4 years, 8 months ago
I’ll Explain Later
The Burning is the start of the six-book Earthbound arc, in which the Doctor spends a century hanging around Earth waiting for the TARDIS to finish regrowing itself and to meet Fitz. Its plot is thoroughly straightforward and simple: the Doctor stops a fire elemental from killing people in Victorian England. Although in practice things are a bit more complex than that. It was at the time terribly well-regarded: Lars Pearson called it “a striking, contemplative story of Victorian terror,” while Doctor Who Magazine deigned to give the Eighth Doctor Adventures a cover feature for it and said that it “confirms the vast improvement in the Eighth Doctor novels of late.” Still, it only makes it to thirtieth on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings.
It’s August of 2000. Craig David is at number one with “7 Days.” Robbie Williams unseats him a week later with “Rock DJ,” then comes Melanie C with “I Turn To You,” and finally Spiller with “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love).” Ronan Keeting, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Eminem, and Storm also chart. In news, riots break out on a council estate in Portsmouth as over a hundred people attack the home of someone named as a pedophile by News of the World. Dora the Explorer debuts. The Confederate submerine H.L. Hunley is raised to the surface, and four days later the Russian submarine Kursk sinks to balance the scales. And Reggie Kray is released from prison due to his expected death from bladder cancer. (He’ll die in October, just over a month later.)
While in books, The Burning: the big relaunch of the Eighth Doctor Adventures’ fabled new direction after the excesses of Lawrence Miles. Written by newly installed editor Justin Richards, it was a huge deal as a novel simply because, well, in the previous book the Eighth Doctor Adventures blew up everything they had been doing so far and most of what defined Doctor Who, and everyone was understandably curious where they were going with all of this, if somewhat less than enthused.
Given all of this, what is striking about The Burning is its traditionalism. The novel goes out of its way to include the standard elements of Doctor Who, including a military whose failure to trust the Doctor exacerbates the situation. The story is self-consciously the most traditional Doctor Who story imaginable. In many ways the real giveaway is the Victorian setting. There aren’t actually a lot of Doctor Who stories set in the Victorian era, but because Doctor Who has so many roots in Victorian imagery and concepts it feels iconic and proper to put the Doctor in a Victorian setting. So we have a Victorian setting, a pool of secondary characters who are steadily killed off, a military whose effectiveness is damaged by their failure to trust the Doctor enough - it’s basically “put the Hinchcliffe era in a blender, then cook at medium heat until a thick reduction forms. Serve over 240 pages.”
Which begs the question of why anyone bothered. I mean, there’s something genuinely startling and difficult to explain here. All of the effort of The Ancestor Cell was intended to lead to this? The point of the exercise was to create a radical break such that Doctor Who was no longer beholden to its past, and what we get for our trouble is the most traditionalist plot imaginable. Why break from the past if all you want to do is recreate it? It’s not as though every writer other than those touching the War arc weren’t churning out generic Doctor Who.
Underneath all of this traditionalism, however, is a fascination with the tone and texture of the novel. The Burning, if taken at a level of plot, is, as we noted, spectacularly pointless. It clears the deck only to set up the chairs exactly the way they had been. But what’s remarkable is the novel’s sense of tone. Not necessarily its prose style, which is functional, but its narrative style. The Doctor is a black box within the story - we get nothing of his thoughts, and only watch him through the eyes of characters who do not understand him. Since we also don’t understand him at the moment, this is compelling. The story builds towards a decent surprise as the Doctor opts to let the villain drive, having decided that the villain cannot be redeemed, actively lets him die. Which is a generic twist, but it largely works here because it stems out of the degree to which we do not know this version of the Doctor or what he’s going to do.
Equally interesting is the book’s beginning, which repeatedly teases the reader with the possibility that the Doctor is arriving in the narrative before finally slipping him in the back door so that we don’t realize he’s there for several pages. On the one hand this reinforces the idea that the Doctor has power over the narrative. But more fundamentally, it makes the Doctor a source of mystery. And the entire novel is tuned to this purpose, with repeated discussions about the nature of free will that foreground the question of whether the Doctor, stripped of all of the trappings of his identity: the TARDIS, his knowledge of history, and his identity, will still be the Doctor.
So yes, the book is terribly traditional, but its purpose is a sort of modernist reinvention of the traditional tropes. It’s trying to show us a traditional Doctor Who story from an uncomfortable and uncertain position. And it largely succeeds and manages to be an interesting and engaging book. But there’s an obvious problem underlying this. The point of comparison that we’re obviously meant to go for is An Unearthly Child. Richards is trying to take Doctor Who back to a point where we didn’t know what it was, just like it originally did. Which follows. Even the decision to have the Doctor let Nepath die parallels An Unearthly Child and its skull-bashing incident rather neatly.
But let’s recall, briefly, how long Doctor Who actually stayed in that state. By the most generous of estimates the Doctor was a known and predictable character as of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which aired its first episode two days before the show’s first anniversary. In reality there’s reason to draw the line a bit earlier - The Sensorites, perhaps, where the Doctor for the first time opts to stay and help people for reasons other than wanting to get the TARDIS back. But let’s be generous: with a completely blank slate the show managed to make it a year before the basic mystery of who the Doctor was had faded and the audience defaulted to being able to predict what he would do in any given circumstance. Ten stories.
