He's Slipped in the Bilge Water (Sky Pirates!)

(4 comments)

I’ll Explain Later

Sky Pirates!, Dave Stone’s first New Adventure, is a novel in the comedic sci-fi style of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, albeit with a bit of a dark tinge. It’s not hugely popular. Lars Pearson calls it “a drug-induced work, perhaps best suited for trippy, skewed-view people.” Dave Owen is polite, but calls it “a bit of an ordeal.” Shannon Sullivan’s rankings have it languishing down at 47th pace, with a 60.9% rating. It’s worse than Iceberg. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.

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It’s July of 1995. Robson and Jerome are still at number one with “Unchained Melody/White Cliffs of Dover.” A week later The Outhere Brothers take over with “Boom Boom Boom.”  U2, Foo Fighters, Jamiroquai, Bobby Brown, Shaggy, Seal, and Method Man also chart. I have a bad feeling that I accidentally ran the July chart for Original Sin, since this is flagrantly the same chart. I’ll want to fix that for the book version. In news, John Major retains leadership of the Conservative party. Aung San Suu Kyi is freed from House Arrest in either Burma or Myanmar, depending on your taste. And there’s quite a bit of to-do over Iraqi disarmament.

While in dead trees, Sky Pirates! The obvious thing to note about Sky Pirates! is that Dave Stone is no Terry Pratchett. But who in their right minds would expect it to be? One of them is among the most successful writers in the United Kingdom, the other is writing for the New Adventures, and, as we previously discussed, there's a cap to the expectations one can reasonably have there.

This is, however, a problem for Sky Pirates! in a way that it isn't for, say, Original Sin. Because as we discussed on Monday, the comedic narrator is first and foremost a matter of style and craft. And doing a Terry Pratchett-style comedy novel when you're not a Terry Pratchett quality writer then the gulf is going to be more visible than if you're writing a pulpy action thriller, which is a genre where the difference between a very good writer and a pretty good writer is narrower. Comedy is terribly, terribly unforgiving.

And so, yes, Stone's novel has problems. Where the books he's emulating - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Discworld - weave comedy around social and political observations, Stone too often delivers lengthy lectures on sexual politics with a few jokes in them. It's a subtle difference, but a massive one. Stone is also prone to trying a bit too hard to create a distinctive narrative voice, falling back on gratuitous verbosity and the deeper recesses of the thesaurus in place of actual wit or content.

But that's the obvious thing to note. We strive for better here. And while I think even a positive reading (and I don't think the New Adventures require such extreme words as "redemption" for the most part) has to acknowledge the fact that the New Adventures simply aren't drawing top drawer writers on a regular basis, and it would be utterly unreasonable to expect otherwise. Much as we might want a Terry Pratchett-style Doctor Who novel that's actually by Terry Pratchett, that's pretty much just wishing for a pony.

Given this, there become two schools of thought about how to approach things. Let's take it as a given that someone was eventually going to do a "comedy sci-fi" Doctor Who novel in the Pratchett/Adams tradition for the Virgin line. Let's also take it as a given that this was going to be, at best, a par attempt at comedy sci-fi, and more likely sub-par. Why is it worth doing, then, if you're not going to do it well? The obvious answer is that, even if it is going to not be as rawly good as Pratchett or Adams themselves, the New Adventures are the only place that can do Doctor Who in that tradition. The question becomes what Doctor Who can bring to that tradition that nothing else can. The answer isn't raw quality of writing, but fine. It doesn't have to be. Other answers are available.

Certainly some of the books seem to have an answer that consists almost purely of "they can be Doctor Who." Which is a better explanation in the context of the New Adventures than it would be anywhere else. Much as we found fault with the "Doctor Who for Doctor Who's sake" approach embraced by Ian Levine and prevalent in the Saward era, the truth is that this is a different circumstance. Virgin Books isn't a public service broadcaster with an intrinsic obligation to provide content for the entirety of the nation. It's a for-profit company catering distinctly to a group of dedicated fans. And the viewpoint that doing comedy sci-fi Doctor Who just so that you can have the two cross paths is worthwhile is genuinely not unreasonable here.

It is, however, largely uninteresting, at least for the approach this blog takes. Not all of popular culture is worth a two-thousand word analytic essay. In the Saward era we had to put on a brave face and deal with things like Warriors of the Deep and The Arc of Infinity because, well, the perverse spectacle of these things being offered up to a mass audience in the sincere belief that they were of value to the general British public was fascinating in its own right. But very often the New Adventures serve up a measure of fannish comfort food. Original Sin is a good example - a perfectly fun book for people who like Doctor Who with neither ambition nor capacity to interest anyone else. These books are genuinely difficult to find much of an angle on: they're comfort food.

