REVIEW: Seasons of War (Declan May, ed.)

23382352An unofficial Doctor Who charity anthology focused on John Hurt’s War Doctor, Seasons of War presents a pleasingly engorged table of contents featuring stories from a mix of writers both known and lesser-known. I’ve been watching the project unfold for quite a while now, and was waiting for the (now delayed) paperback release to read the book until I eventually caved and bought the ebook (which you can do for whatever price you choose to pay here, going directly to charity.)

It opens, in pleasingly timey-wimey fashion, with the Epilogue – Warsmiths (by Matt Fitton). It reminded me fleetingly of the opening to Obverse’s City of the Saved Sherlock anthology, with a bleak, iconic image setting the tone for the rest of the stories to follow and, just a little bit, taking a hammer to what we might expect a Doctor story to be like.

It’s followed by I. Karn (Declan May) which does a stand-up job of handling continuity (it follows the short Night of the Doctor) and taking a further crow-bar to our image of the Doctor. Here is shown immediately forgetting the name of a dead woman and unremorsefully refusing to save an entire race. There’s setting out your stall, and then there’s this story.

By contrast, Crowsnest Past (Warren Frey) takes an abrupt detour from the grimy opening, launching the Doctor into a pretty standard Doctor story, complete with information-eating monsters and spur-of-the-moment plan. It’s pretty decent, though feels like a bit of a u-turn from the opening pages that have been so adamant about de-heroing the Doctor in this particular guise. If anything, this feels like an Eleventh Doctor story–although that doesn’t necessarily detract.

It’s followed by one of my favourite of the collection, Eight Minute War (Lee Rawlings), which tells the tale of an (unsuccesful) battle from the point of view of a footsoldier in the Doctor’s army. The minutiae of the alien worlds of Doctor Who has always been more interesting than the huge battles, and this story succeeds in the same way, showing the war-time cameraderie of training and preparation, before blasting everything apart in the final pages as the mission fails, to no concern of the Doctor. This Time War is shaping up to be truly horrific.

The Mind Robber (J.R. Southall) is another Land of Fiction story which — although functional — doesn’t manage to be as meta or clever as Land of Fiction-style stories deserve. It’s solid, and includes some powerful imagery, but I was still left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Following this, the first of the flash-fiction pieces that pepper the anthology, from the pen of the editor himself, throws together the War Doctor (here known as the Man in the Bandolier) with another Time Lord, the Corsair. These segments shine as small flashes of story that can revel in atmosphere and pathos without an overburdened need for plot mechanics, and this one is brilliant: the story of the Corsairs TARDIS in particular is a beautiful flight of fancy.

The Ambassador of Wolf-Rayer 134 (Kate Orman) is likewise a great piece, although I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Orman. Moffat really needs to just hire her to write an episode already. It’s followed by The Amber Room (Simon Brett and John Davies) in which a time-displaced soldier is rescued from dinosaurs by the Doctor, only to discover the Earth has vanished. I’m not the first review to point out that the soldier is absurdly accepting of all the information thrown his way (although maybe a dinosaur will do that to you) but sometimes that’s the cost in a short story of getting-the-hell-on-with-it, and this is an entertaining and adeptly-paced story.

The Celephas Gift (Andrew Smith) is probably the lengthiest piece in the anthology, which is by no means a bad thing. It has the feeling of pure vintage Doctor Who, richly textured with a neat hook to it, and manages what action-based short stories rarely achieve: the feeling of a satisfying finale.

Up next is a further Declan May flash fiction piece, The Girl With The Purple Hair I which introduces companion-for-the-book Jenny Shirt. Given how hard it is to pull together a likeable companion (I might controversially argue that RTD never managed it in an entire series with Martha) it’s pretty impressive to do so quite so successful in under two pages. Jenny Shirt forever.

It’s followed by a section of Henry V reworked by Matthew Sweet to be about the Doctor. Other reviews have not been kind to this, which is a bit unfair. It’s clever, it’s got a whole bunch of in-jokes I had to look up to understand, and even if it is a bit ephemeral amongst all the other stories here, at least its erudite ephemera.

