Sacred Fire, Sacred Flame (The Burning)


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.


Jack Graham 4 years ago

Maybe the ideas *were* interesting, but the prose and dialogue were so excrutiatingly dull and awkward as to make actually reading the thing unbearable. True of much SF actually.

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

I never read any EDAs beyond Interference; by the time I'd finished that, The Ancestor Cell had been published and what I hard about it convinced me that it and future arcs probably weren't worth my investment. But the idea of the Doctor trapped on Earth for a whole century (but a limited number of books) did sound appealing. It seemed to me you could do something very interesting with the Doctor interacting with historical persons and situations in a more drawn out and immersive way than the usual "turns up, meet famous person, solves case, leaves"; an interesting new approach to the challenge of The War Games, by giving it a more historical dimension. I always mean to read The Turing Test in particular, which seemed like it had potential in that area. I don't think you'd need the Doctor to have amnesia, though.

Regarding editors, according to his wikipedia page, Cole's hiring for the editorship seems to have come about largely due to hanging around the right office at the right time. Reading that, I couldn't help but be reminded of the problems of lack of experience you discussed in relation to Eric Saward in your Slipback post. Perhaps that's unfair, and I've no idea what Darvill Evans and Levene had done prior to the NAs, but Virgin really did seem better at finding the right people to steer the ship.

Richards is interesting for being, as far as I'm aware, the only Doctor Who novel editor to "rise through the ranks", earning the top job through writing many books rather than coming in from somewhere else and writing Who books later; in effect, more the Robert Holmes career trajectory. As I've not read any of the books from this time, I can't really comment on the results, but I remember thinking at the time he seemed like an odd choice; a reliable regular but his books didn't seem to stand out for many people. Still, I suppose with hindsight, most of the favourite authors had wandered off by this point, whether forging TV careers or falling out with people, so maybe he really was the only workable candidate.

I remember an interview with Miles in which he complained that there were simply too many novels and that they should halve the output, and furthermore that Cole agreed but BBC Books wouldn't let him. Maybe that was the biggest problem, as that's a hell of a lot of material to oversee if you're struggling to get a coherent direction together. Virgin managed to pull it off pretty well, but (as I think Miles was saying) the NAs existed at a perfect time to catch people who had grown up with Who were just starting to forge professional writing careers, but by the time of the EDAs many had moved onto bigger and better things and the generational shift meant that fresh blood of the same quality just wasn't coming in.

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sleepyscholar 4 years ago

Justin Richards I met a couple of times at uni, and traded fanzines with, and he always struck me as a very nice bloke and very much not "openly fascistic and brutal," though he was unquestionably an active Doctor Who fan from way back.

Peter Darvill-Evans was my first boss, and while not openly fascistic and brutal, he was perhaps more willing to put the boot in when needed. I should also add that, compared to Justin, he was probably far less of an invested fan. Indeed, he was less of a fan than, say, Ian Marsh, who did a lot of copy-editing on the Virgin line. Darvill-Evans's professional background was (being my boss) heading up Games Workshop Publications, in the days before it was consumed by Warhammer. He also wrote -- as did so many GW alumni -- Fighting Fantasy books. So he was coming from a somewhat orthogonal direction. Which might have helped.

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Daibhid C 4 years ago

I know you shouldn't judge a book by a cover, but honestly "It's possibly the most overused image from Paul's photoshoot [it's either this or Docor Leaning Over Console], but we've set it on fire in Photoshop" doesn't fill one with confidence.

But yes, I liked this one. What I remember, though, is (of course) arguing on radw about it. The person I was arguing with was a proponant of Doctor Who as Serious Science Fiction, who felt fire elementals had no place in the series.

Now, I've got DW-as-SSF tendencies myself (I try to keep them under control), so I could see his point. But the take I had on it was that, in a typical Doctor Who story, you could certainly have a fire elemental, as long as the Doctor was there to technobabble it away afterwards. In The Burning, of course, the Doctor wasn't in a position to provide a technobable explanation, but that didn't mean such an explanation didn't exist. To suggest that the DW universe only worked a certain way if someone said it did was, well, magic thinking...

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Blueshift 4 years ago

I thought the 'Doctor losing his memory' made a lot of sense given the arc of the books, that is 'The Doctor is trapped on Earth during the 20th century'. If you do that, you have two options: Have him know exactly what is going on, knowledge of everything that will happen and every important person, or have him come to these events without such foreknowledge. Of course, spinning it out past the 'caught on Earth' arc was a bit bonkers.

