Could there really be any more 1960s Doctor Who title than City at World’s End? There is just something about that title that just screams an early-Hartnell story, and Christopher Bulis’ second Past Doctor Adventure delivers just on that premise. This book features the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan arriving on the planet Sarath which is just two months away from destruction, and the citizens of the great city of Arkhaven are attempting to escape their destruction through a great Ship being prepared to take-off. That premise alone sounds like it comes straight from the mind of Terry Nation in a serial that wouldn’t feature the Daleks, and therefore wouldn’t be made. Bulis’ novel is structured perfectly like a First Doctor serial, from the TARDIS being cut off and the team being split up, to periods of time where certain regulars disappear on vacation, even down to the many chapter titles evoking the individual titles of the Hartnell era. This is also one of those few times where Bulis actually goes beyond the traditional style of Doctor Who novel, instead writing a political thriller in the style of the First Doctor’s era. From its first page, City at World’s End has several twists and turns that change the context of the story. As such, the rest of this review will contain certain spoilers for the novel, so read at your own risk.
The central theme of City at World’s End is one of religion versus science, but this time with a twist. The religion isn’t the standard Judeo-Christian conflict, but an evolved religion. The church in Arkhaven specifically reveres the planet Earth as a mythical homeworld, where the original human race have become this idealized version of itself. This has caused a distortion where this Church has massive power and influence among the people. They are led by Bishop Fostel who is essentially every fundamentalist religious character in fiction all at once: equally cool and cunning, he displays several aspects of manic fervor throughout the book. The Church causes conflict with the Mayor of Arkhaven, Draad, as there is a back and forth on who can be allowed on the Ship to escape the dying planet. There is an underlying theme of discrimination as there is an entire class of people left in essentially concentration camps which the Doctor and Ian are initially sent to, as the city itself couldn’t actually support their life, giving the entire system this underlying vibe of fascism and Bulis plays with the idea that the only reason the Doctor and Ian are helping these people is to get Susan medical treatment, and to find Barbara. It’s a very mature look at what it’s like to be in an authoritarian society, as the entire city is build upon a city of lies and deceptions.
The first twist Bulis uses is essentially that Arkhaven is not populated. The government are lying about their population numbers and making up the great population of the city using robots and cars. Automated lights turn on and off in buildings, and robots cast shadows to create this illusion of a populated city while the actual population again languishes in camps. This lie is just the tip of the iceberg, and the only reason the Doctor and Ian refrain from revealing it is because they’re just trying to find their friends and get out of there. The iceberg goes deep to reveal a secret and bloody history of Arkhaven, and a faction of rebels in a conflict where nobody is really good and nobody is really bad. Moral ambiguity is the message of the day as City at World’s End tells one of those complex adventures the Hartnell era is known for.
While the Doctor and Ian are the main focus, Barbara and Susan are not neglected by Bulis as both characters get their own subplots. One complaint is that Bulis keeps them both of them captured as damsels in distress which while keeping with certain writers of the era, it does feel at points like they are objects to be found. Luckily, he counterbalances this by giving each of them their own character arc. Barbara overcomes a world which is essentially trying to kill her while Susan begins to come to term with the fact that she might regenerate at some point. They both speak with authentic voices, as do the rest of the cast. Overall, City at World’s End is a great political thriller with twists and turns at every turn and honestly one of Bulis’ best novels. 8/10.