4 years, 10 months ago
I'll Explain Later
David McIntee's White Darkness, the fifteenth New Adventure, features the TARDIS crew in early 20th century Haiti during the events leading up to the American occupation. It also has them fighting Cthulhu and zombies. So it's a bit ambitious. The Cthulhu stuff is what it's best known for these days, since that becomes a bit of a theme for the New Adventures, but it's just as notable for introducing McIntee, who went on to write scads more books, and his research-heavy historical style. Reputation-wise, it's middle of the road - Sullivan's rankings have it at fortieth place, with a 65% rating. At the time newly installed Doctor Who Magazine
reviewer Craig Hinton displayed a flair for the lousy pull quote by describing it simply as "an enjoyable adventure story." I, Who goes with more outright ambivalence, calling it "solid, albeit a bit passionless and unimpressive." DWRG summary
. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry
It’s June of 1993. Ace of Base are at number one with “All That She Wants,” unseated a week later by UB40 with “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You,” which lasts for two weeks before Gabrielle takes over with “Dreams,” making this the first actually volatile month on the charts I feel like we’ve had in a while. The Spin Doctors, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, The Pet Shop Boys, and Haddaway also chart, the latter with “What Is Love,” AKA that song from the Saturday Night Live sketch.
While in the news, Andrew Wiles proes Fermat’s Last Theorem. Loreena Bobbitt does the thing that she’s famous for. Clinton orders some casual bombing of Iraq. Kim Campbell becomes the first female Prime Minster of Canada.
While in books, it’s White Darkness. And thus an intersection with my life again. June of 1993 is the summer before sixth grade for me. I was, by this point, a Doctor Who fan, and it’s in sixth grade that I discovered the New Adventures. It started with finding one or two in a book store - probably either the still-open Barnes and Noble in Danbury, Connecticut or the now-closed Borders in Farmington. I know the first two books I got were White Darkness and Lucifer Rising.
Memory deceives just a little bit here. I don’t remember exactly what month - it was certainly a bit later than June. I can’t quite place exactly when my relationship with Doctor Who snapped into the present such that there was such a thing as a new release. I started buying issues of Doctor Who Magazine when I saw them in the comic shop in this period, but my comic-buying days were nearing an end this year - I bailed out of them completely in the fall of 1994. So there was definitely a point around here where I became aware of the fact that new Doctor Who was coming out on a fairly set schedule, and that there was such a thing as a community responding to it. I know this must have happened somewhere in the very beginning of the school year, because I remember looking forward to the release of Blood Heat. My best guess is that it happened between Birthright and Iceberg, right as the school year began.
Of the two books, however, White Darkness is the more memorable one. It’s the one I definitely think of as the first New Adventure I got. It’s also the one I alluded to back in the Mary Whitehouse entry - the one that got torn in half and shoved into my desk. I don’t think I ever nailed down who did that one. The other one of my NAs to get vandalized, Tragedy Day, I remember better - that one I rescued from being kicked around the hall. I remember vividly their excuse, that they didn’t know the book was mine, and sputtering bewilderedly as the school authorities mostly took this as a reason to treat the incident more lightly. As though, you know, playing kickabout with a book is OK so long as you don’t know whose it is. As though the people bullying me for being the weirdo who liked this “Doctor Who” thing they’d never heard would be unaware of whose Doctor Who book they were kicking.
It’s strange to go back over this period and see the parallelism. I always figured I was unusual in my 1990s Doctor Who fandom. But the age-old lesson of the Hinchcliffe era bears mention. History repeats itself. Structures recur. So my outsider, bullied era of Doctor Who is the era where Doctor Who seemed most openly embarrassed about the fact that it was Doctor Who. When the series itself seemed happy to sit in the back of the classroom hoping nobody would notice it - it’s just an innocuous little book series now! You don’t have to be angry about it taking up part of your license fee to pander to anoraks anymore!
