Those Monsters Were Faked (Lucifer Rising)


I’ll Explain Later

Lucifer Rising provides the debut of both Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore, two of the more important of the novel writers. (We’ll see both again, and have, in fact, seen both before, though Andy Lane only in the Hartnell book.) It’s also the longest New Adventure to date, and one of the longest of the series. (I’m not certain, but I think only Warlock and Falls the Shadow are longer) While Deceit reintroduced Ace to the series, Lucifer Rising is the book that defines the character, with its plot hinging on Ace using the Doctor in order to investigate something on behalf of the International Mining Corporation and serving, for a stretch of the book, as one of the villains. It also serves as the end of Virgin’s Future History cycle, but as that’s the single most vaguely defined “arc” in Doctor Who it’s difficult to say much about that. It’s reasonably well-regarded, tucking in at twenty-seventh out of sixty-one on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, with a 71% rating. At the time of release Gary Russell, in his last column of Doctor Who reviews, calls it “an evocative science fiction novel” and refers warmly to its “overall splendor,” while more recently Lars Pearson says that it’s rightly praised as “a blood-pumping, brink-of-disaster feast,” though suggests the book has padding akin to that of an old-fashioned six-parter. DWRG SummaryWhoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.

It’s May of 1993. George Michael, Queen, and Lisa Stansfield are at number one with the “Five Live” EP. They stay there for three weeks before Ace of Base unseats them with “All That She Wants,” staying at number one for the rest of the month. R.E.M., Janet Jackson, UB40, Bon Jovi, and Tina Turner also chart.

While in the news, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa is assassinated by a suicide bomber. Eritrea becomes a country. Pierre Bérégovoy, the former prime minister of France, commits suicide. Ireland wins the Eurovision song contest. And the Conservatives continue to be obviously doomed in the next election, as they will until the next election.

And in literature, it’s Lucifer Rising. One of the first things we should note about this book is its swagger. It unfolds on an impressive scale, not in the sense of being epic, but in the sense of having a wealth of ideas and set pieces that are both interesting and take advantage of the novel’s lack of budgetary restraints. Lars Pearson, as I mentioned, compared it to a six-parter, but I’d go a step further: this is very much in the spirit of the Pertwee-era, where six-part stories were, after all, the most common structure. It’s not just the inclusion of IMC from Colony in Space that flags this as a Pertwee-esque adventure either. The entire space opera texture of it screams Pertwee era, and the density of ideas implicit in things like the multi-dimensional Legion or the complex workings of the planet Lucifer itself almost scream Baker and Martin (particularly the Baker and Martin of, say, The Mutants).

That this is striking is in and of itself a bit odd. Ostensibly the New Adventures have been in the midst of what they called their Future History cycle since Love and War. The idea of this cycle was to explore the Earth’s future history, although no clear attempt at a timeline manifests itself and in practice what we get is a bunch of books set in the future with nothing else to link them. And yet these books mostly avoided any sort of classic space opera, with only Love and War, Deceit, and Lucifer Rising poking towards it. Love and War, though, is almost as far from space opera as one can get in inclination (and no surprise given Cornell’s obvious, albeit fascinated dislike of the Pertwee era), and Deceit is fairly far from the approach as well. But Lucifer Rising, under the hood, is recognizably space opera.

To some extent this simply continues our larger theme this week of how the antiheroic thrust of the 1990s intersected Doctor Who. Space opera belongs to that pre-cyberpunk image of the future that is based primarily on space travel. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the New Adventures, and indeed the classic series, has been avoiding for years now. The last scientific outpost in space that is endangered by a combination of monsters and human politics was the default setup for Pertwee space stories (and, for that matter, for Pertwee UNIT stories, only with on Earth). Bu the last time we had one was, what, Terror of the Vervoids? Which was itself a Pertwee throwback. Before that you’ve got Caves of Androzani, which this story also explicitly tips its hat to by reusing the Frau/Trau terms of respect Holmes used there. This hasn’t been what Doctor Who did for years.

