Turn Her Into a Weapon, Just to Bring You Down (So Vile a Sin)


I'll Explain Later

Well, technically we’ve skipped the rest of the line.

So Vile a Sin, the fifty-sixth and final of the sixty-one New Adventures, concludes the Psi-Powers arc. The novel was infamously delayed when Aaronovitch suffered a hard drive crash and was unable to face the prospect of rewriting large swaths from scratch and in an ultra-compressed timeframe. Accordingly, Kate Orman stepped in to finish the job from what chapters remained and Aaronovitch’s outline, and the book was put out five months late, more or less the day that Virgin’s license to publish Doctor Who books expired. It has tons of big plot points, most notably the death of Roz Forrester. It’s once again quite acclaimed (noticing a pattern in the latter New Adventures?). Dave Owen says that “Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman utterly typify the very best of the New Adventures.” Lars Pearson praises how it “makes Roz one of the most determined and self-actualized companions ever.” Sullivan’s rankings lodge it in with the rest of the Kate Orman books at fifteenth, with a 77.5% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.

It’s November of 1996. The Spice Girls are, unsurprisingly, still at number one with “Say You’ll Be There.” More surprisingly, they’re unseated after a week, giving them only a two week run, as Robson & Jerome take number one with “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” That lasts two weeks, then Prodigy come in with “Breathe,” which finishes out the month. Tony Braxton, Michael Jackson,  the Fugees, the Backstreet Boys, and Madonna also chart, the latter with Evita’s weird zombie bonus track composed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for the movie version.

In news, the Tories narrow the gap between them and Labour to a mere seventeen points. The Channel Tunnel catches a bit of fire, and the Stone of Scone is installed in Edinburgh Castle after seven hundred years of being in England, which is largely symbolic, but a very important symbol. Outside of the UK, President Clinton wins re-election and Benazir Bhutto is tossed out of power in Pakistan. And, because it’s fun to say, Tony Silva is sentenced to seven years in prison for an illegal parrot smuggling operation.

While in literature… nothing. No New Adventure comes out. There was supposed to be one, but, well, you know the story. This book forms the single weirdest whorl of chronology the blog will ever cover. Not only does it form part of the tail end of the New Adventures where they were still publishing Seventh Doctor novels after the TV Movie, it was released out of sequence even within the Virgin line. The usual line about this is that this ordering blunted the book’s major moment, the death of Roz Forrester, which was, inevitably, revealed in Bad Therapy the month after So Vile a Sin was meant to come out. Two problems present themselves here. First, the idea that Roz was marked for death was going around fandom for months prior to it being officially revealed. Anyone whinging about the surprise being spoiled was in the very communities it was being widely discussed in. The second, and on the whole more interesting problem, only became evident at the end of April 1997, which was that Roz’s death was never meant to be a surprise. The first chapter, self-referentially titled “The Body on Page One,” declares Roz’s death flat-out. The book then promptly jumps to its next most shocking moment, when the Doctor has a heart attack at Roz’s funeral.

This is, in other words, a book that self-consciously front-ends its biggest moments. In that regard its delay is almost irrelevant to its impact. Nothing in it is meant to unfold as a surprise as such. This is not just an incidental detail of the novel’s structure either. The book is, after all, largely about the notion of potential and possibility. A book that features multiple sections in which timelines unravel and multiple possible pasts and futures coexist simultaneously cannot be taken as being anything other than ruthlessly deliberate when it starts by collapsing all narrative possibilities into one unavoidable tragedy.

For all that the Psi-Powers arc is criticized for its supposed lack of focus, it is relatively clear-cut what’s been going on with it as of So Vile a Sin. The problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that what’s been going on has had little to do with psychic powers as such. In So Vile a Sin psychic powers get established as “the last magick to survive” the Time Lord’s imposition of rationality on the universe, resulting in “a network of ley lines” across the universe that were subsequently harnessed as weapons by the Time Lords. Psi-powers, in other words, are the irreducible against which the smooth rationality of the university grinds. They are the unerasable other that haunts the rational universe. And here they manifest in the most straightforward form imaginable: as all of the other possibilities of what the universe could have been.

