3 years, 10 months ago
Sorry I'm late. Was up late chasing a deadline on the Flood
book and forgot to queue anything here. In any case, Human Resources. The cheekily-named Eighth Doctor Adventures line from Big Finish is an oddity. On the one hand it seems faintly ridiculous - yet another bite at the apple in terms of getting the fizzled McGann era to work right. On the other, with the exception of the TV Movie itself this is as high profile and mainstream as McGann ever got, in that the first season of these audios got their first airing on BBC Radio 7, with CD release following. Later seasons came out on CD first, but Human Resources is notable as one of only nine times Paul McGann appeared in a Doctor Who story that was designed for transmission to the general public instead of for sale to dedicated fans.
Like The Girl Who Never Was it’s doing so in the wake of the new series. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the new series that made the McGann audios on BBC Radio happen in the first place. Doctor Who was big business, so why wouldn’t Radio 7 try to get in on it? And given that there was no way the new series was going to spin off into audio unexpectedly the obvious thing to do was to use a past Doctor. And at that point since you’re basically recreating Big Finish’s schtick, you may as well just have Big Finish do it.
More significant in many ways is the fact that it was Paul McGann doing it. In many ways, he’s the only one who could have. Tom Baker might have done, but there’s a self-conscious retroness to that choice that Paul McGann doesn’t have. McGann is instead an oddly lost Doctor. He has name recognition, but his era, having mostly happened in the obscurity of fan-centric publications, for all practical purposes doesn’t exist in a larger cultural sense. As the Doctor who occupies the strange space immediately prior to 2005, he’s the one who can be reinvented for audio.
In practice, of course, it’s not a reinvention so much as a marginal refinement. By this point people finally had a sense of how to write for McGann specifically, and so we finally have audios that play to his strengths. He’s accordingly on form, and with good reason, as Human Resources basically gives him an unending flood of interesting things to react to, and so he gets to do what seems to be his favorite thing to do as the Doctor: react sardonically to various absurdities. The pace is accelerated a bit, there’s a decent amount of attention to character, and the whole thing feels refreshingly streamlined (in, oddly, a way that The Girl Who Never Was, recorded a year later, doesn’t).
Beyond that, the influence of the new series all but runs rampant. We’ve got forty-five minute episodes, with most of the season being self-contained stories. When we do a two-parter there’s a heft to it such that the story feels oversized (more about which in a minute). The companion is as far from an Edwardian Adventuress as you could get: a self-proclaimed chav somewhere between Rose Tyler and Donna Noble (the latter of whom, admittedly, hadn’t even appeared in the series yet when these audios were recorded). And everything is played so that the starting point is what the general public is likely to remember instead of based on ornate fan memory. The Time Lords revert to their Tom Baker era “we don’t interfere so we’ll have the Doctor do it for us” personalities, handing him missions. The Cybermen are straightforward monsters. Everything is finely tuned and actually aimed at a general audience in a way that Big Finish, for various and perfectly sane reasons, never really did in the Wilderness Years.
But there are also basic storytelling improvements. Let’s take a fairly simple example that mostly gets the rest to slot into place: the reveal of the Cybermen. And let’s compare with The Girl Who Never Was, recorded, as I said, only a year apart, but written for the Big Finish fan audience instead of the general public. After all, both of them have reveals of the Cybermen at the halfway point, making it a fairly straight comparison. And it’s night and day. Where The Girl Who Never Was injects Cybermen to liven up an otherwise flagging plot and tries to wring a surprise out of them when they’re on the cover, Human Resources basically does everything right. The Cybermen are, for instance, not on the cover of the first disc (and BBC Radio 7 doesn’t have covers as such).
But more to the point, the Cybermen aren’t thrown in to revitalize the plot: they’re positioned as the latest in a blizzard of developments. Human Resources starts from a cliffhanger (Lucie Miller getting kidnapped), and plows right into further revelations. The mid-episode reveal that the office building is in fact a giant battle robot is worthy of being a cliffhanger on its own, and it’s not even the only solidly big moment. So when the Cybermen appear it’s more akin to, for instance, the appearance of the Daleks in Bad Wolf: the event that finally goes off the scale. It’s not “oh, that’s what’s been going on for the past hour” or “oh, OK, that’s how this is going to manage another two episodes.” It’s “holy crap, not only all of that, but Cybermen too?” Which is, on the whole, a far better sort of cliffhanger.
So on the one hand Human Resources is the sixth draft of the Paul McGann era, following the TV Movie, The Dying Days, the Eighth Doctor Adventures, the comics (more about which Monday), and the Big Finish main line. But it’s the closest thing to a draft that actually works. It would be overstating the case to suggest that it’s some sort of watershed cultural moment. It’s not like BBC Radio 7 on Sunday at dinnertime is one of the great influential time slots of British media. Yes, this is Doctor Who for the general public, but it’s still Doctor Who for a small audience.
