Time Can Be Rewritten 18 (Spare Parts)

(67 comments)

I somewhat adamantly refused to cover the Big Finish line on this blog before this post, simply because I felt like I should start with a “proper” Big Finish audio from their most distinguished line. The Hartnell book has a Companion Chronicles entry in it, and the Troughton, Pertwee, and Baker books will also have Big Finish bonus entries (The Prison in Space, Find and Replace, and Destination: Nerva, most likely). But in terms of the blog, this is where Big Finish enters. So I suppose we should do the ticky box business of explaining what I’m on about before we get to the fun stuff.

Big Finish are the crowning achievement of the professional fan industry - a bunch of people so good at fan-made Doctor Who audios and audio adaptations of some of the Virgin books that they managed to secure a license in 1999 to do original Doctor Who audios. This is important in several regards. First, it led to a considerably muddier sense of what current Doctor Who was in the half-decade before the return of the series. During the Virgin era there was one official continuation of Doctor Who - the New Adventures. You could love them or hate them, but they were the quasi-official Doctor Who. Their replacement with the BBC Books line was controversial enough in its own right, but the fact that the BBC Books line took a turn into the massively controversial a year after Big Finish started and that six months later Big Finish began its own line of 8th Doctor stories meant that for the bulk of the McGann years there were two barely compatible versions of “new Doctor Who” being made.

Second, like the Virgin books Big Finish has had visible impact on the new series. Two stories - Rob Shearman’s Jubilee and this one - were consciously adapted into television stories. Big Finish staff have worked on the program (more about this in a moment), and, perhaps most impressively, Big Finish have managed to retain the rights to produce audios to this day. (Part of this latter point is a genuinely touching bit of public service. Big Finish in effect provides a retirement home for former Doctor Who actors. Its creative merits aside - and there are, in fact, many creative merits - the fact that it gives a modest paycheck to a large number of people who have contributed substantially to Doctor Who, and that it does this by giving them creative work instead of putting them on exhibit in convention halls, is a genuinely good thing.) The Big Finish line is genuinely important to the story of Doctor Who - you simply can’t cover the beginnings of the new series without also stopping off and talking about things like Jubilee and, well, Spare Parts.

Right. Intro material sorted, into the good stuff. The first and most striking thing, when listening to Spare Parts, is how maddeningly possible it is. Marc Platt wrote for Doctor Who just seven years after the period we’re talking about. The media technology needed to make this story’s basic concept - a true return of the original Tenth Planet-style Cybermen - sensible and coherent is just a few years off. The style of writing here is firmly in the tradition laid out by Kinda. It’s not quite true that this story could have actually been made in 1982, but it’s so very, very close to true as to actively hurt.

Because Spare Parts is a tour de force. It is a triumphantly good story that illustrates brutally what the move to a more continuity-aware vision of Doctor Who should have been. It uses the history of Doctor Who to tell a story that is only possible with a large amount of mythos feeding into them instead of one that treats the history of the show as intrinsically worth repeating. It’s character-based, it has dramatic moments that put the supposed drama of Earthshock to shame, and it’s very possibly the best Doctor Who story the blog has looked at so far.

It’s impossible not to constantly compare Spare Parts to Earthshock, so let’s just embrace it. First, let’s notch one last complaint I had about Earthshock but left out of that entry because it was already getting long and I knew I had this one coming. The Cybermen in Earthshock suck. They are nothing but puissant robots who strut around and gloat. Nothing of the original horror in their concept is retained. They are the blandest and most interchangeable of monsters imaginable, treated in such a way as to fundamentally undermine the basic logic of bringing them back.

I bring this up because Spare Parts is the return of the Cybermen. The real Cybermen. The ones who killed the Doctor in 1966. The most striking aspect of this is the mind-wrenchingly bold decision to actually reproduce the Cybermen voices from The Tenth Planet. This, in turn, brings us to Nicholas Briggs, who is one of the most talented voice actors in the world today. Briggs makes fairly regular appearances across the Big Finish line doing various monster voices, and is good enough at it that he got brought on as the voice of several monsters in the new series.

What is extraordinary about Briggs’s monster voices is that he is capable of taking the design of a monster voice and then making it do things well in excess of the distinctive scariness it was actually made for. His Daleks are extraordinary in this regard - one of the most astonishing moments in Doctor Who comes in Rob Shearman’s Dalek when the Dalek screams in pain. The moment works not just because that’s not something a Dalek is supposed to do conceptually, but because of the frisson of hearing the iconic Dalek voice doing something it was never made to do while still retaining all of its iconic power. And that latter element is all Nicholas Briggs.

Here he manages to take the sing-song voices of the original Cybermen and weaponize them. They were always compelling in part because they were a perverse parody of human speech, but Briggs spends the audio constantly finding new ways to push them. They remain ridiculous, but they rapidly become a genuinely scary sort of ridiculousness that leaves you laughing nervously at them.

