Bernice and her husband Jason are on Earth in the year 2003, searching for Noah’s Ark on Mahser Dagi. Their marriage is on trouble and the rest of the expedition have just been slaughtered by Iraqi and Iranian soldiers. Time to call the Doctor.
The Doctor and Chris arrive and together they discover an alien teleportation device linked to a moonbase. There a UNIT team, under the leadership of Liz Shaw, are trying to prevent an alien terraforming device from activating and wiping out all human life.
Things go terribly wrong and as millions die the time travellers only have 48 hours to save the planet. Against this backdrop can Bernice save her marriage?
The Doctor says “I have walked in Eternity. And Eternity weeps.”
This is an incredibly bleak Doctor Who adventure, where death is actually a preferable fate to some of the experiences the characters go through. It is about the unavoidable truth that everything ends and sometimes the Doctor can’t stop tragedies, he can only end them.
Despite this I really enjoyed this story. In many ways it anticipated shows like ‘24’ with races against time, overwhelming forces and innocent people being punished for the actions of a handful of extremists.
There is a place within Doctor Who for grim stories, ones in which the Doctor isn’t a magical figure in a fairy tale world. Some of the best stories are those in which the Doctor fails, at least in part.
I think this why this book, along with such classic episodes as ‘The Silurians’ and ‘Inferno’, packs so much punch.
This is another step towards the ‘Bernice Summerfield Adventures’ with much of the focus placed on Bernice and her husband. Not only is the Doctor’s role minimised his name isn’t even on the cover.
Nonetheless the book makes good use of Doctor Who elements including the return of Liz Shaw, the use of the Silurians and time travel. It is only the presentation of 2003, with Bruce Springsteen as President of the United States, and the massive death toll that makes this a difficult one to fit into canon.
Those who enjoy Bernice Summerfield, grisly deaths and huge stakes will get a lot of enjoyment out this book. It is also noteworthy as the last time Bernice will see the 7th Doctor.
When you introduce weapons of mass destruction you must sometimes be prepared for them to go off. Presenting a huge threat increases tension but you can always make things even more exciting by pushing things further.
In this story the big threat is the activation of the terraforming device that will turn the planet into a sea of sulphuric acid. Before that happens a virus, Agent Yellow, is released. Now not only do the characters have to stop the device they have to find a cure for the virus before all of humanity is infected and dies a painful death.
This can be done on a smaller scale by having the villains in an adventure carrying out smaller plans while building up to their main aim. This isn’t the same as if they were carrying out phases of one plan, where stopping one phase prevents or hampers the main aim, but an added complication.
This is a particularly effective technique if you have a large number of players. It ensures that everyone has something to do, whether it be concentrating on the main threat or dealing with the extra complications.
To avoid the impression that you’re trying to distract the players solving each complication can provide clues or benefits that help them deal with the main threat. Not only do the players who stopped the complications have the satisfaction of solving that problem but they’ve helped with the focus of the adventure.
When you increase the scale of the threat you can emphasis this by having larger and larger organisations involved and interacting with the player characters. The higher up the ladder the characters go the bigger the threat.
This is another way that the same basic adventure idea can be given a different feel. For example you could take an alien invasion story and it could play out completely differently depending on whether the PCs are coordinating with a neighbourhood watch, a city council, UNIT or the Prime Minister.
In this adventure there is an example of pre-destination. Jason uses a time ring to go back in time to convince the alien creators of the terraforming device not to send it to Earth. It is the information that he provides them that in fact puts this plan in motion.
This is one way to prevent PCs with accurate time travel abilities from easily solving adventures. Once you are involved in events your actions are part of that time line, that if you were to go back you would only succeed in ensuring they happened, because they did.
It could also be used if a PC fails at changing history. Rather than the failure being due to their abilities or luck it is because it would go against the Web of Time. The outcome is the same but the player is assured that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.
This book was released in 1997 and so the 2003 presented here has little resemblance to our world. While you can simply ignore it you can also embrace it. After all, the Doctor Who universe is not our world.
Yes, Bruce Springsteen was never President in our world but neither was there a Prime Minister Saxon. We’ve never had a large scale alien invasion, there wasn’t a British space program and Earth wasn’t stolen by Daleks.
While the events of the book haven’t been referenced in on-screen adventure it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. PCs from the 21st century will know about the terrible outbreak of Agent Yellow that claimed the lives of hundreds of millions and the burst of radiation that sterilised parts of South America, Asia and Turkey.
This allows you to explore the consequences of the story, whether it be attempts at rebuilding, the erection of memorials to those who perished or the political fallout as nations grasp at power and blame each other for the tragedy.
In particular there could be a greater awareness from political powers about the danger of aliens and their technology. This could result in xenophobia but also a greater caution when dealing with alien artefacts.
And doesn’t that just sound like another of the author’s Bernice novels, The Sword of Forever.