4 years, 3 months ago
I’ll Explain Later
Since we’re skipping an awful lot of books from now on, I’m not going to attempt to summarize those. Father Time is the penultimate book of the earthbound series, and tells the story of the Doctor and his adoptive daughter Miranda, a mysterious and, one might say, unearthly child with two hearts. Over the course of a decade the Doctor raises Miranda and eventually stopping some aliens who are sworn to kill her and helping her take over the universe to boot. Nobody has a poor word for it. Lars Pearson calls it “one of the most mature Who books,” and Doctor Who Magazine’s new-look review column proclaims that Parkin “nails the character” of the Doctor. Fitting for the seventh-best story in Shannon Sullivan’s rankings.
It’s January of 2001. Bob the Builder is at number one with “Can We Fix It,” which is holding off Eminem’s “Stan” in one of the most entertaining musical battles imaginable. Rui Da Silva takes over with “Touch Me” as week later, then Jennifer Lopez with “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” and finally Limp Bizkit with “Rollin’.” S Club 7, Westlife, Destiny’s Child, Leann Rimes, Britney Spears, and the Baha Men also chart in what may be the worst month for music ever.
While we were out, Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, informally known as Long Kesh prison, closed in Northern Ireland. Slobodon Miloševi? left office. A local gang attempted to steal the Millennium Star from the Millennium Dome, but were foiled spectacularly. The dome also shut down to visitors after a year, now being part of The O2. And the 2000 US Presidential election played out, seeing the election, or, at least, Supreme Court appointment of George W. Bush. While this month, Bush is actually inaugurated President, Wikipedia launches, and the AOL/Time Warner merger is approved.
While in books, Lance Parkin is back with Father Time. Parkin’s books have an odd tendency to start from a position that can almost be described as trolling. He begins with a premise that is tailor-made to piss off and alarm fans, or, alternatively, one that seems self-evidently impossible. His books consistently feel as though they were written in response to dares - he takes ideas that sound like they cannot possibly work and tries to make them work. In this regard he is perhaps the most high concept writer of the Wilderness Years - more even than Lawrence Miles and Paul Cornell.
But there’s a cheek to Parkin’s iconoclasm. He writes unwritable stories not quite by formula, but at least by a simple and reliable method, which is to find an escape route from the premise itself. The Infinity Doctors is perhaps the definitive example of this: a story that reconciles all the disparate takes on Gallifrey through excessive fealty to all of them. In a similar spirit, Father Time takes on the “impossible” premise of “what if the Doctor had a daughter” and proceeds to carefully avoid the major reason the story is impossible, which is that it’s a premise that should completely alter how Doctor Who works, and that any failure to allow it to do so opens up another Problem of Susan, only a bigger one that can’t be hand-waved with the “well, the show drifted slightly from its original premise” argument that ultimately avoids, if not removes, the problem. I mean, yes, the Problem of Susan is huge, but ultimately it’s the same thing that means that Barney Google basically never appears in his own comic anymore. Repeating the problem in 2001 would be daft. So Parkin ends up spending a lot of Father Time avoiding painting himself into the obvious corner, to the point where the bok is as much about avoiding that corner as it is about its ostensible subject.
Nevertheless, it works. The first thing to say is that Parkin found the second story of the earthbound arc. This is the Silurians of that cycle - the book that finds something else you can do besides watching the Doctor from afar. This is the only one of the earthbound arc to meaningfully take advantage of the time allowed by it: despite having over a century to play with, most of the books of the earthbound arc take place over a day or two. Parkin is alone in realizing that he has all of the space from 1951 to 2001 to himself, and deciding to open the book up to take place over an entire decade. The earthbound arc is really one of the few places in all of Doctor Who where you can have the Doctor spend an entire decade in which he’s not constantly in search of the TARDIS, and yet Parkin is the only writer to tackle it.
This strangeness embodies a general case for the earthbound arc, however. There’s something that it’s difficult to explain why the earthbound arc never touches: UNIT. The Doctor’s time on earth coincides with the Third Doctor’s exile and a massive wave of alien invasions, and we never see so much as a hint of how the Eighth Doctor’s life through this period goes. Yes, there are obvious difficulties with this such as exposing the Eighth Doctor to answers about who he is before Escape Velocity, but it’s as massive a question as the interplay between Torchwood and the Pertwee era, and unlike that can’t be squared away by the impossibility of shooting a Pertwee/Captain Jack story and the fact that Torchwood is a spin-off with an oblique connection to Doctor Who. More than once over the course of this blog I’ve suggested that part of the value of a given story is that its era wouldn’t feel finished without attempting the story. Here we get that repurposed as a problem: a story whose absence does, in fact, make an arc feel unfinished and not thought through.
And a lot of that seems to be that the writers simply aren’t there. Of the six writers on the earthbound arc, only Parkin and Richards seem primarily interested in a story idea that could only work as part of that arc, instead of one that, with some light revisions, could function elsewhere. To some extent this just follows up on what we talked about with The Burning: that there’s no point in doing a big arc when you don’t have enough writers who want to work with the ideas of that arc. And with the earthbound arc, as with virtually everything else in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, they didn’t.
