The Gutter Scrapings of Shanghai (All-Consuming Fire)

(39 comments)


I’ll Explain Later

We’ve skipped the quite-good Tragedy Day and Theatre of War, as well as the quite awful Legacy. They are, in order, a Gareth Roberts romp, a novel that establishes a ton of New Adventures-specific mythology that won’t really ever play in that heavily, and a Peladon story as bad as the last one.

All-Consuming Fire is a Doctor Who/Sherlock Holmes/HP Lovecraft mashup by Andy Lane, though only the first two of these were particularly advertised. It’s written as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with all but a few sections being narrated by Watson (Benny gets a few sections as well). The format puts the Doctor and company relatively in the background - Benny doesn’t appear at all until the halfway point, and Ace is limited to the final third or so, while the Doctor vanishes for lengthy chunks of time. Still, it’s well-liked. Craig Hinton at the time called it “a brilliant pastiche and a compulsive read,” while Lars Pearson goes with “a little long, but damn fine work.” The Sullivan rankings put it at eleventh place.

——
It’s June of 1994. Wet Wet Wet are at number one with “Love is All Around,” having just knocked out Manchester United with “Come On You Reds.” They remain there all month. Prodigy, Guns ’n Roses, Ace of Base, and Mariah Carey also chart. In albums, you’ve got The Cranberries. Lower in the charts are Nine Inch Nails with “Closer,” but the truth is that that’s mostly interesting for the US, as Nine Inch Nails never did all that well in the UK despite the fact that virtually all of their musical influences were British.

In news, since No Future the US Supreme Court made a key ruling that parody is a valid example of fair use, a case that is also entertaining in that it requires us to imagine Antonin Scalia listening to 2 Live Crew. US troops withdrew from Somalia. Silvio Berlusconi made one of his periodic assents to power in Italy. The Rwandan Genocide began, Kurt Cobain killed himself, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa. Also, John Smith, leader of the Labour Party, died of a massive heart attack, leading to Tony Blair becoming leader of the party in July (after the requisite political wrangling with Gordon Brown). While during this month South Africa rejoins the British Commonwealth, a one month ceasefire lasts only a few days in the Yugoslav War, and the early stages of that great 1990s obsession of the US, the OJ Simpson trial, begin. Also, Microsoft announces that it’s killing off MS-DOS, and Aum Shinrikyo a sarin gas attack in Japan killing seven. And Dennis Potter dies.

And then, in books, All-Consuming Fire. There is a revealing moment, a ways into All-Consuming Fire, in which Benny, explaining the history of India, refers to the 1857 uprising and talks about the ammunition cartridges that were said to be made with animal fat, specifically pork or beef fat. And the Benny comments that, “of course, the Hindus couldn’t touch pork and the Muslims couldn’t touch beef.” This is, of course, exactly backwards. I am not inclined, in the general case, to make too much of small errors in books - I don’t think I’d actually announced that the Troughton book was out when the first error was reported. I’m sure it was simply an error that got past the editors. It happens. But if one can’t interpret the mistake as a hidden intention in a blog like this, where can one? So let’s be clear - I’m not taking the existence of the error as evidence of a problem so much as I take it as an all-to useful symbol of a problem.

The reason this error jumps out is that All-Consuming Fire is not so much concerned with the idea that British imperialism was bad as it is obsessed with it. The Doctor rails against the horrors of the British empire repeatedly in the book. And yet when it comes time to actually representing the cultures that the empire oppressed and marginalized the book not only gets them utterly wrong, it ends up treating them as interchangeable. And yes, it’s an innocent error, but it’s an error that speaks volumes simply because it falls into a trap that applies to the whole book, which is that in spite of all its foot-stomping about the horrors of empire and imperialism, it can’t get away from its own love of those very concepts.

All of which sounds like I’m setting up another complainy post, and I am, but let’s be clear: there’s a lot to like here. More than I would have thought, even. On paper, this is something around the worst idea ever. It sounds like fanfiction animated by nothing save for a “doesn’t this sound AWESOME” elevator pitch. It feels like it comes out of that child-like conflation of “more ideas” with “better.” Add that this is the novel responsible for retconning a swath of good Doctor Who villains into the Cthulhu mythos and you get a novel that it’s very, very easy to just feel like being dismissive of.

