Written by: Martin Day
Series: BBC Books – Past Doctor Adventures
Featuring: The 1st Doctor, Steven Taylor, and Dodo Chaplet
Set Between: The Gunfighters and The Savages
Publication date: February 2001
The Story So Far: In the 13th century, the Doctor is with the Mongol army at the final advance on Kiev. Steven and Dodo are left to fend for themselves in the besieged city.
Considering how generally reviled the character of Dodo Chaplet is in fandom circles, it is interesting to note that she features in a disproportionately large number of Virgin Publishing’s Missing Adventures and BBC Books’ Past Doctor Adventures, as published between 1994 and 2005. In addition to Bunker Soldiers, Dodo stars in (and is put through the emotional ringer in) Steve Lyons’ Salvation, Daniel O’Mahony’s The Man in the Velvet Mask, and David Bishop’s Who Killed Kennedy. So, not counting her debut in Episode 4 of The Massacre, or her woefully rushed exit in Episode 2 of The War Machines, Dodo was featured in four full TV stories… and in four novels.
Dodo, consistent with the character’s reputation in fandom at large, did not fare too well in most of the above books, with the absolute nadir being the one where she contracted venereal disease, wound up homeless, and is eventually killed (I swear I am not making this up). Because, you know, um …. uh, I don’t know who thought that was a good idea.
Bunker Soldiers goes a long way toward salvaging Dodo as a character, and for that reason alone, it’s one of my favorite 1st Doctor novels. But, in addition to its treatment of Dodo, Soldiers is also notable for its Bergman-esque musings on religion, death, and morality in times of war. In a previous review, I jokingly referred to this book as “Dr. Who and the Seal of Seventh”.
This is a Season 3 novel. Had it actually been produced and aired on TV in between The Gunfighters and The Savages, that means that it would have been commissioned by John Wiles and Donald Tosh, and then handed over to Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis. And, as with many of the stories commissioned by Tosh and Wiles, it is dark and brooding, with a large body count. A romp, this is not.
We’re in Kiev in the year 1240, with the Mongol horde amassing to the East. The city is preparing for a long siege, with Prince Michael having already fled. The TARDIS arrives in the home of one of Kiev’s leaders (more on this unusual entrance a bit later on) and, while the time travelers are treated respectfully, their time machine is seized by the acting Governor, as a means to induce the Doctor to use his magical, other-worldly powers in defense of the realm. Meanwhile, without the Governor’s permission, and against his knowledge, the Church has their own plan to deal with the Mongols, while a celestial being, long entombed beneath the city’s cathedral, is working to a very different agenda…
Bunker Soldiers takes place over several months, and each traveler has a role to play in protecting Kiev. Dodo befriends Lesia, the daughter of an influential city adviser; Steven is arrested on trumped-up murder charges and forced to fend for himself against Kiev’s internecine politics; and the Doctor rides out to confront the Mongol horde and beg for mercy. Steven’s is the biggest role of the three, plot-wise, while the Doctor’s charm and manners are well on display, as is Dodo’s compassion. If this book had actually been produced for TV in 1966, one imagines that it would have been a four-episode story, with Hartnell on vacation for Episode 2 and shown only in film inserts, as he rode from Kiev to hail the Khan.
This is somber material, and in the hands of the wrong author, it could have been a dreadful book. At the time Bunker Soldiers was released, Martin Day was best known as a Doctor Who co-author — of The Discontinuity Guide, along with Paul Cornell and Keith Topping; and of two BBC Books Past Doctor Adventures, both with Topping. His only solo effort to that point had been the Virgin Missing Adventure The Menagerie, which I described at the time as a disappointment featuring pale facsimiles of the 2nd Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe.
Day makes some interesting choices with Bunker Soldiers, however. All chapter titles are in Latin, for one thing, in keeping with the liturgy of the 13th century. Chapter I is “Tempestas ex Oriens”, or, if you will recall from long-ago Latin lessons, “Storm from the East”, which is how Mongol invaders were described during that period. Steven Taylor is given first-person narration for alternating chapters. Reading other reviews of the book, I understand that others believe this to be an unusual and not necessarily successful device; but, having spent the last six weeks watching his tenure as a Doctor Who companion, I think Steven is one of the most enjoyable companions of all, and I admired Day’s attempts to get into his mostly heroic, sometimes merely mortal head.
The biggest glitch that comes from having Steven serve as narrator, but only in alternating chapters, is that Steven is sometimes seen in the third person as well, either from another character’s POV or from Day as an omniscient observer. This is a little bit jarring, although nothing close to a deal-breaker. As for the prose, it is rarely flowery, and sometimes it tells rather than shows (such as when the Doctor first arrives at the sprawling Mongol encampment). But, better to have workmanlike narration, than unclear or awkwardly purple prose. Plus, in a way, the spare prose does fit the period setting. But, there are moments of black humor worked in, so don’t confuse “workmanlike” with dull. For example, we’re told that Kiev’s bishop “was not one to spurn an opportunity to appear pious.” And the inevitable data-dump chapter about “where are we?” is enlivened by this exchange:
The Doctor:You’re familiar with Coleridge?
Dodo: Unless he’s Chelsea’s new centre-half, no, I’m not.
