The War Doctor is back! But as Regenerations, the pacy and inventive anthology from Chinbeard Books reveals, in a Time War the most lethal weapon against him is his own past.
The strongest advertisement for Regenerations is undoubtedly the same editorial team’s previous anthology, Seasons of War. Back in the days when the very idea of the War Doctor was the most audacious meddling with Doctor Who continuity ever put on screen, Seasons of War explored the vast, untapped fields of the Doctor’s most mysterious incarnation. That impressive, eclectic, and magpie minded charted of the fall and rise of the War Doctor’s conscience. And in doing so it flitted all across the long centuries of the Time War. However, its follow up Regenerations is at once both more wide ranging and more focused.
The War Doctor is under attack, right down to the fact of his very existence. The latest mad scheme of Rassilon is to avert the Time War by ensuring the Doctor never travels to Skaro, and never reveals to the genocidal mutants that life exists elsewhere in the cosmos. Without that knowledge, they’ll never attempt to leave their homeworld, never menace the rest of the universe, and never rise to challenge the Time Lords. The original plot is to sabotage his TARDIS so that it never leaves IM Foreman’s junkyard, stranding him and Susan. Needless to say, it goes badly wrong.
Regenerations reshapes familiar stories into tales too dark, too broad, or just plain too silly for TV
As a result of the interference, the Doctor’s entire history fractures and rewrites itself again and again. Meanwhile it creates a nightmare of clashing memories for the version of him fighting in the Time War. Thus two parallel narratives unfold across Regenerations’ 436 pages. Every other story sees the War Doctor hunting down the heart of the conspiracy against him. Each one a step along the search for a way he and his two new/old/never-were companions can undo the damage. While the other half of the book provokes memories of familiar adventures, now twisted into sometimes horrible shapes as the Doctor’s timeline begins to collapse.
In principle, this shouldn’t work at all. Mathematically, a healthy chunk of the wordcount in Regenerations consists of straightforward retellings of adventures we already know by heart. While the nature of this crisis of almost infinite Doctors means that even the most shocking or tragic twists are undone for the next story. So a companion may be mercilessly killed off in one story. But the next might feature them still travelling with the Doctor well beyond their time on TV. In theory this should make the stories rather lightweight and meaningless.
The book defies any preconceptions that come with being a fan anthology, and proves to be one of the most high standard volumes of Who fiction in years
The reality of reading Regenerations, however, is rather different. For one thing, the prose style mixes a punchy straightforwardness worthy of Terrence Dicks, with a dark, sly wit. The combination creates an overall feeling that this must be what Target novelisations by Robert Holmes would have been like. Well, if he hadn’t found them such a chore, at least. It also means it feels like a rather lush, extremely professional affair for a fan anthology. In fact, it may be rather churlish to remark that, for instance, the story featuring a fun house mirror retelling of the Sixth Doctor’s visit to Necros is significantly better written than the recent official BBC novelization. But then there’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be churlish sometimes.
Only a handful of sentences out of the whole volume leaves you pondering if that was really the word the writer meant to use. And there’s only one that leaps out as a genuine typo. (Blogtor Who is pretty sure the Master didn’t spit venom onto the “show” of Chang Lee’s jacket.) But, let’s be honest, that’s a better hit count than the average novel you could pull off the shelf of your local bookstore. And that only underlines that one of the anthology’s great strengths is the sheer professionalism of the editing. Not just in its attentiveness to the little things like grammar, clarity and typesetting. But also in the cohesiveness it brings to the book despite all the bouncing around in divergent timelines.
Regenerations‘ greatest strength is a firm grasp on the War Doctor persona
So a lot of credit for the creative success of Regenerations has to go to its editor Kenton Hall, who has also contributed the War Doctor’s side of the conflict and a smattering of the other tales. Other writers get to play with the concept in more outlandish style. Dan Barrett tells of the Cybermen exploring the long lost Tomb of the Humans beneath St. Paul’s. While the Fifth Doctor battles dinosaurs in Heathrow courtesy of Simon A Brett and Lee Rawlings. And Alan Ronald has a Time Lord actor rehearsing with a bag over his head for the retelling of the Doctor’s greatest moment. You know, that time he concluded he absolutely did have the right after all. But it’s all driven forward by Hall’s rare ability to express the duality of the War Doctor’s nature.
A Time Lord filled with self loathing for no longer living up to the name ‘the Doctor’ and its promise. But yet also a man who, when it comes down to it, still absolutely is the Doctor to his core.
Hall’s War Doctor is a weary soul eternally aware of the angel and the devil on his shoulders. Only he calls his angel ‘the Doctor’ and it constantly reminds him of the witty banter the Doctor would have made, or the bravura feat the Doctor would have pulled off. If only the Doctor were here. Sometimes the War Doctor even forgets himself and indulges that voice. Especially when he’s running down corridors with a couple of loyal companions. But his other aspect is always there too, and he feels “the warrior clambering back into his suit of armour” in his mind when circumstances call for solutions more ruthless than the Doctor ever had stomach for.
As a potted history through things that never happened, Regenerations’ deft use of language, and keen understanding of what makes great Doctor Who, means it’s easy to recommend
Chinbeard Books have now crafted two volumes exploring the War Doctor. And they’ve brought him to much deeper life than his brief TV existence allowed. So it will be fascinating to see where they go next. Despite almost certainly being well into its planning and writing stages by the time the Series 12 finale aired, Regenerations already gives a nod to the mysteries and revelations surrounding the Timeless Child. Perhaps next time Hall will assemble a group of writers to take on the Doctor’s forgotten missions for the Division. It’s a sorely tempting idea.
For now, however, let’s appreciate Regenerations’ potted journey through the show’s history gone wrong. With deft gift for turning a phrase, and a keen grasp on the mix of the absurd and the disturbing inherent to all the best Who, it’s an entry in the unofficial anthology market that can stand proudly near the top rank of Doctor Who fiction whether official or unofficial.
The limited edition print run of Regenerations has already sold out. However, you can still snag yourself a copy of the eBook from Chinbeard Books for only £6.99. All profits go to the charity Invest in ME.