“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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