4 years, 10 months ago
I’ll Explain Later
I'll Explain Later is a feature that will be employed for the out-of-print Virgin and BBC Books covered over the next few months, in which I provide a brief contextualization of what the book is and what its general critical reception is. For these entries, the entry proper begins below the horizontal rule.
Timewyrm: Genesys is the first of the New Adventures, by John Peel. The first four books are ostensibly a plot arc about the eponymous Timewyrm, who is introduced in this book as an alien using the Osiran playbook on the Sumerians and impersonating Ishtar. She eventually gets magic powers from the TARDIS, like you do. Guest-starring Gilgamesh, and infamous for the amount of boobs and molestation, at the time Gary Russell politely describes himself as "feeling a little disappointed." More recently, I Who describes it as “brave, if woefully unsuccessful,” and Shannon Sullivan’s novel rankings place it at fifty-fourth out of the sixty-one New Adventures, with a rating of 54.9%. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
Timewyrm: Exodus is Terrance Dicks’s debut in the world of adult Doctor Who novels. Nazis ahoy, this one features an alternate timeline where the Germans win World War II, Hitler as a major supporting character (possessed by the Timewyrm to boot), and the return of the War Chief from The War Games. This easily has the best reputation of any of Dicks's original novels. At the time, Doctor Who Magazine called it "a mature, intelligent book written by someone who clearly knows his subject backwards." I, Who calls it “a book with a good reputation that deserves even more praise,” while Sullivan’s rankings put it at seventh out of sixty-one with an 81.4% rating. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s June of 1991. Cher is at number one with “The Shoop Shoop Song,” replaced by “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd after one week. They hold until the end of the month, when Jason Donovan takes over with “Any Dream Will Do.” Soft Cell, KLF, REM, Kylie Minogue, Salt-N-Pepper, and Amy Grant also chart.
It’s also August of 1991, in which Bryan Adams is at number one with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” which stays at number one the entire month, fending off Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” for a staggering six weeks straight, with the two occupying #1 and #2 through to the end of September. Guns ’n Roses, Metallica, Heavy D and the Boyz, and The Prodigy also chart.
In news, we have rather a lot to cover in the eighteen month gap. So, starting back in December of 1989, free elections are held in Chile for the first time in sixteen years, and the Romanian revolution begins and ends in a matter of days, with Nicolae Ceau?escu being executed as a Christmas present. Four days later, Václav Havel is elected president of Czechoslovakia.
1990 is all sorts of exciting - a US invasion of Panama, F.W. de Klerk promises to free Nelson Mandela and stops outlawing the African National Congress, and the UK resumes diplomatic contact with Argentina. The US Secret Service raids Steve Jackson Games over their employment of Lloyd Blankenship for their GURPS Cyberpunk book, an incident prompting the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Poll tax protests become widespread, including the so-called Second Battle of Trafalgar. Robert Runcie steps down as Archbishop of Canterbury. The Hubble Space Telescope is launched, but with a defective mirror. Oops. Also, a £292 million pound mugging takes place in London. Again, oops.
Continuing with 1990, it’s another World Cup, and the West Germans win everything, then reunite with East Germany for good measure. The Americans with Disabilities act, one of the few things the US actually does better than the UK, is signed by President Bush. The idea of this act being signed today by a Republican President is, of course, hilarious. Leonard Bernstein conducts his final concert in Boston. Tim Berners-Lee publishes a formal proposal for the World Wide Web, and creates the first webpage. Iraq invades Kuwait, prompting the US to set up a defensive operation in Saudi Arabia called Operation Desert Shield. The Cold War continues to wrap up as the USSR works its way towards collapsing. And, with Doctor Who finally off the air, Margaret Thatcher is deemed surplus to requirements and is ousted as Prime Minister, with John Major taking over.
Finally up to 1991, then, the US enacts Operation Desert Storm, the successor to Operation Desert Shield, to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Rodney King is beaten by police in Los Angeles, an event that is, significantly, captured on video.
While during the time under discussion, the legal steps to end apartheid are passed, with the legislative foundations of it being repealed. Jeffrey Dahmer and Mike Tyson are both arrested. The World Wide Web is officially unveiled as a thing. A failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev takes place in the USSR, many of the Soviet republics declare independence, and the Super Nintendo is released.
While on books, we have, as alluded to above, Timewyrm: Genesys and Timewyrm: Exodus beginning Virgin Books’s New Adventures range. The earliest days of the New Adventures are a bit of a stuttering start. This is not surprising, and it’s difficult to even take it as too much of a criticism. Not for the first time in Doctor Who’s history what it’s trying to do is a heck of a high-wire act. In practice it’s going to take until the fourth book to really, properly get into the swing of what the New Adventures are going to end up being. By any sane measurement this should be called “very, very fast.”