And yet it’s terribly fun. Lane hits a decently readable pastiche of Doyle’s style. His Holmes and Watson are fun, and there’s a cheeky thrill to watching their story get invaded by Doctor Who. And perhaps more to the point, for all that there’s a certain facileness to the concept, this is what Doctor Who has, for large swaths of its history, been for, albeit somewhat more subtly. Genre mashups are the point. It isn’t even the first time Doctor Who has done Sherlock Holmes. So at best we can say that this is a slightly crasser and more obvious version of what Doctor Who has done in the past. Nobody in 1977 would have batted an eye if The Talons of Weng-Chiang had featured a Lovecraftian menace instead of Magnus Greel - something akin to Sutekh, for instance. And so about the worst we can muster against this story as a story is that it has the honesty to admit that it is blatantly ripping off of Doyle and Lovecraft. It may be a bit less subtle, but this is a minor sin at worst.

A larger issue is perhaps thrown up by the light of hindsight. These days, of course, everybody recognizes Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who as sister texts. With calls for a Sherlock/Doctor Who crossover routine in fandom now, it’s odd to see the Virgin era doing just that as a matter of course. It is, of course, in some ways easier to do in 1994 when there’s not the weight created by the existence of two massively popular BBC shows from the same writers. But the fact that it was done - and, for that matter, that it was done once again even earlier in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and done a fourth time just two months after All-Consuming Fire with John Peel’s Missing Adventure Evolution, which had the Doctor teaming up with Arthur Conan Doyle himself - seems to point at something. The Doctor doesn’t get crossed over with other fictional characters this frequently. Why Sherlock Holmes?

The pat answer is that both are intellectual heroes from British popular fiction, but while that may be necessary, it’s not sufficient. A more thorough analysis might suggest that we’re running into an issue we’ve been neglecting for a while, which is that Doctor Who’s entire concept is pinned on a melange of Victorian images, from the images of Victorian mysticism to those of the Victorian inventor to those of the Victorian gentleman explorer. These are a huge part of the character’s DNA. And while at the best moments of the series the Doctor has been played as a détourned Victorian, the fact remains that there’s no point in the series save arguably the Eccleston year in which the Doctor is not, in part, the upper class white man who goes and fixes other people’s problems for them. And so Sherlock Holmes is not merely another intellectual hero, he’s specifically a Victorian intellectual hero - the character closest to the embodiment of all the tropes that the Doctor springs from.

And so on a basic level this book gives us exactly what we’ve been looking for out of Doctor Who over the last few entries. For the second book in a row, at least of the ones we’re covering, we have something that’s outright happy to be Doctor Who. This is a book that loves the fact that Doctor Who is somewhere you can get away with a Sherlock Holmes/Lovecraft mashup, and, more to the point, go to an Al Capone/Vampire story the next month. Andy Lane is clearly having an absolute blast writing the book, and it’s very much refreshing to see. There are moments of cheeky humor throughout it, with my favorite being the bit where the Seventh Doctor gets the Third thrown out of the Diogenes Club by holding up a note with a crossword answer on it, causing the Third to explode in rage. The Seventh Doctor playing a juvenile prank on himself that also plays on a reference to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Pure heaven.

But there’s a problem underlying all of this, and the book is aware of it. It’s 1994 now, and we’re all pretty much awake to the fact that the Victorian era consisted primarily of horrifying colonial impulses. It’s difficult to justify an unambiguous embrace of the Victorian in the mid-90s. And when you add Lovecraft, infamously racist dick that he was, you end up deeper in the weeds. And so the book, quite rightly, displays a social conscience. But there’s something… difficult about it. For instance, the scene where the Doctor yells at the villain, proclaiming, “you will be spreading death and destruction across the cosmos! The British Empire is based upon oppression and slavery. You offer not the hand of friendship but the jackboot of tyranny! I shall prevent your plans!” This is not wrong as such, but there’s something painfully awkward about it. And it’s far from the only moment like that - Benny refusing to help a beggar in India because, as she muses, “there were tens of thousands of people in Bombay. I couldn’t help all of them. That was the true evil. Not Daleks, not Hoothi. Poverty and powerlessness.” Again, true, but with a sort of painful facileness. I could cite more, but the point is, I think, made.

And it’s in the face of this that the screw-up about Islam and Hinduism jumps out. Because as understandable a mistake as it is, it’s emblematic of the basic problem here, which is that this is just Victorian-style fiction with some rebukes about colonialism grafted awkwardly on. There’s no depth to its social conscience - its engagement with the people oppressed and marginalized by the British Empire is so superficial as to barely exist, with the groups being interchangeable placeholders. It’s not that the mistake made it through so much as it is that this is a book that spends its middle section in India and yet never gets far enough into the actual nature of the place to the extent where the mistake could possibly matter. The really revealing moment comes two paragraphs before the error, as the Doctor muses that nineteenth century Earth is one of his favorite places, saying, “there’s such a sense of infinite possibility. You feel that almost anything could evolve from this morass of science and superstition. It showcases humanity at its best, and at its worst.” Which just comes off as a crass whitewash. Like much of the book, it feels like it’s trying to pay lip service to the fact that Victorian England was a deeply and horrifyingly flawed culture mostly so that it can enjoy the trappings of the culture in peace.