Bunker Soldiers is primarily a historical. The Mongols really did sack Kiev in 1240, and they really are remembered for most of the attributes that Day gives them throughout the novel. The details about workaday life in Kiev in the 13th century have the ring of authenticity to me, but I confess I did only limited research about the period while reading the novel. Day does add one sci-fi element — the “dark angel” which opens the story buried in a crypt, and which, once released, wreaks its own havoc upon Kiev, separate and apart from what the Mongols and the local plague outbreak are doing. You can probably guess what the “dark angel” is, and why it does what it does, before the author reveals that information. The explanation for its actions is, in the most superficial level, a bit silly, and not in keeping with the somber tone of the rest of the book.
But the dark angel actually serves an important plot device here. It assumes the role of Death, wearing, as it does, a skull mask for a portion of the book. And Death is very much on everyone’s mind. The Mongols have a strong honor-bound moral code, but they kill by the thousands (“As soldiers, they cared little for human life, but as horsemen they were not about to abandon any creature,” writes Day). There’s the local plague, which the Doctor likens to the Black Death of the following century. If you read the book’s “dark angel” as a symbol of the book’s overarching themes, and ignore the sparking wires and the reel-to-reel computer sound-effects from The War Machines, then the one sci-fi plot element in Bunker Soldiers fits perfectly.
Another main theme is religion and is actually the reason why I chose to reread this particular book, from all the other Season 3-set Missing and Past Doctor Adventures (and Lost Stories and Companion Chronicles) available. You see, during this era of Doctor Who fiction, there was an unfortunate confluence of novels in which Jewish characters would appear, only to lose their faith and walk away miserable at the end of the story (if they hadn’t started converting to Christianity). One of the main characters in Bunker Soldiers is Isaac, adviser to Governor Dmitri; it’s in his home that the TARDIS lands, in the middle of dinner, and once the Doctor realizes the man’s heritage, greets with him a shalom aleichem. Which… one can only imagine what would have happened on set had William Hartnell, the William Hartnell, been asked to deliver these lines…
Religion reoccurs prominently throughout Bunker Soldiers. The Mongols believed themselves to be instruments of divine retribution (interesting historical fact: one particular Tartar community, having converted to Islam, settled in the same 17th-century Polish town as my ancestors’ shtetl, and worked their way into a distant branch of my family tree. According to one of those PBS genealogy shows, one of them also became an ancestor of Martha Stewart or, as I now call her, Cousin Martha). The Church in this story engages in some very unseemly behavior, although the character of Olexander, who seems to have been based somewhat on Abbe Faria from The Count of Monte Cristo, is there as a good working example of piety. And Isaac, in this light, is a fascinating character study. He is a bit more ecumenical, if not secular and progressive, than might have been accurate for a diaspora Jew of this period, but his religious and ethnic heritage allow him to survive multiple threats. For all this, I expected him to exit the book with restored faith and piety. While Day chooses to take him in a somewhat different direction, there’s still no doubt that, of the very few Jewish characters featured in Doctor Who and its spinoffs over the past 50 years, Isaac is probably the best portrayed of them.
Although the book is awash in death, Day handles the body count respectfully. While many of the named characters in Bunker Soldiers suffer tragic or grisly fates, in an era of Who fiction with an indiscriminately high splatter count, Day at least takes the time to correlate characters’ misdeeds to their ultimate fates, or allows the tragic deaths to resonate throughout the rest of the book and thus not seem gratuitous. He also leaves a few survivors, left to bittersweetly watch the sun rise over the smoldering ruins. The Mongols are presented fairly, with their good and bad aspects fully explored. In its even-tempered views of both sides, Bunker Soldiers is not entirely unlike The Crusade, another story about what happens when the Doctor visits a historical battle and knows in advance which side wins. Interestingly, the book’s epilogue sort of mirrors the prologue to David Whitaker’s novelization of that other story, and the final lines of dialogue mirror Tom Baker’s closing speech from Genesis of the Daleks.
There are a few other moments of interest in Bunker Soldiers. There’s a bit of a Romeo & Juliet thing going on between Isaac’s son Nahum, and Lesia, who’s the daughter of one of the anti-Semitic characters. Dodo spends most of the book tending to Lesia, and witnesses the very cruel way in which women were treated in 13th-century Kiev. While she’s not overtly heroic in this book (and while she does get one moment of relative stupidity, when she inadvertently inspires a mentally ill character to take a very drastic action), at least Day seems to have written her sympathetically. The Doctor, meanwhile — remember, this is set in an era of the show where Hartnell’s mental faculties were failing, and when successive production teams sought to sideline him from the show — intentionally speaks in riddles and mysteries in order to remain in the Khan’s good graces, which is an innovative use of the character. Steven, meanwhile, gets several moments of outright heroism, and Peter Purves someday narrating an audio adaptation of this for Big Finish would be a Good Thing.
Bunker Soldiers is not the best 1st Doctor novel; it’s not the most faithful to its period, it’s not the most action-packed, and it’s not the most popular Past Doctor Adventure. Some of its musings on “Can we change history?” cover well-worn ground and don’t add much to the narrative, but coming from the same season that gave us The Massacre and The Myth Makers, are at least period appropriate. But, overall, it’s an unexpectedly strong entry from Day, and I’m glad I’ve finally reread it after 12 years As I reach the end of the Hartnell era on TV, already feeling bereft with less than two weeks’ worth of his episodes to go, and with Peter Purves’ run on the show already in the rear-view mirror, I’m grateful that books like this one exist to help prolong the era.