What More Could A Renegade Wish For? (Head Games)


I’ll Explain Later

We’ve skipped the perfectly serviceable Zamper and Toy Soldiers. Head Games is a doozy - the sequel to Conundrum as well as part of a paired release alongside the Missing Adventure Millennial Rites, also in October of 1995, which constitute Virgin Books’ attempt to deal with the Valeyard and the regeneration of the Sixth Doctor. It also has both Mel and Ace. It’s… ambitious, as we’ll see. And yet largely praised. Lars Pearson somewhat idiosyncratically calls for a beverage pairing, saying that it “leaves a lump of your throat as you down cup after cup of cafe mochas.” Dave Owen, at the time, was a beverage agnostic, and was altogether more dour, suggesting that the book was good on the matter of “the psychodrama going on in the TARDIS,” but calling it “dreary” and “dull” when talking about any other parts. It is indeed considerably less popular than Conundrum, hanging out in the mid-list in thirty-fourth place on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings with a 68.3% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.

It’s October of 1995. Simply Red are at number one with “Fairground.” The only bad consequence of skipping Toy Soldiers is that we missed the opportunity to name-check “Boombastic” by Shaggy, not because it’s good, but because it’s “Boombastic” by Shaggy. It’s at number three. In any case, in the last week of the month Coolio unseats Fairground with “Gangsta’s Paradise.” There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, Pulp, and The Rembrandts also chart, while Oasis debuts at number one on the album charts with “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” i.e. The album of theirs that Americans have heard of.

While we were not reading books DVDs were announced, the White Earthquake struck Chile, Bermudans rejected independence, and Microsoft released Windows 95. While in the month of this book, the Million Man March, consisting of somewhere in the range of 400-800 thousand people, takes place in Washington DC. And Julie Goodyear leaves Coronation Street. Nothing else happens that month. Nothing. (Oh fine. OJ Simpson is acquitted.)

While in books, Head Games. Encyclops, commenting a few entries back, suggested jokingly a glossary of terms that are cliches in fan-analysis of Doctor Who: “romp,” for instance - an admittedly problematic term, and “gurning,” a delightful word that fills a hole in one’s life that one didn’t even know existed. And then there was the third term he proposed, “nightmare brief.” It is, indeed, a fan cliche. But a history of the term is still interesting. The term refers to those occasional stories that happen in which two or more pre-ordained events end up taking place in a single story. The archetypal nightmare brief is probably Planet of Fire, in which Peter Grimwade got to deal with Peri’s arrival, the death of the Master, squaring away Kamelion, writing out Turlough, and going to Lanzarote all in one story.

The nightmare brief is not merely an event story. Remembrance of the Daleks, for instance, is not a nightmare brief, in that seemingly every idea involved in it was always Aaronovitch’s intention. Rather a nightmare brief is when a story has a list of elements that must be included and there’s not a self-evident reason why they go together. The concept is most associated with the Nathan-Turner era and his preference for laundry list stories in the style of, say, The Two Doctors, but it has earlier precedent. Indeed, a fair case can be made that the first nightmare brief was The Daleks’ Masterplan or, at latest, Power of the Daleks. But in the Nathan-Turner era, as I said, these sorts of laundry list stories became common. And they still crop up from time to time, although these days they’ve tended to go to the showrunner to handle themselves. But even still, you’ve got messes like Daleks in Manhattan that give all the feel of a nightmare brief story.

Head Games may or may not be a nightmare brief, but structurally it has all the hallmarks of one. It features every companion of the Seventh Doctor, including the first use of Mel in eight years, makes progress in dealing with the Valeyard (a topic that had been forbidden from submissions to the Virgin line, partially because of their efforts to avoid continuity porn and, perhaps more importantly, paying extra for the rights to characters whose original creators would get royalty payments), serves as a sequel to Conundrum, and ties in vaguely to that month’s Missing Adventure, the already-covered Millennial Rights. This may well have all been Lyons’s idea, but it means that the book is packed to the gills from the get-go.

This, in turn, means that it has to be something the Virgin line has largely avoided being up to this point, which is a book that simply does not have any room to play with any ideas that are not inherently related to Doctor Who. In many ways it’s a staggering achievement that it indulges in this so rarely. The novel line could easily have become packed with continuity-laden stories that dealt only with Doctor Who stories in the general case. It’s what people would generally expect from a line of sci-fi television tie-ins, and though the Virgin books routinely did continuity-heavy sequels, and routinely played off the legacy of Doctor Who, the fact that there are more books like Transit in the line than there are like Time’s Crucible is one of the many genuinely remarkable things about the line. But Head Games is not one of those books. Head Games is a book about squaring away major bits of Doctor Who continuity for the sake of having them squared away.

