Doctor Who: The Algebra of Ice

In this age of the new television series (okay, not so new, since it started six… six… years ago already), it’s easy for the kids these days to forget that, a long time ago, there was another series of Doctor Who, and when that series was over there was a period of almost 15 years where our only output for new Who were a range of novels, first by Virgin Publishing and then BBC Books (sure, the 1996 Eighth Doctor movie was released, but that wound up being a disappointment, save for Paul McGann’s wonderful performance in the role).  The Virgin Doctor Who book range included the New Adventures featuring the Seventh Doctor, and ran for about 60 books (there was also a Missing Adventures range for previous Doctor; whereas the Seventh Doctor stories featured adventures beyond the end of the TV series, the Missing Adventures featured stories slotted in-between older Doctors’ episodes).

There is a section of Who fandom who followed these books and consider them the Golden Age of Who literature; it’s worth noting that a number of authors who wrote for the Virgin range went on to write and produce for television in the UK (this included the man who revived the show for a new generation, Russel T. Davies, whose novel Damaged Goods is not only considered one of the finest entries, it’s also hard to find and can fetch a decent price on eBay).  In fact, it could be said that the New Adventures had an impact on the new series; not only was Davies an alumni of the range, but fellow authors Paul Cornell , Matthew Jones, Gareth Roberts, and Mark Gatiss have written episodes for the new series (Paul Cornell even adapted the most popular New Adventures novel, Human Nature, into a 2-parter for the new series, during the 3rd season featuring David Tennant as the 10th Doctor).

While, sadly, the latter BBC novels never received quite the same accolades or attention as the Virgin range, they were nevertheless of high quality, particularly under the editorial reigns of Justin Richard. One of the best new authors during the BBC Books era, Lloyd Rose, contributed a Past Doctor Adventure featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace, The Algebra of Ice, which reads like a love letter to the Virgin era.

I have been a fan of Rose’s work since she arrived on the scene with her first Doctor Who novel, The City of the Dead, which featured the Eighth Doctor and took place in New Orleans.  Her lyrical prose and imaginative plots made for breathtaking reading; her follow-up, Camera Obscura (also featuring the Eighth Doctor), was no different.   So, when I decided to pick up some of the older BBC Doctor Who books that I had not yet read, The Algebra of Ice was at the top of my list.

The book starts out with a promising premise; the TARDIS takes the Doctor and Ace to a series of time discrepancies; Edgar Allan Poe no longer dying as history recorded, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and more.  While the discrepancies do not change history at large, the Doctor decides to investigate, and things (naturally) go downhill from there.  The time-loop scenes with Poe dying (and then not) have a sparse quality that gives them a creepy, almost horror atmosphere.  Rose eschews her usual style for a more bare-bones one, which is adequate and suits the scene.

The problem is, Rose forgoes it for the entire novel.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; but I couldn’t help thinking as I read The Algebra of Ice, that Rose was holding back.  That the novel could just read better than it did based on her previous material.  It could have been a stylistic choice, considering the material.  If the title didn’t tip you off, there is quite a bit of discussion regarding mathematics in the novel.  Mind you, it’s not as if the is a thesis on the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, but at times the discussions can become rather dry.  Rose clearly did her research on the material, but it won’t appeal to everyone. It does, however, tie into her economic approach throughout the novel.

Rose does a great job of capturing the Seventh Doctor and Ace.  Rose plays around with examining the “dark Doctor” aspect that pervaded the last two seasons of the original series and the Virgin range of books; in particular, this novel examines the Doctor’s conflicted nature over the ends justifying the means, in this instance with the destruction of Skaro at his hands (in the TV episode “The Remembrance of the Daleks”).  This forms a thematic undercurrent throughout the novel, and Rose’s handling of the material is excellent.  Less successful is Ace, but I mostly chalk that up to personal preference.  I’ve never found Ace to a particularly deep character, and thus not a terribly good foil for the Doctor. Her role in the novel is largely go here, do that, and become romantically involved with one of the novel’s characters.  The romance plot itself is awkward at first; a complete cliche of people who apparently dislike each other and then, during an argument, lustfully attacking the other.  Really?  Thankfully, the romance plot does turn into something sweeter by the end of the novel, with a bittersweet epilogue in which Rose ties in a lot of the disparate thematic elements of the novel (love, faith, mathematics, death) into a neat finale.

While out of print, this book shouldn’t be hard to find (yet).  If you’re a fan of the Seventh Doctor, then this book is a must-have.  Outside of that, the book is a very satisfying science fiction novel; if you can get through the slow start and get through the mathematics discussions, you will find a lot of imaginative ideas to enjoy.  Now, if only Rose could write one of the New Series novels…

Rating: B+

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