But there’s not a way to separate it. Too much of what Sherlock Holmes is as a concept is bound up in a vision of British identity that existed in a large part as the spurious morality backing up the Empire. Even in Sherlock, with the actual Victorian setting ripped away, it’s impossible to quite kill off the trappings of imperialism, as demonstrated by the phenomenally problematic “The Blind Banker.” And Doctor Who fares no better - he’s always been an upper class white man who barges into other cultures and “fixes” them before running off again. And there’s no way to fix that. I’m all for a non-white or female Doctor, but all you’d get doing it is an example of how black women can be rich white men too. The character is too much defined by a cultural legacy of race, class, and gender. You can genderbend it and racebend it, and doing so is progress, but you can’t rewrite history. Not one word.

And yet, obviously, it is fun. Sherlock Holmes is fun. Doctor Who is fun. The fact that I’m nearly two years into this project points pretty definitively at the fact that I’m not about to abandon Doctor Who just because its cultural origins are steeped in racism and classism. But equally, and this is a problem that I can’t pretend Doctor Who is anywhere near solving as of 2012, that enjoyment can’t be accomplished just by nodding and saying a few words about the evils of imperialism and then going back to what you were doing. There needs to be something more substantial than that.

Which is, perhaps, to offer a corollary to the point I’ve been making since Lucifer Rising or so. Doctor Who cannot be ashamed to be Doctor Who. That’s just not something that can possibly work. But that doesn’t mean that the deconstructive and angry approaches of the early 1990s were an unproductive dead end. Unproblematically and uncritically mining the past and doing Doctor Who because it’s Doctor Who and thus inherently a good thing to do is flawed too. And more to the point, finding a balance between these two things is genuinely hard. A commitment to social justice is more than paying lip service to the sins of the past while uncritically playing out their legacies.

All of this sounds very harsh, and it’s unfortunate. All-Consuming Fire is a good book. It’s much stronger than Lucifer Rising, and, for that matter, than Blood Heat, the follow-up by Lane’s coauthor there. It’s fun, it’s a massive improvement for the New Adventures, and the social conscience it has, however rudimentary, points towards what can happen when the postmodern anger of the early New Adventures is tempered successfully with stories that are actually enjoying being Doctor Who. The elements are all in place here, which hasn’t been true about as many New Adventures as one would like. It seems almost churlish to complain, after spending a month talking about how it would be nice to see more books doing something other than making a grand point about how scary and terrifying the Doctor is, that all this book wants to do is have fun. But the fact that the elements are all in place only highlights how deep some of the problems that the series really does have are. The truth is that for a long time the series did have something to be ashamed of, and as much as a functional, fun series is important there also really does have to be some reckoning about that.

We talked two entries ago about how Doctor Who’s path back from cancellation goes through the fact that it is a genuinely beloved cultural institution. But it also goes through making sure that it speaks to and offers something to the broader culture - which in modern Britain still includes many scarred over wounds of empire. “We’re very sorry, but gosh, isn’t the legacy of the empire fun” isn’t going to cut it. Nor should it. This may be fun, but that’s not a sufficient defense.

Comments

David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

I actually think Tennant's Doctor is somewhere lower on the class scale than Eccleston's. Tennant gives the impression of a working-class lad 'made good', whereas Eccleston, apart from the accent which gets complicated, is more middle-class casual.

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Scott 4 years, 4 months ago

There's another problem with the book's politics, I always feel. To me, it's represented by the scene where Watson and the Doctor are on the boat passing through the Suez Canal, and in response to a comment by Watson the Doctor makes a sneering comment about small-minded 19th century European imperialism. Now, this would normally be all very well and good of the Doctor, the man to whom small minded 19th century European imperialism is not going to appeal -- except that the comment he's making the response to is merely an innocent observation by Watson that the journey to India has been made shorter by the canal. Which, say what you will about the culture of 19th century European imperialism that created it, is pretty much a fact.

