02 May 2014

BOOK: Nothing O'Clock

Concluding the eleven-month long series of short stories is Neil Gaiman's Nothing O'Clock. The style of the title certainly suits the tone of the novel, which seems to me to be pure, unadulterated Gaiman. It's set in 1984, but this has little significance to the plot or the characters involved; it has almost no bearing on plot events, and so feels a little exogenous and chosen simply to avoid being set in the early noughties, rather than because it will add anything to the story. This is a shame, as I always look forward to stories set in the latter half of the twentieth century. But no matter, what really matters is the story.

This seems to me to be exactly what I would expect a Neil Gaiman story to be like. Nestling this in between Victory of the Daleks and The Time of Angels, Gaiman joins Moffat and Gatiss as the only writers to have an 'official' story set within each of Matt Smith's series. It seems to me that there are two ends of the childhood 'dream' spectrum. Russell T Davies, during his reign on the show, placed particular emphasis on the monsters-coming-to-us end, and extremely well he did it too. Gaiman seems to fall at the other end, where you're in a fantasy world where anything can happen; dogmen buy houses, metal men can repair themselves in an instant, etc. That giddy, wacky dream scenario is encapsulated perfectly in Nothing O'Clock. While there's nothing wrong with this style of story, I simply prefer the Davies approach and the capacious middle ground in general. Neither of Gaiman's stories (although Moffat's significant contribution to The Doctor's Wife must be noted) have done a whole lot for me, and are a bit too fantasy. 

Prose would seem to be Gaiman's natural environment though. He has an electric way with words, skimming from idea to idea, building up a tense atmosphere all the while. He conjures up images very easily in this reader's mind, and he has a tangible natural flair for this medium which readers may sense many writers don't. So, to the plot. Amy and the Doctor arrive in the mid-eighties to find that everyone's homeless. Following the strain of one particular family, we learn that a rich celebrity is willing to purchase the property for many times more than its face value, and so they willingly accept of course. Only, this has been happening nationwide, with every property, business and hotel, leaving everyone with nowhere to go.

The stem of this crisis is revealed to be the Kin: a being trapped in another dimension by the Time Lords. In a similar way to Scaroth (of City of Death), the single entity can scatter itself throughout time and space, though this is a natural ability. It has recycled money through time to generate enough to be able to buy up the UK. The Kin was an enemy of the Time Lords, imprisoned as long as they existed. In slight contradiction to The Time of the Doctor, they are assumed not to be any more, and so the Kin has escaped. It has just one object in mind: to destroy the one remaining Time Lord. For this reason, it would seem, it has come to Earth. The whole scheme already described was devised purely to lure the Doctor in. Upon Eleven and Amy's arrival, they set up the TARDIS as an actual police box, and pretty soon Mr Browning (the head of the aforementioned family) turns up to report the strange goings-on.

It's at this point that the Doctor and the Kin come face to face, in a sideways separation of the time team. The creature impersonates Ms Pond with another of its perception filter-esque masks. It gains entry to the TARDIS and requests the Doctor take them back to the dawn of the universe, to escape the Kin. He of course realises the trick though, and parks the TARDIS in the second before the Big Bang. Whilst the Kin planned to scatter itself throughout all creation by being present at that original explosion, it is now trapped before time - nothing o'clock, as the Doctor calls it. In this new version of events, the Kin cannot exist at any other point in time and so cease to be in 1984, restoring events to their natural course. This brings Polly Browning back from the dead, and lands Amy in their kitchen, listening to The Archers. She and the Doctor are the only ones who remember the altered version of events.

This is a bit of an oddball story in many ways. Its pacing feels discontinuous; whilst the opening is relatively slow and builds tension, this is all dispelled in the climax as events occur at a sprint. Not to put Gaiman down but it does lead this reader to think that perhaps a deadline was fast approaching (or had gone). The ending does feel like a little bit of a cop-out, and I'd like to think that the author was capable of a more mature approach rather than just stopping, despite the similar (in execution) finale to the Gaiman-heavy Nightmare in Silver. It also feels in the early part of the story that Amy is being built up for a significant role in proceedings, only for her to be left whinging (by far my least favourite aspect of Pond's character, largely due to Karen Gillan's acting) as the TARDIS dematerialises. This removes the eBook from the tone achieved in those early Smith adventures, where Amy was very much a dominating presence. I don't know if it actually was the case, but this also felt a lot shorter than earlier entries in the series, possibly due to the changing tempo of the storytelling.

