Confession time. I was a pre-teen nerd. A geek before that was even a thing in this country. The main source of my obsession in the early 80s was Doctor Who. And anyone who’s ever succumbed to this addiction will know that the TV show WAS NEVER ENOUGH.
Every week I would lie on the rough, odd smelling carpet in my local library scanning the several shelves dedicated to hardback, plastic bound Doctor Who books written mainly by a man called Terrance Dicks. It didn’t matter that they more often than not turned out to be yet another interminable tale about a bad tempered septuagenarian grappling against an unpronounceable foe in an obscure dark ages setting. It was Doctor Who, that was enough. The beast was being fed.
The first of these novelisations came out in 1964 – a run of three books published by Armada books. It is an object of immense coolness, with a title even Russell T. Davies would have balked at for its brashness: Doctor Who in an Exciting adventure with THE DALEKS!
Flip the cover and you’ll find an added attraction – DINOSAURS! Kids of the ’60s you were truly spoiled. If the upcoming series 8 adventure Dinosaurs on a Spaceship turns out even half this good I’ll be a happy man.
In 2012 the market for Doctor Who has become far more sophisticated. Novelisations are out in favour of original adventures exploring every available nook and cranny of the Doctor’s universe. SF legend Michael Moorcock has written one, Douglas Adams’ long lost script Shada has been adapted to great acclaim and Paul McGann’s ill-fated eighth Doctor even has his own on-going series.
And now enter Jenny Colgan, author of quality chick-lit, writing under the name JT Colgan – which makes her sound like a character from an 80s cop show starring William Shatner. As Dark Horizons is the first Doctor Who novel I’ve picked up since the age of 13, I was slightly trepedatious, particularly as it’s got one of those historical settings that never really appealed.
But I needn’t have worried, Colgan suits Matt Smith’s Doctor perfectly. She gets his character, humour and mannerisms down perfectly and proves adept at writing action. She even takes the Doctor somewhere I don’t remember him ever going before – swimming.
The story concerns a mysterious, malevolent fire that terrorises the coast of Scotland, burning anyone who comes near it, including a group of Vikings escorting a captive Princess on her way to an arranged marriage. The Doctor witnesses the fire attacking them and swims out to help.
It turns out the Tardis isn’t quite so good in water and there’s a thrilling underwater section in which the Doctor and his Viking passengers plunge to the depths of the ocean. With the Tardis powerless, the Doctor has to square up to the shape shifting alien with only an ancient diving suit to protect him.
I needn’t have worried about the Vikings either, even though one of them’s called Erik. Jenny Colgan has done her research brilliantly, populating this world with well rounded characters whose desperate plight is sympathetically rendered.
Some of my favourite moments are the exchanges between the Doctor and a young islander called Luag. There’s a particularly touching scene in which the Doctor connects with the boy, unleashing his eternal inner child, hurtling up and down the beach screaming their heads off.
‘Who says I’m a grown up?’ said the Doctor. ‘Perhaps I’m just unnervingly tall.’
The book sent me rifling through the bookshelves to a Puffin classic ‘Myths of the Norsemen’ by Roger Lancelyn Green. It’s a brilliant primer to Viking mythology, weaving the surviving stories into one elegant continuous narrative. The very first lines of that book sum up perfectly the atmosphere Colgan creates in dark Horizons,
‘In the Northern Lands the summer is short and the winter long and cold. Life is a continual battle against the grim powers of nature: against the cold and the darkness – the snow and ice of winter, the bitter winds, the bare rocks where no green thing will grow.’
It turns out to be an inspired period in which to place the Doctor. He finds himself mistaken for the god Loki, a wily outsider who, like the Doctor when pushed, has a terrible destructive power. I wondered too whether Dark Horizons’ Freydis is a version of Freya, a daughter of Asgard who also finds herself forcibly entering an arranged marriage with a distant giant. But where Freya is more or less powerless, Freydis comes equipped with bags of Viking vim; a modern update of an ancient heroine.
Who knew Doctor Who would benefit from a bit of added Chick lit zing?