This is not inherently a bad thing. That the New Adventures largely avoided it is remarkable, but as I’ve said, the books were always going to appeal to an audience for whom dense continuity was intelligible. The question is really what sorts of dense continuity you want to tackle. A book that, for instance, attempted to square away the three Atlantises problem would be a tenuous idea simply because there’s not a lot of content to the question. But the Valeyard has some meat on the bones simply because it’s such a radical concept that was obviously not used to its full, or even really partial, potential in the TV series. On top of that, the concept, as we noted back in the Trial entries, coincides closely with a moment in the series history when there was a strange gap in what the series was doing.

Simply put, the ambiguities implicit in Trial of a Time Lord and the effaced Baker-McCoy regeneration serve as extremely solid metaphors for what was going on with the show production-wise. The Valeyard and the Trial were always designed, in part, to explore the possibility that the Baker’s Doctor was an inadequate or even failed version of the character. The missing regeneration coincides with Cartmel’s rapid evolution of the series, implicitly putting the Sixth and Seventh Doctors in an implied conflict. And in the face of Paul Cornell’s treatment of the Doctor’s psyche in Timewyrm: Revelation and his suggestion that the Seventh Doctor had murdered the Sixth so he could exist, that conflict becomes something that begs to be explored. So this isn’t just a story about tying off some mildly obscure continuity ends: it’s a story that literalizes part of an ongoing debate about the future direction of Doctor Who.

This also explains why the Land of Fiction actually fits in here: it allows for a debate about the nature of authorship and storytelling to fit into the story itself. Jason, the Master of the Land of Fiction from Conundrum, creates Dr. Who, a doppelgänger of the Doctor, and becomes his companion, allowing Lyons to put a monstrous parody of the Doctor into the narrative. Dr. Who is not an evil Doctor, but rather a simplistic one - the sort that would be written by a lame writer, which is basically the concept behind Jason. Jason mistakes Doctor Who for a story about defeating evil, nasty monsters, and so Dr. Who becomes the most simplistic sort of hero, to the point of making a machine that destroys lizard people by, basically, writing “Lizard Monster Eradicator” on the side of a cardboard box and pushing a button.

But this entire debate has one problem, which is that the Valeyard, as a concept, would seem to push both ways. He may, metatextually, be a symbol of the Sixth Doctor’s inadequacy, but if you want to pick a Doctor who seems reasonably likely to turn into a dark and evil version of the character it is, of course, the Seventh who seems like the obvious candidate. Which is why Jason, Dr. Who, and, eventually, Mel all find it so easy to characterize him as evil. The usual litany of bad bad things comes up: the destruction of the alternate universe in Blood Heat and the destruction of the Seven Planets in The Pit. But they’re almost pro forma at this point. By and large, a story in which it’s really, properly proposed that the Doctor could conceivably go bad, and that his usual modus operandi these days is well on the path towards that is just about the most obvious Virgin Books plot imaginable. It’s not just the books that have had the Doctor partially responsible for outright atrocities that point towards this, but the basic attitude in which book after book has overtly brought the Doctor’s ethics into question.

But there’s an odd dissonance here too. For the most part the Virgin line has brought the Doctor into disrepute not by having him be responsible for terrible things but by straining the relationship between him and his companions. For all the horrors of Blood Heat and The Pit, there remains no more shocking moment on the Doctor’s part than his seeming betrayal of Ace in Love and War. Head Games, to its credit, deals with this artfully. Central to the story is the planet of Detrios, which is currently being artificially sustained by a MacGuffin involving the now dismantled Land of Fiction called the Miracle. The Doctor intends to deactivate the Miracle, as it poses a threat to the universe. But, of course, doing so also dooms Detrios. So on the one hand the story sets the Doctor up for another atrocity in the name of the greater good. But it also has the Doctor keep this information from his companions, thus tying the two aspects of the Doctor’s untrustworthiness together.

The problem that Lyons runs into, then, is that he’s got two competing cases for what the Valeyard represents. One is metatextual, based on the fact that the Valeyard, in Trial of a Time Lord, is a symbol of the failures of the Colin Baker era as a whole. The other is actually character-based, based on the fact that the New Adventures feature a much darker and more ethically questionable Doctor. Within the book it’s the former that is mostly focused on: the Sixth Doctor is portrayed as the one likely to become the Valeyard, with the Seventh explicitly accusing him of being on the road to that. It’s reiterated that the Doctors opt to keep the Sixth Doctor imprisoned in their mind out of fear that he might become the Valeyard. But there’s very little that manages to justify that here.

