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Doctor Who: The Cabinet Of Light
Daniel O'Mahony
Telos hardcover £10

review by Tom Matic

When it comes to Doctor Who tie-in fiction, I prefer the kind that enhances the mystery of its central character to those turgid epics that bog the reader down in a quagmire of continuity. Thus I was heartened when Telos published its first Doctor Who Novella, Kim Newman's Time And Relative, the first piece of fiction set before the series' first episode, thus placing the backstory ahead of it. This tale went a long way towards recapturing the feel of the show's first episode, in which the Doctor, his identity and origins are at the heart of the mystery. In The Cabinet Of Light, as in the first TV episode, rather than being the scientist/detective who investigates evil doings, the Doctor is the subject of the investigation. This is something that has rarely happened in the series and its fictional offshoots (except in occasional stories where the Doctor gets stranded on Earth and loses his memory).
   This novella, perhaps more so than Time And Relative, is a conscious attempt to put the 'Who?' back into Doctor Who, and thankfully its author has realised that achieving this takes more than dressing the eccentric Time Lord in a question mark collar, umbrella or boxer shorts. The Cabinet Of Light returns to the East London of that novella, albeit the immediate post-war East End of 1949 not of 1963, where a black market 'fixer', called Honore Lechasseur is hired by a woman calling herself Emily Blandish to track down her husband, the Doctor. His search is far from easy. At first, it seems completely hopeless, when one of his underworld contacts, G. Syme, dismisses the Doctor as a mythical archetypal figure:

He's a hobgoblin � a mischief, a leprechaun, a boojum� He's straight out of Old English folklore, typical trickster figure really.

But Lechasseur is insistent that the Doctor is a "real flesh and blood man." Taking his investigation to the Inferno Club, he feels vindicated in this belief, when he overhears the club's sinister stage hypnotist Eric Walken telling an unseen woman that he has spoken to the Doctor. Unfortunately for Lechasseur, his investigations have exposed him to the unwelcome attentions of another unsavoury character, Mestizer. She is a vampire-like femme fatale with a hulking pet man machine known as Abraxas.
   Abraxas is a wonderful creation, a Terminator-like Frankenstein's monster that could have come from the hellish imagination of Clive Barker. Here is the poetically horrific account of his origins:

The boy lay on a barbed wire bed and sobbed blood, Christ-wounds. The angels, when they came, had chrome faces, they unstrung the dirty metal hooks and fitted clean replacements.

So Lechasseur finds himself up against two rival villainous factions, Walken's and Mestizer's, both hell-bent on possession of the Doctor's 'cabinet of light'. He finds an unlikely ally in an amnesiac young woman, who appeared out of the London fog in pink pyjamas and became a newspaper cause celebre. However, to further complicate matters, it appears that his employer is not really Emily Blandish, and the girl in pink pyjamas is.
   It does not reveal too much about the plot to say that Lechasseur eventually does find the Doctor. There are plenty of other twists and turns to the plot, not least which 'walk-on' character the Doctor turns out to be. At one point, it is slyly hinted that the Doctor is Lechasseur himself. Although this suggestion comes from the deluded point-of-view of Walken, who wishes to assume the Doctor's identity for himself, there are certainly parallels. Both are outsiders and survivors, the Doctor an alien who can regenerate, Lechasseur a black American who made a miraculous recovery from a crippling wartime explosion that killed his comrades. When the Doctor helps Lechasseur to realise his time sensitivity, he characterises ex-GI's 'aura' as a mirror image of his own. And like the Doctor, Lechasseur can change form, albeit in the more abstract sense of altering his persona:

He'd been a soldier, then a black marketeer, why shouldn't he shuck of his skin once more, remake himself as a new man.

And the parallels don't end there: the monstrous Abraxas is a grotesque parody of both. When Lechasseur finally has the upper hand over him, Abraxas pleads with him, pointing out: "I was a soldier like you." Lechasseur's time sensitivity gives him a vision of the Doctor as "a patchwork of alien fleshes, snapped apart and stitched back together" - an image that links him to Abraxas. It is a testament to the author's skill, that these parallels are not made in a heavy-handed way, but only become apparent on second reading.
   Whether the Doctor is man or myth, in Daniel O'Mahony's fiction the ageless time traveller represents the shifting nature of identity. Thus the novella does not fix on one of the Doctor's TV incarnations. Instead The Cabinet Of Light's Doctor is a subtle blend of them all. One of the novella's plot twists is a paradox of identity. From Eric Walken and the "false Emily Blandish" with their aliases, to "the girl in pink pyjamas" and her lost identity, the main characters all have an uneasy relationship with the Self. Those who come off worst are the ones who try to assume someone else's identity, rather than fashioning an authentic persona of their own.
   While Lechasseur is cast in the mould of Philip Marlowe, one of his other literary antecedents is the other Marlowe of Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, with the Doctor as a benevolent version of Mr Kurtz. However, far from being the monstrous throwback at the heart of darkness, the Doctor is seen as the bringer of light and fire, whose power is both destructive and enlightening, an angel to some, a devil to others.
   The novella is laced with terrifically surreal and macabre touches, such as the piano full of dynamite that blew up Lechasseur's platoon on World War II and Syme's junkie boyfriend screaming from 'cold turkey' in the background, as Syme laughs the Doctor off as a folk devil. This latter example allows the novella's commentary on the cultural role of the Doctor Who myth to escape the trap of smart arse, self-reflexive post modernism. Syme's account of the Doctor as "the personification of the engine of history" serves to deepen the mystery. It adds resonance to an intriguing and gripping thriller, in which O'Mahony deftly handles the conventions of detective fiction to convey an authentic English noir ambience.
   All in all, reading this novella makes me sorry that this series of Doctor Who novellas will shortly be drawing to a close, due to the BBC (rather churlishly, I think) withdrawing Telos' licence to use the character. This comes in spite of (or perhaps because of) Telos publishing some of the most interesting Who fiction for some time. These novellas have made real attempts to do something new with the character, such as using Susan's narrative voice in Time And Relative, and even the Doctor's in Ghost Ship. Admittedly not all these experiments have been entirely successful (see The ZONE's review of Ghost Ship, which I think is a little harsh). However, Cabinet Of Light is, and on a happier note, the well-drawn new characters debuted in it will shortly be featuring in their own 'spin-off' series of novellas, known as Time Hunter.
   As with all Telos Doctor Who novellas, this book comes in two editions: deluxe at �25 and standard at �10. Both hardbacks feature a foreword by Chaz Brenchley and a 'light' motif embossed into the cover and at each chapter heading, but the deluxe edition is adorned by a frontispiece illustration by John Higgins. The deluxe edition is also signed by the author, the illustrator and Chaz Brenchley.

Related items:
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Dr Who: The Cabinet of Light

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