Granted, it's been a while since I read it so I could be misremembering or failing to spot the subtext of Watson's comment, but the overwhelming impression I came away with was less that the Doctor was standing up to the ugliness of Victorian superiority and hegemony and more the Doctor was being a bit of a dick and having a go at Watson for no real reason. And while I did honestly enjoy the book for the most part (although frankly Lane did start to over-egg the pudding with all the Holmes / Lovecraft references, but still, Rule of Cool I suppose), I seem to remember more of it throughout, to the point that while the Doctor, Benny and Ace might be making fair and valid comments on the uglier side of Victorian culture as represented by Holmes and Watson, the problem is that it's done so awkwardly done that I ended up sympathising with Holmes and Watson having to put up with these smug, self-righteous and insufferable tools who you'd avoid sharing a railway carriage with, never mind going on an adventure through time and space with, because they'd just spend the whole time lecturing you about everything you were doing wrong. And whether they have a point or not, no one wants to spend any time with people like that, because they might be right, but they're also nice to be around because they're deeply unpleasant about it.

Combined with the superficiality of the critique itself (which, like you say Phil, pretty much boils down to "the Victorians were kind of dicks, really"), it doesn't really come off. I'm all for critiquing the imperialist undertones of Sherlock Holmes and Victorian culture (and Doctor Who for that matter), but you kind of have to make the people doing the critique more sympathetic than the people being critiqued if it's going to work properly.

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Scott 4 years, 4 months ago

"not very nice to be around", that should read BTW.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 4 months ago

If the Doctor is normally "the upper class white man who goes and fixes other people’s problems for them", Eccleston's Doctor was an attempt to change both of those things; he wasn't just working class, he also had a different MO than previous Doctors in that, rather than solving your problems for you, he would inspire you to solve them for yourself.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 4 months ago

The only working-class Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee as an intellectual wage-slave fiercely aware of his precarious place in society. Normally the Doctor is a man of independent means; but the Third Doctor had to work for a living.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 4 months ago

@Wm Keith

I don't think he had to work for a living at all. He just found himself having to swap around his eccentric hobbies. If any Doctor made their travels seem more occupation than exploration, it was the Seventh.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 4 months ago

Apparently when American politicians talk about the working class, they mean "people who didn't attend college". When one of my former colleagues talked about the working class, she meant "people who don't know what order to use their cutlery at table". Clearly there are definitions that go beyond the strictly economic...

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Wm Keith 4 years, 4 months ago

According to the transcript on http://www.chakoteya.net/DoctorWho/7-1.htm
the following exchange takes place in the final scene of "Spearhead from Space"

DOCTOR: Yes, well, before we go into all that, Brigadier, I think we must discuss terms.
BRIGADIER: Terms?
DOCTOR: Yes. After all, you do want to take advantage of my services again, don't you?
BRIGADIER: Then what do you want?
DOCTOR: Well, facilities to repair the Tardis, laboratory, equipment, help from Miss Shaw here.
BRIGADIER: Very well. Anything you need. Within reason, of course. Is that all?
DOCTOR: My goodness, no. Don't you realise that when I was stranded on this little planet of yours, I had nothing but these clothes that I Oh, my goodness!
LIZ: What is it, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Well, I've just realised. I don't even own these. I borrowed them from the hospital. And there's that car, too. Yes, you know, I took to that car. It had character.
BRIGADIER: No, Doctor. That car must be returned to its owner.
DOCTOR: Must it? Yes, yes, I suppose it must. Still, there's no reason why you couldn't find me something similar, is there? I mean, it could persuade me to stay, you know.
BRIGADIER: Oh, very well.
DOCTOR: Good. When can we go and choose it?

Of course, I have omitted from the passage the section in which the Doctor declines money:
BRIGADIER: I think you'll find the salary is quite adequate.
DOCTOR: Money? My dear chap, I don't want money. I've got no use for the stuff.

I omitted it because the Doctor's statement is clearly false. If the Doctor happened to have (for example) the Tenth Doctor's everlasting credit card then he wouldn't need to work for UNIT. He could hire a laboratory, employ an assistant, buy clothes and a car.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 4 months ago

Interestingly I think that's more a sign of the times than a quality of the Doctor's character. Stealing money from ATM machines is part of the Tenth's Mockney Wide-boy charm and moreover seems to have been socially acceptable since John Connor first did it in T2. Certainly no-one thinks any worse of the Winchester brothers, who have survived 8 series of Supernatural doing the same. However back in the early 70s it would have been seen as out-and-out theft and would have been severely detrimental to the Doctor's character.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 4 months ago

What you have there is an upper class man using his massive advantage in education in order to gain gifts from people in exchange for doing what he was planning on doing in any case.

This isn't a man negotiating a work contract, it's a king demanding tribute because it's so important his subjects demonstrate their gratitude for him doing the job he loves in any case.

In other words, the last thing this is about is money. The Doctor's statement, far from being "clearly false", is about as obvious a tell as one could wish for. He doesn't want to buy things, he wants people to give them to him out of gratitude. Money is so terribly incapable of fawning, after all.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 4 months ago

Which is actually perfectly in keeping with this Doctor's character. It's almost as if the Time Lords designed his regeneration that way...

