The Missing Adventures, and later, BBC Books’ Past Doctor Adventures, included a small handful of stories set during the William Hartnell era. The Empire of Glass is probably the best of those – certainly it’s the most lyrical, rich, and funny.
The place is Venice, 1609. Populating that small city are a bevy of historical figures; dozens of alien races; a mysterious recurring character from Virgin Publishing’s Doctor Who stable; and about a thousand other ideas, all giddily compressed into a 75,000-word novel.
For the uninitiated, the Missing Adventures were a companion series to Virgin’s New Adventures, which ran from 1991 through 1997 (and then, without the Doctor, intermittently through the end of 1999 with a different cast of lead characters). The NAs themselves were meant to be the official continuation of Doctor Who, carrying the 7th Doctor onward after the broadcast of Survival, the last episode of the Classic Series. The MAs were meant to share in the NAs’ tagline of “too broad and deep for the small screen”, but instead starring the first six Doctors and taking place in between televised serials. The MAs ran from mid-1994 through May 1997, ending when Virgin Publishing lost their Who license.
While one was meant to file the MAs on the same shelf as one’s Target novelizations, this occasionally presented continuity problems. The Empire of Glass, for example, was written looking backwards, released on Doctor Who‘s 32nd anniversary, and including cameos from such classic series monsters as the Ice Warriors, Sontarans, Rutans, and Krargs, years before their respective debut stories. It also spins off whole worlds from stray references from 1970s adventures; the Armageddon Convention (which outlawed the Cyberbombs seen in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen) and the Braxiatel Collection (a throwaway line in 1979’s City of Death) become major plot points in this novel. So, to a slavish fan consciousness, this book is clearly not intended to have been the novelization of a TV episode that we could have seen in mid-1965.
That said, Andy Lane, one of the three best Virgin Publishing authors to somehow not write for the revived TV series, expertly weaves in his various plot points and continuity references, elevating his story in the process. He’d done the same thing with his previous NAs, Lucifer Rising, a lavish space opera (co-authored with Jim Mortimore), and All-Consuming Fire, a gaslight-Victorian pseudo-historical featuring monsters from the Lovecraft canon, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Thoroughly convincing alien environments are his specialty – even when his story is set on Earth.
Lane also inserts some rapier-sharp links to the stories that would have surrounded The Empire of Glass, had it been a TV serial. The Doctor tells William Shakespeare that he recently saw him on ” `the Space-Time Vis – ah -‘ he caught himself `-drawn in a pamphlet.’ ” Irving Braxiatel, meanwhile, asks the Doctor if he’s seen Mortimus lately; Mortimus being the name given to the Meddling Monk during his return to the New Adventures earlier in 1995. Later on, Braxiatel tells Vicki about the Trojan Horse, which will come back and be funny when we cover The Myth Makers. You have to be really good to wield your obscure continuity references with such note-perfect precision. If you don’t, you wind up writing Divided Loyalties or The Quantum Archangel…
Lane’s choice of companions was somewhat controversial when the book came out, with Steven and Vicki being at the low ebb of their reputations in online forums in the mid-1990s. Both are given substantial roles here, though, along with weighty emotional baggage, what with Virgin Publishing being very much of the Marvel Comics tortured-heroes school. Steven frequently recalls his four years in captivity on the planet Mechanus, while Vicki has nightmares about Sandy the Sand Beast on Dido. In one minor subplot that doesn’t quite ring true, the Doctor is too distrustful of Steven to give him a TARDIS key, although that is nicely resolved at least, and does give the two characters some tension that motivates Steven to take the actions that he will take throughout the book.
Steven thus winds up in the middle of a two-fisted action plot. He hooks up first with Galileo Galilei, here a brilliant drunk out to defend his scientific discoveries to the Doge of Venice – Galileo having used his telescope to spy spaceships on the moon, a gorgeous image. Then, Steven teams up in a spy plot with Christopher Marlowe, who turns out to be still alive in 1609. The book famously plays with the issue of Steven’s sexual orientation; he’s propositioned by a grievously wounded Marlowe, but the reader is left to make up his or her own mind about what happens next. Vicki, meanwhile, in a somewhat bizarre subplot, becomes the object of affection of a Yoda-syntaxed alien named Albrellian, who’s in town for the Armageddon Convention.
