❉ Doctor Who New Adventures companion Chris Cwej receives his own spin-off anthology.
“While Down the Middle is never less than engaging and entertaining, where it really impresses is in the imagination which has gone into the consequences of a time war on a universe: The ideas at the heart of stories such as Ring Theory, Crushing Reality, The Mushroom at the End of the Universe and The Eternal are part of the consistent theme of haunted, decaying societies being eaten away by their past.”
Doctor Who’s wilderness years – that period between the transmissions of Survival and Rose – has always been mistitled. It’s perhaps accurate in terms of televised Who, with just the McGann movie and a few specials and documentaries across fifteen years, but it entirely neglects the variety and creativity going on when the show was reduced to its fanbase: Not only did it provide the Virgin and BBC book ranges, but Big Finish audio dramas and pioneering BBC webcasts, but it also provided myriad spin-offs: The BBV range, Bernice Summerfield, PROBE, Iris Wildthyme, Kaldor City, Faction Paradox, Miranda… The list would have been spectacular even for a show in consistent production. More than fifteen years since Rose ushered Doctor Who back to the heart of the prime time schedule, the seeds planted in those years continue to bloom, with the New Adventures companion Chris Cwej receiving his own spin-off from ArcBeatle Press.
Only it’s not quite the Cwej who accompanied the Doctor. Instead, this is the version of Cwej subsumed into the Faction Paradox ranges with his entry in the The Book of the War, someone who has not only spawned his own race of Cwejen, but essentially exists as a near immortal consciousness ready to be downloaded into any one of a billion bodies on the orders of his Superiors. It’s an intriguing set-up which editor Hunter O’Connell economically introduces and expands upon in the opening story A Bright White Crack, introducing a pair of companions for Chris: the genocidal pairing of Larles and Kwol. O’Connell’s story also sets the tone for the anthology, with the kind of disorienting tricks with time and formal daring which put it firmly in the lineage of Lawrence Miles’ original ideas for the Faction.
Indeed, one of the most impressive things about the anthology is the way it’s been edited to make the most of the individual tales and have them form part of a greater whole: where Fountain of Youth and Flickering Flame are straightforward enough stories for an SF time travel anthology, Sam Maleski’s Hearts of Gold is a perfectly-placed character piece which shows the toll Cwej’s life takes on him: the human side of an extraordinary existence. It helps that it’s an often funny and deeply touching queer love story in its own right which is deeply eloquent about the way we interact online. Elsewhere it’s a real pleasure to see Simon Bucher-Jones’s distinctive voice as part of the chorus with two contrasting tales: The Weasels and the Warp Field is almost an SF farce by way of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland which turns one of the anthology’s many subtle Doctor Who references into musing on quantum realities, and When I Remember _________ uses ingenious linguistic and mental consequences of meddling with causality to take a sharp look at the nature of stories and creativity. In an anthology which mixes writers who created and developed Cwej with new talent, it feels like a significant statement.
While Down the Middle is never less than engaging and entertaining, where it really impresses is in the imagination which has gone into the consequences of a time war on a universe: the ideas at the heart of stories such as Ring Theory, Crushing Reality, The Mushroom at the End of the Universe and The Eternal are smart existential horrors that maintain and develop the essence of what always made Faction Paradox stories compelling inside and outside the Doctor Who novel ranges. They’re part of the consistent theme of haunted, decaying societies being eaten away by their past. James Wylder’s In the Loop pinpoints this complete loss of innocence to one of the more significant events of late 1960s America, and it’s most explicitly explored in The Ursine Brood, which takes the concept of a society turning in on itself to a dark and relentlessly logical conclusion. These are stories which use the concept of hauntology in fiction the way the artists of the Ghost Box label do musically: exploring ruins, cannibalizing and repurposing them to present new and often startling ideas.
Although it would be wrong to say the anthology is ever entirely linear in its storytelling, the overall narrative becomes more intense in the latter half: Characters and concepts turn up for a different life to be cast on them, links from earlier are suddenly revealed and O’Connell and their writers prove commendably willing to smash up their initial set-up and change the relationships between the main characters to provide a satisfying dramatic storyline.
Even as the story moves to a conclusion there’s room for a smart story such as The V Cwejes, which cements the book’s lineage in both form and content, using a model drawn from multi-Doctor stories and Virgin New Adventures to explore Cwej’s fictional history and his development as a character. It’s a perfect recap before deliberately epic conclusion Rebel Rebel/Vignettes of an Uprising acts as both an ending to this storyline and a bridge to new adventures. Pleasingly for an anthology which plays to heavily with the ideas of causality and possibility, it loops back thematically to A Bright White Crack. Down the Middle is a hugely promising start to the Cwej range: Rich in character and creative reimagining of older ideas to provide fresh perspectives and significant moral dilemmas with ongoing consequences for its characters. What was once wilderness continues to bloom.
❉ ‘Cwej: Down the Middle, A New Anthology from the Universes of Doctor Who’. Edited by Hunter O’Connell. Published by ArcBeatle Press. Available from Amazon UK: Paperback | Ebook. Available from Amazon US: Paperback | Ebook.
Header image: “The Eternal” art, by Dawn Rushim.