I Can Swim (The Stones of Venice)


It’s March of 2001. Atomic Kitten are “Whole Again” at the top of the charts. That lasts a week more before Shaggy takes over with “It Wasn’t Me.” That gives it up to Westlife’s “Uptown Girl,” which goes down to Hear’Say’s “Pure and Simple,” which lasts the rest of the month. Outkast, Melanie B, Nelly Furtado, Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera, the Gorillaz, and Manic Street Preachers also chart, the latter managing to take both the 8th and 9th slot in a single week.

In news, the Russian space station Mir crashes into the Pacific Ocean. It does not hit the target Taco Bell floated in the ocean, which meant that Taco Bell did not have to give out free tacos for a day. Notably, they did not float the banner anywhere near where Mir was expected to land. The Real IRA detonates a car bomb outside BBC Television Center. And Mac OS X is released.

While on CD racks, The Stones of Venice. This marks an odd milestone for McGann’s Doctor. The character, as we’ve previously discussed, had been developed considerably over the nearly five years since the TV Movie aired. This development, however, had taken place without McGann, since it was all in novels. And more to the point, whatever development McGann has put into the character since 1996, it’s not influenced at all by the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which McGann has surely never read. And while there’s a clear production fork between the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the Big Finish line, that fork was only sort of in the writers, in that each line had their own stable of primary writers. (Admittedly more of the Eighth Doctor Adventures’ “primary” writers crossed over to do Big Finish work than visa versa.) And this is one of the subtler but significant differences between the two lines: one of them had the Eighth Doctor as a literary creation inspired by maybe five minutes tops of McGann’s performance in the TV Movie, and the other had the Eighth Doctor as created by Paul McGann in a frenzied five-day stretch in which bits of the stories were recorded completely out of order.

On top of that, we have McGann not having been terribly thrilled with the part as he was forced into it for the TV Movie. In the twelve years since Storm Warning McGann has made his desire to reinvent the part clear, perhaps most notably in his active attempts to get a new costume created for his Doctor and his documented dislike both of the Victorian costume and the wig they put him in. So these two approaches had a really fundamental point of divergence. The Eighth Doctor Adventures frantically picked over the TV Movie for any hints of a usable Doctor and came up with the particularly romantic, free-spirited Doctor. McGann, meanwhile, was looking to break with the TV Movie and start over. The schism here is fundamental.

And with The Stones of Venice we have the moment where McGann first encounters a script written by one of the mainstays of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. And it was written with no real knowledge of what McGann would want to do with the part - indeed, this and The Sword of Orion were the two scripts given to McGann when recruiting him for Big Finish. To Magrs’s credit, he seems instinctively aware of the issue, and stops well short of writing the Doctor as the over the top adventurer of, say, The Scarlet Empress. Perhaps more to the point, Magrs goes without Iris Wildthyme, thus capping the extent to which he can go completely gonzo. (And it is worth noting that in both of his novels it is Iris, not the Doctor, who’s really the impetus for Magrs’s more over the top flourishes.) But this doesn’t erase the root problem, which is that Magrs has thus far been a champion of an Eighth Doctor that’s very different from what McGann wants to play.

The most telling is the sequence in which the Doctor, after exploring Churchwell’s gallery for a bit, realizes that he’s misplaced Charley. As written it’s clearly intended to be a scene playing off the novel-established trope of the Eighth Doctor being passionate and easily distracted. It’s the audio equivalent of the bit in Vampire Science where the Doctor leaves Sam at a political rally and comes back two years older. But McGann, playing it, seems not to quite know what to do with it. Largely this seems because the Doctor McGann wants to play is a bit snarky, whereas the Doctor Magrs is writing is excessively earnest. They don’t quite go together, highlighting the extent to which there are very much two versions of the character developing.

Elsewhere, however, McGann and Magrs seem thoroughly in sync. McGann audibly eats up the material in which he’s providing slightly snarky meta-commentary on events and his role in them, such as his banter with Churchwell where the Doctor tries to reassure him by saying that he does things like this all the time. But there’s still a tension simmering under it. Magrs, as ever, is writing with a camp, frockish sensibility. The Doctor is enthusiastic about getting locked up and escaping and mortal peril because these are the things he enjoys. He’s a man whose hobby is near death experiences. McGann, on the other hand, seems to want to play it with a bit of irony.

Both approaches are based on an interest in literary self-awareness and meta nods at the reader, but they come from very different places. Magrs envisions the Doctor as the sort of person who is perfectly suited to be the main character in a Doctor Who story. As such he’s aware of genre tropes, but, crucially, unaware of his own fictionality. (Again, we must say “hence Iris Wildthyme” here.) But McGann seems to want to play it with a little more self-awareness - something more akin to the bit in The Impossible Astronaut about Saturdays, which is itself a variation on the joke in the Buffy musical episode about how it must be Tuesday, since Dawn’s in trouble again.