Both characters, sadly, wind up a little more sad, introspective, and morose, than they were on TV. Steven and Vicki were regulars together for three full serials: The Time Meddler, Galaxy 4, and The Myth Makers. Each character experienced moments of fright and peril during those stories, as is par for the course (most notably in Episode 4 of their final story, as we shall soon see), but Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien were both sprightly and captivating as television actors. They were a great matched set, with Steven as the overbearing protective older brother, and Vicki falling somewhere between Jan and Cindy on the Brady Bunch scale. The Marvel Comics’ ethos imposed on the Virgin books makes the characters a little less fun here than they were on TV. Still, with Vicki outwitting lusty aliens, and with Steven brushing against historical legends in the mother of all steampunk spy plots, they’re mostly well served by The Empire of Glass.
The First Doctor is interestingly portrayed here. As we’ve seen from our recent review of Seasons 1 and 2, William Hartnell was still on top of his game in mid-1965, but he was very soon to suffer, both from ailing health, and from new producers who no longer wanted to write stories suited to his gifts as an actor. Thus, in The Empire of Glass, Hartnell is capable of both giving sweeping speeches about the history of Venice in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and losing his place in the script. For example, Steven reflects that:
[H]is mysterious companion was very rarely silent. Whatever he did was accompanied by a constant stream of “hmm?”s, “hah!”s, and subvocalized murmurs. The Doctor seemed incapable of doing anything in silence.
At this point in the story, Irving Braxiatel, a sort-of renegade Time Lord who, in the Virgin canon, was kind-of sort-of intended to be the Doctor’s brother (the Doctor here starts to confirm this, before forgetting his lines), has come to Venice in order to hold the Armageddon Convention, an intergalactic peace conference. He’d intended to have the Doctor chair the thing, but gives the invitation to the Doctor at the wrong point in the latter’s time stream (hence the link to The Three Doctors). Thus, the Doctor wanders off in the wrong direction and is mistaken by the local authorities for Cardinal Bellarmine, while Bellarmine himself is taken by Braxiatel to the Convention. Bellarmine, believing himself to be dead, starts giving advice to the assembled aliens about the utility and morality of atomic weaponry and biological warfare… naturally, he becomes the hit of the conference.
Some great Hartnell-isms are captured in the margin. When the Doctor is ready to dress down Braxiatel late in the book, he is seen with “his thumbs hooked behind his lapels […] looking down his nose at the tall man.”
Not to reveal all of the plot twists, but, again, there is a lot going on here. One more relevant detail deals with popular perceptions about the fate of the Roanoke colony in early colonial America. Now, what happened at Roanoke is no mystery. But Doctor Who pseudo-historicals don’t truck with banal historical realities. And the word picture painted by the return of the missing Roanoke settlers, in a tense sequence late in the book, is well worth the blatant historical inaccuracy.
Lane’s prose veers from the poetic to the impertinent. He describes a missing Missing Adventure with the Doctor and Steven running around Inquisition-era Spain; oh, how I’d love to read that one. Here’s how one historical personage is introduced:
Galileo Galilei, ex-tutor to Prince Cosimo of Tuscany, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Padua, equal of scholars and natural philosophers, and heir to the mantle of Bruno and Brahe, burped and took another swig of wine from the bottle.
He uses in his prose, a quote from State of Decay: “[…] were gathered around its base like ducklings around their mother.” Shakespeare’s, whose internal thoughts as written by Lane are similarly a delight, looks upon his clandestine spy career as “the best of times” (a reverse pre-figuring of Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead murmuring “What the Shakespeare?!”), and observes that one bystander has “a lean and hungry look” (that bystander, however, is not Cassius). Shakespeare’s thoughts even include a quote from Cymbeline, which, honestly, is several degrees of Shakespeare expertise behind me, and I identified the reference only because it sounded like iambic pentameter and I got lucky with a Google search.
So, the end result is a novel positively bursting with ideas, historical and literary in-jokes, real-life figures, Doctor Who continuity references, and sly gags. This book could not possibly have been produced on a 1965-sized budget and crammed into Lime Grove Studio D. Andy Lane knew this and he wasn’t trying to mimic the era; he was trying to (and actually did) write an exciting modern book very much intended for a 1995 audience. However, that said, when Vicki gets lost in the Doge’s palace and observes that “all these tapestries look alike”… you know for a fact that, big budget and grandiose scale and out-of-sequence Doctor Who monster appearances aside, you have most certainly come to the right place.