Alastair Reynolds takes on Doctor Who, and the result is quite strange

Hard to believe, but yes — Alastair Reynolds, author of Revelation Space and House of Suns, has written a Doctor Who novel. And it's really quite good. Harvest of Time starts out feeling like a straight-up tribute to the early 1970s era of Jon Pertwee, but slowly develops into something a good deal stranger.

Spoilers ahead...

When Jon Pertwee took over as the Doctor in 1970, Doctor Who took a lurch towards a slightly more grown-up feel and Earth-bound settings. And by Pertwee's second year in the role, the show was developing a sort of "family," with the Doctor, Jo Grant, the soliders of UNIT, and the Doctor's nemesis the Master all being in a sort of cozy ensemble cast together.

This is the era of the show where Reynolds has chosen to set his novel, and he clearly has a lot of affection for the "UNIT family" era. But at the same time, Reynolds can't resist making things more intense and cosmic, and he winds up delving into some of the weirder contradictions of the UNIT era, including the sense that reality is always just a few threads away from unraveling, that runs underneath all the comfy "trundling around the English countryside in a yellow roadster" stuff in that era.

Alastair Reynolds takes on Doctor Who, and the result is quite strange

It's sort of hard to summarize Harvest of Time, especially without getting into crazy spoilers, but here goes. Basically, this novel takes place during the era when the Master is locked up in prison by the British government — but that doesn't stop the Master from causing a heap of trouble. And meanwhile, in a possibly related development, oil rigs are disappearing from the Scottish coastline and strange metal crabs called the Sild are crawling around and turning people into their meat puppets — and the Sild are looking for the Master.

At first, like I said, the Doctor and Jo are investigating the mystery of the oil rig disasters, and the evidence that the Sild — a race that the Time Lords consigned to oblivion because they were too dangerous to allow to exist — are running rampant in Scotland. But soon enough, it becomes obvious that something way stranger is going on, and the book's title ought to be one key clue that it has to do with crazy shenanigans involving time.

Another key clue is the book's prologue, which takes place in the far, far future after the secret of time travel has basically been lost. (In Reynolds' version of Doctor Who, there's a long era of history during which people time-travel, called the Era of Mass Time Travel, or E.M.T.T., and this is billions of years after the E.M.T.T.) This far, far-future setting is somehow connected to the metal crabs and the Master's latest terrible gambit — but I don't want to give away too much about how things shake out.

Reynolds is clearly having a lot of fun getting to play around with the Doctor Who universe, and he tosses out more ideas than he quite knows what to do with, somehow making the whole thing come together at the end. He's not just revamping the Pertwee era, he's making some interesting customizations to the show's mythology in general — particularly a lot of stuff about the Time Lords, and by extension the Doctor's own origins and ideals.

Reynolds brings out a lot of the weirdness that's inherent in a paramilitary organization coping with mind-bending terrors from outer space, and a lot of the threat that UNIT is dealing with this time around turns out to be existential in nature. On the TV show, UNIT soldiers deal with being frozen in time bubbles, de-aged into babies, mind-controlled by evil computers and whisked away to an antimatter universe — but Reynolds comes up with a possibly more surreal and jarring danger for UNIT to struggle against, as a result of the Master's evil-doing.

And meanwhile, Reynolds takes the personal contradictions of the middle Pertwee years, and heightens them — there's a jarring scene where the Doctor basically admits to Jo that he has more in common with the Master than he ever could with her. Reynolds' version of Pertwee is even more of a jerk than the television version, especially to the Brigadier and his soldiers — and that's saying something.

But it's the relationship between the Doctor and the Master where Reynolds puts the most energy, even as he's somewhat reinventing the Master as a character. This version of the Master is somewhat more multifaceted than Delgado's actual portrayal, and he gets a few moments of genuine pathos. There's a very odd explanation for the Master's evil behavior — one that is at odds with the explanation that Russell T. Davies created for the TV show — and a hope is dangled that the Master could actually be redeemed.

Alastair Reynolds takes on Doctor Who, and the result is quite strange

In its boldness to reinvent the Master in his original mileu, Harvest sort of reminds me of David McIntee's The Face of the Enemy, but this approach arguably works better.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and the Master seem considerably less chummy than Pertwee and Delgado actually were on screen. And Reynolds advances the notion (which I think I've seen before) that the Master did better than the Doctor in school because the Master is a rigid, scientific thinker, who does things by the book. Whereas the Doctor is purely intuitive and incapable of doing the feats of pure mathematics and skill that the Master pulls off. Also, at a couple points, the Doctor seriously seems to consider killing the Master and putting an end to all this awfulness.

Reynolds does a fantastic job capturing the voices of Pertwee, Delgado and the other major characters from this era, and there's some crackling great dialogue. There's a bit where the Doctor and the Master are flying in the Time Vortex and trying to keep the Doctor's TARDIS from being torn to shreds by a time fissure, and we get the following bits of dialogue:

"Continue with unbiased field retardation and you'll rip your precious TARDIS to shreds." The Master, with great effort forced himself to his feet. He rubbed the back of his neck, and stumbled toward the console, almost tripping before the Doctor caught him.

"Steady on, old chap."

The Master braced himself next to the console. "Field retardation will get you nowhere. Have you tried flux injection?"

"Of course."

"Tachyon dampening?"

"Naturally."

"And counter-gravitic torque equalisation?"

"An Ogron would have tried counter-gravitic torque equalisation."

Lovely stuff.

By the end, you get the impression that Reynolds harbors a lot of ambitions to tell a defining story about the Doctor and the Master, and the abuse of power, and the terrible mistakes the Time Lords have made. He makes a few stabs at contrasting the Doctor's somewhat hypocritical morals with those of some other characters — but what emerges, more than anything, is a highly entertaining story that might make you rethink some of your notions about the Doctor and his arch-enemy.

The Harvest of Time will probably be a fun read for just about anybody who's watched Doctor Who and enjoyed it — but for fans of the Pertwee era and its odd military-domestic setup, it's a must-read.