Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Ninth Doctor

With The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game leaps onto more recent and familiar ground with an examination of the first Doctor to appear in the ‘Nu Who’ era. Brushing all but the basics aside of what had come before it, the Ninth Doctor reset just about everything to have unencumbered adventures with a new Companion, all new monsters—only one old monster would return in the first season of ‘Nu Who’, and hugely improved funding at Saturday teatime where he belonged. Of course, neither the Doctor nor his Companions were wholly unencumbered—as we shall see—but the success of the first season of ‘Nu Who’ would lay the foundation for the worldwide phenomenon that Doctor Who would become in the twenty-first century and ensure that the BBC had faith in the programme once again. The shortness of the Ninth Doctor’s incarnation though, does have its repercussions and its parallels for The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook.

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.” If the quote from the start of the Sixth Doctor’s era is appropriate for a review of The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, then it is never more appropriate for the Ninth Doctor and The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook. For it is actually surprising to realise that the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor have certain aspects in common. Both had more or less the same number of stories—eleven in the case of the Sixth Doctor, ten in the case of the Ninth Doctor. Both were brash and no-nonsense characters, both in counter to their previous incarnations, but where the Sixth Doctor was assured bluster, the Ninth Doctor hid regrets and grief. Both also introduced a longer format for their stories—forty-five minutes rather than the traditional twenty-five minutes. Both stories of the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor included seasons with overarching plotlines, the Sixth Doctor with ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ and the Ninth Doctor’s only season.

Of course, the big difference was that the Ninth Doctor introduced ‘Nu-Who’, reviving the series after almost a decade away from the screen, and that only after Doctor Who: The Movie, the primary outing for the Eighth Doctor, as detailed in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook. It brought in production values that the BBC had never applied to Science Fiction, it told more personal stories, and engaged more with the lives of the protagonists, especially the Companion, Rose Tyler, along with her family. Although perhaps not as successful worldwide as the seasons that were to come for the Tenth Doctor, it proved to be popular and laid the groundwork for the more than a decade’s worth of seasons that have followed.

Despite the change in format and style of the television, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook follows the same format of the previous eight entries in the series. It can be divided into three chapters—‘The Ninth Doctor and Companions’, ‘Playing in the Ninth Doctor’s Era’, and ‘The Ninth Doctor’s Adventures’. The first chapter looks at who the Ninth Doctor is, who his Companions (and almost-Companions are) are, and their characters as well as providing a character sheet for each. The second examines the various and elements of the Ninth Doctor’s era, whist the third details each of the Ninth Doctor’s adventures and extrapolates games ideas and content from them in turn. All of which is presented as essentially the after effects of the Last Great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords which ended in mutual destruction of both races at the Doctor’s hand. As much as the Time War casts a pall over both the Ninth Doctor and his stories, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook comes at those stories and his character with no little hindsight. Now the details of the Last Great Time War would not be revealed until 2013 and the fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’, but where the previous sourcebooks merely touched upon the subject of the Time War to one degree or another, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook more fully explores its ramifications.

What is significant about the Ninth Doctor is how much character development he undergoes during his season. Mostly obviously he begins uptight, gruff, and grief-stricken, but as the season progresses, he relaxes, learns to trust again, and become what the Doctor was before he took the drastic actions he did at the end of the Last Great Time War. Much of this will come about because of his time with Rose, who in ‘The Ninth Doctor and Companions’ is detailed as the Doctor’s main Companion through the season. She is joined by the ex-Time Agent and con-artist, Captain Jack Harkness, really his first appearance in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game and perfect for anyone wanting to run a game based on Torchwood. Essentially Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness are the Ninth Doctor’s only Companions, anyone else is more a member of the supporting cast. To that end, three other characters are included in the chapter, two as ‘almost-Companions’ and one as a ‘not-Companion’. Rose’s mother, Jacky, and Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Mickey, are the almost-Companions, characters who revolve around the Doctor—or at least the effect he has on Rose, but do not accompany him on his adventures. Parallels here can be drawn between the Third Doctor and various members of UNIT who join him in his rare excusions in the TARDIS. The ‘not-Companion’ is of course, Adam Mitchell, the young genius who worked for Van Statten in the episode, ‘Dalek’, and who Rose persuaded the Doctor to join them aboard the TARDIS, and whose greed would quickly find him ejected again. Adam provides a counterpoint to Rose, showing how she is suited to travel with Doctor, whereas he is not.

Just as a reset lies at the heart of the Ninth Doctor’s return, so it forms a central theme in ‘Playing in the Ninth Doctor’s Era’. It suggests that playing a campaign similar to that of the Ninth Doctor’s season, is much like returning to a roleplaying campaign after a break with all new characters. It also allows players familiar with the setting to also come at it anew and the Game Master to present old threats and familiar situations in new and different ways. In other words, to keep it fresh. The other issue with the era is its short and personal nature and the chapter examines how it can be used as a framework for a similar, but short campaign (or season). To back that up, it gives three campaign ideas that a Game Master could develop, each drawn from elements present in both the series and the sourcebook, but without the Doctor.

The third and final chapter, ‘The Ninth Doctor’s Adventures’, is also the longest—some three quarters of the book. It details all of ten of the Ninth Doctor’s adventures, but with so few to deal with, the danger with The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is that its story write-ups would suffer from being too long and too detailed. To an extent, with a paucity of stories to write up, this is unavoidable. Fortunately, the story recaps over not overwritten, so lack the flaccidity of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. So it is pleasure to read up on some personal favourites, such as ‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘Dalek’, and ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’, and see what the sourcebook does with them. All ten are supported by good write-ups of the various NPCs who appeared onscreen. So there are write-ups of Lady Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen, the Face of Boe, and the Trees of the Forest of Cheem from ‘The End of the World’; Charles Dickens from ‘The Unquiet Dead’; Harriet Jones, MP Flydale North from ‘Aliens of London/World War Three’; and Pete Tyler—father of Rose, from ‘Father’s Day’. There is some repetition between the monsters and NPCs given here and those found in the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game core rules, but given the amount of crossover material between the two, this could hardly be avoided.

If there is an issue with the write-ups, it is that they are each followed by lengthy continuity lists which seem more a little superfluous. Their inclusion is more than made up for by the ‘Running the Adventure’ sections. Each explores how each story can run as seen on screen or changed make it feel different or fresh, if as seems likely, the players have seen the episodes. Notably, they include advice listed under ‘Changing the Desktop Theme’—a reference to the changed look of the TARDIS interior after some thirty or so years on how to reskin the story with another threat or enemy, and so on. So ‘The End of the World’ is reexamined as a cosy murder mystery, how to use a different alien in ‘Dalek’ trying to escape (or even trying to get in), and so on. This is all backed up by exploration of the ideas and questions raised by each episode. Again these are well done, if a little too long in places, but each story write-up is rounded by a selection of further adventure ideas so that the Game Master can run sequels to the adventures, if not the adventures themselves.

Physically, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is as well presented as the rest of the line and is profusely illustrated with photographs from the series. In truth there have been better sourcebooks in this line, but there have been worse also, and to be fair, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is good entry in the series. It is perhaps a little overlong in places, but a high page count and limited source material will lend themselves to that effect. Nevertheless, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook provides a good gaming examination of the Ninth Doctor’s stories and their themes, explores some interesting questions, and provides a solid start to the series’ coverage of ‘Nu Who’.