“The Dying Days” occupies the strange spot of being the last of a series of Doctor Who books (the Virgin New Adventures) when the succeeding line of Doctor Who books had already began (the Eighth Doctor Adventures). It’s in a murky position, like so much of this wilderness era of Doctor Who. Does it personify that era in any meaningful way, make any strong comments on the nascent Eighth Doctor before his titular range succeeds this, the Virgin New Adventures, a range defined by the previous Doctor for sixty books?
No. Because the Eighth Doctor is presents is a cipher, not a character. Both Lance Parkin, the author, and the characters of the story itself define the Eighth Doctor in terms of what he’s not (namely, the Seventh Doctor). He is a character defined purely in terms of negative space, instead of actual characterisation.
Parkin’s mindset in writing the book is made clear in his opening author’s notes – “[series editor Rebecca Levene] and I were also reacting against the TV Movie. I love the McGann movie….Both of us agreed it was a pretty poor ‘pilot’, in the sense that it didn’t really get across the essence of Doctor Who. But I saw some great ideas in there – and I loved the visuals, the sense of scale, Doctor Who in the style of Coppola’s Dracula….…in the TV Movie, the Doctor’s a passive figure, someone who’s tied up, follows Grace around. You see the velvet glove, and it’s a lovely glove, but there’s no steel inside it”.
There’s quite a bit to unpack there. Recognition of the visual merit of the TV Movie is good (”I loved the visuals, the sense of scale”), as the TV Movie all too often falls to that laziest of critical attitudes, treating cinema and television as if they exist only in script form, not as visual stories in a visual medium, where performance, music, sound design, and all sorts of other aspects not present in textual mediums are hugely important.
But that statement decrying the Eighth Doctor’s seminal characterisation in the TV Movie (”in the TV Movie, the Doctor’s a passive figure, someone who’s tied up, follows Grace around. You see the velvet glove, and it’s a lovely glove, but there’s no steel inside it”) comes across as startlingly tone deaf in a book that forgets to characterise the Eighth Doctor at all. There’s a clumsy arrogance in how so many writers using the Eighth Doctor character after the ostensible “failure” of the TV Movie (to be taken to series at least) try to right its apparent wrongs, much of it coming back to my earlier point about ignoring just how radically different the visual medium is to the textual. But even focusing purely on writing alone, the TV Movie had breezy romanticism of “these shoes!”, the more directly American shlock (in contrast to the Classic series’ British camp” of “WHO AM I?”, the “I am the Doctor” kissing scene, and so on, moments that demonstrated a unique characterisation for the Eighth Doctor. They were perhaps less common than a more successful work may have had them, but they were there.
In contrast, The Dying Days has strained, contrived “death” of the Doctor, playing off fan rumours that Parkin may do something truly controversial and gamechanging at the end of the Virgin New Adventures range since the Doctor Who license was getting shunted back to the BBC anyway. Obviously that aspect has aged poorly, as it was limited to an extremely specific, internecine grouping of fans and authors whose obscurity has only grown in the decades since. Much of the book is emblematic of that self-perpetuating, small inner fandom, with a lot of the book’s meta aspects coming off as similarly dated and distracting from whatever actual story was actually present.
The Doctor’s “death” is eventually addressed (read: reversed) with the typical handwave, followed by a self-congratulatory speech that would feel overly egotistical and clumsy even in the revived series. It literally consists of a litany of titles previous Doctors have earned, then a repetition of the TV Movie’s declaration of “I am the Doctor”. There’s no resounding assertion of the Eighth Doctor here, because he’s a character not even present in his own novel (literally, for a third of it). Perhaps the Eighth Doctor’s audio dramas weren’t just successful because McGann himself was playing the Eighth Doctor in them, but because their writers stopped defining the character as what he wasn’t and then just having him lamely insist he is the Doctor, and instead sketched out an actual character in his own right for him. Lord knows that’s not what happened here.
Producer of the TV Movie Philip Segal once said the TV Movie didn’t feature any “monsters” in the traditional Doctor Who sense because of budgetary reasons – “you can’t show an invasion story with only two creatures on screen at the same time” sort of thinking. Clearly, there are a far sight more reasons why the TV Movie didn’t feature monsters (it was telling a specific, different type of story, in very much that 1990s American science-fiction series style, which lack that trope in any commonality). This didn’t stop Parkin from gaining a bizarre fixation with that thought, and setting out to “disprove” it with this novel.
Sure enough, in this “alien invasion” story, there are never more than two aliens (Ice Warriors) “on screen”. Of course, this ignores the fact “The Dying Days” is a novel, not a television movie, and thus artificially contrived constraints making a point of how such a novel (that was never going to be filmed) could be filmed actively hurt the story in a vain quest to spite a Doctor Who story that had already been successfully made. It also ignores the fact that mountains of evidence indicating stories about alien invasions can be told cheaply with limited costumes – it’s called “Doctor Who”. Instead of doing something new with the novel, or making any sort of powerful comment on the ending of the Virgin New Adventures Range, Parkin elects to spite the TV Movie, and not only sketch the character of the Doctor in bland negative space of what he isn’t, but the very plot of the novel itself too! A novel is liberated of budgetary concerns, in a way the TV Movie wasn’t, why not celebrate that and tell a great story that could only be told in novel form, instead of taking pains to make a commentary on the TV Movie in the form of a “filmable” novel that was never going to be filmed?
More than anything, this novel felt insecure to me. Rather than send off an era gracefully, or bow out to a new era tastefully, it gets caught up in unnecessary and spiteful “responses” to both the TV Movie and comments around it, as well as very dated and singular fan community issues and continuity snarls. Still, it’s a competent novel at least, more than I can say for “The Eight Doctors”. I give it two bottles of Smirnoff, and a burned Ice Warrior.