Cat's Cradle: Warhead
By David Lawrence
Andrew Cartmel's first Doctor Who novel is part of two trilogies. Firstly it is the second book in the extremely loosely linked Cat's Cradle series. While it's easy to read the Timewyrm novels out of sequence or in isolation, one could just as easily read all three Cat's Cradle novels and wonder what, if anything, is the link between them. In hindsight it seems odd that the later alternative universe series (the five books ending with No Future), escaped an umbrella title and yet three such thinly linked books were given one. It is also the first book in Cartmel's own trilogy, continued with Warlock and Warchild. To call these three of the strongest novels in the New Adventures series would be both a fair and controversial statement. One just has to look at the TSV reviews when Warhead was first released:
"I feel the book fails as a Doctor Who story" - Jon Preddle
At the time of its release, a big deal was made of the supposed influence of William Gibson's 'Cyberpunk' novels on Cartmel's writing. I first read Warhead during a bout of insomnia and got through the whole book in one sitting. In contrast, if ever there was a book I found unengaging and sleep-inducing, it was William Gibson's Neuromancer. It took me about six months to read the whole of Neuromancer, and I'm no slow reader. Books of the 'Cyberpunk' genre need to be read in one sitting. If they're relegated to just a few chapters a night before bedtime, you get lost in the complexity and indulgence of the novel. If you read the whole thing at once, you don't forget any of the small but important details. In the liner notes for the album Universal Mother, Sinead O'Connor says you should listen to the whole album in one sitting rather than listening to the songs as separate, individual tracks if you want to understand it properly. I find the same rule applies to literature - which is silly, because you can be sure that the author didn't write the whole book in one sitting, so why should it be necessary to read it as one, unbreakable journey rather than a series of fragmentary episodes, as it was written?
Because by Cartmel's own admission, Warhead is a fragmentary book. And at times it's difficult to see how the fragments all link together unless you've got them all in your mind. In a curious prologue, the Doctor assists a five-year-old boy in destroying a security camera near a construction site.
The company is the Butler Institute. In Warhead, the Butler Institute is just one of many companies housed in the King Building in New York. However the Butler Institute is gradually taking control of all the other companies and in later New Adventures, such as Love and War and Deceit, becomes the Spinward Corporation, having grown far beyond the comparatively small business the Doctor sets out to disrupt in Warhead. Through a carefully placed article he gets Ace's dying friend Shreela to write from her hospital bed, the Doctor manages to attract the attention of Matthew O'Hara, head of the Butler Institute. At the same time he manages to access security files in the King Building with the help of one of the night cleaners and then pays a visit to gameboy-killer Bobby Prescott and shows him a drawing that disturbs the condemned man. All part of the Doctor's plan. Meanwhile an overeager Butler Institute employee accesses files she shouldn't and rather than punish her, O'Hara lets her in on a few company secrets. He plans to develop a means to convert human thought patterns into computer signals, to house human beings inside computers so as to reduce the constant hassle of replacing organs spoiled by pollution.
So where's Ace? She's in Turkey, hunting down the object the Doctor's been drawing. It's buried in the water near the beach on an island, guarded by four teenage boys.
Once Ace has the object back in the Doctor's house on Allen Road, his plan begins to unfold. The object has a boy in it, a boy with extraordinary powers of psychic conductivity. Combined with the right person, Vincent is just the lethal weapon the Doctor needs.
Cartmel's prose is incredibly dense. The excruciating detail is in complete opposition to the spartan fill-in-the-gaps style of writers like Paul Cornell or Kate Orman, but its effect is equally as impressive. There is a sterility in the style that suits the novel's tone greatly, a wonderful starkness to the meticulous descriptions and a clinical quality in the way that "he said" or "she said" is as extravagant as the speech prefixes ever get. This is why Matthew O'Hara's sections read so extremely well. He is not insane, he is if anything quite assured in his conclusions about the weakness of flesh, the pointlessness of emotion and sentimentality. 'What hurts,' he tells his dead wife after he has killed their son and retained the memory and personality within a computer, 'is that you look at me as if I'm some kind of monster.'
One of the most appealing features of Warhead is that in breaking with usual conventions of Doctor Who literature, virtually none of the book is seen from the Doctor and Ace's perspective. Apart from the scenes that only they are in, the book is always seen through the eyes of someone else. Cartmel invests every single character with their own life, thoughts and feelings. As soon as we are thoroughly acquainted with someone, they disappear and we are introduced to someone else. For long sections we see nothing of the Doctor or Ace, but this is in no way a problem, even during Vincent's dream which spans nearly twenty pages. The effect is that the Doctor and Ace are part of a larger story rather than the story revolving around them. Cartmel's use of the Doctor is magnificent. He is blank, unreadable. After all, Cartmel was responsible for the 'Dark Doctor' and his gradual takeover of the earlier jovial, superficial characteristics of the Seventh Doctor, and while the likes of Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt did some fairly innovative things with this new, dark persona, it is clear from Warhead that they would have paled in comparison should Cartmel ever have written a television script. In TSV 40 Andrew Cartmel talks of the notion that super-powered heroes should appear as little as possible lest they solve all the problems too quickly, and it is a notion he makes great use of in Warhead.
In TSV 46, Cartmel says he wanted to write a proper novel, not a Doctor Who book, and perhaps this is to Warhead's advantage. Absolutely no knowledge of Doctor Who is needed to read it - even the TARDIS barely appears. To this day Warhead remains one of the few groundbreaking New Adventures. As an attempt at emulating the Cyberpunk style it is a greater success than Transit, as an attempt at displaying the potential of the Seventh Doctor it is a greater success than Revelation, as an attempt at showing just what can be done when the Doctor isn't around it is a greater success than Birthright. As far as being "too broad and too deep for the small screen", well, Warhead spans several different countries, contains perhaps the first actual sex scene in Doctor Who (not to mention the obligatory 'Ace has no clothes on' scene), has some great psychological tormenting and bullying, and tackles head-on the ecological issues that the television series would never have had the guts to confront. It examines the human psyche, especially with O'Hara, Vincent and Justine, in a way television cannot, and also manages to have a good dig at the way technology has taken over the people who created it. Bobby Prescott goes around killing spotty teenagers who spend too much time playing with computers and not enough time reading books. And I say good on him!
This item appeared in TSV 50 (February 1997).