Plot: The Doctor, Donna and the rest of the Noble clan take on the evil Mandragora intelligence which has changed its mind about humanity…
Mockney Dude: ‘Last time we had a chat I sent you into darkness. Remember that?’ When the Doctor had lost Donna he had looked so haunted, so lost and so old. The eyes of an old man trapped in a ridiculously young body. So miserable and alone. The Doctor has learnt that people don’t like getting hints about their future (is that a reference to the eighth Doctor?). Spoilers, as someone once said. Food was nice but a good mystery was much better. The Doctor is ill at ease with domesticity at the best of times. Is his style geek chic or scruffy Arthur? Donna opts for the latter. Jackie he had worn down through sheer charm (once he had regenerated) and Francine through her daughters faith in him. Once the Doctor might have used Netty with less conscience. The Doctor and Wilf in the garden laughing about his adventures is a wonderful image. Without Donna to bring him back here was there a guarantee that the Doctor would save the Earth next time? ‘Everywhere we go we make a difference, we put things right, we make things happier. That’s what the Doctor is all about. He finds a way for the universe to make sense.’
Tempestuous Temp: Gary Russell thanks Russell T Davies in his acknowledgments for his help with fleshing out the Noble family and his input is really felt simply because Donna, Wilf and Sylvia all feel so authentic. There is no effort in conjuring Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King up but this much more than just a description of their features and mannerisms. It’s a book that tries (and succeeds) in getting in touch with what makes these characters tick, how they function as a family and how they have had to handled so much grief over the last couple of years. There are a few occasions where the book feels as though it is a little too celebratory when it comes to Donna but for once its okay for Russell to enthuse like an exploding Catherine wheel because as far as Donna is concerned there is a great deal to celebrate. The tragedy of Donna is really highlighted in this book, that the old, selfish Donna has gone because of her travels with the Doctor but forced back into existence after the events of Journey’s End. Donna Noble is Queen of the ‘Oi’s!’ The Doctor and Donna played a game, a game of two equals who’d gone through so much together and played instinctively with each other because of it. It was all about familiarity and friendship and fun. Before she met the Doctor Donna would always put herself first but she had learnt so much and wanted to go back and help her mum on the anniversary of her dads death. Donna would loved to say that her bitterness and resentment was because of her dads death but the truth was Sylvia had always been with her daughter and rarely hid it. And Donna didn’t understand why. Donna and Sylvia loved each other. She just wasn’t entirely sure they liked each other. It’s a universal truth amongst family members that Russell capitalises on really well here. When did the idea of coming home fill Donna with such dread? Was this the downside of travelling with the Doctor? That normality was now alien? Now Wilf could see what a brave, brilliant woman Donna had becomes he loved her even more. She admits that she misses her father and Sylvia holds her. Remember when Rose went to pieces when she saw the future of the Doctor’s companions in School Reunion? Donna is given the same treatment here and instead of falling to pieces she tells Madame Delphi that she lives in the here and now. Travelling with the Doctor, Donna finally thinks she’s doing the right thing. She feels alive.
The Cribbins: ‘Come back soon, Doctor. Not just when we need you. Pop in for a cuppa one day…’ The rain always reminds Wilf of the sad, awful day that the Doctor brought Donna home. He enjoys looking up at the stars at the planets that were still there because of his Donna. He felt insignificant in comparison to the Doctor but that didn’t matter because the honour had been knowing him. Geoff’s death brought back memories of his wife’s death but he soldiered on making arrangements and supporting the others. When did Wilf get so old? What happened to that naughty old man who used to take Donna for a spin and she her off to his paratrooper mates? Wilf wanted to prove that he was independent, strong and about 20 years younger than he was! He likes to look and imagine and dream. There is a real sadness to Wilf knowing that he will lose Netty to Alzheimer’s and his quiet hope that the Doctor will be able to provide some medicine from the future to cure her. You can just imagine Bernard Cribbins playing the climactic scenes of Netty being possessed by Mandragora and Wilf having his heart ripped out. It would be heartbreaking, utterly manipulative (the Doctor brought her along just to give the climax some sentiment?) but still very poignant. Donna offers to stay and be with her Gramps but he, selfless as ever, tells her to get out there with the man she loves and enjoy the life he could never have.