Next up is Here Comes The Doctor by Christopher Bryant, in which the Doctor infiltrates a war hospital. The first half is a superb spiral of imagination; the opening descriptions of the hospital are some of the most evocative world-building in the collection, and if the ending (they’re really Dalek’s and they were evil all along!) is slightly less exhilarating in comparison, its partly due to the strength of the opening and partly because this particular twist occurs tangentially quite a number of times throughout the other stories – such as, sort of, in the next, Your Move (John Peel). Telling the tale of a strike against the War Computer in the company of a sure-to-be-a-villain robot, the sure-to-be-a-villain was in fact a villain. Predictable but fun.

Sonnet by Jenny Colgan does what it says on the tin; it’s brief, but packs a punch, with Shakespeare relating his view of the Doctor and his adventures. Somebody please release an anthology of Doctor Who poetry, please?

After a string of stories against an ever-encroaching backdrop of war, Disjecta Membra (Elton Townend-Jones) is something of a breather. It’s dressed up in the gloomy horror vestments, and the traditional Doctor Who reveal of ‘barely explained science was responsible for the supernatural whatnots all along’ does nothing to diminish the power of the imagery that this story employs. (Hands, cups, mirrors–that’s all I’ll say.)

IV. Loop is another of May’s short entries. In some ways this feels like a missing scene from the 50th Anniversary (actually–that’s a touch unfair, as May handles this with more subtlety and mordancy than Moffat ever would) in which a young War Doctor meets the War Doctor who is about to steal the Moment. (It’s also worth applauding that fact that none of the above is explicitly spelled out, which makes the story all the more rich.)

The Holdover (Daniel Wealands) takes the Doctor to an internment camp for refugees. Unfortunately, I found this story to be one of the few mis-fires of the anthology–rather laboured and a bit awkward in style. Thankfully, the next story, Climbing The Mountain (Lance Parkin), is an antidote. Although slight of plot, it revolves around a neat twist that, for all it might seem quite light, in some ways says more about the necessities of war than any number of annihilated planets.

The Garden (Sami Kelish) is, quite frankly, sublime (and definitely in my top three stories of the collection). Delicate and infused with pathos, it tells the story of an old woman on Gallifrey who is so absorbed by the caretaking of her garden in which all the flora of Gallifrey reside that she hasn’t even noticed there’s a Time War going on. The ending in particular is elegant and sad. Stunning story.

Sleepwalking To Paradise (Dan Barrett) chucks us straight back into the war, with no respite. This one’s all story powering forward, replete with a number of smart twists and a lucid, engaging style. It’s followed by Guerre (Alan P. Jack and Declan May), which plants the War Doctor in World War I. It’s a horror-ish tale that pairs brevity with power, relying on the innate pathos of it’s setting to add shades to the War Doctor’s character.

Then The Girl With The Purple Hair is back, continuing the sterling work of her previous introduction. It’s followed by V. Lady Leela, also by Declan May, which tells us what Leela gets up to in the Time War. It rings completely true, further demonstrating May’s capabilities of handling character.

Making Endings by Nick Mellish is another stand-out piece, although to describe to much about it would perhaps ruin it. (It put me in mind of both Patrick Ness’ More Than This and an episode of Black Mirror.) Smart and entertaining.

The Book of Dead Time (David Carrington) is especially memorable for one very specific reason: the library in a tree. Frankly, its unforgivable that I don’t own one. (If you want me to, y’know, review the story: the rest of it matches up to it’s core fantastical image. This feels like the story Neil Gaiman might have written had he been persuaded to write for Seasons of War.)

Driftwood by Simon Brett is another Dalek story, although it is my favourite here. There’s layers of reference and literary shadings that accompany this, but on the surface it’s about Azrael, a wounded Dalek that, amongst other things, now appreciates tea. Lyrical, with a great twist.

The Ingenious Gentleman (Alan Ronald) is a completely left-field oddity amongst the other stories here, although certainly memorable for that. Joining the ranks of fictional characters whom the Doctor has encountered is Don Quixote. The story is giddy and funny, but still turns on the implicit parallels between the two old men no fool’s quests.

