4 years, 4 months ago
It’s January of 2004. Michael Andrews is at number one with “Mad World.” After two weeks Michelle takes over with “All This Time.” Black Eyed Peas, Victoria Beckham, Atomic Kitten, Kelis, Franz Ferdinand, and Scissor Sisters also chart. In news, Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity land and do not discover Ice Warriors. Tony Blair narrowly avoids defeat on a Higher Education bill. BBC Director General Greg Dyke, successor to John Birt, resigns in the fallout from the Hutton Report. And a whale explodes in Taiwan.
While in audios, The Creed of the Kromon. First off, Charley gets raped. Again. Which is, what, the third time, basically? Minuet in Hell, Neverland, and now this? Never mind her being the “in love” one. Apparently she’s the raped one. Goodie.
Of course, what we have here is a classic case of sci-fi rape, which is to say, rape that would not be possible without a sci-fi conceit of some sort. This causes an interesting problem for people, in that a lot of them are really good at pretending that sci-fi rape is not, and I use this term with the irony dial set to maximum, legitimate rape. For some reason if you rape someone with science fiction concepts it’s just a metaphor for rape, in much the same way that killing them with a phaser is just a metaphor for them being shot. Note that, by this bit of sarcasm, I do not mean that fictional characters who are shot by phasers are shot in real life. What I mean is that phasers are not treated as metaphorical violence within the narrative. Whereas with sci-fi rape there’s a bizarre and horrifying tendency for everyone to act like it wasn’t really rape, it was just a metaphor in a story.
So we have Charley drugged, impregnated, subjected to brainwashing, and put through intense physiological changes whereby she becomes a giant insect. These are the events of extreme fetish pornography. Actually, I suspect it would be less upsetting as extreme fetish pornography, as at least then one imagines everyone would be willing to admit to the fact that this is a story about rape. Instead we get a story that seems to think it’s just a fairly usual romp about people getting captured by aliens and rescued, albeit one with a bit of a social conscience about runaway capitalism. Charley remembers nothing of what would euphemistically be called her “ordeal” and accurately called her “extended rape,” and so everybody decides it’s basically OK and they go off adventuring again. Without telling her what happened.
What bothers me here - OK, well, where to start, but what bothers me most fundamentally here is the fact that this would not be handled this way if it were anything other than sci-fi rape. It’s only rape that gets the magic veil of metaphor whereby as long as it happens with imaginary things it doesn’t count. Which is typical, really. I mean, it’s just the same mildly sociopathic crap that infests the program in almost all of its really stupid moments since the 1980s. It’s the blinkered view of the predominantly male cult television fandom that was, if not responsible, at least standing conspicuously close to the tiller for almost everything that went wrong on the program. Of course they don’t notice sci-fi rape. And that’s clearly what it is. It’s not some conscious conspiracy to work more rape fantasies into Doctor Who. It’s that Doctor Who is being written and produced by people who never go “wait a moment, we seem to be writing a story in which Charley gets raped for the better part of two episodes and yet nobody in the story is terribly bothered by it.” That’s the appalling thing. That nobody even noticed.
But as appalling things go, it’s par for the course in the wilderness years. This is, after all, ultimately their major crime. And it’s an odd balance. On the one hand the point where Doctor Who became fully subcultural was fertile for it. The wilderness years, for all their faults, produced a ton of ideas that were very influential to Doctor Who. But this influence comes in hindsight. At the time they happened there was no clear sense that the destruction of Gallifrey and the idea of a Time War would be huge to Doctor Who’s future but that looms were going to be quietly ignored. Nothing that was present at the time for Lungbarrow and Alien Bodies - books that, remember, came out in the same year and only eight months apart - that indicated which of them would have more influence.
Yes, these ideas came up because the subcultural, arcane nature of Doctor Who was productive at generating ideas. But the same thing has been its undoing far too often as an excessive number of clever boys go running off in their own directions without listening to each other. The wilderness years were productive only because we came out of the wilderness and back into the larger society. One thing that has been striking in writing this period has been the degree to which the Pop Between Realities posts hardly ever impact the material produced in the Wilderness Years itself. So yes, we pop off into Coupling or Buffy or Jonathan Creek, but it’s not like by doing so we discover new things about the Doctor Who of the time. Rather, that’s been a matter of meticulously setting up May 1st so that the Rose entry isn't 30,000 words long and prefaced with a history of television over the past sixteen years.
But in terms of how it’s impacted Doctor Who? It hasn’t. Here we are in early 2004, nearly a year after Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended, and it’s nigh-impossible to think of any stories that have been significantly influenced by it. I mean, you’ve got a Spike cameo in City of the Dead, sure, but have there been any Doctor Who stories that take any clear motivation from Buffy? And can anyone imagine a set of circumstances where, if Doctor Who had been on television in 2000, it wouldn’t have hit on doing a story set in a school with creepy seemingly supernatural things going on? And yet we went the entire wilderness years without ever doing a Buffy riff.
