Book Review: Doctor Who: Combat Magicks by Steve Cole
[Meta Note] Some familiarity with Doctor Who is required to understand this review, namely the basic character of the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham.
Given that there’s no new episodes of Doctor Who until 2020, I decided to read some books that cover the adventures of The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. I started with Combat Magicks because the book is about witchcraft and battles between Attila the Hun and the Roman Empire. How could I possibly resist?
One of the criticisms of season eleven of Doctor Who is that, with the multitude of companions, none of them are given enough character development, and I certainly felt that with regard to Yaz. As such, I greatly appreciate the time and dedication that is given within Combat Magicks to fleshing out her character.
A large portion of why I tend to enjoy books more than television or movies is the ability to get into the head of a character, and this was especially great for developing Yaz, as her inner narrative is explored. As readers we are treated to her thoughts about the Doctor’s dropping in on any situation versus the authority that Yaz feels when acting as a police officer, as well as smaller reaffirming details about Yaz’s identity when she muses that they have arrived 200 years before the founding of Islam, and her doubts as to whether the meat she’s been offered is halal.
Similarly, Ryan’s dyspraxia is explored with more nuance in the book than the show, and in general the internal weariness of the characters and how their adventures take a physical toll on their bodies is articulated in ways that are near impossible to express in a television show.
That said, I don’t think that Doctor Who books would be an entirely satisfactory replacement for the show; I just think that they provide a nice supplement. I also found that this book tied past adventures of The Doctor in quite well, with multiple callbacks to one of my favorite episodes, “The Fires of Pompeii,” and many sly remarks by the Doctor referencing her habit of regeneration.
One line from Combat Magicks that I particularly enjoyed comes on page 117, when someone questions the Doctor about why she cares so much for humans, and she explains in this short scene:
‘P’haps because, out of all the life forms I’ve ever met, human beings are the … lifiest.’ The Doctor swung her legs off the table and leaned forward. ‘Here’s how it is. I don’t only care about the people of this planet. I happen to protect them.’
This puts an interesting spin on why the Doctor cares so much for humanity, and contributes enough to her character that I wish they would put the line in the actual show just so that more people would hear it.
The book’s plot is fairly convoluted but very entertaining. One thing I must recommend to any reader of this book is to be skeptical of everything. Combat Magicks is a book where the plot twists have plot twists, and when I finished it I had to scratch my head and think for a few solid minutes about whether what I had just read made sense. It’s funny when I think about it, because this book is about witchcraft and armies of the dead, but it is so utterly different from “The Witchfinders,” an episode of Doctor Who in which the dead rise and The Doctor is mistaken for a witch.
One key difference is that Attila and Aetius, the Roman opposing Attila, actually employ witches intentionally, and when The Doctor’s scientific advances are understood as witchcraft she is conscripted, rather than drowned. Another is that because the witches are seen as weapons to be used, the Doctor is treated with something resembling, but not quite, respect, as the sexism is not quite as rampant (though still present.)
Overall, I’d say that this book is a fun romp, and fans of the Thirteenth Doctor, and Doctor Who as a whole, would definitely enjoy.
 SPOILER WARNING: Not that they succeeded in drowning her. She was friends with Houdini after all.
Note from 2022: Check out my podcast about Doctor Who The Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Podcast!