This frees the Cybermen up to be what they were always supposed to be - twisted parodies of humanity instead of iconic monsters. Throughout The Tenth Planet the basic horror of the Cybermen is “what the HELL is that thing” - a threat that is lost in every subsequent appearance of them when they simply become “Oh cool, Cybermen.” But here it’s back, with the Cybermen being made horrifying and shocking simply by going back to their original, rejected form.

Similarly, effort is constantly made to make the Cybermen a natural outcropping of Mondasian culture. The fact that Mr. Hartley has a chest-box despite still being human and the fact that the name “Cyberman” is not here a monster name but a variant of the Mondasian pattern of job descriptions (there are also Sistermen and Doctormen in the story). Mondas is similarly played as a twisted reflection of Earth - we continually see a celebration that sounds identical to Christmas only to find out late in the story that all of the symbols of Christmas serve double duty as symbols about the long, dark journey of Mondas through the night. All of this works to restore the Cybermen as our qlippothic doubles. (The establishment that it’s the formation of the moon that cast Mondas off into the darkness is, for those interested in the occult symbolism of the Cybermen, as great as their weakness to gold.)

There are two important things to note about this. The first is that it sets up one of Spare Parts’s more gleefully savage twists as it turns out that the Doctor is, in fact, the template for the design of the Cybermen. On the surface this sounds like a lame variant of the “the Doctor helped create the Time Lords” idea that is at once inevitable and depressing. But Platt (largely responsible for that twist as well) pitches it differently, making the Doctor’s role in the creation of the Cybermen a tragic and inadvertent accident borne of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the result creates a compelling circularity with The Tenth Planet. The Doctor doesn’t realize that the Cybermen are, in fact, his own dark mirror. Of course their energy destroys him. Hartnell’s regeneration becomes literally reframed as him being killed by the future of the franchise.

Second and more important is the relationship this has with continuity in general. This is something I’ve poked at for several entries, but here we can firmly set it up as a narrative principle in contrast with Earthshock. Undoubtedly both Spare Parts and Earthshock rely on references to past Doctor Who stories. But there’s a very, very big difference and the role of the Cybermen in them illustrates it. Earthshock is based on the premise that seeing the Cybermen again is inherently worthwhile. That is to say, the references to the past are an end in themselves. Spare Parts references the past, but goes further by having something to say about the past. It’s not just treating playing with old Doctor Who concepts as intrinsically entertaining, it’s treating it as a springboard for a look at the nature of the concepts and as a source of dramatic tension (by having the implicit possibility that stopping the Cybermen from existing would save Adric). The former is masturbatory and doomed. The latter, on the other hand, is a type of storytelling that is only possible when dealing with mythic characters with a lot of history. The fact that you can do a story like Spare Parts in Doctor Who is a reason why Doctor Who itself is valuable instead of the basic premise of an anthology time travel show with a new setting every story. Because you can’t do Spare Parts with Inspector Space-Time.

This sense of drama gets at the second reason why Spare Parts is miles better than Earthshock. Earthshock’s big dramatic moment - the death of Adric - is an ersatz simulacrum of drama. It acts like drama without actually risking being compelling. Compare it, then, to the scene in which Yvonne, partially processed as a Cyberman, returns home to show off her uniform to her family. Apart from being the best use of the Cybermen voices in the entire story (and I’m not actually sure if Cyber-Yvonne is voiced by the same actress who voices her regularly or by Briggs) it’s a moment that is just horrendously upsetting. I happened to be at that point in the audio when I took a ride with my girlfriend in the car, and she ended up hearing it. She’s a new series fan, so familiar with the Cybermen, but had heard none of the audio leading up to that point. But without any context whatsoever beyond about two sentences of “here’s what’s going on” or familiarity with the characters she was still floored and horrified by the sequence. It packs more dramatic punch with a character who has only appeared for two episodes - with a character you don’t even have to have met at all - than two seasons of buildup prior to the death of Adric possibly can.

The sense of character extends beyond this. Nyssa’s plotline fundamentally depends on her kindness and desire to help others, the Doctor repeatedly makes poor decisions because of his own internal conflicts over what he should or shouldn’t do to stop the Cybermen, and the secondary characters have motivations and personalities that inform what they do, most obviously within the Hartley family. And Platt is willing to push characters to genuine emotional extremes - Doctorman Allen angrily drinking herself to oblivion is a deliciously extreme emotional high that serves as an effective reminder that intensity in drama matters.

This also gets at the third thing that Spare Parts and Earthshock both do, one brilliantly and the other ineptly. Earthshock, largely by accident, involves itself visibly in the politics of its time by presenting an image of the military. I say largely by accident because the early Nathan-Turner era is fairly deliberately apolitical, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as apolitical fiction. When you represent real-world institutions, whether directly or allegorically, you make political comments. (This is a point driven home repeatedly by The Unfolding Text, to its credit - they absolutely eviscerate Terrance Dicks for trying to claim that the Peladon stories were apolitical.) And Earthshock does this without thinking about it, and as a result ends up lending moral support to principles that rapidly showed themselves to be genuinely horrific.