Like any self-respecting season of Doctor Who, there’s got to be a returning companion, and in this case it’s the Brigadier in Matt Barber’s Fall. It’s hard to know what to say about this one–as a story it is, just, functional, but the fun resides in the absurdities of a nursing-home bound Brigadier rallying his geriatric army. It has its moments, but it’s really all about having fun with the Brigadier and nothing else. (Which is, of course, no bad thing…)

Always Face The Curtain With A Bow (Jon Arnold) is another oddity of the collection, but in truly spectacular form. Trapped in a time-looped prison in which another Time Lord is forced to kill him every day, this is a nasty, inventive and endlessly ingenious story. Brilliant.

Help A Stranded Time Traveller (Matthew Sylvester) is a straight-up adventure story, short, to the point and coarse (in the best way possible.) It’s followed by Storage Wars (Paul Driscoll) in a pop-culture collision that absolutely should not work but completely does. Some of the prose clumsiness is completely forgiven for the ability to turn the flippant nature of reality television into something with real heart and power at the reveal of the story. (That said, although it ends with the War Doctor releasing the butterflies into the world, were we at liberty to tinker more with canon, I’d love to see that moment given to Capaldi’s Doctor as he searches for his lost home of Gallifrey.)

The Postman (John Davies) feels like a quirky French film (sorta Amelie-Kafka) portraying the various regenerations of the man whose job it is to write condolence letters to the millions dead in the Time War. The initial jolliness is a feint though: the conclusion of the story sucker-punches you into complete blackness, as the Postman delivers the news to parents before being dispatched to the battlefield in which the soldier actually dies. Timey-wimey, in the grimmest way possible.

The Thief of All Ways (Elliot Thorpe) ups the grim quotient, with the Doctor unheedingly sacrificing lives to power a weapon. This is a good story, but actually feels like it’s from an entirely different world retrofitted to star the Doctor–it’s a touch ill-fitting.

Paul Driscoll returns with a second story, The Time Lord Who Came To Tea, which again delights in the small details to paint a picture of the trickle-down effects of war on a remote homestead. There’s a whole bunch of little things that shine here, but its the Dalek Meat Traders that stick in the mind.

The Nightmare Child is another shorter piece from Declan May, proving once again that he knows his way around the English language. This piece is a gleaming assemblage of wordplay that does wonders with atmosphere.

Meals on Wheels (Paul Magrs) returns us to the every-day world, in which Jackie Tyler runs into Davros who, in this instance, is a senile old man dreaming of the Nightmare Child from his tatty tower block bedroom. In an anthology so taken with war on an interplanetary scale, Magrs’ knack of focusing on the everyday might have been out-of-place, but this story works superbly amongst the run-down.

It’s followed by the comic-book entry into the story, Time Enough For War (Simon Brett and Jim Mortimore) which I’m a little at a loss to describe. The art is superb, richly detailed and evocative, but I was at a bit of a loss to descrie what the hell was actually going on. For all that, I found I quite liked it. Just don’t ask me what it was about.

And alas, poor Jenny Shirt — she had to go. We knew her fate was sealed. Barnaby Eaton-Jones does the dirty work in Doctor Death. Given the appearance of a cloaked and scythed Death, I kept dimly expecting a Pratchett-esque quip from the Reaper, but is actually about the metaphorical implications and not at all about jokes in small caps.

The Beach (Gary Russell) is a last-hurrah straight-up Doctor story, returning us to the familiar caring Doctor, perhaps as a reminder that, despite what you might think at this point, he isn’t all bad. It’s cute, which is exactly the right note to strike at this point.

The Moments In Between returns George Mann to the War Doctor and his companion Cinder and this is a wonderful final grace note to the multi-shaded Doctor on display here, playing like a stolen moments from Engines of War. And then finally the whole piece is rounded off with another brisk gallop through the fields of language from May in his Prologue, revealing the ultimate cost to the Doctor of saving the Earth (and patching up some canon holes too, kind of.)

Which brings to me to a summary, which seems a bit of a tall order after such an extended run of stories. Frankly, the anthology is an incredible achievement; to bring together so many voices into a cohesive, balanced and above all just-plain-good anthology of this length (all for charity, I might add, so without the benefit of a pay-check to spur the poor writers on) is miraculous. In the entire run-down there were perhaps only a small handful of stories that didn’t chime with me, which given that I somewhat predisposed against grim war stories is even more of an achievement.

So, all in all, highly recommended. Especially as (have I mentioned?) it’s for charity. I await Seasons of War 2.

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