Cracks are appearing in time, threatening to cause all of existence to collapse! The Doctor, Ace and Bernice have little time to worry about that. They are hot on the trail of a rogue spaceship, called Ship, that intends to download the consciousness of every living being in the universe.
After letting themselves be captured by the Ship and its ant-like drones the time travellers become separated by the time rifts. With Ace trapped in ancient Egypt, Bernice in 18th century France and the Doctor in 19th century Paris they must fight to be reunited.
Meanwhile the Ship hunts the Doctor, wanting to learn the secret of time travel. To complicate matters Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart (last seen in ‘Transit’) is revealed as the cause of the time rifts and falls under Ships control.
This is a real milestone for the Virgin New Adventures, as it features Ace’s departure from the TARDIS (although she briefly returns for one more book). Ace was a character that had grown and changed during the series.
Just as in the television series sometimes all that can be said about a companion has been said. It was time for her to move on and fulfil the destiny that be hinted at in a deleted scene from ‘Silver Nemesis’ and the novelisation of ‘The Curse of Fenric.’
Ace is one of my favourite Doctor Who companions and I remember reading this eagerly to see how she would leave. Kate Orman does a great job with her final adventure, playing to the characters strengths.
Having her leave to fight her own battles, acting as her own version of Times Champion, felt right. We knew she’d still be having adventures and that she didn’t need to the Doctor to save her anymore, nor did he need her to protect him.
Now only the Doctor and the TARDIS were left as consistent link to the original series. This allowed the books to continue to forge their own path, giving them room to introduce new companions Roz and Cwej in ‘Original Sin.’
It is tempting to think that this story influenced the ‘Cracks in Time’ story arc from recent seasons of Doctor Who, but I’m sure it is just a coincidence. Still they are very similar, with their presence threating reality and their cause traced to a time travel machine.
The plot also has a strong resemblance to ‘Birthright’ with the characters trapped in separate time zones. This is a framework that I’d like to see in the current series and work brilliantly with Amy, Rory and the Doctor trying to co-ordinate efforts in three different time periods.
I think this book also gave us some good sections with the Doctor, who has had a tendency to be overshadowed by his companions or neutralised in the previous stories. I particularly like how he keeps escaping from confinement on Ship, only failing because he won’t hurt anyone.
Not only do I think it is clever to make escaping a core part of his capture I can’t help but imagine how his 35 escapes and eventual recaptures would have padded out a television story, something akin to ‘Frontier in Space’.
For these reasons and more ‘Set Piece’ is one of the important books to read from the Virgin New Adventures line.
This is an interesting case where two different plot threads combine together to create a greater threat by the end of the book. Initially the rifts in time are a background threat, mostly just used to disperse the main characters are to different locations.
The initial villain of the piece is Ship, another rogue AI. An example of how a single objective can be taken to far using machine logic. It is when it begins using the rifts to spread its influence that the two plots really work together.
Creating a plot in this format can help make a plot unpredictable. Even if the players work out where each plot is going they probably can’t guess what happen when they combine. The more plot threads woven together the more unpredictable things become.
The danger is that things can become confusing with to many elements combined together. This requires each plot to fit together naturally, without any loose ends. The more plot threads there are the smaller the scale of the individual threat or significance. It is only when they come together that they produce a strong spine for the adventure.
For example an adventure could have two plot threads. The first thread is that in a small town on Earth a cult is awakening a sleeping evil that once awakened will bond with the cultists to create a fearsome symbiotic monster.
The second plot thread is a covert alien invasion in the small town. They have already scheduled the take over the town. Unfortunately it occurs during the cults ceremony. The awakened evil will bond with the aliens, seeing them as stronger hosts.
Player characters can arrive in the town during the build up to these events. UFO sightings and supernatural goings on might seem like contradictions at first, surely only one plot can be occurring here?
By the time they find out that there are both cultists and aliens in the town it is too late. The possessed aliens are far more powerful than the human cultists would have been and now the whole world is in danger.
This could lead to a situation where the player characters have to persuade the remaining cultists (annoyed at being snubbed by their evil master) to work with the aliens (horrified that the majority of their soldiers have been turned into monsters) to end the threat. The weakened cultists and aliens can then be defeat or forced to surrender.
Splitting PCs into different time zones is a good way to create variety in both location and historical setting. It can also encourage players who hid in the background to step up and give it their all.
Care must be taken to give each player equal time. To encourage all the players to pay attention, even when the focus is not on them, the connection between time periods can be emphasised, showing how events in one era impact on everyone further up the timeline.
For example Ace leaves a piece of graphite in Ancient Egypt that allows Bernice in the 18th century to find the buried TARDIS. Time capsules, newspaper ads and involvement with historical events are a good way for time stranded PCs to communicate with each other.
In addition this book suggests that the TARDIS allows the Doctor and his companions to communicate subconsciously, even in different points in time. I would suggest that this is best done while the characters are sleeping, allowing them to arrange a conference in their dreams.
Not only does this allow information to be passed between characters but it strengthens the bond between them and emphasise that although they might be hundreds of years apart they share the same ‘now’.
Another way to link the time periods is by having NPCs who are in both periods. ‘Mawdryn Undead’ did this with the Brigadier but we also see it in ‘Set Piece’ with Bernice interacting with Baron Vivant Dominique Denon in 1798 only for Ace to met the same man in 1815.
For further adventures the time rifts still exist at the end of the book. This could lead to further invasions or a means for a group of PCs to travel without a TARDIS. It could be an excuse to run a Doctor Who/Primeval crossover campaign.