The Blood Cell Review
Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull gives his verdict on James Goss’ 12th Doctor novel.
The Doctor as an inmate in a prison in a far-flung quarter of the galaxy: why has that not been done before? Certainly, the Doctor has been incarcerated in the past but an episode built around it is unheard of. Though, in this case, it’s a book. James Goss – who previously penned Dead of Winter and (well, sort-of) Summer Falls – returns as one of three writers to tackle the Twelfth Doctor in his first batch of novels. The Blood Cell is an interesting piece but only after it overcomes certain hurdles, which prove insurmountable for a good chunk of the first half.
The Blood Cell is, uniquely for a Doctor Who book, written from the first-person perspective of the Governor, the administrator of the untitled Prison on which the book is set. Initially, this new viewpoint can be awkward and The Blood Cell starts off as a hard read (not least because the first half has some serious pacing issues). But, as the book progresses the character of the Governor – whom Goss, at first, seems rather unsure of himself – flourishes into someone more sure-footed and relatable. By the end you’re rooting for him although in a 250-page book it’s quite a big ask as rewarding as it is in the end.
The characterisation of the Twelfth Doctor and Clara is something crucial in these books, the hardest writing obstacle for Justin Richards, James Goss and Mike Tucker. While Tucker had a loose grip of the pair, Goss is a bit surer but, again, this is not evident in the first half. While the Doctor is banged up in jail – for reasons unknown to the reader – Clara comes and goes outside, waving placards (made by her younger class in Coal Hill School, naturally) and trying to get the Governor to release the Doctor. At times when the drama within the confines of the Prison becomes tiresome, the light rapport between the Governor and Clara can be something of a relief. Hence, when Clara enters the picture later on, The Blood Cell greatly improves, benefitting hugely from her more prominent appearance. Goss has an absolute hold on the character of Clara, really getting inside her head and nailing her characterisation perfectly (beating off colleagues Tucker and Richards as well as Jenny Colgan and Tommy Donbavand for Clara’s best writer).
The Doctor fares well, too, but not until later. Goss accurately portrays the Doctor’s intellect as well as his sarcastic side with a little bit of the “am I a good man?” existential hoo-ha thrown in. There’s even lashings of the amusing fish-out-of-water Time Lord we saw in The Caretaker. The Doctor works well with the Governor as he openly undermines him and bats away any punishment with his sheer nerve. It’s a good mix and an interesting double act as the book enters its third act.
As much as I would like to address the climax of The Blood Cell and the antagonists, Goss does such an admirable job keeping the answers to all questions (Why is the Doctor in prison in the first place? What are the Governor’s secrets? What does the book’s title really refer to?) to the end; I’d be doing him a disservice.
Pace is a problem in The Blood Cell because it starts off far too slowly then jumps a gear and really gets going (the last 100 pages are fantastic action fare). However, it’s certainly better than Mike Tucker’s The Crawling Terror, which started at lightning-fast speed. Another nitpick I had was the ghastly pop culture references, which are jarring in the extreme. Goss alludes to Marge Simpson, Katy Perry (“On my bad days, Katy Perry wonders who’s stolen all her twee,” says Clara in one scene) and Candy Crush Saga. However, I’ll admit I was tickled pink by the Doctor’s description of Call the Midwife as “a lovely show about babies and bicycles”.
While it gets off to less than a roaring start, The Blood Cell is rewarding in the end with plenty of gratifying little moments in the book’s last half. It has a sophistication that The Crawling Terror lacked (hence the higher mark) and the Twelfth Doctor and Clara are well-characterised, making The Blood Cell the best of the bunch so far.