Doctor Who
Atom Bomb Blues

Author: Andrew Cartmel
BBC Books
RRP: 5.99
ISBN 0 563 48635 X
Available 10 November 2005

The Second World War is coming to its bloody conclusion, and in the American desert the race is on to build an atomic bomb. The fate of the world is at stake - in more ways than one. Someone, or something, is trying to alter the course of history and destroy the human race. Posing as nuclear scientists, the Doctor and Ace play detective among the Manhattan Project's physicists, while desperately trying to avoid falling under suspicion themselves...

It's appropriate that this book, which may well be the final regular adult Doctor Who novel, should return to where it all began: the travels of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, who were the current TARDIS team when Virgin Books launched The New Adventures back in 1991.

Writing this novel is one of the architects of that era: Andrew Cartmel, script editor of the Sylvester McCoy years and author of the New Adventures' War trilogy. However, the plot is more straightforward than was typical of The NAs. The narrative is fairly linear, apart from a prologue that takes place two-fifths of the way into the story, and the Doctor and Ace are involved in the thick of the action from the beginning. The only truly New Adventure-ish aspect is the Doctor's use of hallucinogenic substances for Native American-style vision quests.

In terms of series continuity, the Doctor (albeit wryly) checks that the historically ignorant Ace knows who the Nazis are. Therefore, this book is probably set before the Big Finish audio Colditz and the NA novel Timewyrm: Exodus, both of which heavily featured the Third Reich. It certainly takes place after The Curse of Fenric though, because the TARDIS crew refer back to that serial on a number of occasions.

Rather surprisingly, given the identity of the writer, the Doctor and Ace's dialogue sometimes jars, but Cartmel also crafts some memorable supporting characters. These include the hard-boiled Major Rex Butcher, who is in charge of security at the Manhattan Project, and a grotesque bunch of real-life physicists. The vivid, almost Fleming-esque descriptions of these scientists include the following, about Klaus Fuchs:

... a tall, thin stick insect of a man ... A young man with a huge, domed forehead, tiny ears and a risible little lick of hair adorning his large curve of skull. The young man's eyebrows echoed the curve of the huge round spectacles that gave him a bug-eyed look. His Cupid's bow mouth was bracketed by the scattered trace of scarring from adolescent acne.

Things get rather silly during the second half of the book, in which invaders from not only another time but another dimension are revealed. Quite apart from the fact that this is the third Who book in the last few months (after Spiral Scratch and The Time Travellers) to feature a parallel world or timeline, it is never adequately explained why there should be a duplicate for every inhabitant of the alternate Earth despite a time difference of at least 55 years. Had the dimension travellers been from the same era, the existence of doppelgangers would have been perfectly acceptable, but are we supposed to believe that there's a double of, say, Duke Ellington in the alternate 21st century? Somehow, I doubt it. As in Silver Nemesis and Battlefield, magic plays a part in achieving the crossover, which goes some way to explaining the unlikely coincidences, and the author succeeds in springing at least one surprising revelation about the parallel world's relationship with our own.

Far zillier (sorry, sillier) is an alien called Zorg, who, for some reason, pronounces everybody's name with a "z" at the beginning and contributes hardly anything of relevance to the plot. Fortunately Cartmel's colourful characters, in particular Major Butcher, stick in the memory far longer than the plot's more outlandish aspects.

This is truly the end of an era, though the paperback series doesn't quite go out with the atomic bang that it might have done.

Richard McGinlay

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