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Review: ‘Lethbridge-Stewart: The Forgotten Son’ by Andy Frankham-Allen

LS-forgottensonLethbridge-Stewart: The Forgotten Son is the first book in a new series of novels featuring Doctor Who’s iconic character, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.

In the books, he’s not yet achieved his best-known rank – he’s still the colonel we met in The Web of Fear, and Andy Frankham-Allen’s novel takes its cue from that serial, picking up the story and some of the characters just a few weeks later.

I should probably point out here that ‘The Brig’ has been my favourite Doctor Who character since the first airing of Spearhead from Space (the first episode I can recall watching). He was dashing, he was handsome, he looked gorgeous in uniform. Oh, and he was also brave, loyal, reliable, steadfast, and the Doctor’s Best Friend Forever.

So I came to The Forgotten Son with a mixture of excitement, hope and trepidation. Great idea! A new ‘Brig’ story! A whole new set of adventures! But… what if the character isn’t written right? What if the setting seems wrong? What if…?

Happily, Andy Frankham-Allen produces an Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart who acts like the confident, go-ahead action-hero who featured in The Invasion, Spearhead from Space, and Mind of Evil, not the pale reflection from The Three Doctors. The colonel proves to be curious, questioning, and prepared to butt heads with superior officers (at least that never changed!). He can speak several languages (as could his alter-ego Nicholas Courtney), wins respect from subordinates and is very much in charge.

Writing back-story for a character as popular as the Brigadier is a risk for any author of course – every fan will have their own ideas of how he got to the position of authority in which we first met him. Given that we don’t know very much about the Brig’s background or his private life, he’s almost a blank canvas, so everyone’s ‘head-canon’ for the character will be different. It may seem strange to some that young Alistair wanted to be a maths teacher, and only went into the army to do his National Service – but hey, why not? It helps make sense of his career choice in Mawdryn Undead.

On the other hand, why show his boyhood home as being in Cornwall? One of the things we do know about the Brig (from Terror of the Zygons) is that he’s proud of his Scottish heritage, and therefore it surely seems more likely that he would have grown up north of the border than in the south-west of England.  Since there’s nothing in Forgotten Son that demands a Cornish setting, why could the action not have taken place in Scotland? Still, the choice isn’t wrong –just different to what might have been expected.

What does seem odd is Lethbridge-Stewart’s anti-smoking attitude, which contradicts what we saw in The Green Death, when the Brigadier lit up a post-dinner smoke. This was a man who carried a lighter in his trouser pocket (Invasion of the Dinosaurs), a man who lived in a world where Formula 1 cars and cricket tournaments were sponsored by cigarette manufacturers. The pub he walks into in Forbidden Son should be a fug of smoke, but no-one ever reaches for a pipe or a filter-tip, no matter how stressful the situation. It might be a ‘politically correct’ stance in a book that’s aimed at an audience including young adults, but historically it’s inaccurate.

Which brings us to the question of when the story is set. Given the ‘UNIT dating controversy’, it’s wise of the author to steer clear of specifying an exact year – though if you really want to work it out, there are clues scattered throughout the text, with pop songs, magazines and clothes all evoking a sense of the period and hinting at the date.

Speaking of UNIT dating, it’s nice to see Doris get a mention, though it would have been even better if it had seemed less like a box-tick. As it is, there no real feeling behind the colonel’s thoughts, no acknowledgement of broken hearts or regret at a path not taken.

There are a few other snags too, though none of them detract from the well-paced plot. Some of the phrases read a little awkwardly, or repeat information. Better proofreading would have eliminated the typos, and such ambiguities as “they had been hard at it for two weeks, and now with a week behind them….” Some of the speech is very modern – “…did he not get the invite?” for example. It’s bad enough hearing it now, though the misuse appears to be here to stay, but until very recently the word everyone would have used was “invitation”.

The worst mistake though is Frankham-Allen’s description of a private soldier as “a junior NCO”. (He made the same error in his short story ‘The Ambush’, published in Doctor Who Magazine number 483 as a prequel to the novels). I’ve watched enough classic British war films to know that this is incorrect though, just to make sure, I ran the description past two ex-soldiers – one who had served during World War II, the other who had served in the 1970s. Both of them snorted with laughter. Private soldiers are squaddies, sappers, guardsmen or troopers, the lowest of the low. Non-Commissioned Officers are promoted from the ranks to become Lance-Corporals, Sergeants, Staff Sergeants or eventually perhaps Sergeant-Majors. In a text that runs to 273 pages, perhaps I shouldn’t labour this one point, but Forgotten Son is a book about an army officer. This sort of detail really ought to be right.

The mistakes however don’t spoil the sheer exhilaration of reading a brand new ‘official’ story about the Brig. The cover (designed by Simon Williams) has a nice ‘retro’ look, calling to mind the early Target novelisations of the Dr Who episodes. There’s a Foreword by Terrance Dicks; and the Prologue is a fun nod to an anecdote that ‘Who’ fans will instantly recognise. The story itself builds interest and intrigue as it weaves together elements of the colonel’s past, present and future. Some of the concepts and coincidences do perhaps require something of a ‘leap of faith’, but then this is the Whoniverse we’re dealing with, where the fantastical exists alongside the everyday. There are old friends here from The Web of Fear, all instantly recognisable; while the plethora of new characters are all distinct enough to keep track of who’s who, and who is doing what.

Yes, there are nitpicks and errors and a few unanswered questions along the way, there are things that don’t quite fit with other stories or what we think we know – but the same can be said for pretty much every episode of Doctor Who, and it doesn’t make the series any less enjoyable. Forgotten Son has a fantastic (and already popular) action hero, a world-threatening villain, a mystery to solve and plenty of conflict. Three more books (written by different authors and previewed at the end of the novel) are lined up, with more planned for the future.

I’m looking forward to seeing where they take this wonderful character.

 

Rating: 7/10

 

Lethbridge-Stewart: The Forgotten Son, by Andy Frankham-Allen, published by Candy Jar Books, February 2015

Candy Jar Books

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