Plague City is part of the latest series of Doctor Who novels and the first to include latest companions Bill Potts and Nardole alongside the twelfth Doctor. Written by extended Whoniverse veteran Jonathan Morris, the story finds the TARDIS crew in the midst of a plague-infested Edinburgh in the year 1645. Plague victims are being visited by the mysterious Night Doctor just before death, reappearing as ghosts shortly afterwards. The Doctor is quick to investigate – reminding Bill that even thought he may be able to help, it isn’t his place to save the city from history.
FROM PROGRAMME TO PROSE
In my experience, there are two types of Doctor Who novel – those that portray alien worlds and monsters in a way that the budget of the television series wouldn’t be able to stretch, and those that read so well you can perfectly visualise them as a full-blown episode. Plague City falls under the latter category, working brilliantly as one of the show’s signature period pieces with a sci-fi edge. Obvious pop culture references to the likes of The Big Bang Theory and Back to the Future also play well into this, helping to maintain the more contemporary feel of the show’s modern incarnation.
The Scottish setting is also a nice tie to the Capaldi’s heritage, but while the decision to use regional accents does enhance the experience it does mean require the reader to wrap their head around some of the dialogue in the early chapters.
WRITING IN CHARACTER
Given the timing of these new novels in relation to series 10 airing one of the more interesting aspects is how newer characters like Bill and Nardole are portrayed compared to their onscreen counterparts, with Plague City hitting it pretty close to the mark. While the novel mostly lacks Bill’s quick-witted dialogue and banter with the Doctor (moments that have made series 10 such a joy so far), it does have the street-smart, sci-fi savvy element that distinguishes her character.
Nardole, on the other hand, is an absolute treat, completely stealing almost every scene that he’s involved in. Even though fans still don’t know all that much about him, his cynical no-nonsense attitude to both the Doctors shenanigans and the various scrapes they find themselves in really set him apart from those that have preceded him. Finally, the Doctor reads unmistakably as the character’s current incarnation, thanks to his harsher-than-most quips about humans and their ability to overlook things.
MONSTERS AND MYSTERIES
Plague City’s strengths lie in the strong mystery element it sets up, with each answer only leading to more questions as the story progresses. There are a number of contributing factors to the story beyond that of just the Night Doctor and the plague itself, but never at any point does it feel too cluttered with different ideas. As far as aliens go the Psycholops and leeches both fit the story thematically and are well described – making it easy them easily to visualise alongside the human characters.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Much like how Thin Ice properly introduced Bill to the level of death the Doctor experiences on his travels, Plague City sees the TARDIS crew land during a major point in British history and thus raises the debate of whether it’s the Doctor’s place to save them. Due to this the story immediately draws parallels to tenth Doctor adventure The Fires of Pompeii, using Thomas and Isobel in a similar fashion to Caecilius’ family – that even if the Doctor can’t save everyone, he is able to make exceptions. Just to keep the comparisons going, there’s even the threat of a volcanic eruption as the story approaches its climax.
The novel doesn’t delve too heavily on the ethics and philosophy of the dilemma, but comfortably plays up to the notion that while the Doctor is quite happy to set rules regarding time travel, he’s almost certainly going to break them sooner or later.
Although Plague City often lacks the spark that makes the dynamic between Bill and the Doctor so engaging, given the time and materials he would have had at his disposal Morris has done an excellent job utilising the current main cast. This is a dark, atmospheric adventure that delivers enticing mysteries while testing the Doctor’s sense of morality when it comes to meddling in Earth’s established history. A story that could have slotted right into the show itself, this is a great start for Bill’s extended adventures in the TARDIS and as we learn more about her they’re sure to get even better.
BLOGTOR RATING – 8/10