As Christmas rapidly approaches, I wanted to close the loop on the TARGET novels that came out this year. Even though I’d rather cover this one a little closer to Christmas, I’ll cover Twice Upon a Time first. Why is that, I hear you ask? Because I had read them months back and took some notes on things I wanted to mention only to then have my computer crash about a month ago so I lost all of my notes. I had to get the audio books to re-“read” these two remaining books. But this gave me a slight advantage: I can mention what I thought of the audio version as well. So, Twice Upon a Time…
Let’s recap those Target books first: James Goss’ City of Death is a truncated version of the book that was released previously, but works as a delightful trip down memory lane, bringing the episode to paper in near-perfect form. A delightful read for a delightful episode. Then came Jenny Colgan’s The Christmas Invasion which again turned episode to page but added a little dimension to some of the characters and explained some elements that might not have made sense in the story. By contrast, Russell T. Davies’ Rose again converted story to paper, but added things unnecessarily and took away from the whole. I love and miss our RTD, but he sometimes wrote things that ended up being too much and we saw a lot of that in Rose. Need I remind you of the shop window dummies from the adult boutique, for instance? So how would Paul Cornell do with his Twice Upon a Time? How do you think? This is Paul Cornell!
As we’ve seen since the beginning of the TARGET range, the episode is converted to paper form wonderfully. I wouldn’t expect anything else from Cornell, the man who gave us Human Nature (a Doctor Who book so good, they made an episode out of it!) Reading it was to relive the episode and it’s a marvelous episode to relive. But there are elements that Cornell adds that were not in the episode. Do they take away from the whole? No! The key reason for that is, nothing he says disregards or disputes anything that we have seen before. He’s keen to mention Susan and coming off season 10, where Susan’s picture sat on the Doctor’s desk, there’s no reason not to. She would likely be in the Doctor’s mind as he reaches the end of another life. He does mention that the Doctor spent time with Susan and met her family after their last encounter, which would have been the end of The Five Doctors, and while we have no evidence of this, we equally have no reason to dispute it. As no attempt has been made to bring her back, this does not contradict anything in the series. (Though that day may come!) There is also reference to Barbara, one of the Doctor’s oldest and dearest friends. As fans, we love the continuity, as a casual reader, there’s no harm in mentioning this character has friends. It takes away nothing but lovingly builds on the backstory.
Cornell also plays with the fans. When I watched the episode back in the Christmas of 2017, I remember thinking about the VHS tape the Captain picks up. It seems I was not alone in wondering because Cornell lets us know what it was and that it had been lost long ago. (I want to quote it, but I’ll leave something of a surprise to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Though what are you waiting for…?) The comedy is as real as it was in the episode and the only thing missing is the music, which typically is left out when reading a book so that’s an unfair gripe. Cornell even describes the planet Rusty is on as having survived several seasons of Game of Thrones, an apt description and one he knows will be understood by many fans.
If I had one complaint about the story, it was the explanation given that I do not really agree with. Testimony claims they needed to see the Doctor through Bill’s eyes to really understand him. But that doesn’t really hold water. They clearly know the Doctor as evidenced by the images he sees earlier in the episode when Testimony shows him “the full box set”. During that sequence in the book, they mention how the Doctor tricked Davros into destroying his own people (Remembrance of the Daleks) and how Adelaide Brooke took her own life (The Waters of Mars) along with some unknown moments from the Time War. They mention Cybermen falling around the Doctor (presumably The Doctor Falls) and reference is made to Adric, Donna, and Bill. So the question is: why would Testimony need to see the Doctor through Bill’s eyes? Unless they only know the Doctor as a reference point from those who died before, but that would be the ones he defeated which typically would not be human. The mention of Adric, Bill and Donna all indicate that they know his friends as well as his enemies. This might be a situation where less was more. Because that explanation doesn’t make sense in the context of the images described in the book. From what we’ve learned, Testimony only records human deaths, so the Daleks and Cybermen would not have been visited by Testimony. They would not have been stopping by the Time War to record deaths. So while I love this story and loved the book, this explanation does little for the overall retelling of it.
That being said, the story is as incredible as the episode and flows with all the joy and hope that the best of Doctor Who is always about. The Doctor gets two no-win options to choose from, and finds the third; the hopeful alternative. The audio book is read by the Captain himself, Mark Gatiss, who does an incredible job flipping between the Scottish 12th Doctor and the crotchety old 1st. I found myself driving around my block on more than one occasion to finish a chapter, but that final bit I needed to sit in the car and finish with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. Capaldi was at his absolute peak in this story and he went out a hero of heroes. For me, this is one of his defining moments and made him The Doctor, forever.
Doctor Who is at its best when it’s about hope, and the Christmas Armistice is about as wonderful and hopeful as one can get! In either form, book or audio, it’s a treat. One I hope you’ll each get to enjoy on Christmas Day! ML