Spare Parts, on the other hand, is written by one of Andrew Cartmel’s merry band of anti-Thatcherite radicals and it shows. Platt is writing about a society in crisis and about the terrible things that people use crises to justify doing. He is writing about the ways in which government secrecy and keeping things from the people allows things to be done in the people’s names that would never be done if they could weigh in and see each incremental step. Spare Parts is not an overt political screed about the time it’s written in or the time it’s set in. But there’s a materialism to it - a commitment to the ideas of social realism that have animated Doctor Who at its best - that is direly lacking in Earthshock and that is why Earthshock is almost sociopathic in its approach to the world.

So what we have here is a story with something to say about our world that says it through genuine character and drama and that could only be told within the structure of Doctor Who. If this isn’t what Doctor Who is fundamentally for - the reason why we still have it fifty years later - I honestly don’t know what is. Spare Parts is straightforwardly an example of why the show exists.

Unfortunately, one of the stories - not the only story, but one of them - that goes on over the next four seasons of Doctor Who is the story of a series that tries desperately to get from where it is to what this audio is doing and finally makes it only to find out that it was too late to save itself. How fitting that that’s basically the plot of Spare Parts as well.

Comments

Eric Gimlin 4 years, 11 months ago

I haven't listened to any Doctor Who audio other than missing episodes, but I'll give this a go. One nice thing about Big Finish, it seems many of their programs are "first hit is cheap", so part one is only 99 cents. And unlike most of the books, the audios are actually available. Although some of the BBC books are starting to show up for Kindle, so that might be useful if more of the range starts showing up.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

"The early Nathan-Turner era is fairly deliberately apolitical, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as apolitical fiction"

From your political perspective, yes, but that's an all too conveniently sealed argument. From a Leftist standpoint, non-political is necessarily political because historical materialism allows no space for any extra-political thinking to be philosophically meaningful. If you think dialectically, then of course the concept of a non-politics is absurd. But if you think on the other hand that history is, say, randomly generated, or cyclical, or a series of expanding and collapsing soap bubbles, or if you think that God has already written down everything that has happened or will happen, then "politics", as in class struggle, the fight against dictatorship, for civil rights, for a fair wage etc. – well, it's not illusory, because however illusory the illusion it might have some necessary relation to the reality that projects it, but it's still not going to be any more significant that the need for an antibiotic or a warm bed after a hard day's work. It meets a physical need, but no more than that. As Burroughs said, "politics" is mistaking the cloth for the matador. Non-politics is what you get if you don't accept that history is going anywhere or if you do think that a God is orchestrating it. I think you are implying that there's something lazy or ignorant about an artist's refusal to engage with contemporary politics, and I think that's a very partial judgement.

"They are nothing but puissant robots who strut around and gloat. Nothing of the original horror in their concept is retained."

And yet they were brought back. They didn't come back for Pertwee, although I believe that was thanks to Terry Nation, and they were reduced to impuissant robots by Holmes. It's surely old-fashioned of you, and not very post-modern, to insist on the "original horror". Once the horror has gone, it's gone. Surely the Cybermen are no longer villains or monsters as the programme once understood the term. You could almost say that they've become anti-heroes. If Gene Hunt had dreamt of intergalactic villany back when he was a rookie cop, he might well have emerged on "the other side" as Cyberleader. And these new Cybermen will need Lytton like the Daleks at a particular historical point needed a Davros.

"moral support to principles that rapidly showed themselves to be genuinely horrific."

I watched "Yesterdays Enemy" last night (the Peter R Newman Hammer film about Burma). 8.5/10, very very good. What principles do you have in mind? Nothing horrific is ever called "genuinely horrific". Misidentifying the horror is the oldest way of avoiding having to think about the horror.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

"a commitment to the ideas of social realism that have animated Doctor Who at its best".

This I can't forgive. Social Realism has been the close to artistic death of British film and TV, not because it portrays working class life, but because it portrays it as a limiting example of the possible forms of portrayal. It's what blinded British critics to the later work of Ken Russell. It makes Ken Loach and Mike Leigh major directors, and how poverty-stricken does our national cinema have to be to allow that? "Even our dreams cower small". From Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to It's a Free World, I just find it tragic to contemplate the wasted talent and lost potential.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

It occurs to me that the Earthshock Cybermen are the first Dr Who monsters a watching child might conceivably "want to be".

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

"the death of Adric - is an ersatz simulacrum of drama."