Nevertheless, the fact that McGann got a draft that worked is satisfying. It’s worth remembering that McGann’s status as canonical was potentially up in the air until Davies declared that his Doctor was “the same man who fought the Drahvins, the Macra, the Axons, the Wirrin, the Terileptils, the Borad, the Bannermen, and the Master in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1999.” (Although as phrased it suggests a far more interesting TV Movie than we got.) But this piece, in Doctor Who Magazine #344, reveals the extent to which this was a necessary quote as well: Davies also talks about how he met with Philip Segal and Segal was pleasantly surprised to see that the BBC was officially counting Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.
Put another way, the fact of the matter is that Russell T Davies had a number of options open to him in terms of how to position the new series. He could have done a fresh reboot with a new First Doctor and gotten away with it easily enough. In fact, it would have been easier in many ways than the approach he took, getting away with introducing every classic monster for the first time and fixing any blemishes. But he also could have decided to make a new Eighth Doctor, wiping the TV Movie out of continuity. Its generally poor reception would have allowed for it, and while there would have been grumbles, there were grumbles that Eccleston usurped Richard E. Grant too. And while Davies mumbles that it’s not him who decides these things, it’s the tabloids and the culture, it’s nonsense. There were no rules in 2004. If Davies had wanted to spectacularly snub McGann on the grounds that the TV Movie was American he could have.
And while it’s a good thing that he didn’t, it’s also worth looking at the specific list of monsters he picked in order to establish Eccleston’s enneantality. I mean, the list is conspicuously not “the Zarbi, the Yeti, the Sea Devils, the Wirrin, the Mara, Sil, and the Haemovores.” It’s not that all of the monsters available are crap or from b-list stories: fair cases can be made for the iconicness of four of the seven where there was a choice. But the sheer weirdness of the Drahvin, Bannermen, and Borad skews the others. It’s a list of arcana. Part of this is surely Davies demonstrating that he’s a big enough geek to reference the Borad, but there’s a larger point to it. Davies isn’t just making Eccleston the continuation of the classic series, he’s visibly embracing the crap of the classic series. He goes out of his way to explicitly make Timelash still canon. The message isn’t just “this is a sequel to the classic series,” it’s “everything is canon, even the crap.”
McGann’s canonization, in other words, exists in context with this. It’s accepted, but the fact that it had to be accepted is highlighted as much as the acceptance itself. Even the phrasing, while made necessary by the fact that McGann’s only televised enemy was one he shared with other Doctors, suggests this, feeling like protesting too much, trying to establish beyond all doubt that yes, Davies does mean that Paul McGann. And while he canonizes the TV movie, Davies still took pot shots at it during the series, most obviously at the good old half human line.
In this regard Davies is being accurate: making Eccleston the ninth Doctor is the path of least resistance short of rebooting the series entirely. What was canonized is less the TV Movie than Paul McGann and the McGann era, because that is something that existed culturally and was known. But in this regard the defining aspect of Paul McGann’s tenure is his absence - the way in which he is a Doctor without any stories in his era save for one largely and understandably rejected TV Movie. This failure is, curiously, why McGann can be the Doctor who can co-exist with the new series in this fashion. The fact that he’s an era without content allows it to be filled in.
And so it’s similarly nice that he gets to be the main beneficiary of Big Finish learning from the new series. There’s a real freshness and abundance to the ideas here. The idea of office drudgery being essentially interchangeable with piloting a giant battle robot is at once hilarious and cutting. Throwing the Cybermen in serves to satisfyingly deepen the basic conclusions about the drudgery and dehumanization of work and war. Even the title is bleak and telling, serving as a droll commentary on the objectification implicit in the phrase “human resources,” and equating it tacitly with the Cybermen’s use of humanity.
On top of all of these bits where the story genuinely feels like it has something to say, however, there’s opportunities for lively content. The tedious meeting in which war strategy is discussed is charmingly cheeky. The expansion of the character of the Headhunter into a headhunter in the corporate sense is fantastic. The Doctor infiltrating an office sparkles. It’s a good audio - a fair case can be made that it’s the most successful McGann audio we’ve looked at, simply because it’s managing something that Doctor Who never managed during the McGann era itself: quality in a thoroughly repeatable way. This may be a “season finale,” but it’s not self-consciously structured like one. Everything this story does could work as a normal story. It’s an actual roadmap for successful Doctor Who: interesting situations that allow for a sufficient number of innovative combinations and angles to fill the time slot, and juxtapositions that could only work on Doctor Who.
Back when the Eighth Doctor era was collapsing into its nadir with The Ancestor Cell we suggested that the real survivor of the War arc was the Ninth Doctor. Here we get the reverse: the Doctor who most benefited from the new series. Ironically it’s the one who had the least actual impact on it - the entirely forgettable, erasable Doctor. The blankness of the McGann era allowed for the new series. But in turn, the clarity of the new series allowed McGann to finally, at long last, have an era, and thus to demonstrate that he’d deserved one all along.
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