4 years, 7 months ago
We’ve skipped The Fall of Yquatine, Coldheart, The Space Age, and The Banquo Legacy. One’s got a giant worm, one’s rapey, one got credited with capturing the Eighth Doctor perfectly despite being adapted from a twenty-year-old TV script that didn’t even have him in it, and one’s West Side Story in space. The Ancestor Cell is the big one - the novel that wraps up all of the plot lines that have been running since Alien Bodies. In it Gallifrey is destroyed, the Doctor loses his memory, Romana turns very evil and dies, and Faction Paradox is thoroughly dealt with. As one might imagine given the adamance with which they hated this entire plot line, Doctor Who Magazine called it a “surprising success” and “essential.” Lars Pearson wrote the politest and most supportive review ever to compare a book to “surgery without any anesthetic.” And the fan consensus dumps it at fifty-fifth, with a 60.2% rating.
It’s July of 2000. Kylie Minogue is “Spinning Around” at number one, which is replaced a week later by Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.” That goes a week later to Corrs’s “Breathless,” then Ronan Keating’s “Life is a Rollercoaster,” and finally Five and Queen with “We Will Rock You.” S Club 7, Coldplay, Oasis, Limp Bizkit, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, and Savage Garden also chart.
Since The Shadows of Avalon the Playstation 2 came out, Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia, the whole Elián González thing wrapped up, the Tate Modern opened, India’s population reached one billion, and the Human Genome Project was finished. While during the month this book came out, France wins the European Championships in football. In shuffles of power, the delightfully oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party sees seventy-one years of power in Mexico come to an end, Bashar al-Assad takes over Syria, and Alex Salmond resigns as the head of the Scottish National Party. Big Brother premieres, and the News of the World pushes Sarah’s Law, the UK version of Megan’s Law, which would continually disclose the residences of all convicted sex offenders.
And in books we have The Ancestor Cell, a book that is almost universally recognized as a bit of a bad move, in the “invading Russia in winter” or “watching Timelash with your new girlfriend” sort of senses of that phrase. This is all completely true. This is not a good book on any level. Its prose is turgid, its plotting is awkward at best, and its ideas are bone-headed. It consistently insults the reader’s intelligence while cheerily driving its plot forward as an outright idiot plot. (I particularly love the moment where the Time Lords forget that putting a Klein Bottle in the time vortex flattens it and lets the contents escape, which on the one hand misunderstands a Klein Bottle and on the other hand assumes that Time Lords are prone to forgetting basic facts about how four-dimensional objects work.) It is an absolutely awful book. But the particulars of why it’s bad are almost immaterial. What’s more interesting is that this is the book that pays off nearly three years of plot threads and speculation by finally wrapping up the War arc introduced in Alien Bodies, which is still, I should remind you, the fourth-most popular Eighth Doctor Adventure ever. What’s interesting here, in other words, is not that it’s horribly stupid to have the Doctor destroy Gallifrey and promptly acquire amnesia, it’s that this is what they mustered as a response to all of the big ideas that the novel line had come up with thus far.
Yes, these are the same ideas I’ve been saying for a month could never work. But what’s striking about The Ancestor Cell is just how much they didn’t work. It’s one thing to blow the ending of a doomed arc. But The Ancestor Cell isn’t just bad. It’s a story like The Twin Dilemma, The Eight Doctors, and the TV Movie - a story that’s bad in such a way that it did long term damage to the series that required healing and repairs. That the War arc was going to end badly is in hindsight obvious. But even still, it’s not obvious that it had to end this badly.