The Doctor in this is undoubtedly the Matt Smith incarnation, but his characterisation is far more in line with the later approach taken by the TV series. In Series 5, the Eleventh Doctor was written quite generically (as an aside, I disagree with Steven Moffat that you can write all Doctors the same) and Smith was allowed to put his own spin on the character. He added all the tics that naturally came with his performance. From Series 6, the writers began to add these into their scripts so that he lost the personality of the mannerisms and became something of a caricature of his former, far superior self. The clearest dialogue example is the arduous repetition of the "timey-wimey" meme, which isn't showing the full ability of the creative team in my opinion. Occasionally, it would be fine, but the overuse has just reduced its impact for me. The stark contrast to make is that of the Doctor in The Time of Angels to his older self in Series 7B. Can you imagine the more action-orientated, more traditional 'hero' figure in stories such as Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, The Crimson Horror or Gaiman's latest episode? It's not surprising that the author naturally falls into this vein of writing, but it does displace it somewhat from those early stories. 

When it was announced Neil Gaiman was to write the final instalment to this series, there was a rumbling of displeasure within Who fandom, mostly amongst those who'd convinced themselves that JK Rowling would be filling the role despite no supporting evidence. I had no real feeling either way. As already mentioned, the writer's stories rarely move me in either direction, so I was unperturbed. I always feel it's a little futile to express outrage at the appointment of a writer, as there's nothing you can do about it, and the overseeing editor (be that an exec or a commissioner) must have their reasons for the decision. No matter how loud you sigh when you disappointedly read Steve Thompson (that's right, not Steven or Stephen as many insist on calling him) is to pen a new episode (which I'm personally quite excited about), Moffat must have seen something in his previous work to make him think he could be beneficial to the new era. I approached this with as much of an open mind as any other entry in this series. I am generally quite a positive person, and don't like to dwell on negatives too long and since I hadn't encountered any of the authors in this series work previously (aside from Charlie Higson's fantastic Young Bond series), I made no preconceptions.

To conclude, Nothing O'Clock is a bit of an odd entry. It certainly doesn't feel like the finale to what's been overall an enjoyable set of stories. The tone fits straight into the Moffat era though, with a being from outside time invading a quiet English village. It's hard to fully describe to someone who hasn't read it, but the opening of this feels both like Moffat-by-numbers and completely original Gaiman. This is definitely the most enjoyable portion of the book, and it's a shame that the premise was perhaps built up too far to be able to conclude it satisfactorily. There are several aspects given early prominence that go unexplained, such as the fur on the walls, and perhaps Gaiman would have felt more comfortable with another five or ten thousand words to expand into. No matter. There are certainly good aspects of this, but again it wasn't my style of story. As a whole it left me kind of cold, and while I can appreciate its merits, the eccentric nature of Gaiman's style just isn't my cup of tea. He undoubtedly has a gift for prose though, and this is one of the main highlights of the story.

In a Nutshell: Classic oddball Gaiman that might leave you hungering for more.

You can buy Nothing O'Clock as an eBook here, or as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories anthology here.

11 Doctors, 11 Stories Roundup:

1. Tip of the Tongue (Patrick Ness) - 9/10
2. The Nameless City (Michael Scott) - 8.5/10
3. Something Borrowed (Richelle Mead) - 8/10
    Spore (Alex Scarrow) - 8/10
5. The Beast of Babylon (Charlie Higson) - 7.5/10
6. The Spear of Destiny (Marcus Sedgwick) - 7/10
7. A Big Hand for the Doctor (Eoin Colfer) - 6.5/10
8. The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage (Derek Landy) - 6/10 
9. The Roots of Evil (Philip Reeve) - 5.5/10
     The Ripple Effect (Malorie Blackman) - 5.5/10
     Nothing O'Clock (Neil Gaiman) - 5.5/10

Average = 7/10

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