Whom to blame for just not being able to get the writers? Extraordinary that a programme that once had Holmes and Adams as script editors is now reduced to Eric Saward. I still don't know whether to blame changes in society, BBC management, JNT, ES, or the ability of the cast. The talent simply wasn't there – or wasn't hired – to do it any other way.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

In the context of the claim that, 'Nothing of their original horror is maintained', it is interesting to remember that it was the 'Earthshock' costumes that were the first since 'The Tenth Planet' to actually include any reference to the organic origins of the Cybermen, with the insistence upon those clear plastic chin-pieces so that the (blackened) mouths of the actors could be seen behind them.

In the plot, indeed, the important aspects of the Cybermen are ignored and they are simply Generic Intergalactic Villains. But there was clearly some recognition on the part of the production team that they were more than that, and that even if they couldn't get to it in 'Earthshock' because 'Earthshock' was an action story about generic intergalactic villainy, they were going to get to it sooner or later: and that's why you end up with the half-converted grotesques of 'Attack of the Cybermen'.

(As for 'apolitical fiction'... I find it sad to think that fiction should be tied down to such a meagre realm as politics, which it ought to be addressing the deepest parts of essential human nature -- of which the politics of any particular era, including our own, is merely a superficial reflection)

(Anyone else find it ironic, on this and the 'Earthshock' entry, that you are constantly being asked to prove you are not a robot?)

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Is it just me who can't wait to see what Dr Sandifer makes of Anji?

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Oh, I see somebody did mention the robot thing over the weekend.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 11 months ago

It's not just from a leftist standpoint, though you use language which specifically identifies it as such.

To take a different example, one method of analysing anything is to build up the big picture from all the little pieces (I forget the technical name for this model). It's basically the same as the closed-system ecology concept of the flapping butterfly in Iraq causing a mosquito to bite Donald Rumsfeld. In this system, everything impacts on everything else. Hence, everything is political.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

That depends on how you define 'politics'. If you subscribe to this notion that 'everything is political' then yes, but only because you've defined 'politics' as 'everything anyone ever does ever'.

Which is of course the progressive-left-liberal position: 'the personal is political' and all that. But that, pace Dr Sandifer, is rubbish.

On the other hand, as soon as you have the idea that 'politics' refers to a specific bounded thing such that any action, whether personal or philosophical, can be non-political, you introduce the possibility that art can be non-political too.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

I think the standpoint of "the necessity of making moral and artistic judgements based on a person's failure to understand the nature of the political" is overwhelmingly a Left one. As a closed system I think it's more like a reductive Freudianism: "You deny it because you're in denial". I would agree, say, that all things are interconnected in terms of their significance, but we might differ on the overall shape of the great chain.

Now I'm here, I have to say I think Phil is afflicted by what I'm going to call "Oppositional Realism", which requires all opposition to be framed or re-framed in terms of anti-Capitalism, and then blames Capitalism for people being unable to think or dream outside the limits set by Capital. It's part of what did for Occupy IMO – letting Marxists in. And hence the on-going reinvention of the Facist Other, concealing the transformational potential of Fascism and thus the barbarities which follow on from revolutionary thinking. The usual fairytale is that Hitler was the tool of the Capitalists. This helps prevent people dreaming politically outside the Revolutionary scenario. The history of Crass as a popular punk phenomenon and the vilification they received by the UK music press sets out the whole of my argument, I'd add as a side note.

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David Anderson 4 years, 11 months ago

I would say that the political is what happens when people live together and have to work out how to do so.
By that definition, the political is a fundamental aspect of human existence.
I agree that, if by the political you mean the ephemeral arguments about whether to elect Coodle or Doodle, it is a fairly bounded realm, but it's not merely the left strictu senso who think that that's largely a sideshow distracting us from important questions. As for example, arguments over Team Edward vs Team Jacob shut out the possibility of Team These books are not much good.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 11 months ago

"as soon as you have the idea that 'politics' refers to a specific bounded thing such that any action, whether personal or philosophical, can be non-political, you introduce the possibility that art can be non-political too."

You have to restrict your definition of "politics" to achieve that idea; for example, among the definitions listed by the Oxford dictionaries online is "the assumptions or principles relating to or inherent in a sphere, theory, or thing". Can art exist without assumptions or principles?

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Certainly by that definition, which is one I'd accept, the political is a fundamental aspect of human existence.

The point is that it is not the only fundamental aspect of human existence, or even the most fundamental. And art is quite capable of addressing those other fundamental aspects of human existence which are deeper than merely working out how to live together.

(The usual Marxist argument against this is that in fact how to live together is the only fundamental aspect of human existence, and anything which is not about how to live together is actively trying to distract people from that, and therefore -- because the only important part of any art is its effect -- is counter-revolutionary because people distracted into thinking about other fundamentals of human nature are less likely to revolt. But this is rubbish.)

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

The Oxford dictionaries record use, so of course if some people (eg Marxists and Marxist-influenced academics like Dr Sandifer) use the word in a given sense, that sense will appear in the OED.

