3 years, 10 months ago
Thanks to everyone again on the Kickstarter
. This has... been humbling.
It is entirely possible that Sometime Never… contains the single dumbest retcon in all of Doctor Who. Given the competition for the title, this is no mean feat. But Justin Richards is up to the task, answering for all of the negative four people who were really interested in what the Doctor’s origins were in the new post-Time Lord universe. We’ll get to the particulars of this revelation in a few paragraphs and deal with the sort of awe-inspiringly pathetic flop that it makes when it arrives, but for now let’s take a step back and look at the score, as it were.
This is technically not a Time Can Be Rewritten post. Actually, we’ve been suspended oddly in limbo since The Creed of the Kromon in that regard, having done an extended jaunt through the Big Finish audios and their Eighth Doctor endgame and then wandered over to do the comics and some Pop Between Realities. So we’re still in the same month of The Creed of the Kromon. Why did we wait so long before circling back to the exact same month? Mainly because the finale of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which we’ll do on Monday, actually is a Time Can Be Rewritten, as it came out after Rose, and so I decided to anchor the tail end of the Eighth Doctor Adventures there. (Of course, we’ve still another full week of entries between The Gallifrey Chronicles and Rose, but that’s mainly me on a “form follows content” kick of wanting the wilderness years to end not with a bang but with a weirdly extended whimper.)
So this is very much the Eighth Doctor Adventures in the same position Zagreus was in - doing a big story about their own mythology that was designed when that mythology was still a credible contender for “proper Doctor Who” and then released into a world where all hope of legitimacy that it had was already gone. In this regard there’s almost nothing Sometime Never… could possibly have done that would have been adequate. There’s just no way to do a big revelatory story about the nature of the Eighth Doctor Adventures and have it matter anymore as of January 2004.
And so we should have some sympathy in reading Sometime Never…, as it’s a book that doesn’t have an era. This is always a problem with the wilderness years, given how much they were pre-empted by the new series, but as with Zagreus we here have a work that never enjoyed any time in which it wasn’t pre-empted by the future. There was never a period where its revelations could have worked, and thus discussing them is almost tragic.
On the other hand, even if there had been an era where the basic conceit of this book could have worked, it’s difficult to see how this particular iteration of that conceit could have. So, OK. Here’s the score. It turns out that all this time Sabbath has been an agent of the Council of Eight, who want to become Lords of Time and the like. And they plan to do this by, erm, oh, look, it doesn’t really matter. Suffice it to say that there’s a whole new villain created to wrap up the Sabbath plot, and they want to change all of history and become lords of time and do all that stuff villains do.
It’s not that any of this is bad. There are some lovely images and ideas in it: a flower of bone that hovers above Gallifrey, and a voodoo cult of paradox-worshiping Time Lords trying to corrupt the Doctor’s history. Wait, no, sorry, that’s the last time they did this. This time it’s a giant crystal skeleton scattered throughout the history of Earth and a cult of would-be Time Lords who are trying to corrupt the Doctor’s history. How ever did I get those confused? But sarcasm aside, much like Lawrence Miles’s books, Sometime Never… works and is full of bold and compelling ideas. And yet…
So, the book ends with Soul, the “renegade” member of the Council of Eight who questions why the Council doesn’t interfere with history and says they should be more proactive running off with Miranda’s (from Father Time) daughter, Zezanne, in Sabbath’s ship, the Jonah. But there’s an explosion, and they crash, amnesiac, in 1960s London, where the Jonah takes the shape of a Police Box. Soul believes himself to be the Doctor, and Zezanne thinks she’s his granddaughter, and so…
On one level it’s difficult to imagine how anyone thought this could have worked. Redoing the basic premise of the series so that a one-off villain from the novels replaces the Time Lords as the origin of the Doctor is never going to fly. It doesn’t matter how neat an idea it is. You can’t replace huge and iconic elements of Doctor Who’s mythology with random bits of novel lore. The weight of the thing being replaced is just so much larger than the thing that’s being used to replace it that it cannot ever work.
And this gets at something important about Doctor Who’s continuity. Doctor Who, as we’ve noted, was actually very big in British culture. Twenty-two percent of the country watched The Deadly Assassin and saw the fundamental tenets of Gallifrey established. The fact that the Doctor is a Time Lord from Gallifrey is an almost completely culturally immutable idea. I mean, let’s go full chaos magick here. The basic consensus reality that the Doctor is a Time Lord from Gallifrey is sufficiently large that there’s just not a way to defy it without some serious effort. Never mind that it’s a work of fiction. If you try to write Doctor Who where the Doctor is not a Time Lord from Gallifrey then consensus reality is going to say no just as easily as if you try to levitate Westminster Abbey.
