Imagine you'd got a ticket for the World Cup final, only to be told that seven minutes of the first half and sixteen of the second would be played at half speed in order to ensure that the offside rule could be properly explained to those not in the know, and you come close to understanding my frustration with Unnatural History.
Unnatural History is seriously great in parts, and deeply explores the relationship of the three main characters. The Sam in this novel is mainly the dark-haired Sam we've seen flashes of in previous novels, and it's interesting to see how her life has developed (or not) without the Doctor's input.
In fact, this appears to be one of the central themes - a dissection of intent. What we can do to make our lives better, how things change if we make cowardly or lazy choices, and what sort of person we might become. Yet despite this seemingly bleak exposé, there is a message of hope, in that whatever we've done / not done, we're living for the now and we can start changing things today.
As for Fitz, he's trying to be Sam. He stops smoking, acts all courageous and makes an effort to be there for the Doctor when he's needed. It's as if blonde Sam's disappearance has left a gaping personality hole and Fitz feels obliged to fill it.
The enemy is the titular unnaturalist, a being obsessed with cataloguing strange creatures that defy universal laws. He's able to reach into eleven dimensions in order to get what he wants, and treats anyone that can't as a lower being. As the novel progresses, he develops a grudging respect for the Doctor's ingenuity, because he has some concept of the higher dimensions (he's got perpendicular pliers and he's not afraid to use them!)
As for the Faction, we're not altogether enlightened as to their purpose, although it becomes clear they're trying to tie up the Doctor's history in paradoxes, and this is one such available juncture. The question is, why are they doing it?
What's particularly interesting is that this book was released in 1999, before the new series was a twinkle in RTD's eye. Now, it could be referring to events in later EDAs I've not read yet, but one of the Faction agents says: "Maybe you're living in the middle of a Time War"
If that bears out, perhaps it relates to an all encompassing Time War that includes the Faction, 'the enemy' as referred to in Alien Bodies and indeed the Daleks from the new series. Of course, I'm grasping at continuity straws here, but it would be nice for everything to tie in together. For example, are the Time Lords unable to defeat the Daleks at the time of the 8th / 9th Doctor because they're already fighting a war in their past / future against another unseen enemy?
Anyway, to get back on track, Unnatural History is at once brilliant and infuriating. It's got all the ingredients of a great Who story - a sinister alien who wields more power and knowledge than the Doctor, a completely new spin on an old companion, great character exploration, random weird events and even Faction Paradox skulking around in the background, causing trouble.
Yet for all the decent prose, the witty one liners and the addictive mayhem, there's a price. That price is techno-gobbledegook, centred on some kind of dimensional rift caused by the Doctor's previous regeneration. When the novel gets into describing how this is all affecting the surrounding area, and interconnecting with various strands of the Doctor's biodata, that's when I lose interest. It becomes a bore, waiting for things to get interesting again. Still, despite what I consider a major flaw, the good points are enough to outweigh the bad.
Review by Tom Hey
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