This speaks volumes about the level of isolation that Doctor Who existed in during this period. It simply wasn’t plugged in meaningfully to the outside world at all. It’s the flip side of its subcultural nature. The energy of the margins is generative, but it is, in the end, also a prison. And Creed of the Kromon illustrates that all too well, finding itself so far removed from any human concern that it can do an hour straight of rape and not even notice that it’s doing it. We’re back to Moonbase 3 territory.
Actually, we’re really just back to 1985-86. Because Creed of the Kromon is the exact same story we’ve seen twice before - it’s a redo of Philip Martin’s other two Doctor Who stories. And yes, it has the usual Philip Martin theme of “faceless profit-hungry corporations are bad,” which is at least a mild social conscience, but it has all the same problems of crass sensationalism and rape culture that those stories did.
At the time we assumed most of these problems were just part of the general malaise of Doctor Who in the era, largely because in other regards Philip Martin was much cleverer and more subtle than anything else going on at the time. But in hindsight, perhaps being sandwiched between Attack of the Cybermen and The Mark of the Rani flattered Vengeance on Varos, and that we may have forgotten how faint the praise “it’s the best story in Trial of a Time Lord” actually is. Which is to say that the myriad of very fundamental problems we noted with those two stories are, shocker of shockers, actually related to the writer of them. Which shouldn’t be a huge surprise, given that Martin, in interviews, has always basically taken Saward’s side in the drama of the era. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad writer - Saward had good taste in writers when he picked favorites - but it does mean that he was always likely to share blind spost with Saward. And sure enough, he did.
But why blame him? In the twenty years since Vengeance on Varos he’d managed a few scattered episodes of television, but it’s not like he was some superstar writer brought in from the heavens by Big Finish. He was one of the two good writers in a largely awful era, and, more to the point, an era that was now twenty years past. And yet as the first “proper” story in the big Divergent Universe arc - the one where we get to actually see parts of the Divergent Universe instead of getting a high-theory overview of it - this is what they turn to: the series’ vainglory days. So what would they expect? They hired a writer of mid-80s Doctor Who. Presumably they were expecting just that - mid-80s Doctor Who.
But there’s something bizarre about the decision to do it. Especially in the content of the Divergent Universe arc. The point of the Divergent Universe arc is presumably innovation. At the very least the point is clearly a “no classic monsters” run. First of all, one wonders why this needed an elaborate plot arc to accomplish. Surely a “no classic monsters” arc could be accomplished by, say, not commissioning any stories featuring classic monsters. I mean, the idea that you need an excuse to not use a classic monster is almost as strange as, well, the idea that you need an excuse to do any sort of innovative storytelling.
But the Divergent Universe arc clearly has no point if all it’s going to do is “the return of Sil only we’re pretending he’s a different species.” I honestly have no idea about the origins of this script, but it would surprise exactly nobody to find out that the Kromon were, in an earlier draft, the Mentors. Which, again, is presumably what you want when you bring Philip Martin out of retirement. But why wed that to the Divergent Universe arc? They’re not just separate instincts, they’re instincts that actively work against each other.
But all of this ignores the degree to which it’s just strange to be doing this in the first place. I mean, how “let’s do it like they did when the show was so wretched it nearly got cancelled” becomes a sensible course of action in the first place is at least slightly obscure. The strange and perverse reasoning necessary to get to this point in the first place is striking, to say the least. It’s a bizarre case of leaning into the critique - of simply acknowledging that Doctor Who is a minor and basically culturally irrelevant has-been of a series with nothing it can do but mining its own past. So much so that it’s stuck mining the worst portions of its past by virtue of having run out of anything else to say. But implicit in it is the abandonment of all hope that the series could possibly be more than a crass nostalgia trip. So of course this is the story with a bunch of cynical rape in it. Because it’s the story that’s decided that it just doesn’t care.
But haunting it is another opportunity. After all, this is a story that’s making an overelaborate effort to be original. That it considers innovation to require special effort is telling, yes. If we wanted to be snarky we could suggest that Creed of the Kromon does everything possible to be innovative save for actually being at all creative or original. It’s as though Doctor Who wants to be more than it is, but no longer knows the way. Buried under the weight of its obscurity, chasing a diminishing audience with increasing desperation, it knows innovation is out there, but it can’t find a way of getting there.
And this is, in effect, why we can walk away at this point from Big Finish just like we did a few years earlier from the BBC Books line. I say this, of course, with the intention of looking at another three audios, but as something to follow story by story it’s just not sensible. This isn’t a line that’s doing anything important enough to follow. It had some good ideas. The whole wilderness years did. But it’s time for them to be over.
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