What’s funny is how few of the New Adventures I actually read. At a guess, despite owning the full line, I actually finished… sixteen during the era in question. White Darkness was not among them. It’s tempting to try to blame this on it getting stolen and torn in half, but I replaced it, and given how many others I failed to finish it seems dishonest to pretend that I’d have finished it. The reasons for this are complex and idiosyncratic. They come down to the fact that I have mild ADD and am actually a mediocre reader of prose. I get irritated and skim. The lengthy sections of the New Adventures in which the Doctor doesn’t appear are difficult for me to focus on today. This is purely a flaw in me, and not the novels. But it meant that it was easy for me to lose the plot, and then equally easy for me to get bored and move to something else in my reading. (These days I actually switch between the book and the DWRG summaries, because knowing the plot of what I’m reading helps compensate for my tendency to accidentally just sort of rub my eyes over a five page section without actually reading it.)
For years I assumed the problem was that the New Adventures were just a bit too adult for an eleven-year-old. And there are ones that are - I was never going to appreciate Warhead at eleven. Or even the Paul Cornell books, though I did actually finish both Love and War and Timewyrm: Revelation (albeit with little clue what the hell was going on in either by the end). But returning to the books two decades later has forced me to admit that, actually, the problem really was me a lot of the time. White Darkness is a prime example - I had no idea at the time, but it’s actually an effective bit of relatively taut, economic prose in Terrance Dicks style.
Of course, there are other complexities. An American eleven-year-old is unlikely to have the worldview necessary to parse a novel that is in part about the relationship between Doctor Who and imperialism, and in another part about H.P. Lovecraft. Having never heard of either Lovecraft or imperialism at the time this was fairly clearly not going to be the book for me no matter how I paid attention.
Let’s start with the Lovecraft, since that’s the closest to some things we’ve been kicking around the blog for a while now. We’ve been talking for a week or so now about the transition in the 1990s towards a nonspecific and general paranoia and away from a paranoia of specifics. There are few writers more suited to this than Lovecraft. As I’ve stated before, the central premise of Lovecraft - the major horror he offers - is the prospect of an unknowable and unspeakable horror that underlies the world. (“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”) The Lovecraftian idea of horror, in which the universe itself is what is hostile as opposed to any definable object within it - is perfectly suited to the nineties. And though it is easy to confuse my own learning of the existence of Lovecraft in the 1990s with the general case of a nineties Lovecraft fad, the New Adventures, at least, suggest that there was an interest in Lovecraft.
There are two books where we’ll deal heavily with Lovecraft, and the other one is so dreadfully problematic that it largely eclipses this one. Because while McIntee gets a lot of credit for importing Lovecraft to Doctor Who, what’s striking about White Darkness is how understated he is about it. He never goes so far as to name the Great Old One in this book, allowing it to be a lurking and unmentionable horror. This isn’t Doctor Who/Lovecraft crossover fanfic, at least not in a conventional sense.
Indeed, there’s a larger issue in play with McIntee’s handling of Lovecraft, which is that the book is set in Haiti and is based on the local vodou religion, particularly the myth of zombi(e)s. Vodou, more often spelled voodoo in the popular culture spelling, where it tends to be an all-purpose synonym for black magic. But McIntee makes a real effort to take it seriously on its own terms, following particularly from the controversial work of Wade Davis, who offered a pharmacological explanation for Haitian zombie myths. This is all wrapped up in a historically-minded story about the 1915 military coup in Haiti and resultant US occupation of it.
There’s a significant statement involved in doing a Lovecraft-inspired story that takes Haitian history and culture seriously. On the one hand it’s exactly the sort of thing Lovecraft would do, in that his horror was largely obsessed with the prospect of obscure cults in “primitive” societies dedicated to the worship of terrible ancient gods. On the other hand, Lovecraft mostly did this because he was a completely racist dickbag. The idea of a Lovecraft story that actually treats a predominately black culture seriously and with respect is a very clever bit of work that involves turning Lovecraft’s approach against itself and actively repairing and redeeming the text.
But there’s a real extent to which this describes what White Darkness is doing more broadly for Doctor Who. It’s telling that the novel begins not just with the Doctor finally ditching that dreadful question mark pullover in favor of a new wardrobe, but with him finding the pendant given to him by Cameca way back in The Aztecs. The Aztecs is an interesting story to refer back to, generally speaking. On the one hand it’s sensible on a basic level - McIntee’s niche within the Virgin line was always as “the historical one,” and so of course the fanwank he goes for is going to be a historical. And since The Aztecs has the consensus reputation as the best historical, it’s an obvious reference.