And that’s the thing about Doctor Who continuity. It’s not just a textual matter that belongs to Doctor Who fans. It’s not a dense body of stuff. It’s a very small body of stuff that’s permeated out into the larger culture. There’s also the textual matter of Doctor Who continuity, but it pales in importance to the stuff that large swaths of the British public know. And Doctor Who’s status as a cultural text outweighs its cult sci-fi continuity by miles. In some ways this is emblematic of the wilderness years, but in a deeply ironic way: they’re so far away from engaging with British culture that they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that they can muck with the nature of what Doctor Who is.
In this regard it’s comparable to Tat Wood snarking about where canon ends, and suggesting that given how few people watched Battlefield one might want to draw the line somewhere back in the Peter Davison era. And he has a point - as a cultural institution Doctor Who basically stopped mattering in 1983, with its last Radio Times cover. The Doctor Who I had as a child - bibs and bobs of Pertwee through Davison, some books that told me about Hartnell and Troughton, and some awareness that it all went terribly wrong with Colin Baker - is, actually, basically the British public’s Doctor Who up until 1996, at which point “that awful Paul McGann movie” got tacked on to the end of it. (This also succinctly explains why the half human thing flopped: even at nine million people there’s just no way to overturn something as fundamental as “Time Lord from Gallifrey.”)
So the idea that a spin-off novel could ever change the Doctor’s origins forever is ludicrous. Sure, it could play “Gallifrey has been destroyed” for a few years, but only because absolutely every fan in the world could come up with a half-dozen stories to restore Gallifrey. But to attempt to write a new origin for Doctor Who? No. Nobody could have believed it even before the series’ unexpected Welshification. And once it got put in front of the onrushing Russell T Davies train it was all over.
Of course, Sometime Never… was stuck with something of an unfair problem there. It was not supposed to be about the Council of Eight being behind everything. It was supposed to be the Daleks, and then this got vetoed by our old friends at the Terry Nation estate. Which has the ironic effect of putting Sometime Never… right adjacent to the very storyline that trumped it and that did, if not provide a new origin for the Doctor, at least significantly augment it with something as fundamental as Totter’s Lane to the ongoing mythology of the series.
Back on Monday there was a discussion in comments about the inevitability of the Daleks as the final Enemy of the Time War(s). And there was much discussion over the symbolic importance of them. And we’ll do this as we actually get into the new series’ Dalek stories. But let’s back up to an even more fundamental point - if not the Daleks, then who? We know from the moment in the buildup to the new series where it looked like the BBC would actually fail to get the rights to the Daleks what plan B was: the Toclafarne.
It’s interesting here that Plan B was not the Cybermen, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Great Intelligence, the Ice Warriors, the Zygons, or any of the other monsters that the series has brought back over the years. The conceptual space for “the monster that can completely destroy the Time Lords” is a vanishingly small one, and really, once you’ve made it past the Daleks there isn’t anything else you can really do. And both Davies and Richards seem to have gotten that intuitively. Neither of them tried the almost certainly ill-advised “let’s just use the Cybermen instead” approach, and realized that if you can’t do the Daleks you need to create something else.
Maybe Davies and Shearman would have handled the Toclafarne draft well - it’s possible that given an episode of setup in the style of Dalek they could have immediately become legendary monsters. (Note how easily Davies worked the Weeping Angels into the legends of Gallifrey, for instance, on the back of Blink alone) And maybe Sometime Never…’s only real sin is that it didn’t handle the switch to a different sort of ultimate enemy well. Or maybe it really is something where only the Daleks could ever have worked. We don’t now so much as we know that only the Daleks ever have worked.
And there’s an obvious reason for this: the Daleks are, in many ways, as big an image as Doctor Who itself. From the start the Daleks have been deforming Doctor Who’s premise, pulling the series, which was originally about exploration in strange new worlds, towards the “bug-eyed monsters” premise it was explicitly not supposed to be. They are, of course, the practical reason the series survived and was a hit, and so are inseparable from the premise in a cultural sense. There may be other quasi-famous monsters, but there are only one set of monsters that are as culturally potent as the series itself, and so there’s only one set of monsters that can hold up the cultural task of redefining it. Getting the metaphors to work is secondary. The metaphors are easy - the wilderness years showed that time and time again with scads of metaphors that just about worked.
Shall we all open our hymnals and read together? “The secret of alchemy is material social progress.” And so how did anyone expect that their manipulations of symbols, however clever, could do anything without the material social? Without Doctor Who as a mass cultural phenomenon. That has always been the pitch it’s played upon: British culture as a whole. And even though said culture largely ignored the wilderness years, it remained the adjudicator of what Doctor Who was. The excesses of the wilderness years were inevitably reined in, not because nobody was watching and thus nobody cared, but because Doctor Who was so much larger than anyone in the wilderness years came close to grasping.
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