Story: The Sleepwalker
Word Count: 20082
Author's Summary: “One day the Doctor woke up. (Eight/Master - written for the Buffy 'Normal Again' prompt on Best_Enemies)”
Characters: Charley Pollard, C’Rizz, Grace Holloway, Romana II, The Doctor (8th), The Master (Roberts), LOTS of Eight companions, in passing
Warnings: Explicit Sex, Swearing (I’d add major character death, self-harm due to the mechanism of a plot thing)
The Doctor keeps swapping between his life on the TARDIS and a mundane AU where he’s a physicist teaching at Berkley in 2001, married to Roberts!Master and surrounded by people he knows in canon, but with switched-around names. Is it a fluff piece about them being humans and married and the Master mostly not being a terrible person who’d kill people? Or is it really disturbing and sad, a set up predicated on psychological weaponry (the origins of the Daleks’ Nightmare Child project) from the start of the Time War? Perhaps that depends on how creeped out you are by the ‘which of these lives is real’ “Normal Again” dilemma.
It’s totally possible to read the fic as light and to dismiss the Doctor’s bifurcated life as not a problem for most of the duration of the story. Aralias can’t authentically stage Buffy’s “Normal Again” confusion here, asking whether this reality exists only because the Doctor wants it to be real, because the Doctor is older and knows himself better and longs to be normal less than Buffy does. Really I think it would have been a mistake to push that John Smith “Human Nature” angle harder than this fic does. Still, the question as to what's actually going on remains important, and the fic’s ending isn’t easy or consolatory. In fact it gains much of its unsettling power because the fic’s established this as a real world, with possible real world consequences for what the Doctor has to do to fix ‘our’ reality.
It’s interesting early Time War fic—we don’t see much of that Mounting Tension in fic, just lush ‘everything’s gone to hell’ stuff.
Sleepwalker makes great use of lots of Eight companions (Charley in particular is lovely—but also “Nor did he make any inappropriate comments when he found the statue of C’Rizz in the garden, or when he found Fitz folding sheets (ineptly) in an empty room.” <--aha, Fitz) and the world of the Gallifrey audios (you don’t have to know either to understand and enjoy this, though).
It’s also GREAT Eight fic, with warm, appealing BFA Audio!Eight voice and characterization. Aralias is one of the people who defined and popularized BFA!Eight for fic (similar to but different from TVM and book!Eights), and her version of him underlies a lot of what people have gone on to do with the character. She’s also done some gen!audio!Eight, if this isn’t your bag but you’d like see what that’s all about. BFA!Eight is one of my favorite Doctors, and has gone on to generate a lot of interesting D/M, so I think it’s worth looking into (And hey, try that paracanon/profic if you haven’t! There’s some amazing work there.). Aralias also has to work here with a mundane version of a Master we barely met, so like, extra challenge.
The set-up encourages the Doctor to pay careful attention to the Master (again, a version he barely knows), and to figure out who the other man is through clues and lacunae. It’s an interesting premise that takes advantage of the Doctor’s role as a problem-solver and forces him to think a lot about the Master in an unusual and kind of inherently romanticized light (by virtue of who they are in this universe, and due to the sheer consideration of the other man that working out what's happening necessitates).
A rec for Sleepwalker is by extension a rec for Meanwhile, its unfinished... prequel? Sequel? Equal? Anyway, for Meanwhile, In Another Universe, the story about mundane!them pre-coma, which takes us from their meeting through a lot of thoroughly-developed plot stuff (Yates! Benny!). It was supposed to take us up to John getting shot and then to a coda that re-contextualized Sleepwalker itself, which allowed the Doctor to be wrong about what that universe was and to fix his mistake. The existence of Meanwhile, depending on your point of view, neutralizes some of the creepiness of Sleepwalker—or challenges the Doctor’s ability to make that call and makes it worse by making what the Doctor did at the end of Sleepwalker worse. Alas, it probably won’t ever get finished because it’s so long (55k in and of itself as is) and ambitious and the writer’s moved on a bit, but you know, maybe one day/the Fannish Life Cycle is mysterious and... cyclical, as the term suggests. I know people who love Meanwhile REALLY love it as a novel, and you could see it being serial-scrubbed to good effect, even as situating it in this canon really generates a lot of its mundane!worldbuilding fun, and working out how these characters and this relationship would work out in this context is a lot of the pleasure of the thing.
I’m not going to say too much about Meanwhile because it’s something of a fandom classic (at least in its pairing), and really the fic deserves its own, individual write-up.