And the return to it is not a straightforward one based on imitating the past. The Pertwee era featured what is in many ways the most straightforwardly heroic take on the Doctor ever, surpassing even Tom Baker’s continual efforts to seek the audience’s love. Yes, there’s still an oddness, with Pertwee playing the Doctor as a sort of glam performance of the heroic role instead of just as a straightforward action hero, but it’s the polar opposite of the New Adventures’ antiheroic take. And that was a key part of the sort of Doctor Who that Lucifer Rising is an heir to, and the part that Lucifer Rising itself seeks consciously to omit.

In this case we have two distinctly antiheroic characters: the Doctor and Ace. And while for the most part in the New Adventures it’s the Doctor who gets the praise and post-Love and War Ace that is criticized, in this book at least it’s Ace that gets the better of it. Her plot involves her manipulating the Doctor into investigating events on Lucifer, then betraying him and everyone else to Legion on behalf of IMC, before, in the last act, betraying Legion and IMC instead. It’s important to reconstruct how shocking this is in its original context. From Deceit to her eventual departure in Set Piece New Ace is a companion for twenty-two novels and nearly two straight years. In number of stories this beats out even Jamie, who only appears in twenty stories. It’s a very long run for a companion, and as a result her nature is fairly well understood, including her lengthy period of having a lot of angst over the Doctor (which lasts for ten straight books, up until Paul Cornell’s No Future).

But the fact that we’re familiar with the arc of the character obscures just how shocking her actions in this specific story are. In May of 1993 nobody knew just who New Ace was, whereas Classic Ace was a very known quantity. And the idea of Ace manipulating the Doctor or consciously betraying him to the story’s villains is almost unthinkable in that context. But in the aftermath of this book that betrayal makes up the lion’s share of what we know about New Ace, retconning as it does her rejoining the Doctor in the previous book. Even though she comes around to the good guys at the end there’s a real extent to which she is a deeply unpredictable character after this.

But what Mortimore and Lane do that’s clever is to use the same trick Paul Cornell uses on the Doctor in Love and War on this new version of Ace. Yes, this version of Ace is more violent, angrier, and untrustworthy. But she’s still firmly grounded in the same confused and childish nature that the character has always been. At least in Lucifer Rising it’s a mistake to treat Ace as a grizzled soldier antihero. She’s not at all. Instead she’s her original concept - a children’s television version of an urban teenager - pushed a step further into a children’s television version of a space marine antihero, saying things like “I’d do anything not to be confused, Bernice. Anything… so don’t confuse me any more than I am already.” Similarly, she later pouts that she prefers Legion’s orders to the Doctor’s because “at least my boss says he’s my boss, and doesn’t pretend to be my friend” immediately before Benny and Christine, a psychologist, observe that she clearly doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing. But the real telling moment comes in the climax, as Ace confronts a vision of Jan from Love and War and tells him that “I never loved you. I only went with you because he disapproved.”

All of this applies an interesting twist to the antihero concept, making it so that instead of being a case of Doctor Who getting darker and more serious the antihero gets repurposed through its “skewing our perspective on bits of culture with the lens of an unusually flexible children’s adventure series” approach. Even when Doctor Who is no longer “for children” in any meaningful sense - and the New Adventures clearly aren’t - this approach works and yields interesting dividends. Ace comes out of this as just about the least predictable Doctor Who companion ever - like Turlough only functional and on steroids, and yet extending sensibly from who she was all the way back to Dragonfire.

The Doctor, however, fares less well. His antiheroic turn in this book centers largely on a scene at the end in which, having concluded (with little impetus other than Ace saying mean things to him) that he’s “stained his soul” by manipulating others to do his dirty work for him, shoots and kills Legion himself. This is, it seems, meant to be a big, revealing character moment in which we’re meant to be surprised by just how far the Doctor is willing to go, complete with references to his failures to stop the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks and Resurrection of the Daleks, but…

For one thing, the Doctor killing the monster just isn’t a big deal. Even if he uses a gun. Yes, there are scattered high profile instances of the Doctor actively refusing violence, specifically with a gun, but there’s also Patrick Troughton giddily gunning down Ice Warriors. And this is McCoy’s Doctor. He’s talking about his cowardice in not stopping the Daleks or shooting Davros? The one who blew up the Daleks’ planet? And we’re supposed to have him shooting Legion send shivers down our spine?