In the broad case, beyond the fact that the book is terrible, there are two flavors of objections to be had here. The first is that Miles was uninvolved. This was due to a number of factors. For one thing, Miles wasn’t going to wrap up this arc, having flounced off and quit in a puff of Internet drama. (An impressive feat given that Miles, at the time, did not use the Internet.) His stated reason for this was his belief that he’d “lost his mandate,” which is to say, nobody really wanted the continuity to go in the direction he wanted it to go. By his later admission, this wasn’t true - he didn’t realize that he had a sizable fanbase that just wasn’t in charge of any of the magazines that posted reviews, but at the time he’d made a break from the novels. Beyond that, there’s no particular sign Miles was interested in paying off the War storyline now, or, you know, ever. The closest he’s come to talking about a plan was a Dalek novel to be called Valentine’s Day that dealt with the idea that the Eighth Doctor had become corrupted, and a proposed six-book cycle that dealt with the War from the perspective of alternate universes, from which he claims Cole nicked several of the ideas for The Ancestor Cell, particularly the idea of a giant bone artifact floating above Gallifrey. Neither of which were clear-cut endorsements of the idea of actually writing an ending for the War arc.
But equally, there’s a case to be made that this book was mad to even attempt without Lawrence Miles. Every one of the major ideas in this book, after all: sentient TARDISes, a future War, Faction Paradox - they’re all Lawrence Miles’s. To do a wrap-up of these ideas without Lawrence Miles seems fundamentally mad, especially because Miles was virtually the only one to deal with them substantively. Orman and Blum used Faction Paradox as a sort of embellishment in Unnatural History, there’s the skipped but apparently quite good The Taking of Planet Five, and obviously there’s the bit about Compassion in The Shadows of Avalon, but none of these come anywhere close to Alien Bodies or Interference in terms of how much of this mythology they set up. This is, at this point, firmly Lawrence Miles’s mythology, and it’s one that other people haven’t really touched. To take it away and give it to someone else just in time to conclude it is a fundamentally doomed endeavor.
“But wait,” I hear a commenter say, “didn’t you say on Wednesday that Miles needed to have the arc taken away from him to prevent the horrible rape of Compassion story he intended? You’re contradicting yourself!” Well, yes, I did say that, but it’s not a contradiction at all. Miles did need to not be in charge of the arc due to the bad direction he wanted it to go in. And, furthermore, the arc was impossible to resolve without Miles. But this isn’t a contradiction - it’s just a situation that ensures that the arc cannot possibly resolve well. Which, to be fair, I set up way back in Alien Bodies.
But none of this explains how shockingly bad The Ancestor Cell is. The crux of it, I think, is that there’s a fundamental mean-spiritedness to this book. This isn’t just the book that wraps up Lawrence Miles’s plotlines. It is, as he points out, a book whose sole purpose is nuking every trace of Miles’s influence from the line so that it could go in a new direction. It’s not just that the line loses Miles right before it gets to the conclusion of his arc, it’s that the arc concludes in a way that feels like a u-turn: a tacit admission that the whole thing had been a disastrous idea.
But if the arc was completely doomed - and it was - what’s so bad about that? I mean, the whole thing was a disastrous idea. Why is its abandonment such a searingly awful moment in the series’ history? The answer is something that’s been obscured by our particularly selective approach to the Eighth Doctor Adventures: because every other idea the line had was worse.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate, in that it suggests quite wrongly that the line actually had other ideas. In fact the bulk of what we’ve been skipping is some of the most generic Doctor Who imaginable. Going through the Virgin books exhaustively would have been a struggle, and I’d probably have had to abandon the two thousand word minimum I impose on my posts, but to do the Eighth Doctor Adventures exhaustively would have been the most mind-wrenching slog imaginable. I honestly don’t think it possible to get an interesting critical essay on every one of the books in this line, simply because they didn’t have anything to say. So as flawed as the War arc was, it was, if you wanted interesting and stimulating ideas in your Doctor Who, the only game in town. So whatever the flaws, seeing it completely sold up the river as a bad idea to be systematically nuked from the novel line is a depressing moment simply because it feels like an admission that the novel line is, upon careful reflection, completely opposed to the prospect of having any interesting ideas.