Perhaps the first thing to say here is that for all that these are clearly Lawrence Miles’s ideas, it’s also clearly Aaronovitch and Orman who are finding a way to make them work in a definitive and compelling structure. Not to flip too far ahead, but it’s a trick Miles will nick for his next two Doctor Who books, which is to tie the haunting of the rational order of things directly to the disruption of the familiar aspects of Doctor Who’s mythology. In fact, his next two books directly employ this book’s two big tricks - Alien Bodies trades on the same frisson created by outright inevitability in a Doctor Who story, and Interference is all about exploring the idea of other ways that Doctor Who could have gone, both using Faction Paradox to play with the same narrative/irrational/magical alternative to the science fiction orthodoxy of the Time Lords.

This is not, of course, a slight on Miles. He’s picking up and running with good ideas every bit as much as Aaronovitch and Orman are picking up on his good ideas and running with them. That’s the way this works. You come up with a neat idea, other writers refine it. (Indeed, the dialogue between Miles and Orman on these issues will be an issue in the future) And So Vile a Sin refines these ideas nicely. It’s perhaps also telling that the alternate history of Doctor Who that the novel explores in the most depth is one in which the Third Doctor remained on Earth, a section that twice evokes Inferno. The Pertwee era, you’ll recall, is where Doctor Who began a complex engagement with the notion of what history and the arc of time is. On the one hand you had stories like The Curse of Peladon and The Mutants in which the series seems to point at a view of time and history in which there is some fundamental and underlying social tendency of history that time moves towards and that the Time Lords maintain.

But this was always opposed tacitly by Inferno and the Doctor’s muttered realization that “free will is not an illusion” upon his confrontation with the alternate universe. Several problems existed with this at the time, though, most of which were a variation on the fact that Inferno is not what you would call the most thoughtful and nuanced story of its era. But positioned opposite the “arc of history” stories there becomes an interesting tension. On the one hand is the Doctor’s fealty to history - a longstanding concept dating back to David Whitaker’s declaration that “what we are concerned with is that history, like justice, is not only done but can be seen to be done.” On the other is the fact that history is not set and that individual choice shapes the universe along a fairly standard sci-fi interpretation of the “many worlds” hypothesis from within quantum physics.

The Inferno perspective amounts to that of the irrational and magical - the idea that individual choices can put one outside of the grinding engines of the universe. The alternative, of course, is the rational perspective, with the Time Lords existing in order to keep those engines working as expected. And Roz is killed because she leaves the protection of the magical in favor of the arc of history. As the Doctor warns her, “if you step back into history, I won’t be able to protect you.” And as Kadiatu says in the epilogue, “she jumped down into history and history ate her whole.” What is key here, of course, is that Roz not only entered history but did so by choice. Given the freedom of the irrational, she chose the unrelenting arc of history.

On the one hand, then, the novel confirms the supremacy of history. It sets up the inevitable on page one, and then marches inexorably towards it over the remainder of the text. Nothing can actually escape it. And all the attempts to alter history within the book - mostly practiced by the Brotherhood - come to naught. The Doctor ends up on the side of rationality, which is why he can’t save Roz. Two things, however, interrupt this line of thought. The first is what you’d expect from a Kate Orman book - a bit at the end in which Kadiatu spurs the Doctor on to pick a new ending for the story besides his own grief. The Doctor admits that he tries “to make sure the story goes the way it should,” and Kadiatu reminds him to actually do so. The result is to put the Doctor back on the tightrope between reason and irrationality, spinning the structure on towards another story. Fair enough, and undoubtedly the “correct” ending, but also vague and emotive. It’s effective, but it’s actively not a resolution to the fundamental tension underlying the novel so much as a sustaining of it.