But this points to a larger issue with this sort of attempt to add a moment of shock about how far a character will go, which is that there are diminishing returns. The Ace bits work in part because Ace is pushed further than she’s gone before. The Doctor bits don’t because it’s tough to be shocked by him anymore. (Though the novels certainly will pull off a few more shocking Doctor moments, including a jaw-dropping one by Jim Mortimore in a few entries’ time) But given that the trick used to make Ace’s antiheroic darkness work is largely recycled from Love and War, one imagines that the trick will wear thin with her as well.

And what’s troubling about Lucifer Rising is that for the most part the book works fine without these efforts to shock. For most of the book it’s a solid sci-fi thriller with good mysteries, an excellent and memorable supporting cast, and one where the darker version of the Doctor that’s been established over past volumes can simply be himself, allowing the book to be a sharp, modern take on the Pertwee era in the same way that The Highest Science is a sharp, modern take on the Williams era. But instead the book falls victim to a frustrating insistence on second guessing its own concept.

And this is a real problem. It’s not so much the turn to a darker and more antiheroic Doctor that doesn’t work, but rather the obsession with constantly challenging it. There’s a continual sense that the New Adventures aren’t actually quite at peace with their own take on the Doctor and feel as though they need to make the Doctor’s conflict over his own morality into a major facet of the story. And it’s beginning to display diminishing returns. If we’re being honest, the book would have been just as good - perhaps even better - without the tedious bit about the Doctor staining his soul. But instead the book tries to hedge it, not quite willing to commit to the darker image of the Doctor, and undercutting itself in the process. And this is a problem, and one that plagues the Virgin books throughout their run. It’s not that the antiheroic Doctor doesn’t work: it’s that he has to be let off the chain to be antiheroic instead of endlessly explored as an abstract concept. Lucifer Rising is proof that the concept can work. Which makes it all the more maddening that it’s not quite allowed to.

Or perhaps more worryingly, it’s too scared to. This is a book that could have functioned well by just being a Doctor Who story. Instead it’s so paralyzed by its own anxiety over being one that it second-guesses itself into something less than what it is. This is a larger problem with the New Adventures, and one we’ll look at in the week ahead: they frequently seem just a bit ashamed about the fact that they’re Doctor Who.


encyclops 8 years, 4 months ago

I think your last sentence especially is spot on. I welcome and love "non-traditional" Doctor Who stories -- my top 5 includes 3 of them -- but the impression I often got from the NAs was that they were the science fiction novels the authors wanted to write but with the Doctor hovering around acting as a chaperone.

I also want to stick up for the Pertwee era, which I adored and still do. If nothing else, it's the closest thing this show has to comfort food. One might argue that's exactly what Doctor Who shouldn't be, and one would have a very good point, but I think a show with 32 seasons on TV alone (and counting) can afford a few years of comfortable.

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David Anderson 8 years, 4 months ago

Does the last sentence mean, 'they're a bit ashamed that they're being rad with Doctor Who and so are held back by the urge to throw bones to the trad fans' or does it mean 'they're a bit ashamed that they're writing Doctor Who rather than something more supposedly adult'?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 8 years, 4 months ago

The latter.

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Tommy 8 years, 4 months ago

I'd say the Williams era was the main 'comfort food' era of Doctor Who. But Pertwee era close behind.

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Josh Marsfelder 8 years, 4 months ago

I would argue the Williams era is far too experimental and far too rocky to be called "comfort food" television. The Pertwee era is pretty consistently enjoyable, yes, more often than not guiltily so, but I would still argue there's a bit more going on even there. Surely "comfort food" is what Nathan-Turner and Saward were aiming for with the Davison era? "Art is meant to soothe" and all that?

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Matthew Celestis 8 years, 4 months ago

Are you going to do a Pop Between Realities on Warhammer 40,000 at some point? That was a surprisingly important corner of British science fiction in the 90s.