As we noted, though, this approach would be particularly bad for the comedy-sci-fi style that Sky Pirates! aspires towards. If the book were nothing more than a send-up of Doctor Who it would be unbearably poor, especially done as an actual entry in the New Adventures. Thankfully, however, takes a different approach. It is on the whole a less good novel than Original Sin, but it's wildly more interesting simply because its investment is in something other than doing "the Doctor Who version" of Terry Pratchett. Instead this book is about a very specific intersection of comedy and Doctor Who.

We talked on Monday about how Red Dwarf and Discworld both depend heavily on the conceit that their worlds actively work like genre-standard worlds. That is, not only are they genre-standard worlds, but savvy people within the world recognizes and understands how their world works, though generally without relating it overtly to genre tropes. This is not how Doctor Who usually works, or, at least, how it has usually worked up to this point. Yes, Doctor Who's world is obviously run on genre tropes, but it's not until Steven Moffat that people within the world start acting like it is, and even then it's mostly the Doctor who realizes it and tells everybody around him that, no, they don't live in a rationalist world, they live in a world of story logic.

Stone handles this relatively straightforwardly, creating a "pocket universe" in which events can unfold according to a strange and unfamiliar logic which is, in practice, a narrative logic (albeit one based on, occasionally, whimsical substitutions). The logic is, of course, not quite Doctor Who’s logic, but rather that of a zany comedy. So, for instance, at one point the characters are compelled to burst into an elaborate song and dance number about how they should all trust each other. Since the characters in Doctor Who are not normally overtly aware of the narrative logic that guides their lives, they are generally horrified or terrified by the inverted logic of the pocket universe. Benny, for instance, is deeply shaken by bursting into song.

But the pocket universe isn’t just a narrative conceit to explain why Doctor Who has become a comedy this month. It’s also used to draw an explicit contrast between the logic of a Terry Pratchett-style comedy and the logic of Doctor Who in the Virgin era. More specifically, it’s used to draw a contrast between the comedy and the fact that the Virgin Books Doctor is scary and powerful figure. And that’s a stark contrast. Stone doesn’t just do a comedy Doctor Who book. He doesn’t even do a comedy Doctor Who book that shows how scary the Doctor is by contrast. No, he does a book in which how scary the Doctor is perverts and twists comedy into something genuinely unsettling. And even though it doesn’t come off consistently, it’s still staggering.

Throughout the book the Doctor not only recognizes how the pocket universe works, he shows that he is particularly adept at understanding it and bending it to his purposes. Yes, to some extent this is simply a basic trait of the Doctor, who is always clever and able to understand the worlds where he is. But here, when so much effort is going into stressing how weird and unnerving the pocket universe is and how bewildered the other characters are by it, the Doctor’s casual and at times vaguely menacing understanding of it works well. Based as it is on Pratchett and Adams, the pocket universe works according to a logic of absurdist comedy, where the entire point is that nobody can possibly keep up with the ever-shifting rules. To have the Doctor be the one character who is comfortable in an absurdist comedy is ominous in a way that is at once deeply compatible with what the character has been in the Virgin line and utterly novel.

But Sky Pirates! goes considerably further than just having the Doctor be meta-aware of the absurdist comedy he’s stuck in. The reason why the pocket universe exists is because the last of the Charon, a race hunted to extinction by the Time Lords, resides there. The explanation of this establishes a compellingly new take on the Time Lords. The Time Lords, the Doctor explains, went on a lengthy crusade to completely eradicate all life forms that were incompatible with their existence. “Every life-form in the galaxy only exists because it exists in a galaxy where it is possible for the Time Lords to exist,” he says. And the Time Lords are, as a species, explicitly evolved to wipe out any stray survivors of these species.

This extermination, it is made clear, is no mere genocide. The Time Lords wiped these species out from ever existing in the first place, removing them outright from the history of the universe. This isn’t just the Time Lords doing some nasty stuff in the past, this is an assertion that the entire world of Doctor Who is specifically engineered around the actions and behaviors of the Time Lords. The Doctor included.

This becomes an alarming and intriguing commentary on the nature of the Doctor in the narrative. The hero of an action-adventure story always deforms the narrative partially around him, but this goes further, all the way to asserting that the Doctor is diegetically the teleological purpose of the universe. Yes, there’s a bit of hedging as he considers himself different from the Time Lords and thinks he would have opposed the genocides, but other characters are downright cutting on this point, insisting that he would have gone along with it. But regardless, the larger point is unambiguous: the Doctor, as a time Lord, is what the universe is built around. He himself is an underlying narrative principle.

