4 years, 10 months ago
I’ll Explain Later
We have skipped both Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark and Nightshade. The former wraps up the Cat’s Cradle trilogy by having the Doctor acquire some needed “organic material” from a story that is otherwise about getting fairies and unicorns into Doctor Who. The latter is Mark Gatiss’s debut novel, and is quite well-regarded, but the consensus was that I could skip it and so I did. For those keeping track at home, we are now at two writers who made writing debuts in the New Adventures range and who then went on to write for the television series. Next Friday Gareth Roberts will make it three.
Love and War is the ninth New Adventure, and the first by a returning author, namely Paul Cornell. It features the temporary departure of Ace, as she storms out of the TARDIS, enraged at the Doctor for deliberately sacrificing the life of her lover to stop the bad guys (the Hoothi, a race of manipulative fungus). It also features the debut of Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, the New Adventures’ signature companion. It is phenomenally well-regarded, coming in as the ninth-best New Adventure on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, with a rating of 79.4%. I, Who calls it “a paradigm shift” that is “another triumph for author Paul Cornell.” Reviews at the time were similarly enthusiastic, with Garry Russell proclaiming it “probably the most mature and intelligent o the run so far.” It is sufficiently beloved that Big Finish are adapting it into an audio play in October, the first time that a novel has been adapted to audio without also being changed to remove the Doctor. DWRG summary
. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry
It’s October of 1992. The Shamen are at number one with “Ebeneezer Goode,” lasting two weeks before Tasmin Archer unseats them with “Sleeping Satellite.” Two weeks later Boyz II Men take number one with “End of the Road.” Lionel Richie, Prince, and Bob Marley and the Wailers also chart, along with Madonna's “Erotica.” In albums, R.E.M. do quite well for themselves with Automatic for the People, and rightly so. A fun fact - the two highest-charting R.E.M. singles in the UK are the utterly uninteresting “The Great Beyond” and the brilliant but unheralded “E-Bow the Letter,” both from well after their commercial peak in the US.
Since Warhead, Lindy Chamberlain is finally acquitted for murder on the grounds that dingoes did, in fact, eat her baby. This is actually mildly relevant to Doctor Who, as four years earlier a film of this case, Evil Angels, was produced by Verity Lambert’s film company Cinema Verity. Yitzhak Rabin became Prime Minister of Israel. Hurricane Andrew thrashed Florida, and Black Wednesday took place as the UK was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which is about it for the Tory government, which had the fortune of having just won an election and thus getting to hang on for five years despite nobody liking them anymore.
While in October… erm… you’ve got the Sinéad O’Connor pope photo ripping thing. The Pope also admits that the whole Galileo thing had gone poorly. Oh, and Yoshihiro Hattori getting shot and killed for knocking on the wrong door in Louisana, which is the sort of thing that happens there. His killer is acquitted after claiming he thought Hattori, who was dressed in a tuxedo and rang the doorbell, was trying to rob the house, which is also the sort of thing that happens there.
On to literature, and Paul Cornell’s Love and War. As I’ve already noted, this book is widely beloved, and rightly so. It’s an outright triumph. I Who makes much of its supposed paradigm shift, but I want to resist that at least partially. First of all, it’s largely less radical than Timewyrm: Revelation. It does a lot, and is a better book, but it’s not the massive alteration to the conception of the Doctor and to how Doctor Who works that Cornell’s first book was.
Rather, Love and War serves to take a certain approach to Doctor Who to its limit. And in some ways it’s impressive how early in the books this happens. The New Adventures are famed for their use of an ultra-manipulative Doctor, but if we’re being honest, this is it. This is as far as the “the Doctor is a manipulative bastard” concept can go. No matter what you do, you’re never going to substantively top the Doctor consciously and deliberately sacrificing Ace’s lover. There’s never going to be a moment in terms of the Doctor’s manipulations as crushing and horrifying as the Doctor gently touching Ace’s cheek and reassuring her that she won’t have to choose between Jan and him, knowing full well that she’ll misunderstand his promise. That’s as extreme as that approach can go. That’s not to say that the manipulative Doctor well dries up here - it doesn’t. But this marks the moment where we see how deep that rabbit hole extends.