That does not mean that that sense is a coherent or useful one; the OED specifically avoids making any such judgement.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 11 months ago

It's a spectacular story, as Phil says. I would also heartily recommend "The Kingmaker," another Davison audio which I'd *really* like to hear the esteemed Dr. Sandifer's opinion on, BTW, and both "The Holy Terror" and "Jubilee" with Colin Baker and written by Robert Shearman.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 11 months ago

Marx is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in the question of the fundamental importance of politics to human life. Aristotle famously concludes that man is a political animal, and there is a whole strand of political philosophy - civic republicanism - which stretches from Aristotle, through Machiavelli (and arguably Rousseau) to the present day.

Lockean classical liberalism would draw a distinction between the public and private spheres, but this is an attempt to put limits on the legitimate powers and interests of the state - it does not necessarily imply that nothing in the private sphere can be political. Indeed, where Marx does come into this debate is in pointing out this problem in the standard liberal formulation of private action, and the tensions that this produces within liberalism can be seen in various contentious issues in the present day (such as whether private landlords should be able to refuse gay couples).

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

SK - I am not sure where you are finding anyone claiming that politics is the only thing art can do. Certainly it's nowhere in my blog. But that does not mean that there is such a thing as apolitical art. It's not as though the political eliminates any possibility of other concerns.

The other points I'd make have been made as well as I could possibly make them by other commenters.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 11 months ago

Anji is an interesting figure who suffered mightily from the fact that, as a young business professional, many of the writers were predisposed to dislike her out of the gate. So she doesn't have the most consistently flattering portrayal throughout her appearances. And I admit that I'm not exactly in love with the character, either in terms of concept or in execution, but I think she had more potential than was ever fully realized. Certainly, if she had been handled well she could have come off better than Trix, who suffered almost the exact opposite problem (a character designed to appeal to everyone who comes off as crass, IMO).

But that's all quite a ways into the future.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 11 months ago

In this particular case, it seems a bit strange to accuse the production staff for not "being able to get" the intent of the writer, since Eric Saward sat on both sides of the fence here....

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

And likely to be given very short shrift - the current plan has coverage of the BBC Books line post The Burning as very, very patchy. It's possible Adventures of Henrietta Street will be Anji's only appearance in a book I cover.

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William Whyte 4 years, 11 months ago

Praise is obviously due to Nicholas Briggs, but I have to say Peter Hawkins and David Graham probably still just win the prize for my favourite vocal performance for episode 7 of Evil of the Daleks -- that crazy chorus of "Why?"s, the childish delight of "I will NOT obey", and that death-scream that goes on for so long it stops being funny.

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William Whyte 4 years, 11 months ago

I think this is "not being able to *obtain* [good enough] writers."

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

It's not even a matter of obtaining. It's a matter of willfully refusing to hire. Pat Mills, Tanith Lee, Christopher Priest, and PJ Hammond all had submissions for the Saward era that never got made. It's a fairly stunning list.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Even Aristotle was occasionally wrong.

Dr Sandifer: I was unclear. I didn't mean to suggest you thought that saying that art of necessity must address politics meant that it could not address other concerns.

I meant that claiming that art must address politics, if only by culpable omission such as you claim for 'Earthshock', places silly restrictions on art. If art can address politics without addressing, for example, the fundamental meaning of life; but is apparently barred from addressing the fundamental meaning of life without also being held to be staking some kind of political position; is that not circumscribing what art can do by privileging the political over other fundamental aspects of human existence?

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William Whyte 4 years, 11 months ago

Phil -- would you consider giving a list of the Big Finish audios that you're planning to cover? It'd help those of us who haven't heard or got all of them. Even if you could give a week's advanced notice that'd be great. It'll be like a reading group!

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 11 months ago

I think the point still stands, though, at least for Earthshock itself. It was tradition by the point for script editors to contribute at least a script or two per season, and would continue to be so until Cartmel takes over in 1987. Even if it had been surrounded by scripts by Mills, Lee, Priest, and Hammond, we'd likely still wind up with Saward's contribution. And it would likely still have the same basic problems.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Ah, so your only mention of Anji might be in the context of the book whose author most exemplifies the tendency identified by Lance Parkin as '[seeing] Anji working specifically in financial services as somehow making her complicit in the deaths of every baby in the Third World since the dawn of time. As opposed to, say, not.'

You know, the one who wanted to write a scene 'in which she has the words I AM HUMAN FILTH PLEASE KILL ME permanently tattooed on her forehead, but [...] didn't think [he] could get away with it.'

I see.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

Sure thing. This is the only one for Peter Davison. For Colin Baker, it'll be Ish... and Jubilee. :)

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 11 months ago

That, coincidentally, was part of what I was thinking about when I mentioned "writers [who] were predisposed to dislike her" and the ways they didn't always afford her "the most consistently flattering portrayal[s]"....

