“The Harvest of Time” by Alastair Reynolds (2013) — Doctor Who

Synopsis

Mysterious events involving disappearing oil rigs and a secret Defense Ministry project attract UNIT’s attention, especially when the Master’s involvement becomes apparent. The Master is being used as a consultant by a Ministry of Defense communications project but in reality he is using them to broadcast a tachyon rescue signal to his past and future selves. However, the rapacious alien race of the Sild intercept the signal and use it to pluck various incarnations of the Master out of time, starting to erase him from existence. Then the alien invasion begins, whose object is to capture the Master himself as the Master Stroke of their Master Plan of creating the Master Computer, built of all the incarnations of the Master they were collecting. 1 They don’t find him, thanks to the interference of the Doctor who came to rescue him, which only leads to the aliens capturing him anyway in the far-flung future. But that is exactly what the Master wants, because the Master is in control of the computer, not the Sild, as they discover.

Commentary

Oh, my god: not another alien invasion of the Earth story. Unfortunately, there’s even more involved to the story line, way too much.

This story is a mess: from the involvement of the Master in secret government experiments to the invasion of Earth by killer shrimp in robot lobster suits to the existence of the mysterious Red Queen to ancient Time Lord secrets to a trip to end of Time itself, there are at least two stories (the alien invasion and the disappearance of the Master) at work here and they don’t mesh very well.

And who are the Sild? Just another of the legion of dangerous conquering alien races whose tactics seem pretty mundane to quality for that title: all they do is swarm a planet and take over any existing life form, then repeat. Otherwise they look like prawns in lobster armor: this armor doesn’t even have any weapons and isn’t very protective. As such, they’re more of a cosmic infestation than a conqueror and they don’t show enough other menace than that to warrant such a reputation. I doubt the Cybermen or the Sontarans would have considered them much of a menace. Apparently, the Time Lords thought they were enough of a menace to do away with them, but also apparently not enough a menace to do something Time Lord-y as Time Loop their planet like they have in the past, just collect their entire race and imprison them on the prison ship The Consolidator. Then, the Time Lords consider them such a menace as to destroy the ship but not enough of a menace that they allow two aspiring Time Lord Academy students (guess who?) to devise a way of destruction that doesn’t work as expected. The Sild wind up in the far flung future (after the common era of time travel) where they start their campaign to return to the present to continue their conquering ways.

Summary

The Master being unwritten out of history: that would have been a really spooky story, if only the story concentrated on it, as the Doctor discovers even Jo and the Brig and everyone else starting to think the Doctor is losing his mind. Evidence about the Master’s existence slowly disappearing even before his eyes. History changing as whatever the Master did was slowly being undone: people murdered by the Master now alive again, etc. That would have also raised some interesting questions: How far would the Doctor go to preserve the life of his old rival? How would this reflect the relationship between the Doctor and the Master? What would have happened in the Universe had the Master disappeared? (The disappearance of their Holmes / Moriarty relationship resulting in the disappearance of all Sherlock Holmes literature?) It would be a story that unlike many stories where the plot must conform to the status quo at the end so as not to affect the series continuity, the goal is to restore the status quo for fear that something even worse would arise otherwise.

Mind Control

  • The Sild control their hosts through their robot suits. The effects are always fatal to the host.
  • The Master hypnotizes a crewman on the offshore oil rig to take a long walk off a short rig. Interestingly enough, the crewman has enough time to make a sketch of the Master, which shows him with spirals for eyes.

Bad Stuff

  • MacGuffin Misuse: The Time Lords didn’t just pack the Sild away on the Consolidator but they also loaded the ship with a number of other dangerous devices they wanted to be rid of. Of course, loading a ship them onto the ship with one of the most dangerous races in the Universe is not going to end well.
  • Deux ex Machina redux: Not just once but twice were said dangerous devices exactly the right device ready to resolve the situation.
  • Madame Plot Device: The Red Queen serves no useful purpose in the story except to act as a plot device to get the Doctor and the Master to where they need to be to allow the Master to be captured by the Sild.
  • Unnecessarily complex: from the reason why the ship arrived in the far future to the actual plotting to extraneous characters and actions. The whole story would have better off without the Sild invasion and the whole Red Queen subplot. Just the mystery of why the Master was disappearing would have been sufficient to advance the plot.

 Good Stuff

  • The Master Computer: a computer built from hundreds of incarnations of the Master plucked from the time stream, stretching from his past to his potential future incarnations, including at least one female incarnation. The Blinovich Effect violations were enough to make even UNIT start to forget about him.
  • The Master’s prison cell makes Magneto’s plexiglass cell look like a county jail lockup. A pity it got blown up. A greater pity that the Master wasn’t inside it when it got blown up.
  • The aliens consider human hosts as so much cattle. Then they use actual cattle as hosts to further their invasion plan.

1 No more Master puns, I promise.

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