The second interruption is altogether more compelling: Roz’s response to the Doctor’s warning: This isn’t history, Doctor. This is family.” Here the disturbed ordering of the New Adventures plays in oddly affects how the novel is actually read. In the intended release order this is an innocuous enough declaration. But coming in the immediate wake of Lungbarrow, with its own explorations of the Doctor’s family, the line carries new resonances. There is a gesture here towards a different order - that of personal narrative and memory. This is, of course, something that’s been tied to Gallifrey before through the abandoned legacy of The Deadly Assassin. That train of thought itself dovetailed on Whitaker’s views of history, which always seemed based on personal identity and memory. You can’t rewrite history because to rewrite history would be to rewrite yourself. Roz can’t step outside of history because history is inexorably bound into her family, and thus her identity. And soon the Doctor will find himself drawn into a web of Gallifreyan history and family memory.

Free will is not an illusion after all. Nor, however, is it an unbounded and absolute force. Instead it exists eternally bounded, its possibilities circumscribed by the engine of history and the web of personal entanglements from which we spring. Free will is not an infinite number of possibilities but something that takes place within an identity defined by a pre-existing social order of memory and circumstance. And this brings us around to one of the unresolved issues of the Virgin era, which is just what is meant by “domestic” when Orman and Cornell prioritize it over the epic.

For Cornell, at least, the word has always evoked a specifically British order of things. This is not, of course, unreasonable: Doctor Who is British. The character stems out of British culture and history. And the vision of wondrous domesticity that Cornell espouses is self-consciously British. As he has Benny say in The Shadow of the Scourge in order to defeat yet another vast extra-dimensional fear monster, “It would all be OK if we could all just get our hands on some tea and scones, because those things are great.” Orman is similar - note the impish way in which she has her inevitable torturing-the-Doctor section in Return of the Living Dad eventually hinge on the Doctor’s inability to handle the vastly amplified pleasure of a cup of tea. Or Cornell’s endless couching of things in specifically Anglican terms. Or any number of other things.

Which is to say that the domestic that is praised is not merely the small and human scale of things, but the small and human scale within a specific ideological frame. One could even argue compellingly, if one was into that sort of thing, that this amounts to a sort of hedonism. Certainly reading the Doctor as a hedonist becomes easier in the wake of the Virgin books, with it amounting to one of the central premises of both Tennant and Smith’s Doctors. But crucially, this investment in domestic pleasures as the point of life exists only within the intersections of the historical with personal identity. In some ways this is a restatement of the great feminist maxim that the personal is political. The arc of history and one’s personal identity are inseparable. And so the domestic scale of things on which human happiness exists is perpetually defined and impacted in terms of the larger movements of history.

Another framing of this, of course, is the declaration that the secret of alchemy is material social progress. But the principle of alchemy is “as above so below.” That there is a structure that links the tiny domestic scene with the vast political machinations of the galaxy means that one can opt to reshape the latter from the former. And so when the Forrester family home is attacked by monsters, the inciting incident that causes Roz to fatally entangle herself with history, we get the incident from the perspective of Thandiwe, a child clone of Roz, as she is attached by a monster that is stopped by her amped up toy Fat Monster Eater. This is where the novel ends as well - with Thandiwe fearing the monster under the bed before what seems to be Roz’s ghost steps in and arrests said monster, somewhere between “I’m what monsters have nightmares about” and Father Christmas.

This, then, is the final statement of the Psi-Powers arc. In the face of the paranoia of a master narrative, whether an irrationally authored one or an rationally historicized one, the individual, human level remains a viable scale on which to make progress. The monster under the bed and the gaping maw of history’s end are interchangeable. To fight one is to fight the other. And yes, as Roz glares at the Doctor, “history kills people and sometimes even you can’t save them.” As it kills Roz, who fights the battles of history on family terms and, let’s be clear, wins them, albeit at a terrible cost.

