Plot: What on Earth caused everybody to age 40 years in a few seconds in 1843? Materialising in Bristol in the new calendar year of 151, the Doctor and friends must traversed the barren wilderness, savaged by cannibalistic children, to uncover the truth behind another fractured reality…
Top Doc: Walters manages to recapture that thrilling dangerousness we haven’t seen in the eighth Doctor for a while, probably because we have had Sabbath to take on that role for some time. He has an aura of danger about him, representing a threat to this reality. Nobody seems to trust him much any more and is it a surprise when he seems to be making things up as he goes alone, sacrificing anyone in order to re-instate ‘our’ reality and stop the destruction of the Vortex. He burns with curiosity and describes his work of rescuing maids as thirsty work! As well as regaining his second heart, the Doctor has regained his homing instincts for the TARDIS. He acts like the weight of the multiverse is resting on his shoulders alone, much to Fitz’s annoyance. The row between him and Fitz is excellent, far better than a similar one with him and Anji in The Domino Effect, because we get to see how responsible he feels to sort things out and just how far he is willing to go and contrasted against Fitz’s natural good nature it is very dramatic and shocking. The Doctor and Brunel make an engaging pair too, I loved it when Brunel demanded to be told how the TARDIS worked and the Doctor shrugged and said, “I don’t know, it just does.” He cold bloodedly hooks up Gotllieb to the TARDIS and holds him down whilst he dies in writhing agony, just to get the TARDIS back to the right place. It is a real slap in the face after the Doctor has been so woefully characterised for the last two books, he may not be completely likable, but by God he is distinctive. He knows he has no right to play God and wipe out whole realities but he has a responsibility.
Scruffy Git: Another great book for Fitz because through him we get to see the potential and drama of the alternative universe idea being played out. This makes all the difference to the first two books in this arc because we finally give a toss about what will happen to this reality, because Fitz does too. He jokes he is getting a taste for torture. He is described as the Doctor’s younger, scruffier, shiftier brother. He likes to sit near exits, all part of his ‘leg it’ policy. He has a dream about Anji and the book hints on more than one occasion that he might be developing feelings for her. He feels they are so close now it could be months and not decades which separates their times back on their Earth. He voices, “What if this is the right reality and we are from the wrong one?” He cannot stand men who bully women. He gets cross because the Doctor thinks he cannot think for himself. Exposing how insidious the multiverse has become, it tries to incorporate Fitz into this version of reality. It is heartbreaking to his history getting re-written and Fitz struggle with his identity. One breathtaking scene sees Fitz sitting on his bed in the TARDIS fighting his Totterdown memories, crying out “This is my home!” At the stories close he feels the Doctor has wiped out his home and cannot trust him anymore.
Career Nazi: Beautiful, intelligent and refined, this is the best depiction of Anji since Time Zero, almost as if the nasty brute of the last two books has been erased from memory. Anji dislikes the salt of the Earth atmosphere of the Totterdown settlement, preferring somewhere altogether more civilised. This reality is so quiet, she longs for the noise of the City. She sees some pretty horrific sights here and proves herself perfectly capable of saving herself when the Wildren attack. She realises with some horror that they are expendable, that the Doctor would go to any lengths to restore reality.
Foreboding: Finally we have concrete proof that Trix is on board the TARDIS, fixing up a sandwich for Malahyde here. When will she come out in the open and reveal herself?
Twists: Most brilliant of all, Sabbath is not behind anything! In face, he doesn’t appear at all! The opening scenes are the best since Time Zero with a great depiction of the Bristol Riots and the Cleansing absolutely horrifying through Emily’s childlike eyes. Chapter One is a masterclass of suspense. The twist that Aboetta has been gone from the settlement for ten years when for her it has only been four months is a good shock. Aboetta and Robin’s relationship is beautifully real, she returns home to find him a different man, surrenders to nostalgia and lust and wakes up after the sweaty part to realise she doesn’t love him at all. In 1843, 40 years passed in a matter of seconds ageing 95% of the population to death. The dream of the Doctor, Fitz and Anji stamping out realities is fab. Chapter Ten is probably my favourite in the whole novel; the Wildren attack through Anji’s eyes is mind numbingly frightening (and graphic…one desperate child gets his brains bashed open in front of her!) and the cliff-hanger (where she is presented with a feast of…human torso and her stomach growls) is unforgettable. The image of the Doctor and Fitz standing back-to-back smashing the skulls of the advancing, ravenous Wildren will disturb me forever. Malahyde’s story clears up a lot of unanswered questions…he was possessed by an alien who claimed to be super evolved humans and told he had to build the Utopian engine in order for their future timeline to take place. When in fact it was to cause the Cleansing, filter the energy of the time acceleration to their dying universe and use the Earth as a great battery whilst systematically wiping it out. Anji is apparently sucked into the Vortex to her death, a dramatic conceit although instead she is later revealed to have been sucked to the Eternines dimension instead. The Vortex is sick, deformed, dying…unable to cope with these multiple realities. The TARDIS and Fitz both show signs of being drawn into this realities timeline…desperate to ensure its survival. Cleverly, the narrative dovetails into the prologue, the Doctor stumbling across Emily and strengthening his resolve to stop the Cleansing. There is a wealth of temporal madness as the Doctor starts making things up as he goes along; Brunel from the future (that wont exist) and Malahyde from the past (which he is trying to prevent) all trapped in another dimension! The Cleansing was supposed to roll on forever, the reason it only lasted fourty years was because the Doctor goes back in time and chucks Malahyde/Watchlar into the machine. This caused Watchlar to detached and caused the time barrier around the house. Watchlar emerges when the Doctor hooks up the TARDIS to the Utopian Engine…and he tries to start the Cleansing up all over again!
Embarrassing bits: Really, Anji is leaving in two books time and they’ve managed to resist the NA idea of companions shagging in the TARDIS up until now…so why suggest anything between Fitz and Anji now? At least it all appears one sided (randy sod). Gottlieb turning on the Utopian Engine is a very unconvincing plot device. The last twenty pages just about work thanks to Walters juggling so much plot comprehensively but a tired reader will be left behind with so many characters and incidents to keep track of. I still have absolutely no idea how the Doctor saves the day; he sort flicks a switch, which for all intents and purposes is labelled RESET BUTTON. He obviously borrowed it from the Starship Voyager.
Result: A massive improvement on the last two books, this is a deftly written piece that takes the alternative reality idea by the horns and shakes so hard lots of interesting ideas and dilemmas pop out. The setting is amazing, a cruel and stark post apocalyptic Bristol lovingly described by Nick Walters in some atmospheric passages. The first half is a strong character piece with some terrifying set pieces and the second, whilst not quite as gripping, is a fascinating trip into temporal madness. The regulars really get put through the wringer here and it is nice to see Fitz given some healthy development, although the dangerous Doctor is a great improvement on the last two books too. The only really annoying aspect is the ending, which is inexplicable and insultingly easy. Despite this, I will still champion this book for its strong prose, excellent dialogue and cleverly crafted plot. This is the book which should have come directly after Time Zero: 8/10