Book Review: The Silent Stars Go By
Written by Dan Abnett
Reviewed by Tony Fyler
‘Life is Hard, Death is Easy, Nothing is What it Seems’
Before there was Cold War, pitching the Eleventh Doctor and Clara against a lone, though suitably kickass Ice Warrior in the base-under-siege setting of a submarine, there was a sense that it was the Ice Warriors’ ‘turn’ for revamping, for bringing back into the fold as a New Who species. They’d been spoken of in The Waters of Mars in relatively positive terms, given their rather ambiguous past in the Who world – savage, logical, warlike, noble, the Ice Warriors, almost right from their beginnings, were more than a ‘monster of the week’. Brian Hayles had written them originally with a complex honour code, a feudal societal structure (warriors and lords), and against a Time Lord who lovingly referenced Patrick Troughton at almost every opportunity, it seemed both inevitable and very very right that after the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans and the Silurians, the Ice Warriors would claim their place in the ongoing story of Doctor Who.
Into that environment of expectation stepped Dan Abnett with The Silent Stars Go by, a wintry tale of Ice Warriors and the Eleventh Doctor, with Amy and Rory by his side.
There are many Who monsters that work better unseen for the majority of the time, as a threatening presence, only popping out now and then to confirm the reality of their threat, scare the children to scurry behind their sofas, and then disappear back to the shadows, so you know they’re there.
Some of the best on screen Ice Warrior stories have taken that approach to the Martian giants, using them as a threatening ‘something’ before they emerge and lumber off down corridors. The Silent Stars Go By is happy to give more than a nod in this direction: the planet Hereafter is a long-distant Earth colony, where the humanoid colonists, the Morphans, are experiencing inexplicably harsher and harsher winters. Livestock go missing. Then members of the community disappear.
And then of course, with the Tardis’s unerring (if moderately malicious) sense of timing, the Doctor turns up, just when the moment is ripe for him to be suspected of all sorts of unlikely or unfathomable things. So – not so much with the base under siege this time for the Ice Warriors, much more in the ‘planet with weird stuff happening’ mold.
Now – there’s often a criticism of Classic Who that some of the middle episodes are padded out with lots of running down corridors. People have a tendency to underestimate how difficult it is to write a good ‘running down corridors’ mid-section. You have to set up your world explicitly, and there has to be a good solid reason for running down this particular corridor at this particular moment, only to run back up it twenty minutes later for an equally good, believable and ideally peril-filled reason. You have to deliver credible threat, credible solution, and credible environment infrastructure to run down, or crawl down, otherwise it’s just running down corridors.
What Abnett – a workmanlike writer who cranks out the product with a startling efficiency – delivers in The Silent Stars Go By is a really good, old school, Classic Who five or six-parter, but with a New Who Doctor, New Who independent and capable companions, a tiny smattering of timey-wimey goodness and a hard-smacking denouement that reveals the story is not what you’ve thought it is all along.
The characterization and dialogue in scenes with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory is pretty much spot-on, and you can easily read it in their respective voices. The Morphant civilization feels real, and raw, and has an edge of desperate crankiness to it, which you can imagine creeping in winter after winter as the joy of life is eroded by bitter cold, by not enough to eat, by hope turned gradually to disappointment, to an expectation of failure. The Morphants who befriend the Tardis crew are at least adequate one-story people, even if you wouldn’t ever clamour for a Return to Hereafter story to see how they got on.
The Ice Warriors themselves here are extremely well used – evolving from ‘green monsters’ spotted in the distance to green scaly giants, chasing people at a speed more reserved for the imagination-rich media which don’t rely on costume. Their interactions are evolved from those in the Classic era here too, which is taken just far enough to give a Christmas-morning thrill, without pushing into territory where they don’t ultimately feel like the Ice Warriors we know and love (as arguably they were on screen in Cold War, when Skaldak ‘left his armour’ and went skittering about the place all naked and fast as a whip).
The timey-wimey element here is actually used for fun, and to make life more difficult when a simple resolution appears to present itself, and the contradictory nature of the Ice Warriors – warlike but noble and open to reasoned debate and negotiated settlement – is played for all its worth towards the end of the story. The book’s killer final act revelation though still delivers a punch that flips everything you’ve been through on its head and makes you look at Hereafter in a whole new light (another touch of the New Who dynamic melded with the Classic Who structure). There’s a distinct feel of the relationship between the Doctor, Amy and Rory being advanced here – it feels more like Late Ponds than Early, with both Rory and Amy, having been landed in precarious situations, making friends, finding solutions and adding substantively to the solution of the mystery of Hereafter’s malfunctioning (or misused?) terraforming unit.
Overall, if Cold War didn’t float your boat, or if you long for the sight of squads of Ice Warriors pounding across icy landscapes and industrial complexes; if you want to dip back to the rhythms of the Eleventh Doctor and the Ponds, or if you just want a cracking wintry Classic Who story with some New Who nuances, you won’t go far wrong with The Silent Stars Go By.