devices all along, why did he never use them? Plus he talks about not getting a signal, which implies they communicate via satellite. If you look at the technology in Hartnell's era, it hits its pinnacle with the Food Machine, the Time-Space Visualiser and the pretty poor scanner. These all pale in comparison to the technological standards of these communicators.

The thoughts to himself are nice, but another bone of contention for me is the Doctor's reference to his Eleventh (or is that Thirteenth?) incarnation, wishing he had already regenerated into him. I'm not sure if I'm happy with this much self-referentialness (yes, that's a word). The first few pages, where the Doctor barters with a Xing bio-hybrid replacement body part seller/surgeon called Aldridge, are almost entirely exposition. There's mentions of previous Time Lords (notably the Interior Designer), mentions of an amphibian race waiting out the back, a brief introduction to the Soul Pirates and more. It just feels like a slow and cluttered opening. The reason the Doctor is visiting Aldridge is to arrange a replacement hand, after he lost his in a fight with one of the aforementioned Pirates.

This is obviously quite a big deal in terms of adding to continuity. Colfer, by the official nature of this book, cements the fact that the First Doctor's left hand was in fact some kind of biological/cybernetic replacement throughout his entire era. It certainly serves him well, but what happens when he comes to regenerate? All the surgeon wants in return for his new hand is four days of the Doctor's time, which he begrudgingly agrees to.

From here, the Doctor takes a cab, initially headed for Hyde Park where the Ship (sadly referred to as the TARDIS in the book) is parked. Away from all the buildings, he receives fourteen new messages from Susan. I should say, I do like that Colfer didn't just give the Doctor a phone, but some kind of '60s version. I can imagine a big chunky wristband being used. Still, though, the technology is just miles ahead of everything else we saw. Anyway, these messages let him know (in another page of exposition) that his grandaughter has befriended three children, who are staying with one of Her Majesty's guards whilst their parents are away, and all of them have been taken by the Soul Pirates. The Soul Pirates are said to capture people in the night and take their body parts, not wasting a piece. The entrance to their ship is an abbatoir. Potentially really quite nasty stuff, for a children's book (without trying to be condescending).

The cab redirects to Kensington Gardens and the Doctor, with his powerful temporary hand, smashes through various doors, eventually reaching a bedroom where he sees Susan, the guard and the children being taken off in the Pirates' anti-gravity beam. He then fights a remaining pirate, Igby, on a rooftop. This sword fight again gives rise to many uncharacteristic First Doctor moments. For example, he is said to scramble, trot and dive. These are not activities I can really see Hartnell indulging in on television. 

The Doctor enters the beam, which makes him enter a kind of hallucinatory state. Colfer then has him describe events around him to keep himself alert, a neat narrative trick that I liked. The prisoners are then taken aboard the craft. After dispatching one pirate, the Doctor programs the anti-gravity to activate in a given time. Whilst using their computers (which are said to be just monitors), he sets a password that it would take them ten years to crack, and changes the language to Earth English. This is all nice Hartnell playing-around stuff, but why does the Pirates' system include that option? Also, this another instance of technology beyond the '60s. 

Following a brief confrontation with the Soul Pirates' Captain (who's been wearing the Doctor's hand around his neck for the last twenty years, it would seem), the Doctor and company are quickly carried gently back to Earth before the beam fires with the doors closed, causing the ship to explode. The Doctor has completed his mission to exterminate the Soul Pirates, and goes to collect his new hand from Aldridge. Susan approves, but comments that it's a little too big.

Throughout Colfer's story, there is repetition of various phrases and motifs frequently for a while before long absences ("speed and precision" springs to mind). Some of the language he uses is irregular, and can sometimes take you out of the scene, and the character of the First Doctor is similar mainly in appearance to William Hartnell's portrayal - but Susan is spot on. This isn't as big an issue as it may sound, however. Although the tale is largely told through the Doctor, it's still highly enjoyable, as some of his mannerisms and quirks seep through (though perhaps a few hmms peppered throughout would have been preferable to the abundance of them towards the end, as if Colfer only remembered the trait late). 

One area where Colfer does excel is descriptions, which is fortunate given their abundance. He can quickly sketch an image with just a few words. I particularly like the way he integrates detail with events, subtly weaving a setting. A prime example is when the Doctor takes a cab to escape the smog. Just in these few words, the reader is told that the atmosphere is thick, omnipresent and overwhelming. The use of powerful language such as 'escape' really helps to create a world around the story. I'm sorry if that sounded pompous, but it's relatively refreshing to me at least to be met with a literary style so different to normal, and Colfer clearly has a rich vocabulary.

The setting of this story is 1900 London, and the only reason I can see for this is in the epilogue. I learned from the book's TARDIS Wiki page that the writer described to be watching the Doctor and Igby's rooftop battle was supposed to the author of Peter Pan. Indeed, it would seem that there are quite a few references (similarities?) to it - arguably chiefly the Doctor battling a sword with his hook - which were completely lost on me given my lack of knowledge of the tale. Otherwise, there is little reason given for setting it in this time. For me, I think it may have been nice had it instead been set closer to An Unearthly Child, say a few weeks or so, as Susan settles into her school. But the descriptions of Victorian London are lovely, so I can forgive Colfer that.

There are pros and cons to this story as you read it (as with most books), but the impression the reader is left with afterwards could be said to be greater than the sum of A Big Hand's parts, but I think that would be unfair. There are many, many, many references (both to the Doctor, his history, his people and to popular culture such as Blake's 7 and Harry Potter) which detracted from the flow of the story. Instead of taking up precious page space with these, I would have liked to have seen more development of the Doctor and Susan's relationship because where it is witnessed or acknowledged is excellent and really enjoyable. The Soul Pirates are a decent enemy, but feel more like something that would feature in the Davies of Moffat eras of the show (or something JNT may've attempted).

Overall, this is a fun story that mashes elements of all of Who's history into a story set before the first episode. It's a really enjoyable ride through set pieces and dialogue. You certainly don't need a working knowledge of Peter Pan to like this, but I get the impression you would receive more nostalgia-kicks if you did. A really enjoyable little book, with tight structure and plotting. Perhaps it could have done with one more revision by an editor to iron out dialogue kinks? Nevertheless, Colfer does really well, especially given he has the difficult job of penning the first in the series. And what a great title!

In a Nutshell: Well worth a read, and it won't take much of your money or time; I'm a slow, dyslexic, dyspraxic reader and I finished it in under an hour.

You can get A Big Hand for the Doctor as an eBook here, as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories physical anthology here; and you can read the brilliant wiki page on it here.

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