The New Adventures, after all, had two significant tasks to tackle. First they had to translate Doctor Who to a completely new medium. This is not an easy task, although as we’ve already discussed, the existence of the Target novelizations eased the process considerably in that there were reams of Doctor Who books already in existence, even if most of them were plotted and laid out to be television stories and not novels. But second, they had to manage the transition into being “adult” Doctor Who. This is a much less straightforward transition, since one of the things that has often defined Doctor Who is its relationship with the basic constraint that it is generally considered to be children’s television, albeit children’s television that adults typically enjoy. Even through the Cartmel era one of the central premises of the show and one of the major sources of its cleverness was the way it played with the genre tropes of television.
But the New Adventures, for better or for worse, discarded that. We’ll get around to discussing the wisdom and implications of that, but for now let’s say that it’s not entirely senseless - adults are the ones with disposable income, and Doctor Who fans, as an identified demographic who are going to go search out books based on an off-the-air television series, are probably grown-ups. So if you’re marketing to grown-ups and in a form that’s unlikely to spark a tedious moral panic - and particularly if you’re suddenly in a bit of a “no adult supervision” situation because of the departure of John Nathan-Turner from the scene - it makes sense to pitch the books as more serious, adult novels.
But “Doctor Who for grown-ups” is, as a phrase, better as a marketing tactic than as a straightforward description of something. What it means to take Doctor Who and make it “for grown-ups” is ambiguous at best. Often when we say “for grown-ups” what we really mean is “not for kids,” and thus get something that can be accomplished more or less just by adding sex and violence.
Which brings us to Timewyrm: Genesys, a book whose sole claim to being for adults amounts to the fact that Gilgamesh sexually assaults everything in sight and everybody focuses on breasts a whole lot. I’m certainly not about to suggest that the idea of a good Doctor Who story about sex is impossible, but I’m pretty willing to suggest that this isn’t it. A sample paragraph, to show off the horrors:
“There was another woman with him. Her mind seemed paralyzed as she saw the king fondling this other creature. Why, it was the daughter of that inept Gudea, wasn’t it? That little slut, barely thirteen, barely marriable. And here she was, pretending to be a grown woman, putting herself on public display to have her body pawed by that egotistic lecher. The girl giggled as Gilgamesh slipped a hand down her front and tweaked.”
Ooh. Aren’t we edgy, talking about thirteen-year-old girls getting their breasts fondled by grown men because that’s how ancient Sumerian culture was and we’re being honest and oh gag me already while I take a bloody shower to wash the sheer ugliness of this sort of schoolboy version of “adult” off.
And what’s worse is that Peel has the Doctor play “don’t judge history” on this. When Ace suggests that she’ll fight back if Gilgamesh attempts to sexually assault her, the Doctor chastises her, saying “Ace, these trips of ours are supposed to broaden your mind. Stop thinking in twentieth century terms for a while.” It’s a wonder he doesn’t tell her to lie back and think of Iceworld. And it’s inexcusable and vile in a way that the series, even in the dark days of The Celestial Toymaker or The Twin Dilemma, never really attempted. I mean, let’s be clear - this isn’t just bland cultural relativism, it’s the Doctor chastising Ace for being upset at the potential of her own sexual assault.
The book also has a strange ambivalence as to what its audience is. On the one hand, it goes out of its way to find excuses to explain major precepts of the series for potential new readers that the Virgin line apparently thought it might pick up. On the other, however, it’s bursting at the seams with continuity references, no matter how awkward. (My top choice in the awkward sweepstakes, for what it’s worth: “Ace felt like she’d been kicked in the brain by a bad-tempered Cyberman.” Because Cybermen are, of course, known for kicking, and, for that matter, for having temperaments.) This results in bizarre moments such as an exploitation of what the cloister bell is that goes out of its way to name-check Logopolis for good measure, managing, in the process, to satisfy neither people who know what the cloister bell is nor people who don’t.
It’s easy to make the book a punching bag, particularly because John Peel is prone to proclamations like “It seemed almost fated that when W.H. Allen/Virgin decided to launch the New Adventures series, I’d be there, plotting and planning to write the very first of these original stories.” Things like that make picking on the flaws easy, and there are a fair number of them. This is, in other words, a hot mess of a book that doesn’t have the first clue what it wants to be. It’s not an auspicious start, but other than the rapey bits it’s not quite inauspicious either - it’s just a case of a book where it’s clear nobody has figured out what the line is supposed to be yet, and so tried something that clearly didn’t work. And, you know. Had the Doctor telling Ace it would be OK if she got raped a little.
More interesting, in many regards, is Timewyrm: Exodus, by Terrance Dicks. These days Dicks has done scads of adult Doctor Who books - two more for Virgin, two Eighth Doctor Adventures, and another five Past Doctor Adventures. But this was the first time he dipped his toe into those particular waters, and the result is… interesting. Really, there are several writers who have had interesting reactions to the transition to “adult” Doctor Who. In many cases it feels just as much like a constraint as a liberation - “oh, well, I guess we have to put in some sex.” But in Dicks’s case it’s clear that he felt liberated by the new audience, and like he could really cut loose and do a story he’s always wanted to do.
