A very faithful reproduction of the titular Christmas special, for better or worse. Paul Cornell novelising Steven Moffat’s last televised work on Doctor Who feels like it should be a monumental occasion, but what’s on the page is a very literal direct translation of the special into prose, with the odd grace note from Cornell’s mind or the special’s surprisingly mammoth script here and there. Opening a novel with “Once upon a time, 709 episode ago” – episodes! – makes it immediately clear Cornell was not looking to do anything transformative here, unlike Moffat’s phenomenal work in creating something very new with his “novelisation” of the show’s fiftieth anniversary.
What Cornell does change is some of the mental specifics around the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration (bringing the oncoming shake-up of the Thirteenth Doctor and her identity to a much more, in a very literal sense, conscious position) and what specifically became of Bill Potts. Cornell also does this to Nardole in what is probably the novel’s peak of undermining “The Doctor Falls”, quite the feat considering how much Moffat managed to do that with the special himself. Arguably he softens the edges of Moffat’s bizarre take on the First Doctor but I think his efforts there are overstated and a case of fans extrapolating a much more dynamic shift they would like rather than the throwaway line they were given.
What Cornell does to the Twelfth Doctor is stranger though, and more impactful, recontextualising the Doctor’s time with River on Darillium as such a monumental anchor of his identity that he’d prefer not to rejuvenate into someone who didn’t experience that directly. That’s a very Tenth Doctor take on the metaphysics of regeneration, and I’m surprised more fans didn’t bristle at that, since they seemed to be reading the text closely enough to make a great deal out of the one line it has regarding the First Doctor’s offbeat characterisation in the special. There are shades of Big Finish’s regeneration story for the Sixth Doctor, “The Last Adventure”, in what Cornell does with the Twelfth Docotr’s mental state pre-regeneration, in a move of narrative smugness I felt robbed that wonky scene of some of the little power it had.
Steven Moffat got his start in Doctor Who by contributing to a Paul Cornell novel. It’s a shame Cornell getting his “finish” (…) in Doctor Who through novelising Steven Moffat’s work didn’t amount to anything particularly interesting, let alone revelatory. Two glass avatars, and a pair of sonic sunglasses.