Author: Charlie Higson
Based on Doctor Who, Series 1
My rating: 4 of 5
*SPOILER ALERT* In this review, I will be spoiling a major plot surprise in this story because I have no idea how to effectively review the author’s writing without doing so. So if you want to read this story without having it spoiled first, do NOT read this review until you’ve read the novella.
Ali is having a pleasant, quiet picnic with her family one day when this strange man who’s clearly “not from around here” comes barging in, disturbing their meal and telling them they’re in great danger and to go home now. Not something Ali would normally take well, but there’s something about this man that makes her want to do what he says . . . especially when he goes dashing off to handle this monstrous shadowy beast that takes up half the sky. Using her keen intelligence and interminable curiosity, Ali discovers that this man is none other than a Time Lord–a race of time travelers who had long since been relegated to the realm of myth. She follows his trail and, finding him after he’s sent the “monster” to another dimension, introduces herself properly to “the Doctor” as he calls himself. . . . And convinces him to let her travel with him. Unfortunately, the beast the Doctor got rid of has an equally dangerous cousin that’s about to take out the kingdom of Babylon back in Hammurabi’s time, and the Doctor and Ali race off in the TARDIS to take care of it. It should be a fairly manageable, peaceable job . . . except that Ali isn’t exactly human or naturally peaceable.
I’m not normally one to go in much for fanfiction and spinoff stories, but this collection of Doctor Who novellas released by Penguin is a definite exception–have you seen some of the incredible authors who are writing for them? I certainly enjoyed reading The Beast of Babylon, although it’s the first Charlie Higson I’ve read to my knowledge. The story itself is well written and readable, although nothing particularly outstanding (thus 4 instead of 5 stars in the rating). Basically, it’s pretty standard story for Doctor Who. What’s most notable about this story is Ali herself and the way Higson goes about developing her character. You’re first introduced to her as a smart, inquisitive college girl out enjoying lunch with her family. The writing and the Doctor’s treatment of her gives you no reason whatsoever to suspect that she’s anything but human, although it’s clear that she’s living on an alien world somewhere. Then as you go, you start to get a few references to physical characteristics that aren’t exactly human, but they’re small enough that you can write them off as Ali’s being alien but fairly human-like at least. And then you get to the point where they’re in Hammurabi’s court and actual humans see her for the first time . . . and when you see her through human eyes, you’re shocked by how utterly alien she is. More shocking is how alien she acts when threatened–not what you’d expect from a companion of the Doctor at all, and worse, somehow, because you weren’t expecting it at all. I think Higson did a great job pulling the reader along with this device. I also appreciated his timing, setting the story in the few seconds of “Rose” between when the Doctor first invited Rose to come with him and when he came back for her again. Since he’s a time traveler, there’s no telling how much time might have passed for him in what was a few seconds for her, after all. The Beast of Babylon actually gives a lot more weight to his coming back that second time for Rose–it was cleverly done. I would recommend The Beast of Babylon to those who already have enjoyed at least the first series of Doctor Who; it’s really mostly for fans of the TV show, although written well enough to be enjoyed by anyone who likes science fiction.