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Arkadin 4 years ago

One of the interesting things about this turn is that it's a soft reboot in the Doctor's character--an attempt to have the impact of a regeneration without an actual regeneration. Later on Big Finish would do something similar with Dark Eyes.

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Arkadin 4 years ago

As I recall, that was an ongoing shift in direction in the post-Ancestor Cell EDAs--there were more mysterious enemies that weren't quite explained and more magic. In Adventuress of Henrietta Street, there was the implication that the world had become less rational without the Time Lords. Of course, there were plenty of "normal" Doctor Who stories as well.

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jane 4 years ago

"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."

I see what you're doing here! It's a great line in the sand to draw.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Well, there's a third option. A Third Doctor option, if you will.

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ir3actions 4 years ago

I've read that Justin Richards was only a part-time consultant for the DW publishing line. (I think it was two or three days a week?) If editing DW books wasn't his full time job, maybe Justin just *couldn't* take firm control of the books or have rewrites and changes made because he just didn't have enough hours to make it happen and still get the books out on schedule. (I could be wrong about this.)

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Also, now that we're nearly at the end of continuous coverage of the EDAs: Is it just me, or were the PDAs generally better? I mean, maybe that's a false impression left by the PDAs that have been covered by this blog, but I get the feeling that they were better because they were freed from the necessity of being a "line" and could just be good stand-alone stories.

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Arkadin 4 years ago

I don't think so. The PDAs had a ton of boring filler, it was just easier to ignore because it wasn't part of an ongoing narrative. Also, the good PDAs are easier to appreciate than the good 8DAs because they're not tied into story arcs that don't pay off.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

I love that he's so nonchalant on the cover even though HIS COAT IS ON FIRE AAAUUUGGGGHHHHH!!! :-P

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Stephen Jeffers 4 years ago

Oh good god, no - the PDAs were a dungeon for the dullest writers, people like Rayner and McIntee, who are perfectly competent writers, consistent 7/10ers, but who never had an original idea in their life.

At least when the EDAs failed, they were *trying* to be ambitious and interesting.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years ago

I think that the most horrible aspect of the EDAs and the PDAs is that they got clogged up with writers who proclaimed that they were 'visual writers' as if this were a virtue.

'I just describe what I can see in my mind's eye' they'd say, forgetting that a book isn't just a transcription of a film that is playing in the mind of the writer.

One of the things that is most interesting about prpose is that it can do things that other mediums can't. This is where the maxim 'stories too broad for the small screen' gets translated into 'stories with special effects too expensive for the small screen' rather 'stories using storytelling in ways that couldn't work on the small screen (as we've seen it thus far)'.

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Adam Riggio 4 years ago

You've hit on one cool thing The Burning does. Because Richards only has words to use, he can do all those fake introductions of characters who you think are going to turn out to be the Doctor, but then aren't. That's the kind of joke that works in writing.

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Adam Riggio 4 years ago

It is a good line in the sand, and generally an excellent way to run a multi-author or otherwise multi-contributor series. But I'm reminded of another ghost from the Pertwee era returning to haunt us.

"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. . . . Taking care of hitting “quite fun” reliably is, as a result, generally more important. The brilliance usually takes care of itself."

Wasn't this the root cause of the disaster of season 11? Worshiping too heavily at the altar of not fucking up, just generally taking care of having a rollicking adventure and letting brilliant stories and moments arise from the base level? The lesson that the McGann novel era needed to learn was the lesson that was taken too much to heart in the Pertwee era.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

I wonder how much of this late focus on "visual" writers was a reaction against Big Finish - an attempt to position the novels as closer to "proper" Doctor Who by virtue of their supposed visuality, while Big Finish attempted to claim the crown by virtue of having actors.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

Yeah - the Letts era is, for me, the one real exception to the general rule that if you successfully set a baseline of quality below which the show rarely descends you'll end up with sufficient brilliance to do you well. Save for Ambassadors of Death and Carnival of Monsters the Letts era never managed much in the way of brilliance.

But other than that almost every era has about the same rate of "complete and mind-wrenching brilliance" - it's the rate of "total cock-ups" that varies widely from era to era.