And so when you put him in an absurdist comedy universe, he still ends up on top. Sort of. He admits, at least, that the pocket universe fills him with a sense of dread, and while he says he wants to overcome his biological imperative and not kill the Charon, ultimately he fails at this, not because of his biological imperative, but because the Charon longs for death to relieve itself of the burden of being the last of its kind. This, of course, carries odd resonances for the future, especially when one considers the similarities between this genocide of creatures with which the Time Lords cannot coexist and the Time War. If one wanted to build a lengthy continuity theory out of Sky Pirates! one easily could, with the implication being that the Doctor has known of or even been fighting in the Time War since at least his seventh incarnation, such that the Time Lord/Charon battle in their ancient past is simply one front of it. The existence of an unnamed other species they tried to exterminate who built “reality bombs” echoes uncannily with The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, after all.

All of this gestures at a larger order of things in which the Doctor is still ensnared. And this comports well with the reality of Doctor Who: the Doctor is the master of whatever genre he gets injected into, but there remains a larger order of things that he cannot break. The entire universe may be built for him, but this is still a constraint and there are patterns the Doctor must fulfill. But this too only makes him more alien and unnerving. Were he simply a god who effectively towered over creation then we could at least worship and adore him, all the moreso for his charm and ethical sense. But instead he is a man bound by systems that stretch beyond his own understanding, but oddly, instinctively familiar to the audience because they are, in the end, still narrative principles.

This is familiar ground these days, and while none of it comes off as well as it might have in the hands of better writers, it’s difficult to call this a fault. Sky Pirates! explores new territory for Doctor Who, and more to the point, it explores territory that is genuinely significant for the future of the show. The questions of exactly how the Doctor deforms the narratives he’s injected into, of what role the Doctor has in his own stories, and even some of the specific iconography of the Time Lords have, in the nearly twenty years since Sky Pirates! came out, become central parts of what the series is.

Comments

Adam Riggio 4 years, 3 months ago

I remember talking about it here when you first posted the provisional list of NAs you were going to cover, advocating for Sky Pirates!' inclusion. At the time, I thought of it as a road not taken for Doctor Who, because a Doctor who was so god-like in his secret powers would be so alienated from his companions that the personal relationships he develops from them (which have been such a great benefit to the new series) would be impossible.

Yet you uncover that important element that makes the Doctor frightening in the new series: his complicity, at least by association, with horrifying events and actions. The idea in Sky Pirates! that was inherited by the new series wasn't the alienation of the Doctor from his friends by means of his nature, but the alienation of the Doctor from himself because of his past.

A wonderful essay, as usual.

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Froborr 4 years, 3 months ago

Very interesting. I really need to read more New Adventures--I think Human Nature and Lungbarrow are the only ones I've read, unless I've forgotten one.

"Not all of popular culture is worth a two-thousand word analytic essay."

Bah and pish-tosh.

"This extermination, it is made clear, is no mere genocide. The Time Lords wiped these species out from ever existing in the first place, removing them outright from the history of the universe."

This sounds rather a bit like Asimov's Ends of Eternity. Or more accurately, like the weird allusions to it in the equally weird later Foundation books. If I don't have my dates completely screwed up, we're several years after Asimov's death, so direct influence is a possibility..?

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Daibhid C 4 years, 3 months ago

"Much as we might want a Terry Pratchett-style Doctor Who novel that's actually by Terry Pratchett, that's pretty much just wishing for a pony."

In 1995, this was certainly the case. Now that we live in a world where there's a Doctor Who novel by *Michael freaking Moorcock*, anything's possible...

"not only are they genre-standard worlds, but savvy people within the world recognizes and understands how their world works, though generally without relating it overtly to genre tropes"

Well, in Discworld they often do, at least in the Witches subseries, where Granny Weatherwax can always sense when "a story" is happening, and doesn't hold with it at all.

Talking of the Theory of Narrative Causality, the idea that the Doctor can identify what kind of story he's in, and adapt accordingly (technobabble explanation as to *why* he's in that kind of story aside) pretty much brings us back to the "refugee from the Land of Fiction" theory, doesn't it?

If I was going to make a criticism of Sky Pirates!, beyond the ones you've made, it'd be that Stone overplays his hand in the final minutes. He's *already* managed to make the Doctor a disturbing, inhuman figure. He doesn't need to add that the Doctor's humanform body is but a shell, and his real form is something that gives mystical viewers into the fourth dimension the screaming heebie-jeebies. If anything, the literalisation of the Doctor's inhumanness cheapens it slightly.

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encyclops 4 years, 3 months ago

I'm so glad I read this essay -- I almost didn't, because it's one of the many NAs I've never read and I didn't think it would gain me much to read about it. But this idea accounting for the Time Lords' dominance in and of the universe is absolutely fascinating. It would explain why they're so dead-set against interference and becoming involved; they've already made the universe into exactly what they want and need, and the last thing they want is for some renegade adventuring so-and-so to run around messing with their system preferences. And now I want to read this book.

You are selling me more and more on this "master of the Land of Fiction" thing -- not just making me believe it, but making me like it. Cheers!

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