(2018) Una McCormack, BBC Books, £7.99 / Can$16.99 / US$10.99, hrdbk, 230pp, ISBN 978-1-785-94363-8
Deep below the surface of the planet Adamantine lies a crystalline wonder world of lava seas and volcanic islands, home to living rock-people. But when the Doctor and her friends arrive on Adamantine they find it under threat. The seas are shrinking, the magma is cooling, and mysterious, fatal seething pools are spreading fast. Something has come to Adamantine – but what does it want? Fearing an invasion is underway, the Doctor (the Jodie Whittaker incarnation) must lead an expedition to the surface of the world to save its molten heart…
Right at the start, McCormack makes it clear several times that the world of Adamantine is nothing special as far as worlds go: any space traveller who arrived on the surface might have a cursory look around, take a few pictures, maybe take a few samples, plant a flag, then move on to somewhere more interesting. That would be a mistake, of course, because things aren’t always what they seem, especially below the surface and especially below the surface of this planet. Fortunately, the Doctor and her companions step out of the TARDIS into a vast sphere-like cavern and encounter a planet within a planet, a vast Jules Verne-like other world made up of fantastic crystalline rock formations. Some of them actually look like, well, dwellings, which means there might be people here, alien life forms, but not as we know them. This inner world is truly a thing of spectacular beauty, but no sooner has the TARDIS crew began exploring then they realise that something is wrong, this inner world is changing. Cracks are appearing in the roof of this world and the ground is bubbling. Things can only get worse, unless the Doctor can find out the reason why and somehow stop it.
Molten Heart follows well established tropes from the Doctor Who TV series and the many novelisations that have been written, especially in this rebooted era. Namely we arrive in an alien planet where there seems to be a relatively benign leadership with everyone working towards the greater good. Then we have a threat – this time an environmental one – that is being ignored or twisted by the powers that be and we see that the benign leadership isn’t that benign after all. Then we have that old staple – a parting of the ways, where the Doctor and her companions get separated and have their own mini-adventure full of action, threat and revelations. Here, the Doctor and Ryan go one way, while Yaz and Graham go off in a different direction. I always think of the TV series NCIS in these moments where specific episodes in each season are devoted to one of the supporting characters like Abby, or Ducky. The book called The Good Doctor allowed Graham to shine, so in this book the focus turns on Yaz and her yearning to emulate the Doctor, to be like her as best she can given her human restrictions of not sharing the Time Lord’s physiology or intellect, but then again she hasn’t lived thousands of years. Yaz wants to grab everything from these experiences while she can, and apart from being a grumpy old man when called upon, Graham doesn’t really have that much to do, like Ryan who is a bit lost in the Doctor’s shadow.
I have to admit that I struggled to get my head around the whole rock people thing, partly because of the fairly simplistic names they were given – Basalt, Quartz and Onyx – although McCormack does a convincing job of conveying their sense of wonder and fear at encountering the Doctor and her companions. When you are a rock person then something that looks human does look very strange, and possibly even frightening. The very fact that they are here beside them is frightening enough and goes against everything the rock people believe, because everything they can see – above them, and in the distance – is the extent of their world. Surely there cannot be another world above their own? That is too frightening to contemplate, and those like eccentric scientist, Basalt, who have theories about the “world beyond” are to be initially tolerated, then feared and cast out from the rock people’s closely-knit society for their dissenting voices.
Molten Heart is a bit on the short side compared to other Doctor Who novels, coming in at 193 pages, but actually less than that when you take off the blank pages between the chapters, its length perhaps reflecting the sparseness of the plot and the vagueness of the ending – there is no great evil here, just rock people clinging on to their world view and doing what they can to maintain the status quo despite things clearly changing for the worse around them. While well-written, with a convincing alien world, this isn’t the best in the series. One of the reasons, I thought, was the rapid-fire, upping the ante way McCormack keeps putting another obstacle or problem in the Doctor’s way towards the end of the story and she quickly overcomes them. However, I’m sure this is a book that Who completists will eagerly to add to their collection.
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