This sort of postmodern self-awareness is often accused of being a “send up” of the program, although the particular terms of that are always a bit contested. But what we can see in the difference of approach between McGann and Magrs is that this is clearly not necessarily the case. Magrs’s approach is visibly not a send-up of Doctor Who. It’s self-aware, but that self-awareness is channelled into a sort of hyper-fidelity to the genre tropes. If anything it’s a demonstration that the storytelling can work even if you lampshade every trope in sight.

McGann’s comes closer to parody - it certainly does seem like McGann is having a bit of fun laughing at the tropes of Doctor Who instead of earnestly playing along with them. But then again, he signed up for the audios on the basis of this script and The Sword of Orion, the latter being an intensely earnest and straightforward script. And in interviews McGann plays up how much fun he finds the Big Finish stories. So there too the sense of parody is loving. This was, of course, one of the major inventions of the late 90s, as everything became ironic and self-aware.

But the influence of this persists today. Two paragraphs up I used the phrase “lampshade every trope,” a bit of vernacular owing a tremendous debt to TV Tropes. And while we’re not strictly speaking up to TV Tropes yet in the chronology of the world (it launched in 2004), we’re in the period where the logic of TV Tropes starts to take hold. Back in the Queer as Folk post I suggested that one of the central lessons of Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who was that ironic detachment was optional. But the early aughts also led to the counterpart of that: the fact that just because someone is obsessively over-analyzing something and dismantling it doesn’t make it any less fun or thorough an enjoyment.

In this regard, Magrs and McGann are, despite their obvious differences in approach, on the same page. Yes, Magrs revels in the same frockish Edwardian adventurer approach that McGann bristles at, but under that they have a fundamental point of alliance in their desire to combine meta-awareness with an untroubled embrace of the fun of Doctor Who.

As a result, The Stones of Venice ends up working quite well. Magrs turns in a script that is straightforwardly trying to have fun. Admittedly, at least if Lawrence Miles is to be believed, this is not what you’d call a well thought through script on Magrs’s part. Miles recounts Magrs telling him that this was a two-night job aided by a bottle of vodka. That said, it seems to have helped him. After two novels in which Magrs spends his time constructing narrative-form arguments about how Doctor Who should be magical realism, here he finally just lets go and writes some magical realism. It would be overstating the case to suggest that Magrs is better when he’s working fast, but it does impose a satisfying directness on him, forcing him to tell a story instead of telling us how a story should be told.

Combined with Big Finish’s “just get on with doing good Doctor Who” ethos this pays rapid and satisfying dividends. Like Storm Warning and its dealing with changing history, or The Sword of Orion and its handling of the Cybermen, there’s a lot of thought bubbling under the surface here. But as with both, the thought is into how to do stories like this, not into manifestos about how Doctor Who should be.

As a result, we get something that it’s difficult to honestly say we’ve seen much of in Doctor Who: a love story. It’s important to note how carefully Magrs gets to the point of doing a love story in Doctor Who, however. The structure of the adventure is, by its own admission, bog standard: characters early on who give portentious warnings and turn out to be significant in the final act, lots of chases and captures, some mad cultists, an ancient secret, an antagonist who has hidden in the shadows for ages, et cetera. The Doctor is mainly concerned with figuring out what sort of plot he’s in. But by the end it turns out that the answer is, in fact, that he’s in a love story.

It is not, to be clear, merely that there’s a romance here. Rather, it’s that the entire premise of the story is based around the interaction of two lovers. The destruction of Venice is entirely a product of a romance gone sour, and the way in which the Orsino and Estrella do or don’t reconcile is directly what the fate of the city revolves around. It is a love story in the same way that The Sword of Orion is a sixties-style Cybermen story. Its entire plot is based around exploring people in love and what they do.

It’s difficult to think of the last time this happened. Happy Endings had a romance as a central element, and it was well done, but the plot wasn’t structured around Jason and Benny as such. The television series certainly had romances, but did it ever have one where the nature of the couple was what the story hinged on? The closest equivalent I can think of after some brain-racking is Love and War, where the Ace/Jan relationship really is at the heart of everything the story is doing.

That Magrs can make this work comes directly from his decision to do Doctor Who as magical realism. It works because Magrs has opted for a system where the destruction of a city can be tied to a love affair, as opposed to a straight science fiction model where you’d need to come up with some explanation involving psychic energy. Or, really, some explanation at all. Magic realism doesn’t need to explain. It can just declare. And because we’re still familiar with the underlying logic it works. We get love affairs, and so if we’re told that the city works like one we basically understand it.

Again, there’s a real extent to which you can simply see the future of Doctor Who at work here. This is absolutely standard issue stuff for the new series, and listing the stories where the same trick is pulled is absolutely trivial. And it’s a distinct transition to where Doctor Who can be about emotional storytelling. The debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer is absolutely huge here. Magrs’s “the city works like a love story” trick is the same trick Buffy pulls every week with “the supernatural horror works like this bit of teen angst.” And, more to the point, it works in a large part because of the trope awareness. The fact that everyone can lampshade the love story means that it’s possible to explain the city in terms of it. Because the Doctor and Charley can look at the Orsino/Estrella romance and say “that’s an epic love story” they can introduce the concept of the epic love story into the story, and then point at it again to explain how the flooding of Venice works.

