We’re a few weeks out from the end of Peter Capaldi’s first year as Doctor Who, as well as the show’s most ambitious and almost successful Christmas special to date. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m more invested in the show than I have been for years and that’s entirely down to the change in perspective that’s come with this Doctor. The first three novels featuring him, Silhouette, The Blood Cell and The Crawling Terror, share both that perspective shift and the success that comes with it.
Silhouette by Justin Richards features The Paternoster Gang, which is always a good sign. The Doctor and Clara investigate an odd power surge in Victorian London. The surge came from a Frost Fair, the famous fairs held on the ice when the Thames froze over. When they arrive they find Madame Vastra and Jenny investigating a locked room murder connected to the Fair while Strax is investigating the apparent murder of a close friend. The three cases all dovetail together in a way that allows Richards to give each one of the characters a surprising amount of room to breathe. Vastra and Clara in particular get some really interesting stuff to do and Strax, ‘Great’ Detective provides the world’s angriest butler with some of his best moments to date. Of the Paternoster Gang, only Jenny is a little badly served but that’s more to do with the scope of the plot than any failure in writing her. Richards has the most fun with the villains of the piece and some of the imagery used here rivals the show’s most chilling moments, especially the recurrent use of origami birds. Richards also gets to tie this Doctor pretty definitively to events in the show’s recent history too, with the Shadow Proclamation getting namechecked and a great sequence that subtly evokes every previous incarnation without ever saying it out loud. Richards’ take on the 12th Doctor is dark rather than dour, and there are flashes of humanity here that really ground the character. Coupled with the ambitious plot, they ensure the book flies along and has surprising, and welcome, emotional weight.
That emotional weight is central to James Goss’ The Blood Cell. This is the most successful, and oddest, of the three novels, opening as it does with the Doctor being sentenced to life in prison. Told from the point of view of the Governor, it’s a gently paced, menacing story that explores the world of the prison and the Doctor’s place in it with equal doses of patience and urgency. There is, of course, something awful in the prison and the Doctor naturally treats the prison’s rules with the same disdain he treats chronological order. However, the real star here is the Governor and the tone he brings with him. Goss’ writes him as pompous, supercilious and quietly, desperately frightened. He’s immensely unlikable and colossally sympathetic and as the story unfolds Goss shows you exactly why. This is a magic trick of a novel; everything you see is vital but you have no idea why until almost the very end. It’s also the sweetest one of the three by a mile. There’s one particular line in a conversation with one of the other prisoners that sums this Doctor, and the character as a whole, up to a tee; a deeply odd, utterly brilliant alien whose compassion is matched only by their acknowledgement of how important the little things are. The standout of the three, The Blood Cell is one of the best Doctor Who stories in years, regardless of format.
Mike Tucker’s The Crawling Terror closes out the trio of novels and is both the most traditional and tidiest of the three novels. This is vintage ‘something nasty in a small British village’ Doctor Who and Tucker absolutely nails every single beat you’d expect, plus a few you don’t. One of the best aspects of the novel is the way Tucker explores the 12th Doctor’s problems with soldiers, splitting the narrative between the events in the village and the military response outside it. No one’s an idiot, no one has all the answers and the eventual meeting point for the two plots shows just what a good job Tucker’s done with the military characters. The soldiers all feel well rounded and developed, the sort of honorary companions that the show’s most recent season especially excelled at.
Tucker and Goss’ novels also neatly counterpoint one another. The TARDIS is almost completely absent from The Blood Cell while a trip to the village in World War 2 is central to The Crawling Terror’s plot. That gives Tucker the opportunity to do some neat temporal plotting too, wrapping the entire novel up in, if not a bow, then certainly a narratively tidy unexploded bomb.
These three novels embody very nearly everything that worked about Peter Capaldi’s first season as The Doctor. The character’ grumpy flamboyance is here in every book, as is the quickfire intellect and delight in messing with villains who aren’t as clever as they think they are. More importantly, each novel also nails the compassion at the heart of the character. The Blood Cell in particular excels at both that and the wonderfully spiky banter between the Doctor and Clara but all three show the 12th Doctor as what he is; an idiot with a box and a screwdriver, someone just passing through and helping out. Based on these three novels, he’s doing fine.