Home : Archive : TSV 41-50 : TSV 41 : Review

Tragedy Day

By Gareth Roberts

Book review by Phillip J. Gray

As I haven't got around to reading The Highest Science yet, Tragedy Day is my first exposure to Gareth Roberts. I had heard all about Roberts' humorous writing so for the first few chapters I was wondering where the humour was. And yet Tragedy Day is extremely humorous in its dialogue, characters situations and structure. One of the passages I loved was where Crispin reveals his true identity to the Doctor on the submarine. The passage begins with the boy fulfilling the traditional companion role - complete with 'What is it, Doctor?' dialogue - but ends with Crispin saying 'Thank you, Doctor... that's what I wanted to know'! Such a subtle charge of emphasis within a single scene is evidence of very good writing.

The plot is a biting satire on the state of late twentieth century British society and culture. Tragedy Day comes across as an attack on 'enterprise culture' (a contradiction in terms) and the media, and is the better for it. One of the traditional functions of Doctor Who missing from the New Adventures has been social commentary, and Gareth Roberts restores this with a vengeance. The idea of a society which indulges its conscience through a highly ritualised annual Telethon/Children in Need outing (which is also very profitable for its corporate sponsors) is clever, mirroring as it does the current individualist trend in Western societies. The messages in Tragedy Day about society, the media and music in contemporary Britain are sufficiently universal to apply to New Zealand society as well. The fact that almost all the 'media personalities' (another contradiction in terms) in the book turn out to be Celebroids cannot be a coincidence. The sarky 'Take That' comments are very enjoyable, and I was only sorry that there were no put-downs of 'Mr Blobby'. The Voltairean references encapsulated by the Friars of Pangloss and their cringing slaves were also very entertaining. In terms of continuity references, Tragedy Day's cleverness comes from its gentle satire of the programme's cliches rather than clumsy references to actual stories. I was pleased to see the indirect references to Time-Flight however!

It was extremely refreshing to have a Season 24 Doctor in a New Adventure, as I for one detest the 'Dark Doctor' television incarnation and regard it as an absolute betrayal of all the basic values of Doctor Who. Crispin and his Captain Millennium collection, complete with missing episodes, was a real delight. My favourite character of all was Madam Guralza, a fantastic mixture of Bette Davis and the Duchess of Windsor (the description on p.75 gives a superb visual picture); an actress past her best but charmingly manipulative.

Guralza was by far the most entertaining character, but witty characterisation is one of Roberts' consistent strengths. Making Forgwyn gay was also very well dealt with. One of the most irritating things about sexuality in the New Adventures has been the extremely clumsy way in which it has been handled - Roberts has recognised that a character can have a personality, motivation and sexuality without resorting to stereotypes. Ace was a much more satisfying character than she has been since she left the Doctor in Love and War.

Tragedy Day is my favourite New Adventure to date. It is extremely 'Who-ish' and actually makes me warm to the Seventh Doctor, a significant feat in itself. Tragedy Day is an example of the direction I feel the New Adventures should be taking - retaining the programme's distinctive style while taking it beyond budgetary limitations.

This item appeared in TSV 41 (October 1994).

Index nodes: Tragedy Day