Last Minute Xmas – REVIEW – Doctor Who: Molten Heart – A stocking stuffer
The Thirteenth Doctor has completed her first series on television and has now made her debut in novel form. But does Molten Heart’s tale of environmental catastrophe and first contact successfully capture Series 11’s heroes?
Every time a new Doctor debuts on screen, those relating their adventures on the page face the same challenge. Because the turnaround time for novels such as Molten Heart demands they be mostly or completely finished before the team has appeared in people’s living rooms. More often that not when only a handful of filming days have been completed and scripts are still in flux. So writers like Una McCormack have to steel themselves. They do what they can with whatever material they have and make a few bold guesses. And then hope they don’t find themselves in front of their televisions months later with their heads in their hands.
In that regard, Molten Heart is a qualified triumph. All four members of the TARDIS Fam feel, sound and act just as you’d expect. But the novel format also allows them more space to breathe. As a result, they come across as more profound, and more rounded characters than in Series 11 itself. Part of that is down to the structure of the novel, which follows a classic Doctor Who pattern. It splits the team in two, each piece themselves teaming up with a local. More specifically due to the masterstroke of having the Doctor and Ryan on one side of the divide and Yaz and Graham on the other.
By pairing Graham and Yaz together for much of the story, Molten Heart casts new light on them both
The latter two have had little time together on screen in Series 11, with the Doctor/Yaz and Ryan/Graham the norm. But placing the Londoner and the young police officer together as a duo sheds new light on each of them. Yaz particularly benefits from this, with Molten Heart offering a much clearer look at her. McCormack takes Yaz’ description as someone who wants more – to see more, experience more, do more, and runs with it. In fact, the Yaz of Molten Heart edges towards territory previously walked by Clara Oswald. She’s someone who doesn’t just want to help the Doctor but wants to learn to be the Doctor.
Among the rest of the team, Graham’s dry, feigned dissatisfaction with events is perfectly captured. You can almost imagine Bradley Walsh saying every line. The Doctor too is basically Jodie Whittaker transformed into ink and paper and pressed between hardback covers. Her mix of enthusiasm, directness and tendency to get easily distracted are all present and correct. Only Ryan feels a little pushed to the side, though we do get a window into his feelings about being trapped in such a vastly alien world to his own.
The planet Adamantine is a unique and alien setting for the Doctor’s latest adventure
That world, Adamantine, is a marvellous concept. It manages to be a very Doctor Who idea, but one you’d never find on TV. The show itself would scarcely dare even attempt to put it on screen with the budget allowed. (Well, maybe in the days of Graham Williams, CSO, and the odd polystyrene rock costume). The plot of Molten Heart takes the central idea of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and inverts it while adding up to the exact parallels to environmentalism and government apathy. Landing in the giant hollow sphere at the centre of the planet, the TARDIS team find a wondrously strange civilisation.
A nation of living rock creatures live on the inside surface of the sphere so that when they look into their ‘sky’, they see the distant lights of the towns opposite. And they meet Ash, the daughter of the eccentric scientist Basalt who disappeared some time ago to explore. Basalt had theories of a world outside and set off to find a way to the surface of the planet. Soon the Doctor, Ryan and Ash are following the markers left by Basalt and pursuing a quest to find him, amid great natural dangers and exotic creatures – a journey to the surface of the Adamantine, if you will.
With the planet on the edge of destruction, the Doctor and her friends must make its leadership face the danger
But there’s more going on that a simple rescue mission. Cracks are appearing in the sphere and the Doctor, being her, is determined to find the cause and save everyone. But it falls to Yaz and Ryan, left behind in Adamantine’s capital Diamond City, to try and convince the inhabitants that there’s even any danger. For life on alien planets – the existence of alien planets at all, in fact – is considered not just laughable; it’s heresy. Which makes Yaz and Graham’s very presence an inconvenient truth for Emerald, the city’s ruler, and her secret police, the Greenwatch.
There are clear real-world parallels. After all, there’s a government trying to suppress the truth of an imminent ecological disaster rather than deal with it. But it’s not too heavy-handed. Moreover, Emerald is treated rather sympathetically – as someone who genuinely wants her people to survive and thrive but simply rejects any information she can’t understand. Even when the Doctor finally confronts the real cause, there’s a notable lack of grandstanding super-villainy. This leaves Molten Heart fitting in neatly with the general landscape of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era – one where there are few out and out alien ‘monsters’ and even those representing a threat have more complicated and relatable reasons than you may think.
Molten Heart represents a promising start to the Thirteenth Doctor era in novel form, keeping everything great about the series while opening it up beyond the limits of the TV format
At 195 pages, Molten Heart, like most of the tie-in novels since 2005, is a brisk, easy read. McCormack keenly judges the pace, and the scope of her plot to both fill the page count and not leave the story underdeveloped. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, and one which has tripped up several Doctor Who authors before now. But it’s not a problem here. Instead, plot, subplot, characterisation and concept sit in a nice balance that feels as complete and contained as Adamantine itself.
It’s not perfect, of course, nothing is. There’s a notable clanger where either miscommunication or pure mischance leads to the book including a wrinkle to the Graham and Ryan relationship where Ryan insists on calling Graham “granddad” because it annoys the older man. But when that’s the worst thing about a book, it’s doing pretty well.
Overall, Molten Heart is a novel that sits comfortably in status as an ‘eleventh episode’ for Series 11. It simultaneously allows our cast of characters breathing space to add dimensions and nuances not always possible in fifty minutes. For those who’ve enjoyed this season, it can only enhance your love of the characters while also giving us a truly alien and outlandish species and planet.
Molten Heart by Una McCormack
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 must lead an expedition to the surface of the world to save its molten heart…