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encyclops 8 years, 4 months ago

I'd say there's more going on in Pertwee too ("if nothing else"). If Saward wanted Davison to be comforting, I'm not sure he succeeded; all the bickering, for example, and the most Sawardy episodes ("Earthshock," "Resurrection," arguably even "Warriors of the Deep") are unpleasant to watch for all sorts of reasons. And if they were still aiming for it in Colin's era they REALLY failed.

I think the reasons why the Pertwee era hits me that way are threefold: first, there's the whole UNIT family thing going on; second, there's the homey Earth setting for so much of it (and note the effect those elements have on the new series); and third, I watched tons of Pertwee as a kid and still react to it as one most of the time.

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Adam Riggio 8 years, 4 months ago

I get the feeling this conflict between the conceptions of Doctor Who as for children and having adult fans is going to be a major theme of the analysis during the wilderness years. As I think about it, you seeded the tension in your essays on the McCoy tv stories: they're best understood as children's television dealing with very mature themes, which is how you demonstrated the value of the much-hated Season 24. But because of the size and power of the edifice that the NAs are, that children's tv aspect of McCoy's Doctor was erased.

I'm reminded of one of the commenters (can't remember precisely who it was) who told one of his teachers that he was starting to read Doctor Who novels, and she was so happy that he was engaging with such a wholesome form of children's entertainment. And the first novel he picked up was Transit.

It goes back to the worst moments of the Ian Levine image of the show: Doctor Who was a children's show with adult fans, those adult fans basically being immature man-children (and it's demonstrated with some of the worst moments on our message boards). Your introduction to the Colin Baker era, popping between realities to visit Max Headroom and Tripods, concentrated on this problem of being simultaneously for children and adults while trying to make sense. The Saward era was a complete stumble, aiming to be more adult in what would have been the John Peel / Genesys mould, but the writing itself being as sophisticated as condescending kid's tv with Pip n Jane being the paragons.

The NAs had a more successful approach — it was largely adults who were the audience and the actual readers, but it ends up being the same problem of incompatibility. They just ended up writing good sci-fi novels for adults that had Doctor Who's name and protagonists in them.

Does the Davies model of family television supply the best answer to this conundrum yet? Looking back at the McCoy era, I felt remarkable similarities in tone to Davies' approach. The difference is the RTD had a budget that could be seen without the aid of a microscope.

And how important is Joss Whedon and Buffy to developing the family-sci-fi-adventure paradigm?

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Josh Marsfelder 8 years, 4 months ago

I don't think it was Saward as much as it was Nathan-Turner himself here, but yes, the fact they were aiming for "soothing" television whilst at the same time attempting nonsense like "Earthshock" and the soap opera angle I think shows off how impressively schizoid and unfocused much of that era was. By Colin Baker everyone was just running on autopilot and making choices completely divorced from context or good taste and they wound up paying hard for that.

As for Pertwee, I definitely see your point. While I have issues with the whole "UNIT Family" interpretation, I did very much enjoy the chemistry between the various leads. For me though the choice of Earth as a setting is less comforting and more an attempt have The Doctor stick around to deal with the consequences of his actions (which is why Davies nicked it for his tenure) while at the same time looking after the ailing budget. That said, I get how it can be seen as homey too.

Your third point is the one I most readily get behind: I think any era of Doctor Who we're exposed to most as kids is going to be the one we can go back to the easiest and look at with the most innate fondness. That's why I'll go back and gleefully watch the knockoff Quatermass/Manchurian Candidate antics of Season 7 anytime despite it admittedly barely qualifying as Doctor Who and one of, but not the only, reasons I'll jump to defend the Graham Williams era more often than not.

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Josh Marsfelder 8 years, 4 months ago

To pick up Adam's point, I'm interested in the etymology of the "family science fiction show" genre. It seems to me the term is bandied about a lot these days to describe a show the creators think is predominantly for children, but they say it's for "families" so as not to offendXalienateXembarass its large adult following. Doctor Who, would, of course, be the archetypical "family" show: "Well, it's for kids but adults like it too". Last week's "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" embodied this mentality perfectly for me, because it seemed custom-tailored to appeal to children (and a particular conception of children and children's interests at that) with a few token parent service winks and nudges scattered liberally throughout to show it has a boardroom-approved randy side.