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 4 months ago

Hardly. Tennant's Doctor's accent, dress sense and demeanour are those of an upper-middle-class, not-too-bright, Guardian reader affecting what he wrongly presumes to be a proletarian accent.

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Stephen 4 years, 4 months ago

Firstly, you've left out the DWRG and Discontinuity Guide links again.

Secondly, perhaps a more redemptive reading would be to say that a lot of the things that undermine the anti-imperialism theme are there simply because they're being remembered/related by Dr Watson. Being a Victorian Imperialist, he's unlikely to care about details like the differences between Hindus and Muslims.

Thirdly, Conundrum most certainly was having fun being Doctor Who. Just because you didn't like its take on the Land of Fiction doesn't mean that the book was ashamed to be Doctor Who. At worst, it could be legitimately accused of disliking some of the current TARDIS crew. But it's a book that enjoys playing around with Doctor Who toys just as much as a book like Verdigris. Saying that this is only the second book in a row (of the ones we've covered) to take that attitude does seem a little disingenuous.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 4 months ago

Excellent point; the awkwardness of the anti-empire bits was something I noticed the first time around, but the reasons you give make sense.

My main problem is... Well, half the book is an excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiche, reveling in its fanficness to the point where even the obvious cliches become infused with joy (Sherlock has an even older, even smarter brother! The Diogenes Club is not only a front for British government operations, but has a high-speed pneumatic underground railway!). Then it sets up the Lovecraftian part with a line that promises an approach like no other, along with Watson having a reaction that makes me actually understand how you could go mad from being confronted by something like that, in a way no other fiction has.

And then...

Well, then we get a battle between generic aliens. (On a world with a really interesting ecosystem, mind, but still.) All of the wonder and horror of Lovecraft is sucked out; from the off-the-cuff explanation of the origin of the Great Old Ones to the checklist "this Mythos being is this Who villain" approach (which doesn't even get it right - Nyarlathotep as the strongest, and Azathoth as the weakest? Fenric as Hastur? Surely there are better Great Old Ones for someone who transforms sexually maturing girls who go on the water into twisted part-humans)... it really didn't work.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 4 months ago

1) Ah, yes, I did. Will fix that later.

2) Yes, though it's the Doctor who's saying that, and Bernice who's narrating the section in question, so that reading doesn't quite get us out of it.

3) I found little joy in Conundrum, if I'm being honest. Cleverness, yes, but not much joy. It seemed the most dour sort of postmodernism to me. Though as I said, it's clear that Lyons is just not an author I'm fond of. His work does seem joyless, dour, and bleak to me with little sense of fun. Even when he's being clever, it feels cynical to me.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 4 months ago

I know very little about the details of class in England, but Eccleston's Doctor always felt more "street" to me - almost self-consciously so, really.

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Aaron 4 years, 4 months ago

To be honest, I've really disagreed with your idea that somehow the NAs haven't been having fun being Doctor Who up to this point. I wrote a long comment about it, but then blogger erased it, so I'll say something a little different here. Conundrum is the most obvious example of an author that clearly loves Doctor Who and loves putting together the pieces in any way he can. The way the Doctor wrestles the narrative away from the narrator, or how the Doctor treads along the edges of the narrative is exactly what you praised Troughton for doing, except in literary form, and shows how much Lyons revels in the character of the Doctor. You may not like that he's retconning the Land of Fiction, but that's a personal point of taste. To Lyons, connecting the Land of Fiction to the Gods of Ragnarok is doing exactly what Cornell did with No future- taking a bizarre list of obscure Doctor Who references, mashing them together, and seeing what comes out.

But Lucifer Rising, for instance, is doing exactly what this one is doing: mashing Doctor Who, full of neat little continuity references, together with an Arthur C. Clarke SF novel, and seeing what comes out. It's a pure crossover novel except in name. It also seems to revel in Doctor Who as being fun for Doctor Who's sake: look at that first scene where the Doctor gets his umbrella stuck in the door, or the scene where the Doctor juggles while Bernice is stuck in a drinks robot. It's full of love for the way the Doctor can be fun and yet serious at the same time.

One point of Lucifer Rising I've always liked is to compare it's end to the finale of Journey's End. Here, the Doctor is told by Ace "It doesn't matter if you make me pull the gun, or you pull it yourself. It's still your dirty work. Take responsibility." And the Doctor does. It's a superb scene. Journey's End has Davros say the exact same thing, and then plays off of how the Doctor feels guilt over making other people his weapons. Both are done effectively, but which one, do you think, is the one that enjoys Doctor Who more? The one where The Doctor takes responsibility and saves the day by shooting the villain, or the one that subverts the entire premise of the Doctor by showing the audience how he just turns nice people into soldiers?

