Review of The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter
The Wheel of Ice
by Stephen Baxter
I am just as surprised as you are that I’m reading another Doctor Who novel! As I explained when I reviewed Engines of War, media tie-ins are not my thing. Especially for something as iconic as Doctor Who, I need the actors to pull off that characterization. Maybe I should check out the audio plays—I think I would genuinely enjoy those. So what compelled me to pick this up when I spied it in the library stacks? It has been a while since I read anything by Stephen Baxter—his hard SF novels fascinated me as an adolescent, but his flat characterization started to bore me as I grew older. I was curious, then, to see what a Doctor Who story as told by Baxter would bring.
The Wheel of Ice is a Second Doctor story with Jamie and Zoe as companions. The TARDIS takes them to the rings of Saturn, slightly in our future, where humans are preparing to mine the moon Mnemosyme for its abnormally rich deposits of bernalium. The TARDIS has detected a “relative continuum displacement zone” and refuses to take off until the Doctor does something about it. But that means navigating the politics of interstellar profit lines and trying to communicate with a billions-year-old, failing artificial intelligence with tremendous guilt. Oh, and Jamie goes skiing or something.
I love the atmosphere of this story. It definitely feels Doctor Whoish, and it feels Second Doctory, with his penchant for history, science, and generally trying to avoid authority figures as much as possible. There are plenty of subplots and underlying themes about social organization, surveillance states, corporations overreaching themselves, etc.; this is as socially conscious as any other Doctor Who story. And even the threat is that most classic of Doctor Who monsters: an alien being that just wants to go home.
Alas, The Wheel of Ice does not serve up an equally enthralling story. The plot feels like one of those TV serials that got stretched for four twenty-minute episodes when it could have been two (and in the Second Doctor’s day they still sometimes even did six, yikes!). There’s a lot of aimless gadding about and repetitive trips to Mnemosyme; in general, the pacing just feels off. I am also disappointed by the portrayal of the human antagonist, Florian Hart, who transforms from a thorn in the side to a megalomaniac with very little prompting. Doctor Who is at its worst when its human villains are cartoonish, and having a more nuanced antagonist would have done a lot for this book.
One thing that intrigues me about this book: it’s very odd reading a Second Doctor story written in the present day compared to watching a Second Doctor story from the 1960s. The Doctors and their adventures are as much a product of the times as they are a product of the actors and writers involved. Baxter is inevitably influenced by twenty-first century events and ideas, such as the Internet, that shade and otherwise nudge this story into dimensions not necessarily seen in contemporary Second Doctor stories. I do not have the requisite experience in reading tie-ins to know, but I’d be curious if anyone has ever taken a closer look at this phenomenon—that is, has anyone done an analysis comparing contemporary stories with stories written about a previous Doctor decades afterwards?
Largely unremarkable, The Wheel of Ice was a welcome distraction—a cold, wet, March “beach read” if you will. I don’t regret suppressing my urge, as it came up next off my to-read shelf, to put it on the pile of books to return to the library without even cracking the cover. But it’s not how I like to experience my Doctor Who, and I suspect that even regular readers of these novels won’t find this one particular energizing or unique.