What I don't understand is why we can't have a show that merely works on multiple levels. I can conceive of a show that is written primarily for adults with adult themes and sensibilities but has enough breadth and scope that kids find something to enjoy about it and connect with. The show might be for adults, but kids can like it too for similar yet distinct reasons and they won't feel talked down to. In other words, different audiences like the same show for different reasons and neither feels like a periphery demographic.

Actually, I can do more the conceive of such a show, I can cite it. It was called Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG was definitely adult, especially later on, but it had an enormous following among kids. Adults liked the undiluted, though concentrated and bite-size, philosophy, the consummate professionalism of the acting and production and the strong character development while kids liked the awesome starships, action sequences, distinct, likable and iconic characters, cool aliens and special effects that were in a league of their own.

The huge Next Generation toy line from Playmates should be evidence of this fact if nothing else (indeed the Playmates line is a bit of a microcosm: It helped pioneer the idea of a collector's market as kids would buy the toys to play with while adults bought them to fill out their shelves). Deep Space Nine is even more clearly so being a very, very mature series, arguable even more so than latter-day TNG (it's telling the creative team went on to helm Battlestar Galactica) but it still had a audience among children that it inherited from TNG.

I think there have been times Doctor Who has operated this way as well, though I hesitate to claim this is how the series works right now. I'll readily confess this is my preferred SOP for the show: I'd much rather have a show that appeals to everyone equally for different reasons instead of one that's unabashedly pandering to kids (or a hazily-defined list of what it thinks kids like) that treats adult fandom as a guilty pleasure as I would argue the current stewardship of the New Series is or a hardcore adult sci-fi series that's a bit ashamed to be associated with children's entertainment, as the New Adventures would seem to have been.

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Ununnilium 8 years, 4 months ago

Honestly, I would call the New Series a perfect example of what you're talking about. I don't think you'd get episodes like Midnight on a show meant as For Kids Specifically.

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5tephe 8 years, 4 months ago

I would also cite Pixar films (most notably the Toy Story's, and especially the Incredibles) as pulling off that trick.

but then, ever notice the main screen writing credit on Toy Story (the first)?

Joss Whedon.

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Spacewarp 8 years, 4 months ago

[fan-gush] Nice to see some long-overdue Pertwee-love![/fan-gush]. I tend to think of Pertwee and Tom's first couple of seasons as examples of Doctor Who being perfect Doctor Who - trying something new while ensuring it still entertains the kids. Both were brave departures from the previous incarnation of the show and yet both sought to ensure they didn't sacrifice the casual viewer on the alter of fandom.

Which as people have pointed out is also a fair summation of the New Series.

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Spacewarp 8 years, 4 months ago

"What I don't understand is why we can't have a show that merely works on multiple levels..."

Quoted just to indicate which post I'm referring to, though I'm addressing the whole.

Your comparison with ST:TNG is a good one, and I highlights the difficulty in getting Doctor Who "just right". I honestly think that Doctor Who is an incredibly difficult show to produce. Unlike ST, there are fewer consistent elements to write a show round. ST has a space-ship, a consistent galactic background (Federation society, Klingons, Borg etc) and a relatively solid ensemble cast that stories can be constructed around. The Enterprise visits a Federation outpost/explores a new planet/tussles with the Klingons/Borg/Romulans/Q. Doctor Who on the other hand has very little in the way of solid background. It has a ship - the TARDIS - but that is rarely used as the backbone of a story (unlike ST where Enterprise-centric stories are common). It has a small and changeable ensemble cast and a leading man whose character is far less consistent than a Jen Luc Picard or a James T Kirk. Apart from this very small continuity (and the fact that the Doctor arrives somewhere and solves stuff), every week the show is almost entirely different from the week before. Different aliens, different society, different time-period. In fact the one time the show had the largest ensemble cast (UNIT) and the most consistent background (exiled to Earth) it was arguably at it's most successful with the general public (and later at it's most despised within fandom for it's formulaic stories).

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