Usually, fans have to be wildly optimistic, if not delusional, to expect quality literature from a line of authorized tie-in novels to a science-fiction TV series. But in recent years, the editors behind the Doctor Who books have been making an effort to overcome skeptics by snaring acclaimed science-fiction authors like Michael Moorcock, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter to put their own stamp on the adventures of the time-traveling vagabond. Baxter tells a new story about an old Doctor with The Wheel Of Ice, which features Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in an adventure set during the TV show’s sixth season, in 1969.
Baxter earned his reputation for the rigorously constructed hard-SF Xeelee Sequence books, but he’s no stranger to happily jumping on someone else’s train—besides his recent collaboration with Terry Pratchett on The Long Earth, he’s written an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and co-authored a trilogy set after 2001: A Space Odyssey with Arthur C. Clarke. Baxter takes the TARDIS controls with similar respect for the original source material, which is one of The Wheel Of Ice’s chief strengths. Troughton was Baxter’s childhood Doctor, and Baxter’s enthusiasm for the era is palpable. The book fits his serious approach to emphasizing the science in “science fiction” particularly well—although the Second Doctor era was hardly rigorous about that sort of thing, its enthusiasm for futuristic ideas like space travel was based in part on the idea that someday, humanity’s real future might look like the one it was showing us. Baxter’s Xeelee stories are filled with well-thought-out, sometimes arcane explorations of astrophysics and xenobiology, and although he tones that down to a less mind-bending degree with Wheel, it’s good to see some thought put into Doctor Who’s alien worlds beyond the superficial, timey-wimey, hand-waving level the series often settles for.
Wheel hits the ground running with an engaging, breezy first half, as the Doctor investigates an enigmatic, dangerous hole in time near the Wheel, a mining base orbiting Saturn. In spite of the exotic setting, his Companions Zoe Heriot and Jamie McCrimmon quickly feel at home—the former because she grew up on a similar space station and the Wheel is actually part of her own history, and the latter because the Wheel is populated by Scots like himself, with whom he feels a strong camaraderie, even though they were born hundreds of years after he was. But all is not well. The harsh conditions on Saturn are made worse by the profit-motivated tyranny of the Wheel’s corporate masters. That, in turn, is causing grumblings of revolt from the station’s young people and working poor, along with mysterious, deadly acts of sabotage. In classic Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor and friends are falsely accused of the crimes upon their arrival, and must find the real culprits: android-like “Blue Dolls” who serve the same alien entity responsible for the hole in time. That being, called Arkive, is older than the solar system, and aches for the days of its youth in a way that’s more than a little insane, not to mention hostile toward the unsuspecting humans it thinks of as usurpers.
Baxter nails one of the basic elements of any book like this one, capturing the voices of his three main characters with such precision that Troughton is almost audible in the Doctor’s lines. Baxter is especially good at seeing through Zoe and Jamie’s perspectives, going beyond using them as placeholder heroes, and getting at what makes them tick. Jamie’s rugged heroism and desire to protect people comes to the fore when he shepherds a group of young rebels who flee to a nearby ice moon. And Zoe has to confront the unsavory side of her own history as she learns that her own advanced civilization was founded on the near-slavery conditions on the Wheel. Baxter has mixed success with his secondary characters, creating a compellingly well-rounded portrait of a family divided by the growing political revolt, but an annoyingly one-dimensional shrew in the book’s main human antagonist, Florian Hart, a corporate greedmonger oozing with angry contempt.
Still, the first half of Wheel Of Ice is tremendously promising, setting up a smart, engaging mystery that feels like a genuine artifact of 1969 Doctor Who. That only makes it more frustrating that the second half is botched so badly by an underwhelming finale. Baxter seems to lose interest entirely in Arkive’s aeons-long scheme in favor of a hackneyed confrontation with Hart involving some truly hoary clichés concerning a ticking time bomb and the color of the wire that should be cut to defuse it. Worse, genius-astrophysicist Zoe has no part in the resolution; Baxter sidelines her so she can babysit a 3-year-old. It’s a disappointing fumble to an otherwise satisfying read.