4 years, 9 months ago
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.
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