But there’s more to it. Way back in the actual Hartnell era we talked about the fact that the series did two stories set in non-European cultures in its first season, followed by roughly zero in the seasons to follow (unless you want to credit The Crusade for Islamic culture, which I don’t but won’t fault you if you do). Past that the Doctor has been the white British man who goes places and solves their problems for them. When the show has made a swing at being somewhat less white and colonialist it’s been awkward at best, as in the at times cringe-inducing “a black character in every story” approach to Season Twenty-Five.
So by reaching back to The Aztecs McIntee is explicitly reaching for a road not taken within Doctor Who, in which the mandate to go anywhere in space and time actually includes things that aren’t based primarily on middle and upper class white British culture. This is something that was, originally, part of what Doctor Who was but that fell out of the concept.
But there was a general decay of Doctor Who’s broad potential over the first few seasons, and the nature of this decay is instructive here. Broadly speaking, what happened was that Doctor Who became more and more straightforwardly a science fiction program. In the early days there was science fiction, sure, but mutedly so. It’s more remarkable than anyone bothers to notice that it took Doctor Who seven stories to get around to one based around humanity’s future in space.
It’s fitting, in a bitter irony sort of way, that Doctor Who’s first attempt at humanity’s future in space came immediately after its last attempt at non-Western culture, simply because the two ideas were always so opposed in the first place. Because here’s the dirty little secret of our space adventure fantasies of the future: they were always just fantasies of imperialism. Our futures are always understood through the past, and with the early 20th century decline of empire we naturally projected that fantasy outwards, space being the only place in which a new terrain to conquer might be found. And so we created our space-age future, a future that was nothing more than a last, desperate stab at imperialism that came to a technologically determined nothing, dashed against the staggering and vast emptiness of space. The space helmet and the pith helmet are indistinguishable from each other.
But in all of its racism, the Lovecraftian tradition actually stands as an alternative to this. Lovecraft’s racism is distinct from that of colonialism, in that Lovecraft has no hope that nice white men can civilize the savage world. He views non-white races as monsters who will eventually bring humanity crashing back. He’s actually more racist than colonialism in this regard, but the point remains - his vision of a cosmic horror does not extend from imperialist fantasies. (It is here worth considering The Quatermass Experiment, which posits a fundamentally Lovecraftian universe, with exploration of the stars linked to becoming a deadly fungus monster.)
In its earliest moments Doctor Who was at least partially a counter to the space age fantasy, but over time this resistance steadily eroded until by season five the Doctor was embroiled almost exclusively in stories with the plot of “the other is attacking our colony,” and by the mid-Pertwee era the Doctor had become a science vicar dispensing his wisdom to the less civilized races of the universe. Until the 1990s, when the space age fantasy had finally crumpled, the end of the Cold War, for which the space race was always a thinly veiled proxy, serving as the final nail in the coffin of its lengthy abandonment.
And so in the wake of the space age fantasy’s derailment McIntee engineers a return to Lovecraft’s hostile universe. But not the racist Lovecraft whose contrast with colonialism is his despair at the possibility of it. Instead McIntee offers a vision of a Lovecraftian universe bubbling in the erased cultures of colonialism, such that what was erased by our imperialist fantasies creeps back. This vision is maintained even to the details of McIntee’s take on Lovecraftian beasties in Doctor Who, positioning them as remnants of the past universe, literally erased and overwritten by our world.
This is the overriding image of the 1990s. The lurking horror of something that is erased. The other shoe waiting to drop. A peace time borne not out of any victory, lacking any stability, bounded menacingly by a leering trail of zeroes glaring eschatologically in the distance. The nineties are a soap bubble of calm always in the midst of bursting.
