During series three of the BBC’s rebooted Doctor Who, writer Paul Cornell adapted his previously published novel, Human Nature, into a two-part episode that became a highlight of what was already an amazing series of an amazing show. After finishing Tommy Donbavand’s original Doctor Who novel, Shroud of Sorrow, I wanted them to do the same for this fast-paced and resonant story.
Shroud of Sorrow takes place between the episodes of the current seventh series. For those behind on their episodes, the Doctor has picked up Clara Oswin Oswald as his newest companion and is currently taking her on holiday around time and space while he gathers clues as to how she could have already lived and died twice in his timeline.
Their adventures start when they land in Dallas, TX, on November 23rd, 1963. It is the day that the first episode of Doctor Who aired in Britain. It is also the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated by fill-in-the-blank; however, a more serious threat called The Shroud is invading Earth.
Have you ever glanced at a pattern of stucco on the ceiling or a fluff of clothing in your laundry basket and seen what looks like a face? The lighting hits the folds just right and creates eyes, a nose, mouth, etc. Has it ever been a face you recognized? Perhaps someone you lost? Someone you feel guilty for losing? That’s the Shroud. They read memories and feed on your grief to grow stronger, which supplies them with a scrumptious food source and leaves ruined souls in their wake. The news of Kennedy’s death broadcasting internationally has increased Earth’s grief tremendously. It’s a ripe buffet of sorrow.
The Doctor and Clara find the epicenter of the invasion is Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy’s body has been taken. Some of the first victims the Doctor meets are news reporter Mae Callon, who has seen the face of her grandmother in a stain of coffee, and FBI Special Agent Warren Skeet, who saw the face of his dead partner in drops of rain. As more patients, orderlies, and doctors fall to their knees in tears, The Doctor realizes he can’t battle each case individually. He needs to find the Shroud’s origins and stop it with one swift blow or else the world will be ravaged within eleven hours.
There are plenty of things to love in Donbavand’s surprisingly humorous and clever story. The alien menace is a unique zombie. When the Shroud grows stronger with each victim, it materializes into a woman clothed in a pale blue dress with a veil covering her face. She clasps hands with her target and drains their soul through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and the fatal stage of acceptance. When the deed is done, the victim becomes possessed by one single emotion to fill the the absence of grief.
The characters are compelling. Donbavand captures the voice and performance of Matt Smith’s Doctor concisely in his prose — frantic, wise-cracking, jubilant, and intense. When he must infiltrate a military meeting of generals, the Doctor goes so far as to disguise himself as someone familiar to Whovians, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Both Mae and Warren are compelling companions in the adventure, almost so much that their involvement overshadows Clara. Other memorable characters that appear later in the story are the survivors of the Shroud’s previous victim-planet of Semtis: Wobblebottom, Flip Flop, and Orma. They are clowns. They are also leaders of a colony who treat the roaming savages on the frozen surface by capturing them and making them laugh.
What really resonates is the story’s depiction of treating a grief-stricken victim. One of the most powerful scenes occurs when the Doctor enters the mind of Mae’s editor, Ben Parsons. Since the Shroud needs to amplify guilt, it lies to its victims and makes them feel responsible for their loss. The Doctor reaches back to the memory and tries to expose the truth. The entire sequence resembles one-on-one counseling sessions I’ve witnessed with elders and professionals at my church, so it struck a personal chord.
What also resonates is the role of grief in the Doctor’s life. Near the end, it falls upon him to act as bait for the entire Shroud force. He must remember. He must grieve. What follows is a trip down memory lane of the last fifty years of memorable Doctor Who farewells, from the First Doctor abandoning his granddaughter Susan all the way up to Amy and Rory’s touch from an angel. Even without knowing all the moments revisited, or disagreeing with which goodbyes really grieve the Doctor (Astrid’s death? Not Rose’s goodbye on Bad Wolf Bay or Donna’s mind wipe or River Song’s sacrifice in the library? Astrid?), it is a moment that causes the reader to salivate and wish it could play out in an episode of the fiftieth anniversary.
Doctor Who: Shroud of Sorrow is available from Broadway Paperbacks for $9.99 USD wherever books are sold.