18 April 2014

BOOK: The Beast of Babylon

Many of you may know that Christopher Eccleston's Doctor is something of a favourite of mine, so I've naturally been looking forward to the Ninth Doctor anniversary releases more so than the rest. Not deliberately, mind. So, getting to The Beast of Babylon was a much anticipated point for me. Charlie Higson certainly writes very well, but I wasn't overly enamoured with his story. This really isn't his fault though, because I tend not to like 'ancient' historicals as much as more recent ones. This, as the more perceptive readers may have guessed, is set in Babylon, which seems pretty medieval culturally.

This is all set within the closing thirty seconds of Rose, between Rose rejecting and accepting the Doctor's invitation. This is quite a novel storytelling idea, and the only feasible period where a story could realistically not feature Rose or possibly Jack. Ali, the Karkinian the Doctor meets in the opening pages of this story, is quite a unique character, and she kickstarts the whole of New Who as we know it. It's on her insistence that the Doctor returns to the Powell Estate to try once more with Rose. Without Ms Tyler, the Doctor wouldn't have regenerated when he did (in-universe, obviously). So, Higson has already built up this character's importance. She is a trifle unlikeable though, and alien to use the appropriate term. She first encounters the Doctor during a family picnic, and meets him again later on. She insists on coming with him to defeat the Starmen - giant gene-stealing creatures that put me in mind of the Krillitanes in terms of their nature. Although they undeniably play a big part in Beast, they really aren't the central focus of the story.

That would be the Doctor. Higson places emphasis on the lonely nature of the Doctor. From the implications, it would seem that since regenerating (presumably from John Hurt, but you never know) he hasn't stopped. Immediately the TARDIS detected the Nestene Consciousness on Earth, and took him there to sort it out. From there, he travelled directly to Karkinos (nice name) to resolve the issue of the Starmen. He seals the ones Ali sees (who are in fact one, but bleeding between dimensions so it appears there's two... or something) into a time loop and then persues more of his batch back through time to Babylon, where we meet the real life King Hammurabi. There's a lot of exposition about his recent conquests in his introduction, presumably to make him see more imposing when he threatens the Doctor - which he inevitably does within 48 seconds of his arrival. 

It's Ali that comes to the rescue to resolve the relatively brief plot, and it is only about 70% of the way through that we actually learn what she looks like in a very cunning bit of deception from Higson. I had to go back to the start to re-read to make sure I hadn't just misunderstood it. When Ali sees the Doctor she describes him as looking like a normal man, implying obviously that the Karkinians are a humanoid race. This is not the case. In fact, she is a seven-foot beetle-type creature. She has pincers and is venomous. Through some clever writing, we are made to think of her as a person when in fact her appearance could place her as the villain in such a story. It's a great message about not judging on first impressions, which I think is to be extended to the Doctor. The mistake the Babylonian soldiers make is to do just that, and we see the more alien side of Ali when she murders several natives. I don't know if this is supposed to reflect the recent dark past of the Doctor, and show him himself in order that he changes his ways. I liked how it was never clarified whether the titular Beast was the Starmen, Ali or the Doctor.

In any case, it makes him realise that he needs a human companion. Come the end of the story, following an enjoyable sequence where the Doctor clings on Ali's back while she crawls up the Starman's shoulder, he drops her off and returns for Rose. Indeed, we get a different perspective on the final scene of my first episode as the Doctor sets the TARDIS to impress mode to try and woo Ms Tyler in. It obviously worked. There really isn't a lot of story here, but the descriptions are really lovely. I also liked how the Karkinian didn't just hop off with the Doctor at the first meeting, it's a few days later. She thinks TARDIS technology is antiquated and learned about the Time Lords at school. I found it amusing that the Doctor had managed to land in a swamp, and the ending is left quite ambiguous, with mention of the Doctor's return. If it happens, I doubt it will be with Eccleston's Doctor, but if it is, I'd love Jack to tag along as well.

The Doctor is really well characterised in this, but some times it felt like Higson was poking a bit too much fun at Eccleston. The pained smiles are a touch too far for me and they just damaged the good impression I was getting. I disliked Ali's brash nature and her confrontational manner. She was really portrayed as alien though, and her scenes in Babylon are definitely the superior. The moment when all the soldiers drop their weapons was very good, and I can see this being created as a twenty-five minute episode really easily. It doesn't fill the scope (and therefore budget) of a full episode, and nor the running time. As already commented, the setting wasn't for me, but it was very well done. The attention to detail impressed me and although I can't comment on its accuracy (aside from a spot of brief Googling beforehand), it certainly seems like Higson's done his homework.

Neither the best or worst in the series so far, this was a tad disappointing to me. This is in no part Charlie Higson's fault though. I had built my hopes up and although the character moments of this were enjoyable, the supporting cast were less so. I would welcome the return of the Starmen, but hopefully in a bigger role as here they get barely any screentime (or the paper equivalent) despite being a constant presence throughout. I really liked the style of prose employed here, it really made you want to read on, which is always good. It was playful and relatively fast-paced whilst being descriptive and interesting. I'd love Higson to write a story set between Boom Town and Bad Wolf as he has a good handle on the Doctor, but I could do without another appearance from the Karkinians. As good as they were here, I think they're most effective left at the one appearance. I'm more than happy for someone to prove me wrong though.

In a Nutshell: Unique in style, The Beast of Babylon might not be who you first think...

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

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