In this regard Doctor Who in its novel phase is a better metaphor than I could have realized at the time. A discarded relic of the past in which unusual power turns out to lurk. The image of McIntee’s book torn and shoved in my desk is almost too potent even without the associated traumas and anxieties. This is what a childhood of the nineties is - a looming unease. The realization of deep and primal structures of fear and helplessness go well in the nineties. Alan Moore, in The Birth Caul, describes his own childhood bullying as an acquisition of some foreign tongue imposed upon him, repeating that “I learned the words.” This is something oddly different, a learned unspeakability. The horror not of the social structure, but of its shocking absence. The fact that your books can be destroyed, in the very school where they tell you that reading is important, and nobody will care. That there are mean and nasty things in the world that will hurt you for the sake of it, and nobody will ever stop them.
And yet I’m loathe to give up this bit of angst. Of course I am. We enjoy our symptoms. It’s one of the most basic facts of maladaption - the way we revel in our own inadequacies. I don’t want to give up my anger and frustration and confusion. I don’t want to give up the shame of crying over it, or my guilt over my own hysteria. I don’t want it to get better.
This is the other part of the nineties. The strange fusion of the antihero and the nonspecific darkness. Knowing that we were all surely fucked eventually was in an odd sense liberating. Once one accepts that one lives in a capricious universe one is oddly free to go about one’s business. The New Adventures have an anger to them that Doctor Who hadn’t had in the past. This is part of why something like Lucifer Rising had so much trouble just letting go and enjoying being Doctor Who. Because there’s a curious little death drive in this. It’s fun to be the cancelled show. It’s liberating to be at the bottom.
And on the one hand White Darkness points towards that, finding a giddy pleasure of discovery in the abandoned structures of the past. It’s fun to locate Cthulhu in the road not taken by Doctor Who in the 1960s. It’s clever. The fact remains that Doctor Who still, to this day, has a chronically unresolved issue with non-western cultures. The promise of Marco Polo and The Aztecs is still, nearly fifty years later, unrealized in the series and a scab worth picking at. McIntee’s iconoclastic vision is important.
But equally, White Darkness is aware of the trap it risks falling into. This pleasure in picking at the scabs of Doctor Who’s various injuries is a real one, and perhaps even a productive one, but it is ultimately destructive. The anger implicit in the discarded and decaying dreams of space age imperialism, or in the cancellation of your favorite show, or in the carefully nursed anger at a school full of bullies is pleasurable, sure. But it’s still destructive anger. White Darkness interrogates the character of New Ace, suggesting that she’s only good for killing now. It’s a sharp observation, but one that might as well be turned against its own structure. Is mining the discarded past and angrily nursing the countercultural grudge going to offer anything more than tonic to a cult audience? One who can take its solace without even, strictly speaking, reading the books? Is this any way to bring back a television show?
There was another bully with whom I was actually friends in sixth grade, and another New Adventure that goes with it. In the summer between it and seventh grade, however, there was a sleepover at his house that I attended. It went poorly - after intrigued looks at a stack of Playboys that another friend had smuggled to the sleepover it turned to a game of strip poker. This was past my eleven-year-old sensibilities - a bridge too far. I cowered in the other tent reading Theatre of War until I was told they were done. As eleven and twelve-year-old boys do, they opted to prank me, mooning me when I returned. I snapped, wanting to go home, causing the dissolution of that friendship. It turned into the worst bullying I ever received in my life, including, in late 1996, one of the earlier cases of cyberbullying around.
I got a message from him on Facebook a year or so ago, apologizing for what happened well over a decade ago. It meant the world to me. But I couldn’t bring myself to respond. I was at a loss for words, unable to conceive of what a world where I forgave him even looked like even as I did just that. I still haven’t written back. I still haven’t actually finished Theatre of War either. Sometimes we need our wounds more than we need atonement.
But I’ve finished White Darkness now. And it was good. For all its flaws, and indeed, because of its flaws. Because of its uncertain anger, its knowledge of what scab to pick but its lack of any clear knowledge of how to treat the underlying wound. Because of its desperate hope that just ripping off the bandage might be a form of healing. Because somehow, in spite of everything, this cynical surrender to the inevitability of a hazily defined breakdown is still a form of progress.
Blinded by what was, we march, stumbling every step, into the present.
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