But aside from all that, it seems bizarre to think that the early NAs don't enjoy being Doctor Who. Aaronovitch clearly loves that Doctor Who allows him to do a William Gibson mashup, which is really no different from All Consuming Fire. Platt loves Doctor Who in the same way Lyons does: he loves taking all the pieces apart and putting them back together. Kate Orman LOOOOOVES the concept of Doctor Who, and though Left Handed Hummingbird is pretty dark and brutal, you can't tell me after reading the "Pause the tape!" scene that Orman isn't having a blast playing around with these characters. In fact, the only author who doesn't like this incarnation of Doctor Who is Gatiss, who pretty much says in interviews "I wanted to write for the 4th Doctor because I hate the 7th Doctor, but since the MAs hadn't started yet I decided instead to just show how little fun the 7th Doctor is."

I just cannot see how you can say how All Consuming Fire has fun with Doctor Who and not say the same thing about Conundrum, or Lucifer Rising, or Time's Crucible, or Transit, or even Iceberg and Birthright and Dimension Riders.

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Aaron 4 years, 4 months ago

One recurring theme about Andy Lane is that he's great at set up and terrible at endings. This is probably the best example of that tendency.

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jane 4 years, 4 months ago

I can't help but think in terms of recuperation and detournement now, but from the perspective of the show -- er, story, archetype, myth -- what have you.

That is to say, the critique of Britain's odious Imperialist value being firmed wedged in the show's DNA is our detournement of Doctor Who, which Doctor Who attempts to recuperate by lampshading it within a tale mashing together the genres that kind of define what Doctor Who is.

Well, assuming that holding up a mirror to something, with comment, is actually a form of detournement.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 4 months ago

I'm not convinced, though, that Aaronovitch or Lane/Mortimore wouldn't have rather published Gibson-esque or Clarke-esque novels without the bother of Doctor Who. I mean, certainly they're able to write the books they are because of Doctor Who's flexibility, but there's a difference between using Doctor Who's flexibility and wanting to be Doctor Who.

Certainly some of the books want to be Doctor Who - Time's Crucible and Birthright are two of the more obvious off the list you gave. Orman as well. But there's also been a nagging sense in several of the books between, say, Love and War and No Future where one feels like the authors have some ambivalence about their books being Doctor Who. Or, at least, and particularly in the Alternate History cycle where the tensions among the TARDIS crew became a common theme, they didn't seem to be having much fun. It's not universal, but it's a nagging problem. And I find it telling that the stretch from No Future to First Frontier or so is comprised almost entirely of "fun" books, comparatively. It's certainly not a hard and fast rule, but it does seem to me something the books definitely wrestle with in the 1992-93 range or so.

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Matthew Celestis 4 years, 4 months ago

Have you read some of the King in Yellow stories? I think the disturbing portrayal of Hastur in those fits Fenric quite well.

Though you are right, All-Consuming Fire does fail to capture the darkness of Lovecraft.

It's actually Neil Penswick's The Pit which is the truest translation of Lovecraft to Doctor Who (sadly missed out from this series).

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BerserkRL 4 years, 4 months ago

the Victorian era consisted primarily of horrifying colonial impulses

Depends which people you're focusing on. I think of the Victorian era as the great period of anti-colonialism, the period when when the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements really pick up steam (along with the feminist, labour, and anarchist movements).

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encyclops 4 years, 4 months ago

Eccleston's Doctor was one of the reasons it took me a long time to warm to the new series: as much as I liked and admired some of the choices he made, he was the only Doctor so far who didn't seem to me to be the same individual. He seemed more like the Doctor's younger brother or cousin or something of the kind. Many of the observations that led me to that sense of him are usually explained away as "well, the Time War changed him."

Nowadays I like him and most of his stories enough that I don't really complain about it, but that sense still lingers for me, that the First through the Eighth Doctors are the same person as the Tenth and Eleventh, but that the Ninth is someone else entirely. I don't have a strong sense of class in England either, but I wouldn't be shocked if that were a big part of the reason he seems so incongruous.

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daibhid-c 4 years, 4 months ago

I thought one of the cleverest bit of All-Consuming Fire (which doesn't necessarily mean one of the most sucessful) was the fact the Lovecraft stuff turned out to be a red herring. The Doctor goes into great detail about the horrors of the Great Old Ones and then "Oh, hang on, it's not a Great Old One at all, it's only pretending!"

