11 April 2014

BOOK: Spore

This is quite an enjoyable short story - and it is short. It feels like the natural length of the story given certain details and revelations, but it is shorter than previous entries in the series. Alex Scarrow creates a believable world, with credible characters to populate it. He uses a variation on the base-under-seige format with an inventive (if flawed) threat to give Paul McGann another outing, which seems to be set relatively soon after Doctor Who. It's a pretty impressive start, and Scarrow utilises his natural prose style to guide the reader through his story.

Spore centres around a relatively simple concept. Arriving in the Nevada Desert, the Doctor comes across an army convoy and quickly learns after blagging credentials that a nearby town, Fort Casey, has been consumed by a virus. He promptly heads for the town, with dread in his mind; he's encountered this menace before. Many years ago on Gallifrey, the von Neumann pathogen broke out, killing hundreds of thousands of Time Lords. After defeating it, they managed to code immunity into their genes to ensure they would never be susceptible to its influence again.

There are several factors that mark this virus out as being extraordinary. For one thing, when it infects any living matter - plant, animal, even fruit or vegetable - it turns it into a pool of liquid initially before assuming the first physical form in order to spread the infection. This form is usually the first creature the virus encounters upon arrival, and works its way up through the food chain. For example, in this incident, the first form the spore assumes is that of a crab, before moving onto bigger things such as a dog and a human. An army team has been sent in to try and control whatever's going on in Fort Casey, but it has only one survivor - Captain Chan.

Naturally, Chan meets the Doctor as he explores alone. Following introductions, she begins to trust him, and he reveals the one weakness of this seemingly unstoppable virus; how the Time Lords managed to defeat it years ago. It's here that we get the solution to the story, and quite obviously so. That's alright, but it does take some mystery out of proceedings by providing essentially a list of events that are still to come. When the virus arrives, it has been 'programmed' by its creators to only infect species that answer a given question wrongly to prevent so-called intelligent races from being wiped out. The only problem is that humanity isn't developed enough to be able to answer it yet. Handily, if the correct answer is received, the spore basically kills itself and decays into a liquid fungus.

So, the Doctor must locate and communicate with the main brain of the virus in order to prevent the destruction of humanity. This doesn't take much time, and once he finds it in the back of a car, he connects with it literally. A tendril enters his nostril and finds a section of the Doctor's brain to talk directly to. Much of the next few minutes are carried by Evelyn, as he's oblivious to events around him while he tries to save humanity. The crab creatures surround Captain Chan, and she's out of bullets. One grabs her ankle and begins to crush it, and she feels the infection overrunning her...

The Doctor's chat with the virus is one of the most enjoyable bits of this story. I really like reading well-written prose, but I always miss the back and forth of dialogue you get in scripted pieces. For that reason, it feels really refreshing to read the uninterrupted conversation as a whole. So much so, it's made me want to go and write a script. If that's not a good sign, I don't know what is. The Time Lord initially tries to pretend he's a human, ready to answer the question, but it sees through this ruse. It can tell he's an offworlder, from his inbuilt immunity. He talks of the infection ravaging his people aeons ago, and it almost feels like there's a pang of sadness in him.

When the threat doesn't let him stand for the humans, he is forced to lie, to fool the rather simple intelligence in order to preserve the people of Earth. He says he was one of the original creators of the virus, and has lived millions of years to wait for its return to guard humanity. It's quite a clever lie, but considering what he's already said it seems a little implausible. Nevertheless, the virus accepts this explanation and duly kills itself, saving Evelyn just in the nick of time. It seems a bit odd to me that the virus wouldn't try and take over another species it had encountered. Purely because humanity appears to be the dominant species, it gives up on any others. It doesn't seem like the logical behaviour if worlds are to be converted. That was the original purpose after all; to terraform planets millennia ahead of when they might be needed so that new worlds are available for its creators when they are required. This is a clever idea in itself, and one I really liked.

And so the story wraps up. The Doctor and Captain Chan return to the convoy and Major Platt (who I appreciated the presence of in the opening segment) demands a debrief. Chan says she'll handle it and the Doctor wanders off into the stars, not inviting Evelyn to join him despite the very obvious inclination she has to. It feels a shame that when there's hundreds and hundreds (possibly more) of years unexplored in the Doctor's history that she doesn't go with him. I still don't count The Night of the Doctor as canon, purely because it puts a finite cap on Paul McGann's time, which I don't think should ever be done. I prefer the mystery by far. The Doctor does say he might drop by from time to time though, setting Scarrow up for a return to the keyboard, I hope.

Overall then, this is a neat little story that ties itself up well. It's not completely inconsequential for the Doctor though, as there would be no point in such a tale. He comes out of it slightly shaken by the reoccurrence of the virus (I wish it had had a name, or even species) and slightly enlivened by his meeting with Evelyn, who he clearly has a connection with. It's not as instant or as close as some other 'first encounters', but I can see potential in their relationship. I think given a greater word count, Scarrow could do something impressive with these two characters, as his Eighth Doctor characterisation is quite accurate. It bridges the personalities glimpsed in Doctor Who and Blood of the Daleks, with a shot of originality. He's funny, charming and intelligent. There does seem to be a dangerous edge to him too, and I can imagine most of his lines in McGann's smooth tones. 

As good as this was, the scope was a bit limited. After the epic universe-spanning of The Ripple Effect, this feels like it's at the other end of the spectrum. It's good that he doesn't have the TARDIS on hand to hop around as in The Spear of Destiny, and the atmosphere is quickly established. Even the very minor characters who might only feature for a page or so (such as the first soldier the Doctor encounters, or Chan's partner Rutherford who doesn't even appear) are sketched quickly and in depth. It's a great skill to have as a writer, to be able to convey exactly who someone is in a short space. It's something that can be developed and enhanced but always reads best when it comes naturally from an author, as here. I'd like to see more Who from Scarrow, but in a longer story. The length was the main drawback of Spore as otherwise I really enjoyed it, especially the Doctor.

In a Nutshell: A pocket-sized story for the Doctor with the pocket-sized era, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

You can buy Spore as an eBook here, or as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories collection here.

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