And that’s the best case, starting from scratch. The better point of comparison, when it comes to a traditional sort of story where we don’t quite know what the Doctor’s up to, is Power of the Daleks. That, after all, is the original “story immediately after a story throws everything we think we know about the Doctor out the window.” And how long from there to the Doctor being a galavanting hero who always wins? The Moonbase. Four stories. Heck, one later and it goes even worse: Spearhead from Space makes it to about episode three before the Doctor is a predictable hero figure. The expiration date for this sort of thing is not long.
Even if the writers were good enough to share Richards’s vision of a close focus on a mysterious Doctor, the approach would run out of steam simply due to the fact that after a thousand some-odd pages of close focus the character stops being mysterious. And that’s about four books. And in this case there’s a double expiration date because we know Fitz is going to be back in six books, which means that the reversion to predictability practically has a set date. And since you’ve got a Terrance Dicks book between now and then, and God bless Dicks, but he’s not going to write a mysterious and unknowable Doctor because that’s simply not what he does, you’re looking at a pretty short period of enjoying the returns of this approach. No matter how you cut it, however good the ideas Richards has here, they simply don’t have a heck of a lot of shelf life.
So we get one of those basic misunderstandings that crop up occasionally with serialized fiction. Richards has a neat idea for a story. Singular. A tone piece in which we see a traditional Doctor Who story but never quite trust it or the Doctor. It’s good and worth doing, but there’s no “and then” for it. Which is a problem when your lead-up is “so first we throw away virtually the entirety of Doctor Who’s past.” A tremendous amount of what Doctor Who is got jettisoned for an idea that only went one book out.
It’s not the first time. Indeed, it echoes the story Terrance Dicks likes to tell about The Silurians, whereby Malcolm Hulke complained that the earthbound setting of the Pertwee era only allowed for two types of stories: alien invasions and mad scientists. And Dicks shot back with the premise of The Silurians. Which, to be fair, if we believe this story (I don’t, really), good for Dicks. He did, in fact, come up with a third type of earthbound story, and it’s one of the best premises Doctor Who ever had. But in the rush to pat him on the back for that we should not forget that Season Seven otherwise consisted of two alien invasions and a mad scientist, at which point they brought in the Master to spice things up and still ended up quickly abandoning the earthbound format because, as it turned out, there were only three types of stories it allowed for: alien invasions, mad scientists, and The Silurians.
And we have the same problem here. Great, you’ve got the Doctor with no memory and trapped on Earth. What does that let you do? A story where we don’t trust the Doctor, a story where he adopts a daughter, and… exactly. To Richards’ credit, he doesn’t overstay the welcome on the “stuck on Earth” plot excessively, but go ahead. Come up with the compelling list of stories you can do with an amnesiac Doctor and no Gallifrey that you couldn’t do before.
And this is, in many ways, a systemic problem in the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Lance Parkin once drolly described the line as exciting in much the same way that being on an airplane with no pilot is exciting, and this is basically the same phenomenon. Seemingly nobody had actually managed to think more than a couple of books ahead, and nobody had managed to get everybody to agree on any sort of direction. Despite people making huge changes to the line and to the nature of Doctor Who. So you’ve got everybody making huge changes to Doctor Who and nobody bothering to make sure that these changes are good ideas for the future of Doctor Who. It’s a calamitous situation that shouldn’t hold together at all.
And yet the funny thing is, despite it all, Justin Richards arriving as editor had an immediate positive effect on the quality of the line. The dozen books after this contain four of the top ten. Yes, it also contains the some stinkers, but that’s an impressive record. For all that this moment in the books’ history is a smoldering train wreck in terms of “stuff that is a good idea for Doctor Who,” it manages to tell some really good Doctor Who stories. But those stories stand alone as terribly interesting moments in a line that’s clearly gone completely off the rails.
And that’s something that it’s important to stress about Doctor Who, and something that nobody since Rebecca Levene in the Virgin era has actually managed to understand about it (and nobody until Russell T Davies actually will). It’s a serialized narrative and a line. It’s not going for individual moments of genius, or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s going for consistent quality. Doctor Who hits “brain-meltingly brilliant” occasionally almost no matter what. There’s never been an era that managed to blow it at every outing. Even the Eric Saward era managed Kinda, Snakedance, Enlightenment, Caves of Androzani, and Vengeance on Varos. Taking care of hitting “quite fun” reliably is, as a result, generally more important. The brilliance usually takes care of itself.
And nobody with the BBC Books line was managing that. Editor after editor seems to have adopted the “herding cats” model in the hopes that the authors would sort it out amongst themselves, which they were never going to do on their own because, well, they’re writers and we just don’t work that way, dear reader. We shall only be herded with openly fascistic and brutal editorial action. If then, because we’re probably going to get huffy and talk about “vision” a lot. This is actually hard. But the model as it stands here is unworkable. It’s not that there aren’t interesting directions to take things, but everyone is setting up their own directions and assuming that other authors are going to want to follow them when, in fact, the other authors aren’t interested and want to come up with their own directions.
This is a common problem in shared universes, to be clear. The Eighth Doctor Adventures aren’t breaking new ground in mistakes here. It’s a frequent issue for writers to come up with big ideas that they’re interested in and to just assume everyone else will be as well. And what it needs is, to be less cheeky about it, an editor who is willing and able to pick an idea that everyone is reasonably interested in and to help teach them to work to the idea. It’s what a good editor does, it’s what a good show-runner does, and it’s what the Eighth Doctor Adventures needed to recover from the crippling stupidity of The Ancestor Cell.
Instead they got the last thing they needed: another clever writer with some good ideas.
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