Review: At Childhood’s End

At Childhood’s End is a Doctor Who novel written by Sophie Aldred (with help from Steve Cole and Mike Tucker), who played Ace, the Doctor’s last companion before the show’s extended hiatus between 1989 and 2005. So this is a story about Ace As She Is Now, in the time of the 13th Doctor: going by her given name Dorothy, CEO of mega-charity A Charitable Earth (get it?), possessed of secret lairs and shipping containers filled with alien tech and home-brew explosives of her own design. Once upon a time, homeless people begin disappearing from the suburb of Perivale that she calls home. Simultaneously, she begins to dream of a terrible alien desert filled with desperate people. And a mysterious satellite appears in orbit around the Moon.

It’s this last that brings her into the path of the 13th Doctor and her fam, who are investigating the satellite and its origins. Turns out that Dorothy’s parting from the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) was less than friendly, and Dorothy resents the Doctor to this day, in light of their habit of manipulating the people around them even when they have the best of intentions. At Childhood’s End is as much an exploration of Dorothy and the Doctor’s relationship past and present as it is an actual adventure story with aliens and laser weapons and all sorts of timey-wimey business.

For a start, it’s clearly being positioned as a More Serious novel than the usual run of Doctor Who tie-in novels: just look at that cover, which is far less obviously science fictional than literally every other New Series Adventure, and in fact reads more as crime than anything else. Here There Be (Attempted) Grit. Then there’s the fact that lots and lots of reviewers on Goodreads are reading the novel in the context of the show’s history rather than as a standard Doctor Who adventure: the focus is squarely on Dorothy here and on her place in the show’s canon.

Which begs the question: what does it actually do with Dorothy? Well: not a lot. Or, at least, not a lot that’s new or revelatory. The point of having Dorothy in this story, with this Doctor, is to undercut the Doctor’s goodness, their position as moral arbiter at the centre of the universe. Instead, at the centre of this universe is Dorothy. Her charitable work is reflected as in a funhouse mirror by the work of the novel’s villain, who’s collecting up the homeless and vulnerable of the universe for purposes nefarious under the guise of charity (a nice doubling of how the Doctor’s moral standing is undermined; what other crimes are committed on Earth in the name of charity? What about the Oxfam scandal in Haiti? Or the fact that LiveAid channelled millions of pounds to a repressive Ethiopian government for them to spend on weapons? The point being that charities are not infallible, as the Doctor is not). Dorothy’s the one having the dreams; and she’s the one on whom the villain’s schemes all depend, thanks to an adventure she and the Doctor went on when they were in their seventh incarnation. The novel’s villain doesn’t really care about the Doctor; it’s all about Dorothy, for him.

But…this isn’t really a new kind of story to tell with an old companion. We see the Doctor’s moral authority get undercut in Chibnall episodes like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, episodes where she’s blind to her own white privilege and powerless to confront colonial violence and racism. But, I mean, we were hearing about the Doctor’s toxic effects on their companions way before then, in Martha Jones’ arc, and in Rory’s hostility to the 11th Doctor. This, here, is just like…a logical end point.

Except it doesn’t even function like that. Here I want to talk about one of the difficulties a Doctor Who tie-in novel presents, which is that it can be informed by the TV series but cannot inform it in turn – at least not on a meaningful timescale. So, in At Childhood’s End the Doctor’s fam must reckon with the implications of Dorothy’s existence: does the Doctor consider her more important than them? When will they leave the Doctor’s side, and why? But the circumstances of the novel’s production mean it can’t actually follow through on those questions. Nothing important, continuity-wise, can happen in a tie-in novel (well, until that particular Doctor’s run is over) and nothing important will happen as a result of it. That’s a problem for At Childhood’s End mostly because it is specifically trading on its relevance to the show as a whole: it sets up Big Questions about this Doctor’s relationship to her companions, and how similar she is to the Doctor who hurt Dorothy herself, without being able to answer them meaningfully or lastingly.

The questioning of the moral authority of charity that I touched on a few paragraphs ago poses another problem: if we’re encouraged to think about the abuses that sometimes hide behind the guise of charity, where does that leave Dorothy’s own mega-charity? The novel doesn’t touch on this, but: A Charitable Earth has enough clout, apparently, to occupy an enormous office building next door to the fucking Tower of London – specifically so that Dorothy can spy on UNIT. Dorothy has a secret “batcave” full of high-powered vehicles, apparently housed in that same building. She lives in that building. Where’s the money coming from for these things, I wonder?

This is a novel that achieves exactly what it set out to do, even if what it set out to do is limited by its own production circumstances and by its authors’ ambition. This story has been told before, in other words, but that doesn’t mean it’s told badly here. Certainly it’s not offensive, or annoying, or even particularly boring. It feels ridiculous to critique it for being morally underthought: it’s a frickin’ Doctor Who novel after all, what do you expect? I do think you have to know a fair bit about Ace and the Seventh Doctor to appreciate it properly (full disclosure: I know nothing about either character except that Sylvester McCoy was in The Hobbit), and that its positioning as a Gritty and Serious novel is not quite on the mark. It features human-sized rats, after all, and centaurs. And if it was really trying to be those things it might have looked a little closer into Dorothy’s occupation as head of A Charitable Earth (what does this charity do, anyway?). But, ultimately – it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like this kind of thing.

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