The Doctor is in

Paul Constant

December 21, 2015

I’m not a Whovian. I’ve seen and enjoyed a few episodes of the Doctor Who season where the Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston, but I don’t have the patience to immerse myself in the dense continuity and playful self-indulgence of Doctor Who fandom. The hours I contribute to television-watching are relatively few, and I tend to be a completist about these sorts of things. I don’t have enough hours in my life to contribute to the cause of watching all the Doctor Who episodes out there floating around the streaming sites. I understand and appreciate the gist of the series — Time Lord floating around the space-time continuum in an old-fashioned police phone-box solving problems with the help of human companions — but there are only so many nerdly pursuits one can commit to in a single life, and Doctor Who and I will always run on parallel tracks.

I am a Kennedian, by which I mean I am a huge fan of Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy. One of my very first book reviews was of her splendid 2005 novel Paradise — I loved the book’s raw, ugly portrayal of an alcoholic’s thinking, and my appreciation only increased when I read an interview in which Kennedy admitted to being a lifelong teetotaler. (“Before I really started writing seriously, I thought to myself, If I'm going to do something with my brain, I probably shouldn't poison it,” Kennedy told Bookforum.) Kennedy was not just a first-rate literary thinker (twice acknowledged as a Best Young British Novelist by Granta) but a curious personality as well; she quit writing novels for a time to get into stand-up comedy, where she reportedly thrived.

So one day while browsing the sci-fi section at Third Place Books Ravenna, my neck nearly snapped after double-taking at the cover of a book. It was a branded Doctor Who novelization — the BBC logo is right there in the upper right corner of the cover — titled The Drosten’s Curse, written by A.L. Kennedy. I checked the author bio on the back of the book. Yes, that A.L. Kennedy. Clearly, this book had to be mine.

Kennedy writing a Doctor Who adventure isn’t as out-there an idea as, say Jonathan Franzen writing a Star Trek novel — remember that foray into stand-up comedy, after all — but it’s still an interesting career choice. Most writers of literary fiction, when they venture into genre, tend to hide behind a pseudonym. Consider Kingsley Amis’s James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, which he wrote as “Robert Markham.” So Kennedy’s full-hearted willingness to put her name on the cover of the book feels almost like a transgressive act.

You don’t have to be too familiar with Doctor Who mythology to appreciate Curse, though a novice might not be able to completely understand the point of the book. Kennedy is obviously a diehard fan — several callbacks to what I assume are Doctor Who stories are threaded throughout — but the basics are explained well enough that even someone who has only seen four or five full hours of the show will get what’s going on.

And so what, after all that preamble, is Curse all about?

A haunted golf course.

Kinda.

The story opens with a man being sucked into a voracious sand trap at the Fetch Brothers’ Golf Spa Hotel. From there, a cast of characters is revealed as a hyperactive narrator propels us around the scene: an octopus-obsessed elderly woman either prepares for tea or has already finished tea; a pair of creepy twins wander around; a clumsy alien staggers about; and a receptionist named Bryony tries to decide whether she should leave her job forever or resign herself to a life of eternal boredom. And then the Doctor pops up — I’m honestly not sure which iteration of the Doctor this is supposed to be, though I imagine Whovians are rolling their eyes at my ignorance right now — and things get underway.

Kennedy keeps a nice balance between menace and comedy. As we learn more about the terrors of the sand trap of the Fetch Brothers’ Golf Spa Hotel, we start to envision a Lovecraftian terror hiding beneath the greens. At first, it’s a foe that only manifests itself in the form of single words that appear in large, bold, all-caps type (“BLOOD,” “BREAK,” “SCREAM”) which, when telepathically inserted into a person’s head, threaten to force out entire memories and personality traits. Soon, people in the nearby village start to hear each others’ thoughts. The walls between individuals are cracking and splintering, and the future of the entire human race is in doubt. It’s like a long Doctor Who episode, then, only with much better special effects. And it’s pretty funny, too:

In her deluxe cottage Julia Fetch stopped reading a thrilling article about the way an octopus tastes with its arms. She thought this would be inconvenient for humans, because then everything would taste of blouse.

It’s not like Kennedy is deconstructing any major thematic concepts, here. This is a licensed novelization of a TV show that existed long before Kennedy’s involvement and will exist long after. All the genre points are touched on at all the narrative moments you’d expect. But the beauty, the artfulness, is what Kennedy manages to spackle in between those points. Specifically, she’s at her strongest when she captures the Doctor’s joie de vivre. Early in the book, Bryony notices that the Doctor is frightened, and correctly ascertains that his fear “didn’t seem like good news.”

The Doctor looked at her, completely serious, and said very kindly and softly, ‘Oh, I’m incredibly scared most of the time, you know. No one with even a basic knowledge of the universe wouldn’t be — it’s a completely terrifying place. And enormous. But it’s also wonderful and lovely and more interesting than you could possibly imagine. Even than I could possibly imagine. It never lets me down. And I get to be alive in it all and to be scared and amazed and delighted and… I wouldn’t be without it.’ Then, he adjusted his hat and grinned, playing the fool again. ‘I’ve been without me and before me and after me, but I wouldn’t be without the universe.'

This infectious enthusiasm isn’t the sort of thing you’d find in a Star Wars novelization. It’s distinctly related to the Doctor as a character. But there’s something so vivacious in the way that Kennedy puts it in Curse that it all seems to really click on a deeper, more resonant level. As the Doctor navigates the twists and turns of Kennedy’s plot, he suffers pain and despair and fear, but he never stops laughing, or hoping, or being his usual cheerful self. It’s a passionate argument for the idealism of the human spirit, even if it’s not coming from a character who is technically human.

Kennedy’s understanding of the Doctor’s relentless optimism rings true because it seems to come from an honest place, the kind of inspiration that can’t be wrung out of a mercenary word-for-hire hack. The Doctor’s boundless joy for being alive, and his ferocious curiosity, and his outright disdain when confronted with cynicism or despair, is a reflection of the passion of a true fan. The Doctor’s love of the universe is a reflection of his writers’ love of the Doctor’s universe.

Books in this review:
  • Doctor Who: The Drosten's Curse
    by AL Kennedy

    July 14, 2015
    368 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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