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BOOK
Doctor Who
Spiral Scratch

Author: Gary Russell
BBC Books
RRP: 5.99
ISBN 0 563 48626 0
Available 01 August 2005


Carsus: the largest repository of knowledge in the universe - in any universe, for there are an infinite number of potential universes. The Sixth Doctor and Mel visit Carsus to see the Doctor's old friend Professor Rummas, but he has been murdered. Or rather, a potential version of Rummas has been murdered. Only the Doctor can stop the descent into temporal chaos, but he is lost on Janus 8. And Schyllus. And a 20th-century Earth where Rome never fell. And...

Here, Gary Russell has penned what is potentially a very confusing novel. It opens with a segment concerning a couple of strange green children, the relevance of whom does not become apparent for some time. The narrative then dips in and out of the lives of two families in the 1950s, the outcast Romanian Tungards and the upper-class English Lampreys - who turn out to have a mysterious connection - in between scenes of the Sixth Doctor and Mel visiting Carsus.

At one point, I thought Mel seemed somewhat out of character, exhibiting intense annoyance at social class divisions in a manner that is more akin to the hot-headed Ace. However, in retrospect I believe this to be an early warning sign of the universal divergence, which also has Mel imagining a sister she never had, and gives rise to alternate versions of the TARDIS travellers, including a black-clad, gruesomely scarred Sixth Doctor.

Despite all these disparate plot elements, Russell's narrative remains remarkably readable (only losing it a bit towards the end), thanks to an easy-going writing style, memorable characters and surprising plot twists, including a couple of particularly dramatic developments concerning the Lamprey family and an alternative Mel.

However, while the author made his complex plot comprehensible to me, it appears that whoever wrote the back-cover blurb was somewhat less clear about the situation. The copy erroneously refers to there being only 117,863 potential universes, when in fact this figure relates to the number of universes that are known to contain a Melanie Jane Bush. Perhaps the cover blurb is from an alternate universe...

One plot development that does not come as a surprise, however, is the fact that this book proves to be the Sixth Doctor's final journey, leading straight into the Rani's attack upon the TARDIS at the beginning of Time and the Rani. I'm not spoiling anything by the way, because the author lays his cards on the table at an early stage, stating, for example, that Carsus is close to the planet Lakertya, the setting of Time and the Rani, and describing Mel wearing the same outfit as she wore in that serial. The time travellers refer to recent events on the planet Caliban, a world that Russell's fellow author Craig Hinton had intended to be the site for this incarnation's swansong. I wonder whether Hinton is annoyed with Russell for "stealing his thunder"?

All in all, Spiral Scratch gives the Sixth Doctor as honourable a send-off as is possible without contradicting events in Time and the Rani. It does invalidate the first page of Pip and Jane Baker's novelisation of the television serial, but that's no great loss. It could also be argued that the dying Doctor's inner peace is at odds with the resentful ex-incarnation depicted in New Adventures novels such as Timewyrm: Revelation and Head Games. However, it is also possible that the Doctor's upbeat final words are those of his emerging seventh self.

On the other hand, if you don't believe that this narrative fits in with other continuities, there's the handy get-out clause of all those alternate Doctors, who also include briefly seen versions that are clearly based upon other spin-off media. One of them is accompanied by a giant penguin - obviously Frobisher from the Doctor Who Magazine comic strips - while another wears the blue outfit seen in the Real Time webcast.

I wouldn't want to ruin it by disclosing any more plot details, so take my word for it that there's plenty more to enjoy in this book than I have mentioned above. In fact, I've barely scratched the surface.

Richard McGinlay

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