August 1991. In the 18-month hiatus between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys, the world has turned upside down. The West intervenes to end Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, although the failure to bring the man responsible, Saddam Hussein, to justice has consequences we’re still dealing with. Meanwhile, in the East the Warsaw Pact is officially dissolved, and, despite a last-ditch attempt to preserve it in August 1991 the Soviet Union breaks up. And Germany finally gains its independence from the occupying Allied powers.
While in Doctor Who, the second New Adventure is published. The consensus view is that the first was a bit of a disaster, with a deeply suspect attitude towards women, bare breasts, underage sex and an author who at best seems deeply ambivalent about the seventh Doctor and Ace, and would clearly prefer to be writing an adventure for Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker.
Timewyrm: Exodus, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a slightly surprising success. Slightly surprising, because by the 1990s a lot of Doctor Who fans would have been sympathetic to the view that Terrance Dicks had gone a bit off the boil. He’d last written for the TV series eight years before, and although he kept writing novelisations almost to the end, even those, simple re-tellings of the TV stories, drew some unfavourable comparisons with the expanded, experimental books that Target started to put out in the 1980s. While Ben Aaronovitch was introducing new scenes and hints of the wider “Cartmel Masterplan” in his own novel of Remembrance of the Daleks, Dicks was pumping out a straightforward adaptation of Planet of Giants.
That said, Dicks was, and is, probably the safest pair of hands in Doctor Who’s history. Virgin were pitching the New Adventures not only as the continuation of the TV series, but also as a replacement for the Target novelisations which had reached a natural end in July 1991 with the publication of Battlefield, so it made perfect sense to bring Dicks in early to help smooth the transition and get people onside, like sticking Status Quo on to open Live Aid.
And rather than turning in a safe book, Dicks not only gives us the first Doctor Who changed history story (there are many, many more of those to come, but this is the original), but goes right for the big one: what if Germany had defeated Britain and won the Second World War? Not only that, this isn’t just about some Nazis. These are Hitler, and Himmler, and Goering and all their insane beliefs.
The Nazis haunted the Sylvester McCoy TV stories, so we got pseudo-Nazis and alien Nazis in Remembrance of the Daleks, neo-Nazis in Silver Nemesis and Nazi paraphernalia in The Curse of Fenric. But until Timewyrm: Exodus, the series hadn’t actually tackled the Nazis themselves. In that sense, the book feels like a natural progression from the last couple of years of the TV series. What’s interesting about Timewyrm: Exodus is that Dicks doesn’t simply portray the Nazis as monsters, although he makes it clear they are. Instead, he confronts the seductive power of Nazism. True, he does this partly by having Hitler inherit the hypnotic powers of a time-travelling alien goddess. However, less crassly, he shows us a potential future where Great Britain succumbed to Nazism, and, in the book’s strongest moment, even has Ace experience the pleasure that comes from imposing her own views on others.
Opening the book at an alternative Festival of Britain – a vision of the early 1950s that’s both a million miles away from the pomp and circumstance of Elizabeth II’s coronation, and yet still haunted by the fall-out from the Second World War – is masterful. The British community is recognisable, but the emphasis is horribly changed. Instead of Cockney bovver boys causing trouble, these young thugs have been co-opted into the British Free Corps, and their casual cruelty turned against their fellow citizens. And as most English people prefer to just get on with it without making too much fuss, the implication is that a decade after the German victory most people have learned to live with the new regime, the police won’t intervene if the Free Corps are involved and the resistance is an irritation.
This is chilling – as is Ace’s reaction to the Doctor’s convincing impersonation of a Nazi officer, which he puts on to stop a couple of Free Corps thugs threatening a Jewish stallholder. Ace is delighted at the Doctor’s show of strength, and the subsequent exchange is worth quoting:
The Doctor gave her one of his enigmatic looks. “Enjoyed it, did you?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“So did I,” said the Doctor. “That sort of thing gets enjoyable very quickly. We scared the man at the tea-stall too – did you enjoy that?”
“All right, I get the point.”
In that exchange, which is early in the book, Terrance Dicks – writing his first seventh Doctor adventure – nails the character so well you can hear McCoy saying the lines, quizzing Ace, testing her. What’s more, he captures one of the reasons Nazism was so appealing, why so many young people joined organisations like the SA and the Blackshirts, directly and straightforwardly.
The rest of the book plays out with similarly straightforward, punchy prose. Timewyrm: Exodus is a brisk read, showing off Dicks’ strengths as a storyteller and an unfussy writer – everything he’s learned both about Doctor Who and about writing accessible, enjoyable novels is poured into this. The result is one of the genuine triumphs of the New Adventures – a novel that’s as pacey as a McCoy era TV story and as readable as a Target novelisation. Dicks even introduces a new signature style – introducing one of his own old villains, the War Chief, in a move that would be self-indulgent if only it didn’t appeal so irresistibly to the fan gene, and reconciling the TV series and the books for those fans wavering about accepting the New Adventures. Later, he re-uses the Vampires, Borusa, the Raston Warrior Robot, the Rutans and Morbius so that every one of his TV episodes has its own sequel. Plus, in its own way, this is Terrance Dicks’ most important Doctor Who work since The War Games so the re-use of the War Chief is entirely appropriate.
The War Chief is just one element though – along with Nazis, zombies, plus the Timewyrm herself. There’s a sense that Dicks really let rip here, and the result is intoxicatingly insane. In a book range that’s trying to both pick up where Target left off, and become the primary continuation of a defunct TV series, something like Timewyrm: Exodus is almost exactly the kind of thing you need to.
When Joss Whedon decided to continue Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a series of comics he promised that it was going to be “conceptually bigger and more fantastical” than the TV series, able to achieve things on a scale that would have been impossible on a budget. Terrance Dicks does exactly the same thing in Timewyrm: Exodus – a recognisable Doctor Who story that’s grander and more epic than anything the TV show could have delivered had it still been going in 1991. It worked – this is still one of the best-loved New Adventures, and deservedly so. Though later novels were more obviously ground-breaking, Timewyrm: Exodus kick started the range, just like second TV story kick started the series: this is The Daleks of the 1990s – a book that showed what “too broad and too deep for the small screen” actually meant in practice.
But Dicks was about to be superseded by a new writer, one whose work not only defined the New Adventures, but won him a place as the earliest Doctor Who author to write for the new series…
Next Time: “The Doctor’s soul is revealed. See him. See the heart of him. The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.” Love and War.