Thursday, 14 April 2011

‘Doctor Who: The Way through the Woods’ – Una McCormack (BBC Books)

Looking back, a whole load of things got me into science fiction at a very early age which led me into the realms of fantasy only a few years later. ‘Doctor Who’ kicked it all off though (closely beating the radio adaptation of ‘Lord of the Rings’) For me, the mid to late seventies were about the simple things in life; like learning to walk, putting my own clothes on and getting a spoonful of food in my mouth (for the record, I can now do at least two of those three things...) These years were also about watching my first ever episode of ‘Doctor Who’ (‘Destiny of the Daleks’) and starting to get my hands on the books as well. I’ve been a fan ever since and the original books still get pulled off the shelves for a read every now and then.

The advent of the new series has seen a whole wave of new ‘Doctor Who’ novelizations hit the shelves and the good news this time round is that, unlike the original Target editions, these books give us completely new and original adventures rather than simply adapting what we have already seen on the television. For the fan, that’s double the goodness at least! Are the books any good though? I’ve already told you what I thought of ‘The Coming of the Terraphiles’ and couple of the other books have been mentioned here and there. This time it’s the turn of a forthcoming release and it’s not a bad one either...

Everybody stays away from the old woods, just outside the village, and no-one seems to know why. Those who do stray beneath the trees do so by accident and are never seen again. Two teenage girls have vanished in the woods within weeks of each other and the Doctor is on the scene, in the present day, to see if he can solve a mystery that is thousands of years old. At the same time, the Doctor is also in 1917 and trying to find out what has happened to Rory who is lost in those very same woods. Something is at the heart of those woods and is just starting to wake up; if the Doctor can’t get to the bottom of things before it does... very bad things are going to happen.

If you’re a fan of the ‘Doctor Who’ show in its current format then (if you didn’t know already) you’ll be pleased to know that ‘The Way through the Woods’ follows the same kind of lines. A single mystery that’s taken to pieces and solved in no short order with danger to be faced by companions and everything eventually being taken care of by the Doctor. While the original ‘Doctor Who’ books stuck to the format of the show, with pretty much a cliff hanger at the end of each chapter, this book feels like it develops much more organically with cliff hangers happening where they need to instead of where people want them to. The setting is gorgeously dark and foreboding and you really get a feel for just how scary the forest as McCormack takes her readers under the tree line. Once you’re in the forest itself things get seriously strange and McCormack does well to strike that balance between showing off that strangeness and still keeping it accessible for the reader. ‘The Way through The Woods’ is very easy to read on that score. There’s a real mystery to be solved here and McCormack made me want to hang around for the outcome. Having said that though, the finale somehow manages to be a tense affair yet utterly predictable at the same time as it draws on tropes that we’ve all seen before (not going to say what these are, no spoilers here). Not sure what to make of that...

Having only watched a couple of episodes of the latest series of ‘Doctor Who’ (I know, that’s what DVD box sets are for...) I couldn’t really say how close to the mark McCormack is with her depiction of Matt Smith’s Doctor. What she does convey though is just how old the Doctor is and how this incredible sense of age can help and hinder his interactions with humans, both in equal measure. Watching the Doctor drop himself in it is not only funny but also serves to heighten the tension when you know that the only thing stopping him saving the day much earlier is his own clumsiness. I don’t really know much about the characters of Amy and Rory either but would again say that they come across here as very well defined on the page.

I guess my big issue with ‘The Way through the Woods’ is that it’s a little too faithful to the TV format and does suffer for it. The show runs at a fierce pace, there’s a lot happening and you don’t have to pay too much attention to what’s in the background because it’s right there in front of you; you can just take it in without even thinking about it. You don’t need me to tell you that a book is a whole different thing and it’s something that you have to take a little more time over. Sticking to the TV show format caused some problems in the pacing of ‘The Way through the Woods’. Sometimes it felt like some of the more descriptive passages were there purely to rein in a story that was running too quickly for the number of pages that were there to be filled. You’ve got two parts of the book’s structure pulling against each other when they should have been working together...

‘The Way through the Woods’ doesn’t flow as smoothly as it perhaps could have done and the climactic scenes felt to me like I was revisiting themes that could perhaps do with a little rest. What McCormack does do though is fill in the rest of the book with all the things that you would expect to see in a ‘Doctor Who’ novel and she does so with a fine flourish. An entertaining read if not a read that will stick around in your head for the long term.

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

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