Having defeated the Master on Gallifrey, the Doctor finds himself on the most haunted place on Earth, the Queen Mary, in October 1963. It is not long before the Doctor himself witnesses some ghostly manifestations, despite his belief that there are no such things as ghosts. Alone in his travels for the first time in aeons, the Doctor seeks solace in human companionship. It's not long before a scream brings him into contact with the melancholy Miss Irene Lamb and the porter Simpkins. As time goes on, the Doctor becomes even more spooked by visions walking through walls, and attempts to leave in the TARDIS. However, the TARDIS is either unwilling or unable to leave, and the Doctor becomes trapped into doubting his own sanity... What evil presence has invaded the Queen Mary and what haunts cabin 672?
I have never been a great fan of Keith Topping's previous Doctor Who fictions, which have seemed too fast and furious for my tastes. Telos Publishing's press release about Ghost Ship reveals that Keith Topping has considered calling his posthumous autobiography "I've Had Her", and this gives some indication of the level of maturity to which Keith Topping's writing has reached on previous occasions. However, Keith Topping's previous Doctor Who novels have always seen him playing the role of co-author, and Ghost Ship gives us an opportunity to see what his own writing is like. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find that Keith Topping has restrained himself (although I could have done without Simpkin's reasoning for choosing a boy jelly baby rather than a girl one - Doctor Who may have been camp at times but it was never smutty). Despite a couple of what would appear to be double entendres, Keith Topping has mostly been disciplined and has locked the jokes away, for the tone of Ghost Ship is chilling by necessity. The death of one of the major characters midway through the book, would tend to suggest that it would be wrong to label Keith Topping as a misogynist, since it is so dignified. Indeed, one of the wretched ghosts mistakes the Doctor for the human male, and berates him and the whole of "man"kind in a particularly bitter tirade.
In the press release for Ghost Ship, Keith Topping relates how he was inspired by "M. R. James and the Victorian Gothic movement". There are a whole glut of quotations running throughout the novel, going back to Shakespeare's Hamlet. Indeed, it would appear that Keith Topping has done a great deal of research for this novella, right down to explaining what dye is used to colour red jelly babies and how it is made. It helps that everyone on board also seems to be in a gothic frame of mood - the Doctor and Miss Lamb exchange couplets as they discuss the Romantic poets. Yet M. R. James was famed for his gothic short stories, and if truth be told, there does seem to be quite a lot of extraneous material in Ghost Ship that could have been guillotined by one of those razor sharp bulkheads on the Queen Mary. As in The Mark of the Rani,. the Doctor seems to spend a great deal of time quoting from other writers, whereas someone like Poe (whose Telltale Heart is mentioned), would have just got on with the story. Ghost Ship, whilst it has many classical allusions, is not destined to become a classic itself. This novella was inspired by a visit that the author made to the Queen Mary, reputed to be the most haunted place on Earth, and I think that it would have been better served if Keith Topping had confined all his research to the ship itself.
David Howe, the editor of Telos Publishing, is to be congratulated once more for having produced a book with such a highly polished gloss (the frontispiece and the use of the skull motif designed by Polish artist Dariusz Jasiczak are particularly noteworthy). Telos should also be praised for their bold approach - they are not afraid of going where other publishers have shied away from. For instance, Virgin Books did not want the character of the Doctor to be narrated in the first person, because they wanted him to remain wholly mysterious. In Ghost Ship, Keith Topping bravely presents his narrative in the voice of the fourth Doctor, and I believe that this is the first attempt to present a sustained narrative in the Doctor's own voice. However, despite his bravery, Keith Topping's tentative approach does not really succeed. Although there are echoes of the Fourth Doctor's voice: when he shouts "What's it for?" on page 97, the tone and context does remind me a great deal of the Doctor's confrontation with the Pirate Captain in The Pirate Planet (although this angry outburst from the Doctor is noticeable in Douglas Adams's tale purely because it was so unusual). Keith Topping ponders tediously on pages 14 to 15 about the best way to write an "engine of destruction" as if the Doctor were an eighteen year old in a creative writing class. Despite the stress on avoiding clichés, the Doctor uses them liberally in his prose - he describes the night as being as "black as ink". Since the Doctor is an alien, and a Time Lord at that, Keith Topping perhaps should have invented some really alien metaphors, and created some quotations that post date the twentieth century, and whilst the latter is often the staple of science fiction books, the former is no doubt impossible even for better writers than Keith Topping. Although Keith Topping was also inspired by David Whitaker's novelisation of the first Dalek adventure, Ghost Ship is nowhere near as good as that fine tome. At times, it would seem that we are listening to Keith Topping's voice rather than that of the Doctor - why on earth would the Doctor want to be a trooper in the New Model Army? After all, we did get some indication of the haphazard tone of this Doctor's journals from Logopolis, if not actual narrative. However, Keith Topping does mention in the book that the Doctor has an insatiable need for human companionship, and mostly from the time period of the twentieth century, so this could no doubt explain why the Doctor is attempting to pitch this tale at exactly this kind of audience. The suggestion that the Doctor could be suffering from some sort of schizophrenia could be a subtle link to the creation of Xoanon in The Face of Evil. We are not told of the Doctor's reason for writing this tale, except perhaps as some sort of catharsis. Yet, with the combined theme of ghostly manifestations, and time travel, Ghost Ship reads much more like a Sapphire and Steel adventure, than Doctor Who. There's a ghost of a British Soldier that could have come from Adventure 2, and the Doctor's discussion of the class struggle with Bryce, that adds nothing to the plot, could have come from Adventure (?).
Although Ghost Ship fails to live up to its lofty ambitions, it is pleasing to see Keith Topping be quite so daring. I found that his employment of a literal "deathtrap" pleasing, and as I have written above, the death of one of the characters in the middle of the novella is quite dignified. If he could now ditch some of the more tentative parts of his writing (such as pages 14-15 and all those quotations), Keith Topping could create more prose just as poignant as these few moments.
Authortrek Rating: 6/10
Kevin Patrick Mahoney
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Visit Telos - the publishers of Ghost ship