Time and Relative: A Review of the Novella by Kim Newman

Source: Good Reads website. Copyright 2001 by Telos Publishing Ltd.

From The Reference Guide: The harsh British winter of 1963 brings a big freeze that extends into April with no sign of letting up. And with it comes a new, far greater menace: terrifying icy creatures are stalking the streets, bringing death and destruction.

The First Doctor and Susan, trapped on Earth until the faulty TARDIS can be repaired, are caught up in the crisis. The Doctor seems to know what is going on, but is uncharacteristically detached and furtive, almost as if he is losing his memory…

Susan, isolated from her grandfather and finding it hard to fit in with the human teenagers at Coal Hill School, tries to cope by recording her thoughts in a diary. But she too feels her memory slipping away and her past unraveling. Is she even sure who she is any more…?

First Line: “Hate, hate, hate! I hate Coal Hill School. I hate Year Four. I hate London. I hate pretending. I hate the cold.”

Source: The Doctor Who Reference Site. Copyright 2001 by Bryan Talbot.

Time and Relative chronicles an adventure of Susan Foreman during the winter of 1963, a few months before Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright started snooping around a certain junkyard. The novella is a pseudo-historical which involves an elemental monster called The Cold which, it turns out, is responsible for the Big Freeze of 1963. The Freeze was a particularly bad cold snap that took place in England. The Thames froze, as did parts of the sea surrounding the British Isles. In typical Doctor Who fashion, Time and Relative places the blame for this historical oddity on a prehistoric intelligence called The Cold. We learn that a combination of Communist Russian experiments and Alaskan drilling reawakened the dormant elemental which had evolved on Earth. As The Doctor says in the novella, The Cold is “one of Evolution’s first experiments with Intelligence.” It is only able to move and grow when temperatures drop below freezing, and the method it uses to dispatch humanity—which The Cold refuses to share the planet with—is an army of killer snowmen. I couldn’t help but envision Bad Mr. Frosty from the old Clay Fighter games, which rather killed the tension. There were a few places where Newman recaptured it, however, such as the snow rolling toward a military blockade, and the scene where Susan, John, Gillian, and company try to cross the Railway Bridge. The Cold proves to be a rather effective monster.

Less effective, however, were some of the secondary characters. The particular weaknesses were with Captain Brent and the Haighs, the former being a military captain and John’s father, the latter a religious husband and wife. It seemed these characters worked to espouse the idea that adults couldn’t handle the crisis, but children could. They insisted on pretending things were normal, while slowly going mad. I find this characterization hard to believe, especially having recently read Day of the Triffids, which created a nuanced and believable portrayal of humanity in a time of extreme crisis. The use of Brent and the Haighs in this way seems to be pandering to the idea that adults are uninteresting and boring and children are strong and resilient and superior because of their heightened imaginations. While I don’t have a problem with this idea, per se, it seems odd to include such an explicit child-empowerment message in a book that I believe was written for adults.

Source: Public Domain

Not all characters were poorly drawn. Susan and The Doctor fare extremely well, as do the supporting characters of John and Gillian (Newman is making a reference to the old TV comics here). I would argue, however, that Susan is portrayed too well. I find it difficult to believe that, having gone through this encounter with The Cold, the Susan of this novel would be the same Susan that would have an emotional crisis every other week once she and The Doctor left Earth. This Susan has more in common with the portrayal from The Sensorites and The Aztecs, which were some of the stronger performances from the show. In particular strength here is The Doctor, who debates whether or not to save the humans because The Cold has a stronger claim on the planet, and it is a more intelligent creature. Compared to The Cold, he says, humanity is like algae on a fish tank. When Gillian threatens to kill Susan if The Doctor refuses to help, The Doctor feels that his point has been made (about humanity’s barbarity), and is willing to allow Susan to die rather than interfere. His disregard for Susan in this instance is a bit at odds with The Doctor in the first season of Doctor Who, but his coldness (no pun intended) and disregard for humanity fits well.

I seem to be down on the book. I suppose I was disappointed. I had high hopes for the story, and even felt the beginning was strong. The book is narrated by Susan, using the conceit that she is writing in a diary in order to improve her grasp of English. This narrative device works quite well. Newman even has a few good observances/commentary about humanity. When discussing adult disdain for 1960s music, he writes, “It’s because adults are threatened. When music changes, it means we’re taking over. The young.” And elsewhere, when Susan is trying to remember her home planet and the Time Lords, she writes:

“This is standing outside a window, looking in, watching a child being beaten but not smashing through to do anything. Finding it interesting, but having no reason to change it, as if the whole universe were a big painting in a gallery, to be admired for its technique but which we should never think to add a brushstroke to, not even to repair damage or improve on a shoddy bit of work. Where we come from, all people are like that.”

These are some great moments in the narrative and some wonderful observations. It’s just a shame that the characters didn’t hold up consistently. This flaw hindered my enjoyment of the book.

Continuity? I mentioned the development of Susan in this book possibly being at odds with the Susan in An Unearthly Child. If I had to bet, I’d say Newman would respond with the following passage from The Doctor:

“‘Continuity, bah!’ Grandfather said yesterday or the day after. ‘Doesn’t exist, child. Except in the minds of the cretinously literal, like the singlehearts who clutter up this planet. Trying to sort it all out will only tie you up in useless knots forever. Get on with it and worry afterwards if you can be pinned to someone else’s entirely arbitrary idea of the day-to-day progression of events. Without contradictions, we’d be entirely too easy to track down. Have you ever thought about that? It’s important that we not be too consistent.”

Touché, Mr. Newman.

Final Verdict: This was a quick read and it had some great narrative moments. It is full of continuity jokes, which occasionally take one out of the story. If you are a fan of Kim Newman, you may have fun seeing how he plays in the Doctor Who universe. A lot of fans like this one, and it is one of the better novels. For me, however, it is average and I probably won’t revisit it.

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5 thoughts on “Time and Relative: A Review of the Novella by Kim Newman

  1. I get so annoyed when writers like Kim Newman and Steve Lyons make these jokey references to John and Gillian as though they were not proper companions. I mean, you wouldn’t have the Matt Smith Doctor meeting a character called Josephine Grant for a laugh.

    As far as I am concerned, the Doctor really does have two grandchildren called John and Gillian.

      • Quite so.

        I’m still holding out for Big Finish to do a Companion Chronicles with John and Gillian. No idea who they would get to play them though.

      • That’s a really good idea, but are there enough John and Gillian fans out there to make it profitable? Granted, they’ve done a few Frobisher stories and an Izzy story. Maybe a John and Gillian story would work well on a release with two or three stories with different companions.

  2. They would have to do it in a clever way. It would be wrong for Big Finish to suddenly explain who they are- telling us their parents, whether they are Time Lords or some lame Lungbarrow style explanation. It would have to keep a certain degree of mystery.

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