Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Eighth Doctor

With the publication of The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game finds itself in a limbo between the last hurrah of Classic Who and the launch of ‘Nu Who’. The former was of course detailed in The Seventh Doctor Sourcebook and the arrival of the latter is covered in The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook. This limbo is a reflection of the history of the television series, cancelled in 1989 and relaunched in 2005, with a sixteen-year gap during which the only canonical Doctor Who story was a certain television movie. Released in 1996, Doctor Who: The Movie was a made for television movie that marked the regeneration of the Seventh Doctor into the Eighth Doctor, the reappearance of the Master, and laid the groundwork for what the BBC hoped to be a new series. Unfortunately, the film was a failure, being reviled by the fans and seen as being too American. It also condemned the Eighth Doctor to a single canonical appearance.

Except not. For whilst the Eighth Doctor would continue to have multiple adventures in audio via Big Finish, he would have one last canonical outing in The Night of the Doctor that would see him regenerate in the events that lead up to The Day of the Doctor, the actual fiftieth anniversary episode for Doctor Who. It is thus Doctor Who: The Movie and The Night of the Doctor that The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook bounces between in exploring the adventures of the Eighth Doctor. As with the other books in the series, the first few chapters explore who this incarnation of the Doctor is, who is companions are, what his TARDIS is like, and what his adventures are like with a view to designing them. Yet from the very first page, the authors are forced to deal with the paucity of information about the Eighth Doctor and each of these topics, and their answer in most cases, is to stretch the source material about as far as they can. So, for example, Doctor Grace Holloway and the gang member from Doctor Who: The Movie, Chang Lee, are treated as Companions, but in the classic sense neither are. What the authors do is suggest that they are because they have access to the TARDIS, but since neither travels in the TARDIS, are they really? Well, no… Now the Eighth Doctor is not exactly lacking in Companions, as the phrase taken from The Night of the Doctor and included in the sourcebook here, “Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly, friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you...” suggests. These are of course Companions that have travelled with the Eighth Doctor in the audio adventures published by Big Finish, but are not cannon, so cannot be included in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook.

Similarly, the other suggested Companion, Cass, from The Night of the Doctor, is not a Companion, but the authors do at least suggest how she might be a Companion—and it is a whole lot more interesting than the explanations for Doctor Grace Holloway and Chang Lee as Companions, tying in as it does, to The Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. What this showcases is how the authors and the publishers are actually more interested in The Night of the Doctor than they are in Doctor Who: The Movie. This can be seen throughout the sourcebook, starting with the cover, which although includes a photo of Eric Roberts as the Master from Doctor Who: The Movie, uses a photo from The Night of the Doctor to illustrate the Doctor. It can be seen in how the authors manage to squeeze a page-and-a-half of information out of the eight minutes of The Night of the Doctor versus the nine pages they get out of Doctor Who: The Movie—and even then, those nine pages feel stretched. Yet it still has to cover the movie and the authors definitely want to get through it in order to get to the interesting stuff, even if they are forced to explain why the Doctor might be half-human as claimed in Doctor Who: The Movie. The best said about the explanation is that it is what it is and move on. The idea was silly enough and whilst the explanation is reasonable enough given that silliness, it just reminds the reader of that silliness. 

The paucity of source material also means that the section on adventures for the Eighth Doctor is also rather stretched thin because as the authors make clear, there is not much to go on. What the sourcebook suggests is that the Eighth Doctor’s time is initially marked with an innocence exuberance for life, but that this innocence is lost as he witnesses the effects of the Time War, and ultimately, forced to pick a side. And that is about that, because there are no adventures to go on.

So what of the other four fifths of The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook? Well, one of the upsides of having so little material to draw upon is that the authors can make stuff up and what they make up is ‘Doom of the Daleks’, a twelve-part campaign which is a consequence of the Time War, involves the Doctor, and takes its structure from The Key to Time story arc for the Fourth Doctor. The time travelers, be they the Doctor and his Companions, other Time Lords and their Companions, associates of the Doctor—for which read members of UNIT, Torchwood, or the Paternoster Gang—or non-associates of the Doctor—for which read other characters the players have created, get a message or a visit and are given a great quest. The Doctor has been shot with a Dalek weapon that is erasing him from Time and to prevent this from happening, the weapon needs to be destroyed. Which requires using a Temporal Trace Locator to find traces of the Doctor up and down his timeline and once it has enough traces, quadrangulate the location of the weapon, and then destroy it. Essentially, a big McGuffin hunt and an excuse to emulate the styles of each of the first eleven Doctors’ adventures.