Of course, this book does have some interesting implications for the future of the series in that it’s the first work to officially destroy Gallifrey. As Lawrence Miles points out, of course, this was a staple of big epic fan fiction, which tended to nuke Gallifrey from existence as a sort of standard way of immediately becoming “epic.” Nevertheless, the destruction of Gallifrey in a big reality-breaking Time War is one of the cornerstones of the new series. Heck, the fact that the Eighth Doctor was in some fashion involved in a big reality-breaking Time War that destroyed Gallifrey is one of the cornerstones of the new series. And here we have a book where, well, I’m not typing it all out again.
Except that Russell T Davies goes out of his way to make it clear that this is not the same Time War at all. I mean, I suppose the nature of a reality-breaking Time War is that it can simultaneously be a war against a bunch of angry petri dish cultures mutated by an empty bottle of cheap chardonnay and a bunch of angry petri dish cultures mutated by Davros, but it’s nevertheless telling that the way that all of this plays out is that the Eighth Doctor Adventures end by bringing Gallifrey back so that Russell T Davies can destroy it in a different way and have the Doctor be endlessly guilty about that one instead of the first one. I mean, nobody writing the new series ever gives the Doctor a line where, after moping about his guilt at destroying his entire species, he mutters “again” or anything like that.
No, for all that the new series vaguely copies the outline of the Eighth Doctor Adventures in destroying Gallifrey and leaving the Doctor as the only one of his kind, the most notable thing about this book is how much it’s rejected. Much like the half human revelation of the TV Movie, this book manages the rare feat of anti-canon - so radioactive and universally considered a bad idea that it’s been actively rejected; people have gone out of their way to dig it up just to shoot it and make sure it’s dead.
And this is, of course, the third blow of this sort to happen in just over four years. And if War of the Daleks was the point where the idea of an official Doctor Who suffered a mortal wound, this is the point where it finally collapses under its own weight. There is, at this point, no way to even attempt to make a definitive statement as to what the proper continuation of Doctor Who was. Ever since the debut of the Big Finish line Doctor Who Magazine blatantly and publicly switched their allegiance over there. On the one hand, this was a decision that made at least some intuitive sense to people because, well, Big Finish had proper actors and was a performed medium, which was closer to what Doctor Who historically was. On the other, however, it came off as a huge swipe at the Eighth Doctor Adventures, since Big Finish came along almost in sync with Interference and a bizarre period in the reviews in which Vanessa Bishop essentially slagged off a year’s worth of novels on the grounds that she hated Interference.
The only problem was that Big Finish only had the 5th-7th Doctors. But that wasn’t as big a problem as it might have been, given the inherently contested status of Paul McGann. If anything Big Finish made itself even more appealing to traditionalists by being, in this regard, more old fashioned. But more to the point, even if you did want Paul McGann in the mix, just six months after The Ancestor Cell came out that’s exactly what Big Finish gave you with a run of four Eighth Doctor stories. So the moment where the Eighth Doctor Adventures make a spectacularly compelling case for just giving up coincided perfectly with the moment when Big Finish made a real bid to take over.
This created an interesting situation. My understanding, at least, is that the lowest-selling Eighth Doctor Adventure still solidly outsold Big Finish’s offerings (though the years since in which the Eighth Doctor Adventures have mostly been out of print while Big Finish can be downloaded easily may well have swung that). So while The Ancestor Cell marks the point where the Eighth Doctor Adventures lose their clear mandate as “the one Doctor Who line tracing the future of Doctor Who,” it manifestly doesn’t mark the point where that mantle transfers anywhere else.
Instead we get to something of a paradoxical point. The lens of history tells us that Doctor Who’s return is well provided for at this point. Although it was near invisible at the time, it’s clear that the momentum for return was in place. But equally, we’ve entered a point where Doctor Who’s coherence as a concept is, in fact, completely shattered. As of the start of 2001 there’s no clear thing that is the “official” Doctor Who. In a very real sense a continually serialized narrative that had run since 1963 came, at this point, to a shuddering halt. Or, more accurately, to a dispersal. Doctor Who, obviously, survived The Ancestor Cell. It’s just the idea that there’s a continually told story that got decimated.