Another part of it, obviously, is that the line has a terribly anxious relationship with its past at this point. As I said, one of the major problems with the idea of a UNIT story in the earthbound arc is that the books are committed to throwing away the past and creating a new continuity for the Doctor. That this is a ludicrously overwrought way of accomplishing what could have been accomplished with an editorial directive to the effect of “no more Gallifrey” is neither here nor there. But Father Time demonstrates the futility of that as well. The book is shot through with with engagement with the past of Doctor Who, albeit engagement with it as an absent force. The fact that the Doctor exists in a universe that knows him even if he doesn’t know himself is crucial to the book’s plot, and Miranda’s origin is deliberately made such that she’s plausibly a Time Lord. It’s notable that the book uses the language of Factions and Houses to describe Miranda’s people. The chronology is just rough enough to make it tough to be definitive about intent. Father Time predates the first Faction Paradox spin-off book by twenty-one months, although it’s certainly plausible that Miles had begun reworking the mythology in time for Parkin to work in the reference. But why should we be slaves to authorial intent? Whether a deliberate reference or not, it deepens the novel’s already existent tendency towards making Miranda’s origins blur with the Doctor’s obscured ones.
But more to the point, the past of Doctor Who is inescapable. That dealing at all with the fact that Doctor Who has already done an earthbound arc that overlaps this one in time period is completely unthinkable demonstrates just how odd this period and arc really is. And there ends up feeling like a particular anxiety about the Pertwee era, especially with the earthbound arc, which is on the one hand indebted to it up to its eyeballs (note also that three of the stories involve the Doctor wrapped up in the military in some fashion) and on the other hand terrified of engaging with it. Which perfectly summarizes the situation that the novels in general find themselves in. They only exist because of the extensive legacy of Doctor Who, but they’re so petrified of engaging with it that they’ve gone out of their way to blow it up.
What’s odd about Father Time is the degree to which, for all that it took an idiosyncratic moment in the series’ history and did a story where the entire premise is self-consciously antithetical to how the show can possibly work, it is, more than anything in the entirety of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and possibly more than anything in the Wilderness Years that wasn’t outright adapted for television, reminiscent of how the show works today. The iconic plot of the new series is “the Doctor experiences some aspect of ordinary human life,” and the most recent iteration of that has been exactly the material Parkin plays with here: marriage (not that the Doctor actually marries Debbie) and kids. Parkin has quietly hit on the future of Doctor Who here.
There are, of course, problems. Miranda is thin as a character. It’s too important that she be worthy of being the Doctor’s daughter for her to really be developed as a character in her own right. Everything about her in the book is really just part and parcel of a conveyer belt designed to get her to the ending where she can suddenly become an intergalactic empress of peace. She’s not so much an interesting character as a character we’re told is interesting.
One of the things that hobbles her is instructive: she’s a character in a book. Although Father Time is superior to The Doctor’s Daughter in almost every way, it has a major comparative disadvantage simply because Miranda doesn’t have Georgia Moffett playing her. For all that Moffett’s character is an underwritten bore, it’s impossible to understate the utility of her being able to smile winsomely at the camera and say “hello, dad” in terms of getting an audience to like her. It’s a small thing, but it’s crucial to how film and television can get audiences to care about characters with a ruthless efficiency novels can’t: films and television have people and charisma involved, and those are key aspects of how we come to invest in other people. Putting a human face on Miranda would have made all the difference in the world.
So even though Father Time, unlike The Doctor’s Daughter, has interesting details and deals with the concept of the Doctor as a parent in a real, lived way instead of as a vapid sketch, there’s a necessary sterility to it. It’s just not possible to do the story of the Doctor becoming a parent in a 288 page novel, simply because that’s not enough pages to earn that kind of relationship. The book has too much to do in getting us to invest in both Miranda and Debbie, moving through a decade of Miranda’s life, telling us how the Doctor feels about all of this, and sorting out its actual alien invasion plot. And so the novel leaves the reader in the strange position of wanting all the annoying bits about space ships and intergalactic war to go away so we can get back to Miranda at a party having her heart broken, simply because those are the bits where the book actually earns its premise. It’s doing what the entire earthbound arc should have done - dealing with the amount of space that the premise gives and allowing the idea of the Doctor simply living his life to be explored. And instead, because it’s crammed between Endgame and Escape Velocity, it has to rush itself and fail to quite earn its premise.
I recognize that this is counter-intuitive - we do, after all, usually think of novels as the medium better suited to extended character studies and the like. But this is too simple. Novels can accomplish this in part because of their length and in part because there are a lot of things a novel can do efficiently. But a good actor can communicate internal emotional states with an efficiency and skill that prose is simply poorly suited to. Lengthy descriptions of internal emotional states are banal, while a skillful actor working in close-up can convey subtleties that are nearly impossible to make come alive in prose. A novel in which there are no aliens and the Doctor just raises a daughter would be a tough sell within Doctor Who - the sci-fi plot has to be there. But that means that the book is in many ways unable to do what it needs to do. It can only tell us that the Doctor loves his daughter, whereas Paul McGann himself could show it to us in five seconds.
So the book simultaneously ends up calling the future direction of Doctor Who and illustrating a fundamental shortcoming of it in its current form. It’s a phenomenal idea for a Doctor Who story - one that is rightly hailed as one of the highlights of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. But a novel series in which it’s one story in a larger plot arc is the wrong medium for it. It’s not where this approach can thrive. Which is ironic, as it’s specifically the oddities of that plot arc that allowed the story to make its first appearance. But in practice, even if The Ancestor Cell hadn’t done grievous damage to the Eighth Doctor Adventures as a line, this book reveals a basic problem, which is that television is just a better medium for multi-author long-term serialization than novels are.
But interestingly, the same month this came out there was a major development with Doctor Who in a different medium. Which brings us around to the other Eighth Doctor line.
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