The thing is, I'm not sure how *I'd* approach the character using the model Phil has (quite reasonably, IMO) opted for. You can't really trace how different authors treat the character without a more complete survey. Plus, while I would be interested in seeing that angle covered, I'm not sure it's worth slamming on the breaks for the many months it would take to cover the entire latter half of the BBC Books run necessary for that sort of coverage.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

I'm mainly interested in how far Dr Sandifer shares Miles's opinion.

But I can wait. I am patient. That's how you can tell I come from a time before the internet.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

I should note that I know very little of the character, and my book selection has zero to do with her. It sounds like something interesting to flesh out when I go back and fill in the books range a bit more, which is the vague plan once the blog wraps, albeit possibly after a few months of actual freedom from writing about Doctor Who three times a week.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

(Can I just note how strange it is to be called Dr. Sandifer on my blog? Because it really is.)

I think it's misleading to phrase the view as an injunction. It's more a matter of basic necessity. Politics describes the system of social relations between and among people. Art necessarily contains a social relation between a minimum of two people. Ergo art is political. Much like all literature is necessarily concerned with the use of language, and all modern houses are concerned with wood. It's not a matter of privileging, it's a consequence of the raw materials.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Rather sooner, of course, we get to Big Bang: between parts 8 and 9 of 'Trial of a Time Lord', in fact.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 11 months ago

But I took it that the point about "Earthshock" was that its sin was more than "culpable omission" -- that it deals with an inherently political issue and then places the Doctor on the wrong side of it (both objectively wrong and wrong-because-un-Doctorish).

Incidentally, for a critique of the "authoritarian theory of politics" (our admittedly somewhat tendentious name for the view that the realm of the political is exhausted by the realm of state action), see section 2 of this.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

But I don't feel "art is political" is at all the same, in practice, as saying (as I'd be happy to) "there's nothing about which one can't or mustn't speak politically".

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BerserkRL 4 years, 11 months ago

My last was intended as a reply to SK, not to Philip.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 11 months ago

That's terrible, all those unused scripts by real, inspired writers. And once you shoo them away, no-one decent wants to write for the show anyway.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

'Politics describes the system of social relations between and among people. Art necessarily contains a social relation between a minimum of two people. Ergo art is political.'

Ah, I see your two problems: first is the unspoken assumption in the first sentence.

Politics describes the systems by which humans organise themselves into groups and live together more or less amicably.

That is one aspect of social relations between and among people, but it is not the only aspect; there are social relationships which have nothing to do with the ways people organise their tribes, clubs, or states. (The progressive left disagrees with this, saying that 'the personal if political', but they are wrong).

Second, it's the assumption that just because art necessarily contains a social relation between two people, it must therefore be concerned with that social relation. All literature uses language; that is not the same as all literature being concerned with the use of language. Simply because a work of art involves a conveying over a social relationship (and even that's not a given; what 'social relationship' is there between me and, say, El Greco?) doesn't mean that it necessarily has anything to say about that relationship, any more than an episode of Doctor Who is concerned with the principles of electromagnetism as a consequence of the raw materials by which it gets from the transmitter to my TV set.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

The personal is political, though. That's as basic a premise as they come for me. Alternative propositions descend into absurdism with alarming speed.

I also think it's fair to say that an episode of Doctor Who is concerned, if not with the principles of electromagnetism, at least with the general scientific and technological circumstances that enable its transmission. That's been an underlying premise of this blog since day one - that the mechanics of transmission and production matter tremendously to what Doctor Who says and does at any given moment.

What you're objecting to seems to me to be the idea that the politics of a given piece of art are necessarily particularly interesting. They're not, any more than the way in which the physical technology of videotape shapes how any given Doctor Who story is conceptualized is inherently interesting. It is, however, always present - always a part of what a given story is.

I do, however, think that the politics of supposedly escapist fiction are particularly interesting, simply because they go to such overt lengths to hide themselves.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

Yes but your basic premises lead inexorably to phrases like 'quasi-sentient conceptual entity'. So, you know, pot calling the absurdist kettle a kipper.

Certainly some episodes of Doctor Who are self-consciously referencing the technology of their own transmission, but by no means all of them do. But you'd be reaching to claim that of something like Waking the Dead.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 11 months ago

Although tantalising glimpses of flesh may hint at organic parts to the Cybermen, it still fails to make them horrific in any way. Troughton's Cybermen were almost completely robotic-looking and yet I remember as a child being terrified by the sight of their melting chest-units in "The Moonbase". The slow-motion ineffectual patting of their hands as the foam pours out of them was far more visceral than someone's chin poking through a glass faceplate.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 11 months ago

In fairness, it's quite plausible that the Pat Mills and Christopher Priest submissions just didn't work - I don't think either author had experience of writing for television.

Tanith Lee and P J Hammond, on the other hand, do look much more like a ball being badly dropped.

