It knocks you back a step any time you remember that ‘New’ Doctor Who is 17 years old now. For those ‘Classic’ fans keeping score, that’s as far from An Unearthly Child as Tom Baker’s final season.
You’re welcome – the crushing sense of time on your shoulders is just a free gift.
We point out the distance in time because 17 years is a surprisingly long time in Doctor Who. Five incarnations worth, give or take a Castrovalva.
So if you were a Shobogan (which absolutely isn’t the Doctor Who equivalent of a Muggle, honest), you’d be forgiven for thinking that there could surely be no more to write about the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler, our very first 21st century Team Tardis.
You would of course be almost cosmically wrong, because the joy of Doctor Who is that the world is so overstuffed with imagination as to invite the creation of new stories for each and every Doctor, all the way back to 1963 – and now, seemingly, beyond.
The Ashes of Eternity, by Niel Bushnell, which pits the Ninth Doctor and Rose against a powerful angry being called a Solonite, has lots to offer, even if Nine wasn’t ‘your’ Doctor – heck, even if you weren’t born when he was THE Doctor.
First of all, the way into the story is a delightful conceit. The Doctor, knowing things we puny humans on our spinning ball of cheese-and-other-stuff couldn’t possibly know, is busy in the Tardis, saving the Earth in a way about which no-one on the planet will ever know.
Have you ever contemplated the vastness of the cosmos, thought about the dinosaurs, and realised it’s a minor miracle of stellar and planetary shenanigans that we haven’t been hit by more planet-killing chunks of space rock? After listening to The Ashes of Eternity, you won’t ever have that thought again without a sudden smile, and a (hopefully internal) wink at the Ninth Doctor. What he’s doing as the story opens is using the Tardis to tweak the path of an asteroid that will, eventually, smack right into us and cause possibly even more damage than we could do.
Simple stuff, he thinks, this manipulation. An orbital tweak here, a gravitational nudge there, bish, bash, bosh and home in time for chips on a planet that now will continue to have chips for the foreseeable future.
If you remember the Ninth Doctor’s early adventures with Rose, you’ll recall the time when he thought he’d taken her away for 12 hours, only to discover it had actually been 12 months, Mickey had been investigated by police (Oh, the foresight!), and Rose had been presumed missing or dead for a year.
In The Ashes of Eternity, Niel Bushnell tunes into that combination of overconfidence, innocence, and whimsy that defined the Ninth Doctor in moments like that. His attempts to nudge the asteroid out of the way so its orbital path never collides with that of the Earth go…a little bit…erm…catastrophically wrong.
Result? The Solonite comes calling, breaching the Tardis’ defences, and in a very serpentine way, draining the life out of the Doctor.
Terrifyingly weakened, he resorts to piloting the Tardis in a whole new way, and he and Rose end up outside a farmhouse in Northumberland in 1986.
Sure, that seems altogether less dramatic than encountering an energy-exhausting alien while beggaring about with asteroid orbits, but it does allow us to meet a hearty new character, Peggy. In the way of these things, Peggy owns the farmhouse, but is in no sense a farmer. She’s an artist, and she’s a bit peeved when she finds the Doctor and Rose, shortly after their arrival, rifling through the stuff in her house.
But there’s more to Peggy than art and peevishness. There’s grief, too – grief at the loss of the person who made her life and her art worthwhile.
And then, naturally enough, there’s the Solonite, hitching a lift in the Tardis and now preparing to cause all sorts of havoc. There’s a degree of hat-tipping to Chris Chibnall here, as the Solonite needs a host body to inhabit, so there’s a bit of “Burn with me”-style possession (as seen in 42), but Bushnell’s story is based in very different emotional territory, as well as being based in a Northumbrian farmhouse rather than a spaceship with an awful lot of doors and a handful of Trivial Pursuit questions.
What follows is a battle for the heart, soul, and, if you’ll excuse a slight spoiler, body of a grieving human, and through that battle, the fate of the planet and all its life.
There’s a tradition in Doctor Who of indulging in a bit of “I know you’re still in there” malarkey in stories like this, and in all fairness, Bushnell’s not one to disappoint those who more or less expect that sort of thing. After all, it’s an extremely effective way of separating the humanity of the person from the force that threatens to use them – as the Solonite threatens Peggy.
But gratifyingly for those who have seen that sort of solution a few times in the history of Who, there’s more to the ending of The Ashes of Eternity than just that realisation of self and rejection of the consuming force (and yes, absolutely, the Solonite here, being a fiery creature, is a more-than-decent alien stand-in for the consuming force of grief, thanks for asking). In fact, there’s a perfect example of how this Tardis team, while still relatively new to one another, instinctively work in a kind of harmony.
Rose not only takes a touch of alien possession for the team, but reaches out from human to human to try and salvage the essence that is Peggy from the fiery, consuming parasitism of the Solonite. Meanwhile, the Doctor – being the Doctor – Does Something Awfully Clever. And this time, delivering a kind of restitution for his earlier error, he gets it right, saving the world as intended – albeit not everyone, and not every building, and not everyone’s treasured art collection – survives unscathed.
Adjoa Andoh is an interesting choice to read this story – she has strong Doctor Who connections, having played Francine Jones (mother of Martha) in Series 3 of New Who. But that was two series after Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor regenerated, and one after Rose was left weeping in a parallel dimension, so the connection may not be immediately clear.
That said, Andoh has a great ear for tone, and delivers a wholly workable, comfortable Ninth Doctor and Rose, while feeling free to give Peggy some proper Northumbrian clout. In fact, she has the knack of the best readers – of making you forget you’re listening to a reading at all, and letting you sink into the ‘now’ of the story.
It may have been 17 years since the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler first took on the universe together. But in stories like The Ashes of Eternity, you can revisit the tone, the feel, and the team of 2005 any time you like. Tony Fyler