Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Retrospective: Andrew Cartmel

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on February 7, 2004.)

When Doctor Who fans think of Andrew Cartmel, they immediately think of the Seventh Doctor; before Virgin published anything other than novelizations of the televised episodes, Cartmel had already established himself as a major force in the Doctor Who creative pantheon with his tenure as script editor of the show. He did a lot to reinvent the lead character in the final years of the series, re-establishing him as a man of mystery and magic and bringing in an element of manipulation to the character -- Cartmel's Doctor isn't an explorer of the universe so much as a grand-master playing chess against it. Some traditional fans claimed that he'd gone too far... but when the time came for Virgin to begin the New Adventures, Cartmel's books for the Doctor Who series (Cat's Cradle: Warhead, Warlock, Warchild, and the later Foreign Devils for Telos Press) showed that if anything, he'd been restraining himself.

The three books for Virgin, Warhead, Warlock, and Warchild, are frequently referred to as a trilogy, but they don't really take a single plot and progress it as trilogies usually do. Rather, they're three distinct and separate novels that share common characters and themes, and many of these shared themes involve the vision of the Doctor that Cartmel had when he was script editor for the program. In fact, he pushes these boundaries so far that at times, the Doctor doesn't seem like the same character we see elsewhere in the books and on TV; he's more judgemental and less compassionate, acting almost as a supernatural force in defense of Earth against its own inhabitants. (Indeed, a common theme running through all four of Cartmel's books is an acceptance that magic is just as real as science, if not moreso -- a complete departure from established Who canon prior to his tenure on the series, but now just accepted as another aspect in the highly flexible Whoniverse.) Cartmel's Doctor also amps up his manipulative tendencies; in Warhead, his first novel, the Doctor works behind the scenes for the entire novel, appearing only in a few short sequences in the middle and at the end. (Of course, Cartmel adheres to long Doctor Who tradition by having the plan spectacularly collapse at the end, forcing the Doctor to succeed through a combination of luck and brilliant improvisation.) Warhead also introduces Justine and Vincent, who would become in many ways the central focus of the trilogy.

Warlock doesn't pick up the story of 'Warhead' at all, though; instead, it takes the central characters of Warlock and involves them, along with several new characters introduced in the second book, in an entirely different story. But again, the Doctor stays predominantly "off-screen"; most of the book is devoted to Ace and to Creed McIlveen, one of the new characters created. The Doctor steps onto the stage at the end to set things right, but Cartmel still tries to keep him very much at arm's length from the reader... and, in long-standing Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor's way of setting things right is haphazard, succeeds in no small part through chance, and leaves a lot of loose ends lying around waiting to blow up in someone else's face.

Warchild, the final book in the trilogy, concerns itself mostly with wrapping up those loose ends, and is as such rather light on plot. In fact, all of Cartmel's books are fairly light on plot, but that doesn't seem to concern him over-much; Cartmel writes very much to evoke a sensation of tangibility in the reader, a feeling that one could literally step into the scene he's describing. As such, he spends a lot of time describing the sensations, the emotions, the details of a scene to great effect; his books have a very immersive quality to them. It does mean that he takes a lot of time to describe very simple events, though; Warlock, which is one of the longer Doctor Who books, takes almost fifty pages to describe a drug bust. It's almost the opposite approach to writers like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovich, although it's not without its charms.

Until relatively recently, the 'War' trilogy summed up Cartmel's contributions to prose Who, but he did contribute to Telos' line of Doctor Who novellas with Foreign Devils. This is a slice of nostalgia, which seems almost surprising coming from an author like Cartmel; still, you can see his stylistic influences creeping in on the cozy and traditional Second Doctor. It's a world where magic exists and the Doctor knows it (indeed, the book acts as a cross-over with an early 1900s character named Carnacki, an investigator into the spiritual world.) Cartmel's attention might be elsewhere, but his interest in Doctor Who has, apparently, not yet entirely faded.

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