It would go too far to suggest that Magrs is the inspiration for this in the new series. After all, this approach is basically what Davies did in Damaged Goods with the mother/son relationship. But again, there’s the audible click of the framework of Doctor Who as we know it today snapping into place.


Commander Maxil 8 years ago

The Stones of Venice is the best of the mostly good (but rarely great) first season of McGann audios, and for me it is where McGann really starts to take ownership of the role. The tension described in the article above between the early conception of the Eight Doctor as a romantic hero and McGann’s performance as a more self-aware, snarky Doctor provides an enjoyable tension in these early stories. Over time Big Finish do figure out exactly what to do with the character (and for me the Eighth Doctor Audios produce some of the best Doctor Who of the last 50 years in any format) but its understandable that it took a few stories to iron out the kinks.

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Commander Maxil 8 years ago

I should probably also have said that IMO I think Paul Magrs does his best Doctor Who work on audio (I haven’t read any of his non-Who stuff). He has written some great plays for Big Finish, and his 4thd Doctor stuff for BBC audiobooks is great. I think that the strictures and discipline that writing a play imposes on him as opposed to a novel seem to focus his work in a good way. I found his Who novels quite hard to follow and didn’t enjoy them all that much (though it has been a long time since I read them, so I may get more out of them now), but I have liked pretty much all of his audio work (ha\rd to pick a favourite, but the Wormery is pretty awesome)

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jane 8 years ago

This was the first time in the Eighth's line that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Finally we're getting a story that's truly character based, with loads of humor and playfulness. Some of the tale is a bit obvious -- the class struggles and the Reveal come to mind -- but I'm willing to overlook such minor sins for a story I can really get into.

I also noticed this one employs code-words. There's this whole sequence about "frocks" that I found quite delightful! Reminded me of Timewyrm:Revelation, where Cornell uses "frocks" and "anoraks" to describe the story and the villainous boy-child, respectively. In other stories there's an abundance of "Who are you?" questions, and exhortations to "Open your eyes."

I like the literary references, invoking Twelfth Night and Room with a View for its thematic concerns, and the titular Ruskin essays serve as a nice metaphor for the architecture of the story. And I wonder how much this story serves as a literary reference for future Who stories, foreshadowing both the Doctor/Charley "romance" and the televised Vampires of Venice -- just, you know, fish people. In Venice.

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theonlyspiral 8 years ago

"This was the first time in the Eighth's line that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Finally we're getting a story that's truly character based, with loads of humor and playfulness. Some of the tale is a bit obvious -- the class struggles and the Reveal come to mind -- but I'm willing to overlook such minor sins for a story I can really get into."

You took the words right out of my mouth Jane. This story is fun. If you have to boil it down to a single word, what better one is there? It is at times a bit obvious but it plays into that. It celebrates it's twists and turns by broadcasting them and saying "Isn't this grand?"

As an aside, this is the one story of the first McGann series that stands up to the Eighth Doctor/Lucie stories for me. Charlie is great. She's passionate and feisty. But she's no Lucie "Bleeding" Miller.

Also Big Finish currently has the Downloads of the Eighth Doctor Range highly discounted. Anyone who enjoys McGann here will find them an absolute treat:


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Steven Clubb 8 years ago

Coming at Doctor Who largely backwards (new series, classic series, audio adventures, novels), I have to say I completely missed until now the key development of the audio adventures. To me, they were always the 80s/90s done right without any further thought as to why beyond a better focus on character.

Reading this, it occurs to me that Big Finish was a rather important step in the successful return of Doctor Who to TV, as they were the ones who sealed the rad/trad schism by treating the two as one and the same. As you keep saying, their mandate is to just get on telling good Doctor Who stories while keeping the actors interested and happy by mixing in a little experimentation with the familiar. This also seems to fit perfectly with adult fans, who crave the nostalgic thrills of their youth but in a slightly more adult form.

That last bit being a particularly difficult trick, which far too many creators following Alan Moore's lead in deconstructing the underlying tropes and upping the quotas of sex & violence, which in less capable hands ends up being far more adolescent than adult.

Big Finish wasn't beyond taking the odd stab at that kind of thing (I remember a scene from some audio where Peri is uncomfortably nude in front of someone else), but mostly they took a step back from more overtly adult material and showed just how well traditional Doctor Who still worked without throwing out all the lessons learned by the rads.

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Matt Michael 8 years ago

The word I use to describe McGann's Doctor (as opposed to the books' 8th Doctor) is sardonic, like John Lennon in space. A strong streak of righteous anger and idealism that frequently manifests as a kind of cynical detachment. I totally agree that this is unique to the BF play and not really present in the BBC Books (at least the ones written before Storm Warning. But notably it is there (albeit low in the mix) in the TVM when the Doctor is quite sarcastic towards Grace at moments.

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Nick Smale 8 years ago

If there's one thing that excites me about the fiftieth anniversary, it's the thought that we just might get another glimpse of the McGann Doctor on TV this November...

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