Book Review: Doctor Who: Harvest of Time by Alastair Reynolds

The Doctor and the Master find themselves at the cold end of time.
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Forget about the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary, the one that really counts is coming this November, which will mark 50 years of Doctor Who. For a show that was dismissed, destroyed, and seemingly discarded for good at one point, the BBC is pulling out all stops. One element of the celebration is the publication of some very cool Doctor Who novels, the latest being Harvest of Time. This is no quickie tie-in either, as the book was written by the acclaimed sci-fi author Alastair Reynolds. I must say, the story Reynolds has crafted is as good and in some ways better than just about any Doctor Who serial I have seen.

In Harvest of Time, the author has reanimated the Third Doctor, along with  his companion Jo Grant, and their Earth-based military “family,” Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Mike Yates, and Sergeant Benson. It is like we are back in the early ‘70s, with the great Jon Pertwee leading the way as the Doctor. Reynolds has thrown some very worthy adversaries into our heroes' lives here in the form of a relentless race called the Sild. As if this were not enough, they also have the Doctor’s personal nemesis, the Master, to contend with. The Sild and the Master are not working together though. Far from it, as a matter of fact. As it turns out, the Doctor has to save the Master from the Sild before he can save the Earth.

I recently reviewed another Doctor Who novel,The Dalek Generation by Nicholas Briggs here on Cinema Sentries, and while it was pretty good, Harvest of Time is outstanding. The Daleks are such superstars in the world of Doctor Who, that we enjoy their appearances no matter what they are doing. The Dalek Generation had an interesting premise, but with Harvest of Time, Reynolds really raises the bar. This is an action-packed story that is full of surprises, a book I found so intriguing that I practically read it in one sitting.

There is such a rich history to this franchise that it is difficult single out who the Doctor’s “greatest” adversary is. There are just too many to choose from. The author makes an awfully strong case for the Master though. As a fellow Time Lord, he is kind of the Doctor’s doppelganger, and he has tried to kill him many times. As for the Sild, I was unfamiliar with them previously, but as Reynolds describes them, they are a nasty species, intent on taking over the Earth.

Everybody has their “favorite Doctor,” and Pertwee as the Third ranks right up there for many of us. He was there for some of the toughest years of the show, 1970-1974, when the meager BBC budget forced many of the stories to take place on Earth. It was a lot cheaper to film on local locations than to build elaborate sets.

Reynolds makes the most of this, as it is Earth that is being invaded. Having the Doctor save our home planet is a lot more personal for us than watching him save somebody else‘s after all. The Sild are the invasion force, but they initially came to get the Master, who is being held prisoner here. Short-sighted military spooks are the true cause of the problem as we come find out. They are building a top-secret weapon, and think they can get the upper hand by working with the Master. He has his own agenda of course, and manages to send some sort of beacon out into space-time, to get one of his other incarnations to come release him. He just happens to be the Sild’s “most-wanted,” and when they pick up the signal, they come calling. Colonizing Earth is just a bonus for them.

When the Doctor discovers that the Master is the key to the Sild situation, he realizes that he must release him. He is most definitely between a rock and a hard place here. Where the story really takes off is when the two of them are together in the TARDIS, hurtling through space and time to figure out what to do about the Sild. You see, the Master had captured them eons ago, and all of Gallifrey thought that he had permanently disposed of them. He and the Doctor must find out what actually happened.

There are some great scenes with the two of them during this time, where they find themselves on the same side of the battle for once. We also get a lot of cool information about their years as students on Gallifrey. They were friendly rivals, and the recollection from the Master about how he bested the Doctor in an academic challenge goes a long way in summing up their relationship. Reynolds writes that this loss “went some way to explaining the Doctor’s lifelong sense of intellectual inadequacy, as measured against his old school friend.“ It is a moment that throws a whole new light on both Time Lords.

The Doctor wins in many other ways though, as we soon see. The Master is reduced to begging for release from himself at one point, which the Doctor will not allow. He understands that it happens in a moment of unprecedented weakness for the Master, and refuses to take advantage of it. The Master later calls him a fool, but the Doctor knew what he was doing. They are like two sides of a coin, and his decision does make sense, even if he himself admits that it may have been the biggest mistake he has ever made. In one of the book’s greatest lines, the Doctor muses “But even a rogue Time Lord deserved better than death at the cold end of time.”

They are on a journey to the aforementioned end of time, where they will meet a 12-million-year-old woman, tour the massive Consolidator space ship, and meet over 700 incarnations of the Master, who are being stitched “out of time” by the Sild. Still, it is the interactions between the two that are the most fascinating elements of this story.

I hope that is enough to whet your appetite, because this is a book that I think all Doctor Who fans will enjoy. The ending is a little rushed, but what can you say? It is really all about the journey anyway.

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