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srodney 4 years, 11 months ago

Philip, Do you think that Nu Who only exists because Big Finish proved that there was still a fan base, for new Doctor Who stories?

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Simon Cooper 4 years, 11 months ago

It exists because Jane Tranter wanted it back as part of revitalising the BBC's Saturday Night schedule. The 'form' it came back in is clearly influenced by Big Finish and the New Adventures (as the writing credits for the first new Series attest), though.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 11 months ago

I've had banter
with Tranter
your written word will be hailed
in the ming mong mantra

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Aaron 4 years, 11 months ago

Can I just ask, Phil, why you are covering the post burning EDA so sketchily? Is it because you yourself no little of the range past Ancestor Cell? Do you think that post-Ancestor Cell the range loses it's claim to being the official continuation of Doctor Who for some reason? Complete practicality? Just curious.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

The intention is clearly that we are to imagine rotting fleshy parts hidden behind the faceplate. That's pretty horrific.

In execution, not so much. But it's simply not the case that the 'original horror' of the Cybermen has been totally jettisoned. Set aside for a story to make room for a generic space adventure, yes, but it's clearly remembered and will return with brutal force in their next story (assuming we don't count 'The Five Doctors' and, hey, let's not).

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

The novels had been proving that for years; why would Big Finish make the difference?

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elvwood 4 years, 11 months ago

Phil, it just occurred to me: you talk as if there was just a single strand of Doctor Who during the 90s, with the Virgin/BBC novels; but of course the comics kept going during this period as well. Now personally I'm inclined to think of them as a "side dish", but I'm sure there are people who don't, and the form should rate at least a mention. If nothing else, when you say

for the bulk of the McGann years there were two barely compatible versions of “new Doctor Who” being made

that should probably be three barely compatible versions!

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WGPJosh 4 years, 11 months ago

Great choice for the first "proper" Big Finish post (if even, as you said, it was a trifle obvious).

Nothing to add to your illuminating commentary so I'll just, if I may, humbly suggest you check out (if you haven't already) the Wendy Padbury Companion Chronicle "The Memory Cheats" for Troughton and either "The Renaissance Man", the Lost Stories adaptations of "The Valley of Death" and "Foe from the Future" or the Lalla Ward adventures "The Beautiful People" and "The Pyralis Effect" for Tom Baker (the latter of which is a kind of pseudo-multi Doctor story).

Out of curiosity, since you've now done "Spare Parts", do you plan to take a look at any of the other appearances of the Mondasan Cybermen in Big Finish, such as the Paul McGann/Mary Shelly story "The Silver Turk"?

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 4 years, 11 months ago

I am of the opinion that Colin Baker and Evelyn Smythe is the best companion paring in all of Doctor Who, for which i will be forever grateful to Big Finish. The "trilogy" of Project Twilight/Project Lazarus/Arrangements for War is fantastic.

On the flip side, Bloodtide is maybe one of the worst, most poorly written, transparent screeds I have ever sat through, and just thinking about it makes me want to put my fist through my laptop.

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William Whyte 4 years, 11 months ago

Adams and Bidmead tried to make Priest scripts work too and couldn't manage it (well, Adams started on one and Bidmead had another go at it). Saward sent a letter about Priest, reproduced in the relevant About Time, saying that it was hard to get good work from a "novalist". The letter reflects much worse on Saward than on Priest, but there are other examples of people who seemed qualified simply not being able to come up with something that worked, most recently Stephen Fry.

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William Whyte 4 years, 11 months ago

You should be able to prove you're not a robot by saying how much you like sunsets and nice dinners.

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Seeing_I 4 years, 11 months ago

So, am I the only one who found the faux-1950s and ersatz Christmas to be rather twee, forced, and undermining of the drama?

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

Priest I can believe, given the number of script editors, that there was a real problem. On the other hand, given that the problem with Song of the Space Whale was, apparently, that Saward objected to the idea that there would be class in the future... well, maybe I'll do the Lost Stories audio of that one and see for myself.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

I know little of the range in general, actually. It's rather a sense that the controversial nature of The Ancestor Cell, which managed to piss off both traditionalists and the people who had been really loving the Lawrence Miles stuff, combined with the rise of the Big Finish stuff, which had actual actors in it, led to a shift in where the center of gravity for what Doctor Who was. I think up through The Ancestor Cell there's a fairly coherent continuation, but between the fact that it looked so unlikely that the series would come back after the botched TV Movie and the forking of lines it just seems to me that The Ancestor Cell marks a pretty good point to step back from that line and just lightly trace its wind-down. Certainly I see very few people raving about the tail end of the BBC Books line. People seem to really love The Burning and The Adventures of Henrietta Street, but my sense is that the popularity of the line kind of... fizzles out.

Between that and the need to go over and cover the Big Finish stuff and my awareness that spending too much time in Paul McGann would be a mistake from a readership point of view... yeah.