In an odd sense, then, the Time War does in fact happen to Doctor Who at this juncture. Suddenly everything is in play - the entire post-1989 series has a massive question mark, everybody is picking and choosing the bits of Wilderness Doctor Who that they actually like and crafting rules to make those the canonical bits, and there’s no clear sense of what the state of play for Doctor Who is. And with several lines, most notably the Eighth Doctor Adventures, making rather massive changes like “oh we nuked Gallifrey so that it never existed in the first place,” it actually was necessary to discuss this. Suddenly anyone writing Doctor Who had to start with the metaphysics, squaring away exactly what they meant by Doctor Who in the first place. Even writers who wanted out of that and to just do “the TARDIS lands somewhere and an adventure happens” sorts of stories had to pick a team, which became increasingly hard as this period wore on and the Big Finish line made a weird turn into an idiosyncratic plotline that largely prevented doing untroubled, straightforward Doctor Who. And if you decided to jettison it all and go start over you had the same problem because you were just setting out another stall in an already too crowded field of visions of Doctor Who.
In hindsight this seems like a cathartic moment in which the last of the existing order of Doctor Who finally blew up and cleared the deck for Russell T Davies to bring the series back. But again, all of the processes there were already in place when The Ancestor Cell came out, and it’s difficult to argue seriously that The Ancestor Cell was needed. I suggest an alternate reading, if you will. Let us for a moment assume that Doctor Who works according to its own narrative principles - that, in other words, time can, in fact, be rewritten. After all, in an era in which Faction Paradox, Time Wars, and dramatic rewritings of Doctor Who’s own narrative history are the norm, why not treat The Ancestor Cell as exactly what it looks like in hindsight: a strange and early mirroring of the new series.
The effect of the Time War, after all, was to create a point of searing trauma in the Doctor’s own narrative from which he could be freshly defined. It’s a very soft reboot, but more importantly, it is a case of getting the Doctor’s narrative to coincide with the series’ narrative. Because the series experienced, from 1989 to 2005, an upheaval that required a clean break in reaction against it, the Doctor got one too. This was savvy on its own merits, as was the decision to pinch the destruction of Gallifrey, which, whatever flaws it may have had in the Eighth Doctor Adventures (and it had many, and we’ll discuss them over the next two and a half months), at least allowed the new series to opt out of all of the mythology of Gallifrey and the Doctor’s past (as well as the Hero’s Sodding Journey, although it obviously makes a different sort of appearance in the new series), all of which the Wilderness Years had rendered unusable. I am not convinced that there was no way to do a retooled Gallifrey in 1990. By 2000, however, so many people had screwed up trying it or fruitlessly contradicted one another that there was no longer a workable way to do Gallifey In a very real sense the Time War is exactly what the Wilderness Years were: a traumatic event in Doctor Who that necessitated the destruction of Gallifrey.
In which case The Ancestor Cell seems oddly useful in its shattering of the unity of Doctor Who. Not because the unity was something Davies was going to have to fight against: Davies would have been able to do the Time War stuff exactly the same even if the Eighth Doctor Adventures had conclusively kept the crown of “proper Doctor Who” in the early aughts. No, its use is because it literalizes the chaos of the period in the Doctor’s life. It made it, in other words, so that continuing with the Doctor reeling post-traumatically from a reality-breaking event was what continuing the series entailed in the first place. By shattering the unity of Doctor Who here, in 2000, and in a way that stemmed out of what the Time War is really a metaphor for, The Ancestor Cell provided for the reconsolidation of that unity in 2005. In a very real sense, the last survivor of the War isn’t the Eighth Doctor at all: it’s the Ninth.
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