Up next in my Doctor Who Past Doctors Adventures binge is the Third Doctor novel, Rags, written by Mick Lewis. Back in the day, I had heard a lot of negative reactions to Rags, and having finally reading the novel, I can see why.
This isn’t an indictment on the novel; in fact, I very much enjoyed Rags. The problem with Rags, from an old school Doctor Who fan’s perspective, is that it is unlike anything that would have aired during the Jon Pertwee era of the series. At the same time, it captures the punk aesthetic perfectly, and in some ways may be more true to the 70’s than the television show was. Rags works as a horror novel, and could easily have been published without the Doctor Who elements and stand alone as a work of fiction. Mick Lewis’ prose is clear and tight, with a talent for building atmosphere and horror. The fact that it is a horror story set in the context of a Doctor Who era that never attempted anything close to this is off-putting to the traditionalists; I, on the other hand, welcomed it.
Make no mistake, Rags is a brutal novel. A tale of a punk band traveling across England, whose live shows instigate a wave of violence along class divisions, Rags pulls no punches in most of its macabre moments. There is a creepy, surreal quality to the nature of the band’s shows, and to the growing caravan of disaffected people who follow them. The subversive element that enraptures the everyday people, then Jo Grant, on up through to certain portions of UNIT, adds to the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that builds towards a bloody conclusion. There is tragedy in this novel, and in places you wouldn’t have expected at the outset. In fact, you would wonder, in the aftermath of the novel, how many of the series’ regulars could go back to living normal lives.
The biggest flaw in Rags is the Third Doctor. Not in his portrayal, as Lewis captures the Third Doctor’s voice with aplomb. It is the fact that the Doctor here is not decisive enough. It is a contrivance of the novel, but the Doctor takes too long to act, which in light of events seems almost ridiculous. People are dying at the shows and the Doctor is tucked away in his lab, trying to research and come to a consensus before taking action. It just doesn’t ring true to the character and the series.
Rags is easily the most “adult” Doctor Who novel I have ever read. It would never get published under the current youth-oriented series, but I am glad that it made the cut several years ago. Doctor Who, as a series, has the most flexible format of any series, and Rags pushes the boundaries. A novel like this attempted under the Past Doctor range was a worthy experiment. Everyone is pushed to the limit and beyond (the scenes of the Doctor’s psychological torture in the Reality Wound are particularly effective), and the utterly alien concept of the antagonist works perfectly within this context. At the end of the day, Rags reaffirms hope in the darkest of circumstances, and the heroic nature of the Doctor. Even with its flaws, Rags is a worthy read, but only if you’re open-minded about what can be done with “classic” Doctor Who.