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Commander Maxil 4 years ago

I’m a long-time reader of the blog (which I love) and have been meaning to post something for ages and I finally feel the time has come. I feel I ought to stand up (at least in part) for the EDAs as they have (quite often correctly) been criticised here quiet correctly, but there is also a lot to love about them as well I feel. I found during the NA era that I couldn’t get into the New Adventures, I was very much a trad fan in the sense of what I wanted from Doctor Who stories, namely I wanted something that was essentially the TV show I had loved as a kid in book form. I did read the MAs but the NAs always seemed too cliquey and annoying when referenced in DWM, as though if you didn’t ‘get’ them then you weren’t the sort of person ‘they’ wanted reading them. I did decide to read the EDAs though after the excitement of the TVM (which was terrible of course but was at least, new Doctor Who with a new Doctor). I picked up the first few but read only intermittently as those early ones were not great. However cut to mid 2003 when I moved to London. I started collecting the EDAs and NAs and found I really enjoyed both ranges. Maybe because I read them both at the same time and tended to alternate, 1 NA, then 1 EDA I found that both the NAs and EDAs had great and terrible books, and I don’t think on reflection the NAs were really more experimental. Whilst I appreciate the blog cannot cover them all and this is probably the best place to leave the books with the Paul McGann (which I plan to wax lyrical about as well when we get there) audios coming onto the scene, the second half of the EDA run is by far the stronger one. Some of the later EDAs really were fantastic. The run from Eater of Wasps through to Time Zero is one of the strongest run of Doctor Who stories in any medium in the series’ history, there really are some great books there, including probably my favourite ever Doctor Who story, ‘The Crooked World’ . Doctor Who in all its formats can be characterised as inconsistent, great stories are often followed by terrible ones, and both book ranges have this in spades, but both NAs and EDAs contain great books and I’m glad we had them as the wilderness years were terrible ad at least they were new Doctor Who. Indeed I have now been inspired by his blog to read all NAs followed by EDAs in order (have just finished Tragedy Day) as there are still quite a few I missed. I am thoroughly enjoying the NAs now but for me the EDAs shade it as my preferred book line, there are so many good books in it. They were a bit overshadowed by Big Finish and the new series basically (and probably correctly) ignored them, but at the time I loved them, and still do.

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encyclops 4 years ago

I'm really looking forward to what you have to say about the New Who era now. I haven't counted them up but my perception is that there are actually quite a lot of stories set on Earth in the last few centuries. If "Earthbound" is actually a serious problem for this show, then it follows that "Earthcentric" should run into the same cul-de-sacs. I think Smith's Doctor in particular has spent almost no time on alien planets (the occasional asteroid or Silurian ark, yes, and of course Skaro, but not too many new planets). Of course, the timebound element here is maybe even more important than Earthbound given that it's what rules out the pure historical (the pseudohistorical is typically just "alien invasion" again).

Of course, you could do the "pure contemporary" and send the Doctor to Saudi Arabia....

I'm quite pleased that we're on the same page about the highlights of the Saward era. Of the stories you named, I'd only quarrel lightly with Vengeance on Varos, which I'd agree is terrific in theory but which still seems a bit thin on the ground to me in practice. The nicest thing I can say about it is that I very quickly forget its virtues when it's not onscreen in front of me. But it doesn't have too much competition for the number 5 slot, especially if you classify Castrovalva as Bidmead-era (and why wouldn't you?).

When you were describing the "do we know this new Doctor?" stories, I flashed on "The Snowmen." How long does it take to get him back to SOP in that one? Three minutes, four?

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T. Hartwell 4 years ago

I agree with your general point, but surely we can be a bit more charitable and grant Spearhead from Space and Three Doctors a 'brilliant' status as well?

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Also that whether Doctor Who is brilliant or not, it should also still be fun. And speaking as someone who grew up through the Pertwee years, it was often fun.

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Ed Jolley 4 years ago

Spearhead was Sherwin, not Letts.

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Ed Jolley 4 years ago

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.

Shouldn't that be 'opts to let the villain drown'?

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Hm. I guess I'm spoiled by stuff like The Infinity Doctors, The Quantum Archangel and The Time Travellers.

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John Seavey 4 years ago

I think that 'Zeta Major', 'The Infinity Doctors', 'Tomb of Valdemar', 'Verdigris', 'Heart of TARDIS', 'Festival of Death', 'Rags', 'Byzantium!', 'Ten Little Aliens', 'Combat Rock', 'The Suns of Caresh', 'Heritage', 'Blue Box', 'The Algebra of Ice', 'The Indestructible Man', 'Fear Itself' and 'The Time Travellers' would all disagree with you on that. Whether you loved them or hated them (and I can point to examples of both on this list alone) there were a lot of books that tried to be "ambitious and interesting", just like I could make a similar list of EDAs (starting with 'The Bodysnatchers', and including such "luminaries" as 'Coldheart' and 'The Deadstone Memorial') that were bland space-fillers. One of the few things I think the BBC line did better than Virgin was that they didn't make a conscious editorial decision to assign their second-tier writers to the gap stories.

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