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Book Review

Book Cover

Doctor Who
The Many Hands


Author: Dale Smith
BBC Books
RRP: £6.99, US $11.99, Cdn $14.99
ISBN: 978 1 84607 422 6
Available 10 April 2008

Edinburgh, 1759. The Nor’ Loch is being filled in. If you ask the soldiers there, they’ll tell you that the reason is because the loch is a stinking cesspool that the city can well do without. But that doesn’t explain why the workers won’t go near the place without an armed guard, or why they whisper stories about the loch giving up its dead, and about the minister who walked into his church twelve years after he had died. It doesn’t explain why, as they work, they whisper about a man called the Doctor, and about the many hands of Alexander Monro...

That’s quite an unusual synopsis. Rather than describing events in the book as things to come, the synopsis reads as though it is set shortly after those events and is looking back upon them - like many a novel’s prologue. But then, this is quite an unusual novel.

For one thing, it is uncommonly adult in tone and sophistication. Gruesome incidents abound, with the Doctor and some of the locals being threatened by reanimated corpses (who rise from the waters and besiege a church in unfortunate plot similarities to The Curse of Fenric) and Martha Jones being menaced by a horde of disembodied hands. In a particularly grisly scene, Martha has to hide under a tarpaulin alongside a stinking corpse, trying desperately not to gag.

The plot puts an inventive sci-fi spin on real events, people and locations, including the “lost” Nor’ Loch, which used to lie between the Royal Mile and Princes Street in an area now occupied by Princes Street Gardens, and the three generations of Alexander Monro, distinguished Scottish physicians who between them held the professorship of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh continuously for 126 years. The book as a whole offers a fascinating insight into the social structure and architecture of 18th-century Edinburgh.

The author, Dale Smith (who has previously penned the Seventh Doctor novel Heritage and the weird and wonderful Time Hunter novella The Albino’s Dancer) also offers us an unusually detailed insight into the Doctor’s mind - not merely his observations, sensations and opinions, but his very thought processes, which are typically eccentric.

Smith is less adept at handling the character of Martha, who comes across as less educated than she does on TV. Is it possible that his initial storyline was written with Rose Tyler or even Donna Noble in mind? However, the author has fun showing Martha attempting to put her experiences from Human Nature and The Shakespeare Code to use, albeit to no avail. (Smith also refers back to Gridlock, The Unquiet Dead and his own Heritage.)

All in all, I’m glad Smith has had a hand in the new series novels, bringing his own idiosyncratic style to the range. You’ve got to hand it to him!


Richard McGinlay

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