Moody Mare: For all the good work that is done with Donna and Wilf that is nothing compared to the depth that Russell brings to Sylvia. Over the course of Beautiful Chaos Russell takes this aggressive Jackie Tyler clone and turns her into a full bloodied character that is trying to hold her family together with her bare hands. There’s a moment where Netty gives a speech about Sylvia after she has been viciously rude to Wilf’s friend that is very useful because it is wonderful to see from an outsiders point of view how much Sylvia is trying. Sylvia thinks that the Doctor brings monsters in his wake. Sylvia had been prepared for Geoff’s death but after 38 years of marriage it haunted her like nothing else. They had only been at the new house for 3 months when Geoff died and the whole reason they had moved was to provide him with new challenges. Talking about anything with Sylvia Noble was rarely a positive experience. She doesn’t like people being too open and honest – ‘those bleeding hearts who wear their hearts on their sleeves!’ Mothers have an in-built guilt trip that forbade you from saying the things you want to say to them. She desperately needed to cry at her husbands passing but her attitude to bleeding hearts meant she could never do that. In a touching (and unexpected) outburst Sylvia admits that she doesn’t know if Donna’s disappearances are the last she is going to see of her and that she has images of a policeman turning up on her doorstep to tell her that she is dead just like they did with Geoff. The moment when they suddenly drop all the pretence and cry in each others arms almost made me shed a tear. She’s not selfish, she’s worked hard and built a life and always tried to do the best by her daughter. She tolerates the Doctor for Donna’s sake just as she tolerates Netty for Wilf’s sake. She wants Netty to move in and be a part of the family for Wilf’s sake but Netty refuses saying that they are not prepared for how difficult it will be when she loses her mind completely.
Great Ideas: So much sadness in the Noble household over the last couple of years and so much emotional gold for Gary Russell to mine. Revenge on the Doctor after 500 years is a good clue about the villains identity early in the book. Wilf has discovered a new star which has been named after him. The stars are aligning to form a malevolent, smiling face. A column of light strikes London and the infected people heads towards it, hypnotised by its majesty. When the Doctor earthed Mandragora it got into the land, the water and ultimately the people by attaching itself to DNA. Transferring from generation to generation, the Helix now has a willing army. Mandragora has realised there is no stopping the human race flooding to the stars and building empires and colonies until the end of time. It wants a part of that action and plans to infect humanity and help to push their advancement forwards. Spreading Mandragora as the human race infects the corners of the universe like a plague. That’s actually a pretty solid reversal of The Masque of Mandragora and holds a lot of weight. Dara Morgan = Mandragora! Am I the only idiot that didn’t spot that? He was chosen at the lowest point in his life and offered power and riches. Callum is killed by the woman he once loved – his ascension to power is well catalogued and his downfall is one of pure ignominy. The climax comes down to an old man trying to hold on to the woman he loves and how can you fail to be moved by that? The unusually long coda marks this out as something a bit different. The Doctor pointing out that there is no miracle cure to Netty’s condition is exactly the statement e book needed to make. Imagine how awful it would have been had the story ended with a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s? Instead this feels very real.
- Initially I quite liked how all of the characters we given a decent bit of background. It felt like a refreshing change for the NSAs to include a wealth of characters who felt like real people with dreams and a history. However the book repeats the trick again and again right down to the most insignificant character to a point where this is focussed on to the detriment of the (slight) plot. Points of populating your book with fleshed out characters, minus points for regurgitating their life history in one great heave of exposition when their main purpose is to be a corpse.