(And the readership issue is real. This post has 1170 views at present. The three before it have 1317, 1549, and 1331. That doesn't count viewers who just hit the main page or who read the post entirely in an RSS feed, but the tangible drop is apparent, and shows up for every other Time Can Be Rewritten post as well compared to the ones around it. They're always visibly unpopular compared to the posts immediately around them. So by doing the books for essentially six months I'm going to bleed readers. I expect I'll get them back by moving to the much more currently popular new series, but I don't want to try the Internet's patience too long.)

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

No more than the JJ Abrams Star Trek movie exists because of the novels.

I mean, the idea of dusting off a once popular science fiction show for another go-around is hardly original to Russell T. Davies. I think Doctor Who would have come back on television eventually just because, at this point, everything else of even comparable size and several things much smaller have. I think it is, however, genuinely interesting that Doctor Who's spin-off material during its cancellation has proven so influential on its return. That's something I'm not sure is true of any other revitalized property.

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SK 4 years, 11 months ago

That's the second time in a row you've written, 'The Adventures of Henrietta Street'. So it begins to look less like a typing error.

'As if a street could have adventures!' (Lawrence Miles)

The single best book of the BBC range, The City of the Dead, was of course published after The Burning.

Personally, I think you should just ignore the Big Finish stuff as, bad as the novels could sometimes be, my experience of the Big Finish plays is that their general level of quality (not counting Spare Parts) was lower even than an average Trevor Baxendale book.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 11 months ago

I don't think that's entirely fair. There are a lot of really excellent Big Finish plays. "The Holy Terror," "The Marian Conspiracy," "The Fires of Vulcan," "The Wormery," "Jubilee," "The Kingmaker," and a number of others stand up well in comparison to both the novel range and the majority of the televised series.

One problem, though, is that only a fraction of their output features the then-current Doctor. So they don't really fit the chronological narrative of Phil's blog, but they also suffer in that few writers are as willing to forge interesting new ground or travel off in uncharted directions when writing a story intended to slot cleanly inbetween, say, "Time-Flight" and "Arc of Infinity." The relatively recent switch to interlinked trilogies with the same main cast has helped enormously in that it allows for stories and characters to develop in a mostly organic way.

The other problem is that when the producers tried their hand at longer arc plotting they generally showed themselves to be terrible at it. There are a number of spectacular McGann audios ("The Chimes at Midnight," "Seasons of Fear," "Scherzo," "The Natural History of Fear," and "Other Lives"), but they generally succeed despite the ham-handed attempts at arc plotting. The worst examples of the range are those stories most closely tied up in that mess ("Neverland," "Zagreus," "The Next Life," and, worst of all, "Minuet in Hell," which gets my vote for the most poorly considered piece of Doctor Who fiction in franchise history).

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Josiah Rowe 3 years, 11 months ago

Yes, Martin, you are.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 3 months ago

Coming in late to this, but I'm reminded of two things.

The first is a letter to Dragon Magazine in the mid-2000s complaining about the use of female pronouns in D&D as "a political decision", The writer has other, more sexist, objections, but fundementally he's saying that D&D shouldn't be making decisions based on political beliefs. The bit he misses is that *not* using female pronouns would *also* be a decision based on political beliefs, even if these beliefs were less "we actively want to be sexist" and more "we don't actually care about sexism one way or the other, and are going to do a sexist thing because it seems easier than not doing it". (See also: The Wikipedia Thing)

The second is a Lenny Henry routine in which he mentions that his recent act has been criticised because "you're not getting *political* on us, are you, Len?". And he makes the reasonable point that he has strong feelings about race relations *because he's black*. For most people, the political is personal.

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Andrew Bowman 2 years, 9 months ago

Presumably you'll be covering The Gallifrey Chronicles as the tail-end of the range? Some interesting developments in that novel.

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William Silvia 2 years, 1 month ago

What I find to be most interesting about this story is actually nothing you mentioned. You mentioned a lot of good parts, but what I find most interesting is the way the story plays with the Doctor. He comes in with all of these ideas and preconceived notions and conceives notions throughout the story, and is constantly proven to be wrong. "Not as far along as I expected; that's encouraging," says the man who has no idea where on the planet the real Cybermen are. He's sure that he gave the Cybermen a chance to be more human after destroying the Cyber Commander, without even noticing that he left the Zheng perfectly fine to continue. He deludes himself into thinking that even though he's caught up in the events and trying to change your own history is doomed to failure (a la "Day of the Daleks"), he is still so optimistic and hopeful that he lets himself think he can possibly make a difference and the story mocks him for that.

Fun stories take the Doctor's traits and use them to make him heroic and enjoyable to watch as he wins. Powerful stories take the Doctor's traits and use them to tell tragedies about the best of intentions.

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John Carter 1 year, 10 months ago

Nice stuff dear. I like it Radiador honda & Venta de Radiador

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