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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and the BBC special that may or may not blow our minds, Puffin is releasing a series of eBook short stories featuring each of the eleven Doctors so far. “The Roots of Evil” chronicles an adventure of the Fourth Doctor, accompanied by warrior companion Leela. As described on Amazon.com,

“When the Fourth Doctor takes Leela to visit an immense tree space station known as the Heligan Structure, little do they know that the tree has been asleep for centuries, dreaming of vengeance against a man in a blue box…As the tree awakes, the Time Lord and his companion soon discover why they are such unwelcome guests.”

As I am American and born in the very late 1980s, I’ll admit that I have little experience with the Classic series and Doctors who came before Nine. Still, even before I’d begun watching the 2005 reboot, I’d heard of the Fourth Doctor with his endless scarf and crazy hair. So, like any serious writer, I had to do my oh-so-painful research of the character by watching one of Four’s Classic serials (featuring Leela), entitled “The Horror of Fang Rock.” Continuing my trend with the Classic Doctors, I found that Four was fairly fantastic and that Leela was a refreshing twist on the trope of the young female companion. Overall, I was pretty excited for “The Roots of Evil.”

Now, if you’re like me, you had some initial concerns about a story featuring a “tree space station” that apparently harbors a grudge against the Doctor. The concept sounds like something of a stretch, even for Doctor Who. Incorporating the nifty idea of “terraforming” that was introduced in the television series, the Heligan Structure is a station built to hang in an inhospitable planet’s atmosphere and use natural processes to turn carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. Terraforming is a fun method of introducing a potentially silly plot point like a tree space station, but the Heligan Structure of this story floats freely in space and has somehow supported the lives of hundreds of inhabitants for nearly a millennium and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, it was a good twist and presented an actual explanation for what could have been an absolutely absurd setting.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t entirely deliver. As the basic premise of Doctor Who is of the adventures of time travel with a Time Lord who changes his face, the mystery of why Four is in trouble for something that he hasn’t done is not particularly suspenseful. The eventual revelation of the responsible party is admittedly funny, but the length of time that it took for the Doctor to realize what must have happened portrays him as rather less than intelligent.

The best part of “The Roots of Evil” is actually the portrayal of Leela, which is spot-on to her established character. Her loyalty to the Doctor combined with her matter-of-fact “savage” instincts is wonderfully endearing, and the fact that the entire adventure begins because Four realizes that she misses trees serves to paint a comfortable picture of their friendship. She doesn’t understand the point of scarves or use contractions or think much of negotiation without knife involvement; nevertheless, her surprisingly relatable and unique point of view as a human from a time other than 21st century Britain is an element that has been missing from the show as of late, and her perspective is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

“The Roots of Evil” isn’t bad so much as unstimulating. Author Philip Reeve has almost exclusively written fiction for children, and the tendency shows in the plot of “The Roots of Evil.” Still, Leela was exceptionally well-written. Her scenes with the Doctor were the best of the story, and the Doctor truly felt like Four in their interactions. The plot actually suffers from the confines of the short story; given the length of a novel or even novella, the setting and plot could have been fleshed out remarkably. All in all, with a bit of imagination, “The Roots of Evil” is a fun little story with some very cute one-liners and allusions that Doctor Who fans will definitely appreciate.

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