Indeed, for all that Love and War is seen as a definitive moment in Virgin’s developing of the series, it is in many more ways a careful policing of the boundaries. Its point is very often to say “this is as far as Doctor Who can go while remaining Doctor Who.” It’s difficult to overstate how important this was to the line - indeed, it’s every bit as important as the radical opening up of the series offered by Timewyrm: Revelation. Unbound by the pressures of a broad and general audience and the restrictions of television, it would be possible and indeed easy for the New Adventures to spiral off into something that’s not really recognizable as Doctor Who anymore. Indeed, this is in many ways exactly what happens to the BBC’s Eighth Doctor Adventures line. Too far down the manipulative Doctor road and you start to lose what makes the Doctor the Doctor - a point Cornell already raised in the implicit relationship between the Fifth and Seventh Doctors in Timewyrm: Revelation.
The most basic tool Love and War uses to accomplish this is to be unapologetically inspired by Sandman. Much of the New Adventures’ approach and aesthetic is borrowed from Sandman, but this is in many ways the most blatant. It’s not just the continuing anthropomorphizing of Death and Time, though those are fairly obvious references. It’s things like Cornell’s use of “Puterspace,” which is on the one hand another instance of the cyberpunk influence on Doctor Who. But its actual mechanics are miles from cyberpunk. Puterspace is nothing so much as a version of Gaiman’s Dreaming, where one wanders about and meets gods. It’s a purely religious concept, connected to science fiction through the standard trappings of neck ports, but unquestionably and undoubtedly working according to a logic of modern fantasy.
This allows Love and War to frame itself in a Gaimanesque way, taking place within the iconography of the series, but in a way that treats it as iconography, not as a material history. The villains, the Hoothi, come from an off-hand line in The Brain of Morbius. (“No ship can approach Karn without detection. Even the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi are felt in our bones while still a million miles distant.”) This is revealing. It’s important, for a book such as this, to have a villain that comes from the series’ past, but this is not a villain that gestures at a network of facts and plot points. Prior to Love and War all the Hoothi consisted of was a three-word phrase, “silent gas dirigibles,” that is on the one hand evocative and on the other hand just another Robert Holmes fart joke. It’s just a bit of textual driftwood from the series' past.
More substantively referenced is Terrance Dicks’s old and hoary maxim that the Doctor is “never cruel or cowardly,” originally, so far as I can tell, from the 1972 Making of Doctor Who book, but more broadly one of the general and standard descriptions of the Doctor. After everything has happened, the Doctor finds a note to himself on the TARDIS console, using the exact phrase, which prompts a conversation with Benny about it and his nature (including a bit that is a fairly straightforward antecedent of the “I had to give them a choice” bit of The Poison Sky in which the Doctor says that he had to confront the Hoothi personally before he destroyed them). Obviously we have a metafictional moment here, as the phrase comes not from within Doctor Who but from its paratext. But more crucially, it frames the story as doing exactly the Sandman thing. It’s already an effective story structurally - the Doctor betrays Ace to save billions of lives. That’s already a damn good hook. But Cornell takes it further, making it a story about how the Doctor who does that does or doesn’t fit in with the existing rules of the story. It’s not just a story about the Doctor betraying Ace, it’s a story about whether the Doctor can do that and still remain the Doctor and within the realm of what constitutes a Doctor Who story.
The larger brilliance of the book comes from its handling of Ace. On the one hand, the book’s premise requires that Ace be “mature,” by which I really just mean she has sex. Cornell wisely decides against writing an “Ace loses her virginity” story, establishing that she had some meaningless flings back on Iceworld, and keeping the book from having an unpleasant anti-sex undertone. But it also gets at a fundamental complexity of Ace’s character. On the one hand, she is designed to be an urban teenager. On the other, she’s always been a children’s television character as opposed to a socially realist portrayal of working class youth in late-80s Britain. This was never a flaw in the series, and it’s not a flaw here, but there is a tension that has to be worked with. By backdating Ace’s sexuality to Dragonfire Cornell buys himself something important - the ability to make Ace sexually active without abandoning her children’s television nature.
After all, nobody who has met a sixteen-year-old girl is going to seriously believe that if you randomly swept her across the universe and deposited her on an alien world populated by various lowlifes and con artists that she is not going to have sex with some of them. Whether one wants to make that explicit or not is one thing, and for obvious reasons the TV series didn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. But let’s be clear - the series never asked the question of whether Ace was sexually active. It certainly didn’t ever say she wasn’t. And Cornell is wise to realize that opening the door to that in Ace’s present really ought to come with a consideration of her past.