The thing is, apparently, when you give Terrance Dicks the freedom to unleash the darker corners of his mind and write a story for adults that doesn’t have any pesky constraints or censorship… you get Nazis. And, I mean, this isn’t entirely unfair - the Nazis are, in fact, really horrific. But there’s something deeply charming about the fact that, when told he can write an adult novel, Terrance Dicks is apparently the sort of person who goes, “at last, I can put something really horrible in my book. Like Nazis!” Compare to Ben Aaronovitch in a few weeks, or, for that matter, with John Peel a few paragraphs ago and the charm becomes evident.
Dicks’s transition to writing adult novels did not, of course, impact his storytelling. In fact, this book is an absolute triumph structurally - a plot that jumps across four settings, introduces a bevy of memorable characters, both historical and fictional, and packs in a large mass of information, and has an attack of brainwashed Nazi zombies to boot. It’s just about as much fun as one can have, and despite being packed to the gills the book absolutely sings. Dicks is majestic at keeping a busy book moving. This is no surprise - it’s what he’s good at, and he’s very, very good.
The result is much closer to a meaningful vision of what adult Doctor Who could be. It’s still a ripping adventure yarn, but there’s an aggressiveness to it. Dicks is visibly a World War II buff, and there’s a passion to the piece. He clearly relishes getting to put the Doctor in the same room as Hitler and Goering, and the sections where he gets to have the Doctor monologue about the behavior of totalitarian regimes are absolutely electric. Yes, the Nazis aren’t all that shocking, but that’s good for an adult book. Terrance Dicks is writing a mature book, but thank God someone did this early in the range. Because it shows what writing Doctor Who about serious topics can look like. If you can’t do Nazis right then you’re not going to do well with something that people see as inflammatory.
The problem is… Dicks doesn’t do Nazis right. I mean, he does them well, but there’s a horrible failure in this book. I remember, back in my wayward teenage years, playing a role-playing game - Vampire: The Masquerade. The game featured vampires in various powerful roles in society, manipulatively pulling humanity’s strings. And there was a note in one of the rulebooks that admonished players not to have vampires be responsible for everything, because it fundamentally weakens the moral horror of something like the Holocaust to suggest that it only happened because some magic people made it so.
That’s the problem Dicks runs smack into. In the midst of this vivid, punchy portrayal of all of the pathetic failings of the Nazis, Dicks has it so that the only reason Hitler ever came to power was that the Timewyrm possessed him, and because the War Chief pulled some strings. And the only reason he eventually lost was that the Doctor nipped by and exorcised the Timewyrm and sent the War Chief packing, so he went back to being the incompetent madman he always was. And there’s that characteristic blindness - the same one that came forth so vividly in Moonbase 3 and The Monster of Peladon - that persistently mars Dicks’s work. Because for the evil of the Nazis and of the Holocaust to mean anything, it has to be humans that did it. That’s why the Holocaust is horrific in a way that three million people dying in the 1931 China floods isn’t. Because we did it. Because actual, real people supported bringing the Nazis into power and committed their atrocities. Not some fucking space aliens. Us.
And Dicks is blind to it. And it’s such a frustrating paradox. Because the thing that seems to blind him is also what makes other parts of his book so good. The savage glee with which he can have the Doctor calmly rattle off all the interrogation techniques the Nazis are going to use and grumble when they’re not done well is the reason he’s prone to trivializing the moral horror of the Nazis by making them only succeed because of psychic amplifiers used on Hitler’s species. He’s so invested in the fact that noble modern liberal Britain is good and the Nazis were pathetic dictators that he can’t bring himself to treat the Nazis as the serious moral horror that they are. He’s more invested in his master narratives of good and evil than he is in the real world.
And so Timewyrm: Exodus doesn’t quite work either. It’s certainly miles better than Timewyrm: Genesys. It’s really quite a fun book, actually - a fact that only makes its moral failings more frustrating. But it’s not a vision of mature Doctor Who. Mature Doctor Who has to be more than doing the same old approach on slightly edgier ground.
Put another way, a mature approach to Doctor Who is going to have to do something that neither of these two books did - approach the subject starting from what the Cartmel era did and going further. In both of these books McCoy’s Doctor is basically “generic Doctor,” and Ace is just generic companion with anger management issues and explosives. There’s none of the materialism of the Cartmel era, and while Dicks squeezes some ordinary people into his book, his depiction of Nazi Germany and Nazi Britain is really just window dressing for him to deliver history lessons and broad ideas. There’s no sense of the mundane here - no sense of people’s everyday lives. The Cartmel era’s attentiveness to that was a big part of why it was such a leap forward, and any real attempt at mature Doctor Who is going to have to go through that.
So two books in, the New Adventures still haven’t figured out how to do mature Doctor Who. But equally, it’s a hard job to do. They didn’t get it in two books. And, not to spoil the next entry too badly, but they’re not going to get it in three either. In four, however…
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