- Russell occasionally adopts an omnipresent narrator which is very jarring after the intimate character scenes from Donna or Wilf’s POV because I kept wondering who was thinking these thoughts…
- Ben is the obligatory gay character and his inclusion is utterly cringe-inducing. His ‘sorry, you lose…’ to Jayne adds nothing to the story and feels like it is trying to be modern for moderns sakes.
- Although his handling of the Noble clan is superb generally he can get a little too enthusiastic at times – sometimes a little restraint can be more effective and you don’t have to be cute all the time.
- Russell has great fun comparing the events of this book to the importance of the Kennedy assassination. Delusions of grandeur much?
- ‘It was like a slow motion moment in a movie’ – under any circumstances that is an appalling descriptive term. It sounds like it was written by a five year old.
- Killing off all the presenters of Big Brother? Really? Its not a show that I have ever watched but this seems like tedious point scoring with the novels audience to me. This mention just jars because its not really connected to anything, its just the author trying to be smart and falling flat on his face.
- Joe! It wouldn’t be an NSA without the obligatory child character!
- Splitting the story into days is a nice idea in theory but makes finding a point to stop the book if you want a quick ten minute read before bed nigh on impossible.
- Why does Madame Delphi talk like such a smart arse?
- Caitlin’s crisis of faith is so sudden its deeply unconvincing. Its what the plot needs her to do rather than any kind of natural character progression.
- As affecting as the Wilf side of the climax is (and it really is), Mandragora ultimately proves to be a bit rubbish. All those centuries of scheming and growing to be defeated that easily?
- ‘A few days later, and mankind, as it always did, coped and moved on…’ – Russell as good as admits that his plot was just a bit of useless fluff to hang the more personal Noble drama on!
Funny Bits: The image of Donna glammed up and having to escape from danger on a push bike made me chuckle. You could imagine Tate playing that for every laugh she could get! ‘Never cracks a noble tart, how about a good night sweet Donna?’ earned Neal Bailey a clump in the nuts when he took Donna on a date!
Notes: Nice mention of Park Vale School (SJA). Oddly considering this is a Gary Russell book (even though it is scaled back there is still a fair bit of continuity – perhaps that’s why he didn’t write for the eighth Doctor range post amnesia because he couldn’t write a novel without including aspects of the past?) he doesn’t reference the SJA adventure The Secrets of the Stars of which there is a great deal of similarities (including the obvious use of Mandragora in that episode despite it never being named). Garrazone (Big Finish stories such as The Sword of Orion were set there). The Tycho Project (SJA – The Last Sontaran). There is something of Polly in Miss Oladini, a temporary administrator who gets caught up in the extraordinary and brainwashed. The plot is basically a cross between the SJA stories Secrets of the Stars (Mandragora) and The Man Who Never Was (SERFboard/MTEK) although one wasn’t written yet so that's not really fair...although it does make me wonder if this inspired Gareth Roberts (frankly superior) take on the subject.
Result: I spent the majority of this book swinging from one emotional to another, from one extreme to another, from wiping away tears with the poignancy of the characterisation to laughing at the ineptitude of the plotting. Russell is never going to be the worlds best writer but (as with Mel in Business Unusual and Evelyn in Instruments of Darkness) if he really likes a character he will go the extra mile to bring them to life with real gusto and the characterisation transcends his often, barely perceptible, plots. Beautiful Chaos is littered with Gary Russell’s usual faults as a writer; its over indulgent, continuity obsessed and features prose that is so enthusiastic the word restraint is a forgotten concept…and yet his handling of the Noble clan is exceptional and offers a glimpse of the character writer he could be if he calmed things down a bit. His touching treatment of Donna, Wilf, Sylvia and Netty elevates this considerably and there is a great deal of development for each of them, especially Sylvia who has never been handled so sympathetically. Plus the way Alzheimer’s is handled deserves real credit, especially for not searching for an easy answer at the climax. Massively flawed but beautifully characterised and ultimately very touching, Beautiful Chaos is Gary Russell’s greatest accomplishment in prose to date: 8/10