Of course, the adventures can be played in any order, because this is time travel, but are presented in order, one through eleven in the sourcebook. The first few adventures do fit the style of their relevant Doctors, but there is a bit of a mix and match of dangers between regenerations. So whilst ‘Down and Away Below’ is a classic historical adventure in the style of the First Doctor, involving pirates and the Caribbean, it actually involves a classic Third Doctor monster, the Sea Devils. Similarly, ‘The Space Trap’, a classic Second Doctor murder mystery aboard a space station, involves monsters from the Third Doctor’s and the Fourth Doctor’s eras, the Sontarans and the Rutans respectively, though of course, a Third Doctor adventure would not be so without the involvement of UNIT and the Master, which is exactly what ‘The Tendrils of Neox’ involves and a jolly romp it is too. ‘Nowhere’ takes its cue from ‘The Face of the Enemy’, a sort of sandbox affair festooned with Fourth Doctor iconography and has an oddly Dickensian feel rather than the obvious Gothic stylings that the authors might have opted for. For the Fifth Doctor, ‘The Coils of the Serpent’ is a direct sequel to two highly regarded episodes, ‘Kinda’ and ‘Snakedance’ and is none the worse for that, and at least it does provide an opportunity for one player to roleplay some scenery chewing evil. The odd one out in the first six is ‘Lunchtime of the Dead’, which though written for the Sixth Doctor and is a sequel of sorts to ‘The Twin Dilemma’, feels like it should have been written for the Fourth Doctor. This is because it is actually a parody of Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and since Adams’ tenure was under the Fourth Doctor… Anyway, it is so thick with puns and references to the actual Restaurant at the End of the Universe, that the Game Master should probably run it as such and just go with the consequences—bombast and all!

The scenarios take a notable down turn in quality for the second half and as written, they are just not quite as much fun. ‘The Matter of Silver’ for the Seventh Doctor plays on the Arthurian motifs as the player characters themselves in a castle in a pocket dimension besieged by demons, whilst ‘The Patchwork Man’ is really only a scenario for the Eighth Doctor because it is set in the same hospital as Doctor Who: The Movie. The adventure does least begin to bring thing back to the authors’ efforts to tie the adventures of the Eighth Doctor into the Time War and it at least it includes an appearance by the villains of the campaign—the Daleks! Their influence continues in ‘Marked’, a decidedly deadly, combat orientated game show set adventure for the Ninth Doctor. Being set in a deadly game show a la ‘Bad Wolf’ results in feeling like heavy-handed commentary on early twenty-first century reality television, though the ‘Diary Room’ does give the opportunity for the Game Master to set up some fun roleplaying. ‘Ice’ for the Tenth Doctor is modelled upon ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’ and although it has an environmentally interesting timing mechanism, is okay. The penultimate adventure, for the Eleventh Doctor, is ‘The Face in the Mirror’, a locked room affair in a country manor in a branching timeline with a healthy dose of ‘timey-wimey’ in the Edwardian era. It is quite a fun mystery, though the Game Master will need to work very hard so as not to reveal the identity of the true monster too early lest the player characters run around panicking! Lastly, there is ‘Neverwas’, the climax to ‘Doom of the Daleks’, which the Game Master will need to be careful for it to fizz rather than fizzle… Disappointingly, the very, very end is underwritten given all that effort that the Game Master has put in over the course of the preceding twelve episodes.

Physically, The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is as well presented as the other books in the series. It is liberally illustrated and it needs an edit here and there, but what cartography there is, is plain and dull. One issue is the inappropriate use of illustrations, so that for an illustration of a pirate in ‘Down and Away Below’, a photo of Captain Henry Avery from ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ and ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, despite the fact that he does not appear in the adventure. This happens again and again throughout the book. The problem is that Cubicle Seven Entertainment cannot use anything other than photos from the series to illustrate the books, so as much as the photos are illustrative, they invariably do not illustrate what is in each adventure.

To be fair, The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is not a good sourcebook for the Eighth Doctor. Then again, how could it be with so little to draw upon? The authors do try their very best and whilst not great, it is about as good as could be expected. In the meantime, it does give the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game something it does not have—a campaign! Now even though the campaign is not quite as good as it could be, but it is a more than reasonable solution to the question, “What shall we do with a sourcebook when we really, really having nothing to fill it with?” The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is a curate’s egg, but then Doctor Who is not always perfect either, and if some of the adventures underwhelm, some of them can still entertain.