Engines of War
by George Mann
The War Doctor first jumped on to our screens at the end of The Name of the Doctor, indeed at the end of series 7 itself.
(The Doctor looks forward to where a man is standing with his back to them.)
CLARA: Who’s that?
DOCTOR: Never mind. Let’s go back.
CLARA: But who is he?
DOCTOR: He’s me. There’s only me here, that’s the point. Now let’s get back.
CLARA: But I never saw that one. I saw all of you. Eleven faces, all of them you. You’re the eleventh Doctor.
DOCTOR: I said he was me. I never said he was the Doctor.
CLARA: I don’t understand.
DOCTOR: Look, my name, my real name, that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise.
DOCTOR: Clara? Clara? Clara!
(The Doctor picks up Clara in his arms.)
DOCTOR: He is my secret.
NOT DOCTOR: What I did, I did without choice.
DOCTOR: I know.
NOT DOCTOR: In the name of peace and sanity.
DOCTOR: But not in the name of the Doctor. (The Name of the Doctor, from Chakoteya transcripts)
The Doctor’s secret, the War Doctor, was the incarnation that the Doctor didn’t talk about because of how he acted in the Time War, and how (he thought) he ended it. Naturally the introduction text of “introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” over the War Doctor’s face then a cut to credits had the opposite effect on the fans: people were talking about him all the way up until his appearance in the much anticipated 50th special, The Day of the Doctor.
Whether poor internal politics at the BBC destroyed our chances to see Christopher Ecclestone in a similar role in the special, or bad choices denied Paul McGann of his swansong return (which he arguably go anyway in The Night of the Doctor “minisode”) is hardly the point. John Hurt was fantastic as the War Doctor in Day. He played it as an old and weary Doctor who had enough of the time war (his catchphrase seeming to be “no more” before adopting 9’s “fantastic”), who somehow came across as younger than either Tennant or Smith. The chemistry of all three was marvellous, the Tower of London scene in particular really selling Tennant and Smith as old men who have tried to bury the atrocity the committed as the War Doctor. He also serves as a lovely conduit for “Classic Doctor Who” to poke fun at “New Doctor Who”, such as in the way the War Doctor reacts to 10 and 11’s use of the sonic screwdriver.
In the end, all three reject the notion that they “did [what they did] without choice”. They make a choice to find another solution, a better way, and the War Doctor realises he had a right to be called the Doctor all along (though obviously he won’t because we can’t mess up our numbering). The War Doctor was ultimately fantastic, but his appearance was over all too soon, even with the special clocking in at roughly 1h15m. Though he did just make a reappearance in flashback-form in series 8’s Listen. If only we could have more of the War Doctor, right? Right?
He was an older man, with a craggy, careworn face and startling green-brown eyes. His hair was silvery grey and brushed up into a tuft at the front, and he wore a bushy white beard and moustache. He frowned at her, looking perplexed. He appeared to be wearing a battered leather coat and a herringbone patterned scarf.
Engines of War, written by George Mann, seems to follow the tradition of the other larger-size hardback Doctor Who releases by BBC Books The Wheel of Ice (by Stephen Baxter) and Harvest of Time (Alistair Reynolds). Both of those books featured the second and third Doctors respectively. I don’t think there’s been any confirmation of these books being “part of a series”, but they have had similar releases and all feature past Doctors.
The plot takes place before Day of the Doctor, during a conflict between the Time Lords and Daleks in a particular region of space. The Doctor is forced to land on a planet in the region, Moldox, which has been ravaged by Daleks. There he meets a plucky young Dalek hunter named Cinder, who becomes his companion. She’s pretty cool. The Doctor wants to find out what plans the Daleks are concocting, etc., etc.
“Doc-tor,” said the Dalek. “Dalek killer. The Great Scourge. The Living Death. The Executioner.”
Structurally Engines of War is actually quite pleasing. The larger page sizes, and the roughly 350 page count make a book that’s not a chore to get through, but is pleasingly weightier than the quite short New Series Adventures range, which is still running. The book is split into three parts of roughly equal length. While the book is linear, each part has its own little “act” to wrap up, and in those ways it mirrors the structure of a classic Doctor Who serial, albeit more along the lines of The Two Doctors with its 3×45 minute structure. This isn’t the only part of classic Doctor Who that the book mirrors. It’s packed with references to the classic run. From The Five Doctors, to the obligatory references to Genesis of the Daleks, and a lot of bits in between. But it does so in a story that feels very modern, filled with broad audacity and even spaceship battles. If RTD had to write this as some sort of finale, it would seem to make sense. In this sense Engines of War really does manage to pull off a marriage between the old and new, the classic and modern, when it comes to representing the broad spectrum of what Doctor Who is.
The problems for me come when looking deeper at this “marriage” of elements. For the most part this is all Engines of War is. There is hardly any in between. The Doctor, despite his claims to the contrary throughout the early part of the book, still acts and feels like the Doctor. He is even referred to as the Doctor by numerous people. The ruse quickly falls apart for the reader, and it quickly becomes apparent the Doctor is only fooling himself. But heck, maybe he was. He’s definitely more hard-line than other Doctors, but it’s hard to imagine them not being so when put in similar situations. There’s only one exception towards the end, and it’s pretty good, but I would have liked to have seen more of that sort of thing – to be made to feel uncomfortable about this man who doesn’t deserve the Doctor, doing things the Doctor would never conceivably do. But it doesn’t really happen.
War changes everyone. Even the Doctor. (the tagline)
But does it really?
There are also a noticeable amount of typos in this book. There also some bits of heavy exposition that are a bit grating. It really feels like the BBC didn’t really care too much about this book. It could have been edited a bit more, and the focus of the book is just a bit lacking. Mann seems like a good writer, and a lot of this novel feels really nice. But at times I can’t help but feel Mann is doing in his best without being given much, if any, direction as to how things should play out, what the War Doctor was like, what Time War conflicts were like, and is doing the best he can with that. And with that, he does a great job.
Engines of War is a fine book. It’s a great read, in fact. If you want more of the War Doctor, then, well, here he is. He’s grumpy with a sparkle in his eye, flying about in his badass TARDIS that has a ceiling that shows space around him. Mann captures the essence of Hurt really, really well in fact, and it’s one of the high points of this novel for me. But that’s all it really is. It’s just more of the War Doctor. It’s easy to guess what the conclusion will be early on, and when it does come it’s very solid and satisfying. But it doesn’t really add much to anything. Don’t get me wrong, it adds a bit, and it’s nice that it does. But overall, it’s just more of the War Doctor. But you know what? That’s not a bad thing at all.