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daibhid-c 4 years, 4 months ago

And the Benny comments that, “of course, the Hindus couldn’t touch pork and the Muslims couldn’t touch beef.” This is, of course, exactly backwards.

Wait, it says what?

(Races to bookshelf)

Good heavens, my brain has a very effective autocorrect system. I've read All Consuming Fire dozens of times, and each time I read that sentence as being the right way round.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 4 months ago

That's interesting. Speaking as a lifelong British citizen, encylop's reading would never have occurred to me, but on reflection I wonder if that's because I put any discontinuity down to the general shift in approach the new series necessitated. Having watched the entirety of Tennant's run and Smith's adventures to date, perhaps I should go back and see how Eccleston strikes me now.

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Aaron 4 years, 4 months ago

I think Lane's later output is pretty convincing proof that at least he always was most interested in playing with Doctor Who. All Consuming Fire, Original Sin, and Empire of Glass are all examples of Andy Lane's work that really depend on him exploring the worlds and mythology of Doctor Who, not just writing normal sci fi and pasting the Doctor in. Mortimore and Aaronovitch are harder for me to justify, but I think the stuff in Lucifer Rising you're picking up is related to Mortimore, not Lane. Mortimore's later books seem to want to delve far outside of Doctor Who as a medium, and the Arthur C. Clark style space opera has Mortimore written all over it. I think Lane's comments in interviews about how he tried with all his novels, but especially with Lucifer Rising, to get pictures included, because to him it couldn't be Doctor Who without visuals, speaks a lot to his viewpoint concerning whether he wanted to be doing Doctor Who or not.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 4 months ago

It's not so much that Fenric isn't disturbing enough to be Hastur as that he doesn't really fit the MO.

That said, I gotta agree with daibhid-c. That's an enormously smart idea... but came too late for me. It could've really worked if it came right as one was saying "Hrm, this isn't really Lovecraft-y, is it?"

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 4 months ago

This was a really great post, Phil. I was sort of anticipating your take on this one. I really like how you spelled out the tension about detournement inherent in the show's premise (and that of Sherlock Holmes too)-One of the best such analyses I've seen.

This gets back to the discussion we were having on Jack's blog about how far exactly an institutionalized work of fiction can go with radical politics and ideas. I still think as an institution the answer is probably not terribly far, if at all, and Doctor Who, much as I do like it, isn't helped by the overtly Victorian parts of its roots. Although I've found reason to add caveats to my premise of late, I still think there's an inherent tension in trying to do Situationalist pop culture in general and with Doctor Who in particular, and it's one the show still hasn't resolved (if it ever can).

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Ununnilium 4 years, 4 months ago

Well, that's the thing - it can go really far. Not out to the edges, no, but that's not really what it's for, is it? It's for bringing up the general level of consciousness. Not everyone is going to respond to Situationist theater, so you slip in the same basic ideas under what seems like a perfectly safe show.

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Anton B 4 years, 4 months ago

My born and bred Brit/Who fan from episode one perspective totally accepted Ecclestone as the Doctor. I felt RTD had combined in him many of the previous incarnations' traits. For instance his occasional condescension was very Pertwee, his unpredictability came from Troughton, his irascibility from Hartnell, his eccentricities from Tom Baker. As far as his class goes - don't confuse 'northern' with 'lower class' or, for that matter, 'rich' with 'upper class'. Despite the 'divorced dad back on the scene' leather coat and V neck jumper Nine gives the impression of a wayward younger son of a northern industrialist. In other words 'new money'. Both Tennant and Smith suggest middle class students on a timey wimey gap year.

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encyclops 4 years, 4 months ago

To be clear, I didn't really consciously think about Eccleston's Doctor in terms of class. I just saw him in contrast to Paul McGann's, who was to me a quintessentially (verging on blandly) Doctorish Doctor in the midst of what might still be the least Doctor Who-ish scripts of all time. Eccleston struck me as the opposite. It wasn't that he didn't exhibit traits of past Doctors (though frankly that seems easier to achieve as we rack up more Doctors to draw from). It was just an overall impression.

Could have been the clothes, or the accent, or the hair. Could have been his active, physical demeanor (I couldn't imagine him tinkering with experiments or, frankly, reading Dickens for pleasure). Could have been that sense that he'd deck you in a second if you looked at him funny. Could have been that Eccleston was the first and so far only actor officially playing the Doctor that I'd seen in substantial acting roles before this one. Could have been some subconscious sense that Eccleston was keeping the part at arm's length, bringing a professional dedication to the role but not immersing himself in it. Could have been some or all of these things working in concert.

