Monday, 23 February 2015

DWAITAS: 8th Doctor Sourcebook

The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook was always going to be the hardest of the series to write, and the one that was going to be least like all the others. The problem is obvious: at the time it was commissioned, the 8th Doctor only had one televised story, namely the 1996 TV movie. Since then, we have also had the seven minute webcast The Night of the Doctor, but that leaves a grand total of one-and-a-half stories to cover, neither of which give us much to extrapolate from.

One of the first things you note about the sourcebook is that the cover image, and most of the larger stills inside, come from The Night of the Doctor, not from the much longer TV movie. This is, it has to be said, reflected in a lot of the content, too, where the author shows far more interest in those seven minutes than in anything that happened in the other 85. He may not be alone among fans in that respect, mind you, and  it's not as if the TV movie fits terribly well into the overall picture of Doctor Who...

In fact, the book spends just 30 pages on the the actual subject of the 8th Doctor and his adventures. And, frankly, it needs a bit of padding to get that far. The book opens with a chapter on the Doctor and his companions, and here we see the first problem that the authors had to contend with: the 8th Doctor doesn't really have any televised companions. True, Grace fills that role in the TV movie, but she doesn't travel with him at the end of it, so she's really no more a companion than Ray in Delta and the Bannermen or Christina de Souza in Planet of the Dead. Still, for lack of anybody else, the book treats her as if she is a companion, and throws in Chang Lee and Cass (from The Night of the Doctor) for good measure. It makes an effort to explain how the latter could become a companion in an alternate timeline (for legal reasons, it can't do the same for Grace), but in the end, it has to concede that none of them really count.

It's not as if the 8th Doctor doesn't have canonical companions, of course. Among his last words before regenerating in The Night of the Doctor are "Charley, C'rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly, friends, companions I've known, I salute you..." Self-evidently, he's naming at least some of his companions here, but the terms of Cubicle 7's license mean that the sourcebook author is compelled to pretend he doesn't know who they are, and says that the GM is free to make up whatever they want about them. He later cracks an in-joke that "their adventures are out there, somewhere in the Vortex." Which is, if anything, more of a nod than one might have expected.

The second chapter explores the themes and tropes of the era. Which, well, yeah, again... what can you do? The author gamely tackles some of the themes that we see on screen, but those of the movie aren't broad enough to be the basis of a campaign, and the Time War is (at least in my opinion) just plain boring as a setting for Doctor Who. This isn't a militaristic show, after all, and we can see from some of the 6th Doctor's era how dull it gets when it tries to be one. Besides, it's not as if there aren't other games devoted to that sort of thing.

This chapter, and the next, which covers the one-and-a-half episodes in question, presents rather a lot of speculation as fact. The book attempts, for example, to come up with an explanation for the "half-human" thing which is really no more than the fan theory created by the sort of fans who don't just want to pretend it never happened. The Doctor's ability to apparently see the future of people's lives in the TV movie also gets an explanation. It's no worse than any of the other theories that have been advanced to explain this, but the fact remains that there are others.  Evidently Cubicle 7 decided that their books should give some "definitive" answer to this sort of thing, rather than covering the debate. This is, after all, quite common in sourcebooks for other games, so why not here? At the end of the day, remember, it's an RPG book, not a proper TV show guidebook.

The book concedes, of course, that 8th Doctor adventures don't have to have anything to do with the Time War. But, given the limitations of the TV movie, and its almost total lack of connection to anything else in the series, we don't exactly have a lot to go on in determining what such stories might be like. If it weren't for, you know, the obvious. But they can't mention any of that, for all the aforementioned reasons.

It's a pity, because, let's be honest, if there's anyone out there really dying to run 8th Doctor adventures they're surely more interested in the likes of Seeing I or The Chimes of Midnight than in the stats for a translucent CGI deathworm. Surely they'd rather play Fitz or Molly than bloody Grace Holloway? But what can you do? The book covers what it can well enough, but it's always bound by limitations beyond its control.

But, anyway, that still leaves another 120 pages to fill. This is occupied by a campaign, composed of twelve adventures linked by a McGuffin hunt. Just as with the Key to Time season of the TV show, on which concept it is obviously based, the individual episodes are, aside from the last one, pretty much entirely standalone, and could easily be dropped into any other campaign. The setup for the campaign, a sort of prequel before the first adventure proper, is also written so that it could work with almost any imaginable cast of PCs, whether they be characters from the TV series, or new creations of the players. They don't even need to start off with a time machine, though it would probably help.

What's more interesting, though, is the way they've set this up. Following the theme of the sourcebooks, each of the first eleven adventures is written in the style of one of the Doctors, from Hartnell through to Smith. The book presents them in order, although, given the random nature of the McGuffin hunt, you don't have to run them that way if you don't want to.

It has to be said that some of the emulations come off better than the others. Troughton and Pertwee are easy to pastiche, with particular types of story being quite strongly associated with those Doctors. The Tom Baker episode goes for emulating the style of Christopher Bidmead's run as (deputy) showrunner, rather than the more obvious Hinchcliffe era, but it does work. The Davison one goes for a straight sequel to one of the 5th Doctor's better televised stories, rather than the worst excesses of JNT/Saward, so that's a win, and the Tennant and Smith ones also feel like their respective Doctors. (Smith's is a bit timey-wimey. Because Moffat).

As for the rest.... well, the sixth adventure does feel a lot like something from Colin Baker's television era, and you can make of that what you will. The others are, perhaps, less effective. Episode eight isn't too bad, but all it can do is set itself in a hospital in early 21st century San Francisco, because there really isn't anything else to copy... so, you know, fair enough. Episodes nine and seven are basically rather dull, although you can at least see what the writer was aiming at. The seventh episode, in particular, has decided to set itself up as a sequel to one of the weaker McCoy stories, which really isn't helping.

Which leaves the first, where the author clearly decided he didn't actually like Hartnell stories, so he'd throw in a few relevant tropes but attach them to the sort of story that would never conceivably have been commissioned by Verity Lambert. It's actually rather a good scenario, mind you, but, by breaking one of the cardinal rules of the era, it doesn't quite fit with what's presumably intended. (One could, on the other hand, imagine it as an early Troughton story, somewhere between The Highlanders and The Abominable Snowmen).

Overall, this is a book that feels defined by its own limitations. It could be improved in a few places, but most of the improvements it really needs are ones it could never have. The nature of the sourcebook series demanded that there be a full-size volume for the 8th Doctor, even if all the really good bits of the era are beyond its reach. Unless it's simply for the sake of completeness, the best reason to buy this is really for the 120 page campaign, which, despite the occasional misstep, does at least try to reach out and grab the full scope of the program.

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