Thursday, November 29, 2007

My novels #7: Empire of Death

DOCTOR WHO: Empire of Death (BBC Books, 2004)

In 1856, a boy discovers he can speak with the voices of the dead. He grws up to become one of England's most celebrated spiritualists.

In 1863 the British Empire is effectively without a leader. Queen Victoria is incolsolable with grief following the dath of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. The monarch's last hope is a secret seance.

The Doctor and Nyssa are also coming to terms with loss following the death of Adric and Tegan's sudden departure. Trying to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851, the time travellers are shocked when a ghost appears in the TARDIS, beckoning them to the Other Side.

What is hidden in a drowned valley guarded by the British Army? Is there life after death and can it be reached by those still alive? And why is the Doctor so terrified of facing his own ghosts?

This adventures features the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa.


After the car crash that was my sixth novel, The Domino Effect, I returned to the writing methods that had served me well in the past. But it took me most of this novel to regain confidence in my own abilities, and I suspect there's a tentative streak that held it back from being all it could. I was writing the book when Doctor Who's return to TV was first announced in 2003, and it was obvious the need for new novels featuring old Doctors was fast coming to an end. I sensed Empire of Death could be my last Who novel and so it's proved, thus far. So there were a lot of emotions swirling round this book.

The choice of Fifth Doctor and Nyssa was easy. This TARDIS team had featured in several Big Finish audio dramas, but had never had a book to themselves. More to the point, Nyssa had always felt chronically underdeveloped, so I was determined to flesh out the character as best I could, given her some added dimensions and depths. Most reviewers agreed that was one of the book's strong points.

I did a ton of research into the Victorian era, the life of Queen Victoria, the rise of spiritualism in this time, the structure of the British Army in the 1860s, how the railway system work, what 1860s life was like in the Scottish settlement of New Lanark where much of the action takes places - you name it, I researched it. I've read an estimate that says perhaps 5% of research ever makes it into any research-heavy drama or novel, so I probably wasted a lot of time, but it all added depth and colour to the book.

I was going to include a modern day protagonist who would get dragged back in time to the Victorian era and even write several thousand words exploring that subplot, before dumping it. Indeed, the first draft of this novel ran some 99,000 words before being edited down to 76,000 for the final manuscript. Cut and polish, cut and polish - sensing this would be my final Who novel for a while, I wanted it to be a lean and muscular narrative. Did I succeed? Maybe.

Perhaps the biggest problem was whether to stick with a pure ghost story, or to explicitly state there was some sort of afterlife, or to resort to parallel dimensions and alien invaders. Some readers were disappointed becasue they thought this was a pure ghost story until the last 100 pages, when the parallel dimension and alien invaders were introduced. They could well have a point. I had to laugh at one reviewer who believed my novel was trying to evoke The Turn of the Screw, as I've never read that story. Readers will project their own memories and prejudices into any narrative.

Empire of Death is chock full of tropes and story elements that have also been used in the new Who series - but that's just coincidence. The Doctor meets Queen Victoria and becomes her scientific advisor? Check. The Doctor must protect Queen Victoria from alien entities in Scotland? Check. Seances that bring spirits from a parallel dimension who reanimate the dead as their vessels? Check. But these are proof of nothing more than common influences.

For example, Empire of Death features supernatural weirdness that seeps out from beneath a waterfall, something that's apparently a plot point in an early Russell T Davies show called Century Falls - which I'd never heard of until the coincidence was pointed out to me. Coincidences are all too common.

This book may have been my last Who novel to date, but I was about to become a very prolific author indeed, thanks to the launch of a new franchise fiction imprint called Black Flame. Nearly a dozen novels followed in the next four years, and at one stage I was writing a new book every three months on top of other projects. I'm happy to say most of them aren't bad, either. But first I would return to the character that launched my career as a novelist - Judge Dredd.

1 comment:

Paul Campbell said...


Just to say that I am enjoying this rapid run through your writing career. I knew you'd written a bit, but it's fascinating to get the "writer's commentary".

And to say that I too wrote a piece (a radio play that never quite got commissioned) and was told by a would-be producer that the parallels with The Turn of the Screw were a bit clunky. Like you, I've never read it, never seen it, never discussed it. Maybe I should.