Again, though, I think he was terrific. I don't really mind a strikingly different Doctor -- this isn't James Bond, after all -- and I'm really crossing my fingers for someone very unlike Smith/Tennant as the Twelfth Doctor.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 4 months ago

A significant part of what I like about Doctor Who (and philosophy, literature, and the random events of life when you look at them the right way) is how oversignified it is, in the sense that so many interpretations can be made, have been made, and will be made. The thoughts of the Eruditorum are quite original, compared to what's come before in the Doctor Who community, but they're not the only interpretation, and I don't think Phil has pitched them to be the definitive word on the history of the show. This, even as he's steadily grown in power, fame, and influence.

This is Phil's story of Doctor Who, and I think whether one agrees with his precise assessments of particular books, stories, or eras, their real value isn't in their being definitively correct so as to seal discussion shut forever. I find the Eruditorum valuable because of how it can provoke us to think about Doctor Who differently than we ever have before. I know it's had quite an influence on how I think about the show.

When it comes to the Virgin era, I think Phil's new perspective accomplishes something like this. The general consensus in fandom has been that the tone of the Virgin era was retroactively taken to be the culmination of the McCoy TV era. In demonstrating the relative quality of Season 24 and following through that effect until cancellation, Phil showed the peculiar flavour of the McCoy TV era that Virgin never picked up. That's an important way the McCoy TV era differed from the Virgin era that wasn't really noticed before.

However, there is one way the Virgin era did run together with the McCoy TV era, which was its relative obscurity as a cultural product in its day, and exploring the mind-set that comes with this decreased visibility. Most importantly, I think Phil's analysis shows that in the early-mid 1990s, Doctor Who was a cancelled television show that died in obscurity and carried on as a novel chain marketed to a cult audience. It had been a central institution of British culture, but its status by the McCoy TV and Virgin eras consisted of a terrible fall from great success.

Sure, some new fans came along in the 1990s, but today I can't go a couple of weeks without hearing among some new convert to Doctor Who fandom in my extended social circles (some of whom aren't even caused by me!). That kind of exponential international fanbase growth was impossible in the McCoy TV and Virgin eras.

Phil's readings of many Virgin novels as Doctor Who stories whose writers don't fully want them to be Doctor Who stories helps show an aspect of this purgatory period that I don't know if the Doctor Who community has fully explored. That kind of historical understanding can be very important.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 4 months ago

Whilst Anton B's idea of the 9th Doctor being nouveau-riche is a really interesting one (and of course one could if desired expand the thought; a Doctor delighting in his current exploits but constantly hounded by his miserable, exceptionally difficult past), I'd hesitate to suggest there's a problem here with confusing Northern and working class. To the ears of this middle class Northerner, at least, the 9th Doctor sounds like both.

Assuming a working class accent must imply someone is working class is its own mistake, of course, but it's a very different one, and much more understandable.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 4 months ago

True, and I think that approach works for most things in the pop consciousness that flirt with radical thought. Doctor Who just confuses me because it's this pardoxical show that's both incredibly institutional and incredibly radical. I mean when you have people like Verity Lambert and David Whitaker as your founding figures I just can't see how Doctor Who doesn't in some sense have a radical heart. But...being the tentpole Saturday Teatime show or the blockbuster "family adventure" franchise seems to encourage it to play it safe. There's a central conflict of interest there that at first fascinated me but now just baffles me instead.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 4 months ago

I think that's the best summary of the Eruditorum philosophy, seminars and post-structuralist thought I've ever read. Cheers, Adam!

I'm sure others will disagree, though ;-)

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Ununnilium 4 years, 4 months ago

It is! It's so great!

Doctor Who is a creation born standing between two worlds and able to move freely between them. The TARDIS doesn't just move along axes of space and time, but axes of radical and conventional, change and preservation, mercury and diamond.

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Russell Gillenwater 4 years, 4 months ago

Even though I accepted Eccleston from moment one of Rose (and he is still my favorite of the Modern Series Doctors) I never really felt he was a direct continuation of the classic Series Doctors and Tennant and Smith have done nothing to change that opinion. I see them just as a modern take on the character. I mean nothing drives this point for me more than the 11 Doctor Character option figure set. The Classic Series Doctors just look like they’re from a different version of the show, which is MHO.

I just want to add two important points about one of the books Phil skipped, The Theater of War. First it was the first book by Justin Richards who will be one of the more influential novel writers, especially with the EDAs and his influence is still there as he manages the Modern Series book line. Second, The Theater of War introduced one of my favorite Doctor Who characters, Irving Braxiatel.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 4 months ago

FWIW, inasmuch as I started watching Smith in new episodes and Eccleston and Tennant in reruns more or less simultaneously, they've always seemed like a single three-headed Doctor to me.

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