Victory against hopeless odds at a terrible cost is, of course, a familiar structure to us. It is the structure and logic of narrative collapse. Here, however, we have something subtly different: a narrative collapse into the Holmesean, individual level. History is defeated by the personal scale, by family and scared children and the non-illusion of free will. The Whitakerian Eagle and Red Holmesean have at last had their union, here at the absolute end of the Virgin line. And if this, an achronological blip within an achronological blip within a quasi-official line of tie-in fiction not even on television and not even published by the BBC, is perhaps a lowly place for the chymic wedding, let us remember that there is no better place for so lofty an ideal.


peeeeeeet 8 years, 1 month ago

I might be misremembering this, but I think Orman stated once that the book wasn't always going to open with a flashforward to Roz's death - she added that because she knew that the cat would be out of the bag.

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Scott 8 years, 1 month ago

Yes, that's what I thought as well -- the novel as originally written was wiped and Orman was working off Aaronovitch's notes. It could well have been intended as a surprise (albeit one where it sounds like the cat was out of the bag beforehand).

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John Callaghan 8 years, 1 month ago

I remember that too. How neat it is, that it works in favour of the narrative.

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Aaron 8 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, I was going to mention that in the original version Aaronovitch had left Roz's death a surprise.

Also, Miles' next two books are Alien Bodies and Interference- they're Down and Alien Bodies.

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encyclops 8 years, 1 month ago

I haven't read this novel yet, but when I do it had better be as fine as this essay. So much to think about!

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drwhonovels 8 years, 1 month ago

I remember it this way this too. Aaronovitch's surviving notes for how the second half of novel would have been written contained a heavy focus on military hardware and soldier levels for the final battle (i.e. tactical stuff), but much vagueness as to how that battle was supposed to be plotted, apart from something along the lines of "this depends on how other things turn out".

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Adam Riggio 8 years, 1 month ago

Here's what I sometimes find freaky about the Eruditorum project. If Ben Aaronovitch's hard drive hadn't crashed, he would have written a book that had pretty much the same plot points, but very different emphases: tactics, battles, space opera of a more conventional sort, the kind of epic story where we would have expected a character like Roz to go out. What we got was all those meticulously arranged tactical details disappearing, and Kate Orman having to rescue a book using very different kinds of drama, focussing on the small scale effects that an epic battle had: Chris and the Doctor lost their friend.

This movement uniting narrative collapse and parallelism structures in one story was assembled entirely by mistake, the hurried attempt to avoid a real-world disaster. As well, because the novel itself was crafted under such circumstances, the stereotypical (if problematic) way we engage with fiction finds it difficult to take hold. We can't really let ourselves treat So Vile a Sin as if it were the biography of people who just happen to be fictional, because the reasons for why the drama unfolds as it does can't be understood as an entirely aesthetic or artistic cause: So Vile a Sin is the way it is because Aaronovitch's hard drive crashed. Doctor Who, once again, can't be adequately understood without taking into account the material conditions of its production.

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Iain Coleman 8 years, 1 month ago

This is one of the things I like most about TV series - those occasions when the constraints of deadlines, runtimes and so on cause great things to happen that were never planned. It's rarer to find this in novels, but this is one example.

JMS called it "art by accident", back in the B5 days when he was describing how seious over-running problems forced him to excise the entire B-plot from "Intersections in Real Time", the episode where Sheridan is tortured in prison. This meant the entire episode was just Sheridan in his cell with no shots of the outside world - absolutely the best choice, but not one that would have been deliberately planned.

There are some great examples that arise from under-running as well. The entire first episode of "The Mind Robber" is a case in point (and of course that story later has more art-by-accident when Frazer Hines gets chickenpox). One of my all time favourites is from the Blake's 7 episode "Bounty". There's a lovely scene where the politician who Blake is trying to rescue, played by T P McKenna, takes time out as a firefight rages around him to sit down and listen to an antique gramophone record. It's a sublime moment, touching and memorable - and it only exists because the episode was under-running horribly and they couldn't think of anything else to do except have the guest actor listen to music for a couple of minutes to pad it out.

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