But this also means that Ace has been sexually active even in the various stories we’ve seen her as a children’s television heroine in. And this allows Cornell the clever trick of having Ace continue to act and think like a child even as she’s sexually active. Cornell continues to be deft about portraying Ace’s interiority, and makes it clear that she’s immature and foolish in her relationship with Jan. To quote one conversation between Ace and Benny, “‘Typical,’ Ace nodded. ‘But me and Jan are gonna be okay. We’re different.’ ‘That’s what they all say.’ Ace shook her head. She didn’t want to hear that.” She consistently reads as a children’s television character in over her head, being flooded with emotions and circumstances she’s simply not made to handle.
This sets up another brilliant trick for Cornell: he takes the immaturity of Ace’s relationship with Jan and applies it equally to her relationship with the Doctor. She’s no more mature in how she considers him than she is in how she considers Jan, treating their relationship as a big, mythic thing that works not according to any interpersonal logic but according to narrative logic. At one point, she declares that “if he’s fighting something he can’t handle, if he’s surrounded by enemies, then I have to be there. Always. That’s the deal.” What Cornell is doing, broadly speaking, is pushing this logic to its breaking point. Ace and the Doctor have a fairy tale relationship, and Cornell is putting that relationship in a situation seemingly too dark and too fraught for it to function.
Which would all be painfully deconstructive and nihilistic, except that Cornell finds an escape hatch. He pushes the fairy tale logic of the Doctor and Ace to its absolute limit, but not past it. In the end, the story does reaffirm the essential goodness of the Doctor. It sides with the Doctor. But it does so from a position other than straightforward, childlike adoration. The key comes in what is probably the novel’s most enduring contribution to Doctor Who’s larger mythos, and a spectacular execution of the Gaimanesque “tell-don’t-show” trick, the Doctor’s boast that he’s “what monsters have nightmares about!”
Let’s pause and look at this line for a moment, as it’s central to what Cornell is doing. On the one hand, it is obviously a triumphant line. But on the other, there is something unnerving about it. It frames the Doctor as something terrifying, albeit a terror in the sense of the sublime. On the one hand the Doctor is a force that protects children and saves the day. But equally, he does it by being even scarier than the monsters. This is also what the revelation of the Third Doctor’s agonizing death in the TARDIS of radiation sickness is about. Much like Ace’s sexuality, it makes sense in the context of the story, but is largely glossed over and unexplored, a terrifying detail hidden beneath our childhood memories.
All of the fairy tale love of the hero is preserved in this conception, but it’s accompanied by something else - a realization that the fairy-tale hero is absolutely terrifying. Similarly, consider the novel’s claim that the Doctor needs a companion for the same reason that Puff the Magic Dragon needs Little Jackie Paper to be brave. All well and good, but elided in this is the fact that the Doctor is a fucking dragon.
And this is the limit of the approach. You can push Doctor Who as far as you want so long as that essential connection to its fairy-tale nature remains. At the end of the day, the resonance of its first image still defines it - the TARDIS is a magic box and a portal out of the mundane world and into a fantastic one. This has always been scary; fear has always made companions of us all. And that tension between the terror and the splendor of what the Doctor represents is the thread that keeps the series functional as the Doctor is pushed to more and more extreme positions.
And so in that regard, unlike Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War is really a novel about showing where the approach breaks down. It pushes Doctor Who far enough that a single thread still grounds it to what it is, and then uses that thread to climb down from its own extremity. This is not the end of the idea of the manipulative Doctor who pushes ethical limits. It’s a sketch of the border, and there’s still much room to fill in. The book also makes one more key move that allows this sketching in to take place and have weight: it overthrows the status quo. Eighteen months into the New Adventures, Virgin has finally moved to where its stories are no longer dealing with the same TARDIS crew as Survival.
Even if the departure of Ace was announced as temporary at the time, the fact that she does leave and a new companion enters is a major statement of intent for Virgin. They’ve claimed something they didn’t really have before: the right to permanently change Doctor Who. They’ve built to it, most obviously in the revelations of Time’s Crucible, but this is the first time they’ve gone ahead and openly advanced Doctor Who into a new era. This is a big deal. Especially because it wasn’t necessary yet. We’re only nine books into the series. Shaking up the TARDIS crew is still brave, not a desperate attempt to freshen things up. It’s a dramatic claim that the New Adventures are Doctor Who now, not just an imitation of what was last going on when it was on television.
In short, Love and War represents a significant trade-off within the New Adventures. Cornell gives up the ability to push Doctor Who indefinitely in a conceptual sense in favor of being able to have genuine consequences for any and all of the characters. And in doing so the scope of the New Adventures becomes clear. This era has its concept installed, and can now begin the work of just being an era of Doctor Who. After eight books of trying to figure out what it means to continue Doctor Who in a series of novels, we’re now off to the races.
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