Review of ‘The Triple Knife and Other Doctor Who Stories’ by Jenny T. Colgan

Triple

The Triple Knife is one of two Doctor Who paperbacks released under the new brand. They’re not featuring the forthcoming new Doctor, of course – that would be giving too much away ahead of the new series – but they are both by prominent female writers in promotion of Doctor Who’s Year of the Woman. Written by Jenny T. Colgan, The Triple Knife is a collection of short stories either starring or told from the perspective of a significant female character from the recent years of Doctor Who.

There are five stories of varying lengths in this collection: the story after which the book is named The Triple Knife, Into the Nowhere, Picnic at Asgard, All the Empty Towers and A Long Way Down. The first story features Ashildr, the immortal recurring character from the ninth TV series, and Picnic at Asgard features the Doctor’s wife River Song; the rest all feature Clara Osgood, with either the Eleventh or Twelfth Doctor. A beautiful touch in Colgan’s writing of the Clara stories is that she never explicitly states which regeneration of the Doctor she is with, but the characterisation is so crystal-clear that you can always tell within a few sentences.

The title story revolves around Ashildr and her three children and is told in the first person. There have been a lot of stories written about the tragedy of an immortal lifespan, but The Triple Knife focuses on the specific tragedy of an immortal who is also a mother. Unlike most mothers, Ashildr knows for certain that she will outlive her children, but the real tragedy comes when it becomes a possibility that the dreaded day might come a lot sooner than she had ever expected. Ashildr does her best to put her children on a good path before she will inevitably have to leave them, but even she cannot protect them from the Black Death.

Colgan evokes plague-era Britain very well and there’s a palpable sense of no-one really knowing quite how devastating this outbreak is going to be, including Ashildr herself, who only realises the full devastating consequences of the outbreak when it’s too late. Even an encounter with a race of amoral alien scientists can do little to stem the inevitable. This is strong and emotive stuff, and if you’ve had the misfortune of suffering a similar loss in your life, you might want to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind before reading this.

Into the Nowhere is a more traditional story featuring Clara and the Eleventh Doctor exploring a nightmarish world of anguish and allegory. There’s something about the weird, slightly surreal world upon which the story takes place that made me keep picturing it in the style of one of those disturbing Paul Compton comic strips from the early Tom Baker Doctor Who Annuals. In fact, there’s a particular panel in 1976’s The Psychic Jungle – all snakes and Garden of Eden imagery – that spring immediately to mind when I read this story.

Eden

If you’re looking for a bit of light relief after The Triple Knife then you’ll have to wait a little longer because, although nowhere near as grim as its predecessor, Into the Nowhere is still pretty strong meat. Restricting the cast to just Clara, the Doctor and the villain Etienne works strongly in its favour, allowing Colgan to concentrate on the character stuff she excels in.

Okay, now you can take a breath; Picnic at Asgard is noticeably lighter in tone than what has gone before, which is not to say that it doesn’t tackle some important issues. Told in the first person from the perspective of River Song, it primarily concerns her and the Doctor (Eleven again) taking a day-trip to a futuristic amusement park based on Norse mythology, but there’s an underlying text of River trying to find the best way to broach with the Doctor the idea of them having a child. That noise you hear is a million first-gen Doctor Who fans popping out of their waistcoats in horror! But come on, guys – they are married after all, and the Doctor was a grandfather from the very beginning, so it’s hardly a new concept to him.

There’s a fun little story at the heart of Picnic at Asgard; it’s light easy-reading and Colgan’s characterisation of both River and the Eleventh Doctor – and their relationship – is spot on. Pity we couldn’t have more of River, but it’s back to Clara for the last two stories, both with the Twelfth Doctor. All the Empty Towers and A Long Way Down are both a lot shorter than the rest of the stories in this collection, but that in no sense means they’re inferior.

All the Empty Towers sees the Doctor and Clara travel to the latter’s home town of Blackpool, but the Doctor has got the time slightly wrong and it’s now a dangerous post-global-warming ghost town, full of killer robot landladies, feral donkeys and vicious gangs of stag-partying toffs. You don’t need to know anything about Blackpool to get this story, but a cultural understanding of British seaside towns will certainly add an extra dimension. Jenny Colgan certainly seems to know her stuff however, nailing the geography and architecture of Blackpool to a tee. It’s a lovely dark satire that never strays into post-apocalyptic cliché and makes a point as well as raising a smile.

The final story, A Long Way Down, almost defies brief description. It’s a mind-bending kaleidoscope of a story that you might have to read twice in order to fully understand. It captures a single, cyclic moment in time, like a literary Magic eye picture and… well, I can’t really summarise it without blowing the whole story, so you’ll just have to read it. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I expect, but I thought it was brilliant.

Having read The Triple Knife, I think there’s definitely a future for short story collections in the Doctor Who range. I know they’ve done them before, but they’re usually themed collections that can start to wear a bit thin. Although it’s linked by a female perspective, The Triple Knife doesn’t dwell too heavily on the politics of its theme and presents an accessible and varied collection of stories for all ages and genders. It’d be nice to see a variety of Doctor Who writers each presenting a short story collection that spans the whole spectrum of their ideas – but even if that never happens, Jenny T. Colgan’s The Triple Knife is enough to keep me contented, thank you very much.

‘The Triple Knife and Other Doctor Who Stories’ by Jenny T. Colgan is published in paperback by BBC Books / Penguin Random House (2018)

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