Well, although I’d originally planned to read a crime thriller novel, I was still in the mood for sci-fi. And, during a book-shopping trip to Petersfield a couple of days before preparing this review, I happened to find a couple of slightly older “Doctor Who” spin-off novels in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield.
Since I quite enjoyed reading a more modern novel in this series a few months earlier, I was eager to read one of them as soon as possible. And, since Jacqueline Rayner’s 2007 novel “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” involved both a dodo and time travel (the very idea brought back very fond memories of reading one of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St.Mary’s” novels), I ended up choosing it.
Interestingly, although this novel is based on an older version of the “Doctor Who” TV series (the version starring David Tennant and Freema Aygeman), it can still be enjoyed if you haven’t seen the show – since the earlier parts of the novel explain/recap all of the important elements of the TV series.
So, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in Mauritius in 1681, with a scene showing a dodo fleeing from hungry sailors who have recently found the island. When the dodo realises that she is the only dodo left on the island, two people in green shirts suddenly appear and rescue her.
Then we flash forwards to 2007, Martha is standing around inside the TARDIS and trying to make a decision. The Doctor has told her that the TARDIS can take her anywhere in time and space and this has left Martha frozen with indecision. Eventually, she suggests visiting the zoo – which prompts something of a self-righteous lecture from the Doctor about why he doesn’t like zoos. So, after happening to notice that the Doctor is using a dodo feather as a bookmark, Martha suggests going back in time to see the dodos before they became extinct.
Using the feather as a locator, the TARDIS travels through time and space. But, when the doors open, Martha and The Doctor find themselves inside a giant museum. In front of them, the last dodo floats in a box frozen in stasis. But, before Martha or The Doctor can really make sense of it, alarms go off and they are seized by armed guards. The museum’s director, Eve, explains that they are in the Museum Of The Last Ones – a planet-sized collection of the last members of all extinct species. And several specimens have recently been stolen from the “Earth” segment…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it certainly has some good moments. It is reasonably compelling and is also generally in keeping with the tone and style of the TV series (which is both a good and a bad thing). So, yes, I have fairly mixed views about this novel.
In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from “Doctor Who” (eg: time travel, other planets etc…) in addition to some classic sci-fi stuff like teleportation etc.. But the most interesting thing about this novel is how well it both does and doesn’t predict the future.
In at least one part, this novel is startlingly ahead of it’s time – since a running plot point in this novel involves Martha playing a vaguely “Pokemon Go”-style animal-spotting game on a tablet computer/electronic book that looks “a bit like a large iPod”. For reference, this novel was published in 2007 (and probably written a year or two earlier). On the other hand, this novel predicts that a near-future Britain will use the Euro as a currency and also predicts/implies that the Kakapo would become extinct in 2017. So, it’s a rather interesting glimpse into the near-past’s visions of the future.
The novel’s main plot is a rather interesting mixture of a detective and thriller story – with the earlier parts of the novel involving Martha and The Doctor trying to track down who has been stealing animals from the museum and the mid-late parts of the novel being a more traditional-style adventure/ thriller/ caper story.
Both of these parts work reasonably well and are fairly compelling, but are a little on the amusingly cheesy side of things (occasionally veering into “so bad that it’s good” territory). The detective segments have more of a focus on clue-finding and interviewing people and the thriller segments are a mixture of hilariously awesome/silly set pieces (sometimes involving dinosaurs) and classic-style cackling villainy, dramatic plot twists, clever plans, general chaos etc… These later parts are most close in tone to the TV series and, if you stick around for them, then you’ll be rewarded with something like a larger-budget mid-2000s episode of the TV show 🙂
Thematically, this is a novel about environmentalism and conservation. However, like some of the worst episodes of the TV show, this novel can sometimes take a fairly heavy-handed, patronising and/or lecturing approach to these topics. Not only that, whilst The Doctor does have quite a few comedic and eccentric moments, he can often be somewhat self-righteous during several parts of this novel.
Still, leaving this aside, some of the characters in this novel are reasonably well-written. The best characters are probably Martha and a dodo called Dorothea, although many of the background characters feel like fairly realistic characters (even if they don’t get that much characterisation). Likewise, there are at least a couple of surprisingly emotional parts later in the novel (which are in keeping with the best character-based moments in the TV show).
However, although the novel’s main villains do get well-written motivations and backstories, they are very much from the cackling, moustache-twirling “elaborate and almost nonsensical evil schemes” school of villainy. Needless to say, this results in some wonderfully silly moments and other “so bad that it’s good” kind of stuff.
In terms of the writing, this novel is very much a mixed bag. On the plus side, the writing in this novel is informal and fast-paced enough to both make the novel very readable and to give it personality, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere to the story.
On the downside, the perspective is quite literally all over the place. Expect random jumps from first to third person perspective (or vice versa) to happen in the middle of chapters, with very little consistency (eg: some Martha-based scenes are first-person, some are third-person etc…) and with only the barest minimum of signposting to tell you what is happening. Yes, you’ll get used to this after reading the book for a while, but there never seems to be any real reason or logic for the perspective changes and the novel would have been much better if it had stuck with either first or third-person narration.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 At a very efficient 248 pages in length (less if you don’t count the encyclopaedia/game score segments), this is the kind of refreshingly short novel that can easily be enjoyed in a couple of hours or so 🙂 Plus, the pacing is reasonably good too – with a good mixture of suspense, mystery, drama, fast-paced set pieces and location changes that remain compelling throughout the novel. Not to mention that the later parts of the novel almost feel like watching a “lost episode” of the TV show too.
All in all, if you can put up with random perspective changes and a bit of self-righteousness, and if you don’t mind a little “so bad that it’s good” silliness, then there is actually a fairly good story buried in here. When it is at it’s best, this novel is like a really good older episode of the TV show (but with a slightly larger budget) and, when it is at it’s worst, it’s like one of the more annoying episodes of the TV show.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.