At the heart of this is the fact that, in the absence of any clear account of things, Trial of a Time Lord was always easy to misunderstand. The Valeyard, as Robert Holmes created him, was a figure based on the terror of authority. The Doctor turning evil is what happens when he becomes a creature of rules and regulations. But since Trial of a Time Lord was a confused and barely coherent mess, Holmes’s intent never really came through. So in fan lore the Valeyard becomes a factor of the Sixth Doctor’s flaws, and, more broadly, of the flaws of the Sixth Doctor’s era. But as compelling as this metatextual approach is, it never really worked as a reading of Trial of a Time Lord itself. And here it finds itself dwarfed by the obvious idea that the Seventh Doctor is the one likely to be the Valeyard.

To be fair, Lyons tackles that idea, allowing the Sixth Doctor to accuse the Seventh of being more like the Valeyard than he is. And the Seventh Doctor admits that “for all his intentions and all his games, he was still capable of becoming the Valeyard.” But this still positions the Seventh Doctor’s darker tendencies as a way of resisting the Valeyard, which seems unconvincing at best. The basic problem remains: the Valeyard, coming as he does from a barely coherent story and serving as a dead end for an entire approach to Doctor Who, is very hard to incorporate into any other mythology of Doctor Who.

But I said I was going to be nice to this Steve Lyons book, so let’s instead note that for all the difficulties it has resolving its themes, Head Games still displays a striking unity. And to be honest, an exhaustive and complete solving of the Valeyard is probably impossible, at least in narrative form. Whether imposed on him or taken by choice, Head Games really is the nightmare brief, and Lyons’s decision to stop short of a big “explain everything” book allows him to tell a story with some great moments in its own right. Dr Who failing to convince student radicals talking about how the entire social order needs to be overthrown to actually join his rebellion is a fantastically sly bit. And the angry dissolving of the Doctor and Mel’s friendship is brutal. Given the disdain with which much of fandom holds Mel and the degree to which it treats the turn towards Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six as an improvement, turning the book into a work of nostalgia for an era that isn’t normally well-remembered and reminding the reader that there was something lost in the turn towards the darker and more ruthless take on McCoy’s Doctor. And it must be said, Lyons, even if he treats the Valeyard as the endpoint of the Sixth Doctor, also clearly loves the era. He did, after all, write two Missing Adventures for Baker’s Doctor, plus a Big Finish audio. He’s able to sell the nostalgia for Mel’s simpler morality, and it makes for an effective critique of the current era.

All the same, there is something notable about the way in which this book turns towards a task Virgin had largely avoided, namely wrapping up strands of the series’ past. Head Games doesn’t explain everything away, but it does serve to close the book on the Valeyard to an extent, giving him a place in the series’ past with the potential for return, but nothing like the necessity of doing so. And it makes relatively definitive statements on many of the Virgin era’s pet continuity theories, taking some of Paul Cornell’s more brash hints and making them “official,” so to speak. This is not surprising, of course - even though the book license hadn’t been officially taken away from Virgin when this came out (I don’t believe - though if someone happens to be able to track the date of that announcement easily I’d be curious), we are now in the point where the TV Movie is looming and the writing is on the wall for, if not the Virgin line, at least the Seventh Doctor. The line is entering the phase where it is tying up its loose ends and making its final statements about the Seventh Doctor. Head Games is perhaps overwhelmed by how much it has to do, but its also a necessary book in that it renders explicit many of the assumptions of the Virgin era. Put another way, if the Colin Baker era had ever had a story that this meticulously and coherently wrapped up its themes, Head Games might not have needed to exist in the first place.


Alan 8 years, 2 months ago

An idea I've been toying around with for some time (and even more so ever since "Amy's Choice" and the fan-wank theory that the Dream Lord is really an alternate take on the Valyard) is that the Valyard is not the logical endpoint of Six, but rather of Doctors Eight through Eleven. The entire arc of NuWho has been about a Doctor devastated by survivor guilt and by the fact that he inevitably loses all of his loved ones. Even Eleven, who has managed to put aside the weepy gloom than hung over his two predecessors at times still seems consumed by a barely concealed existential despair to the point where he openly admits that he needs morally grounded companions to stop him from turning into a monster.

At this point, I can imagine a progression of the character that leads to him deciding in a moment of weakness to undo everything that had happened over the course of the second half of his life, and thus going back in time as the Valyard to change things at, in his mind, the point at which things went wrong: the Sixth Doctor.

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Adam Riggio 8 years, 2 months ago

Judging from your previous posts about Steve Lyons' work, I'd say the reason Head Games is less offensive to you is because its story doesn't have anything to do with his philosophy of history.

As for the story itself, if anything, the fact that it can't quite resolve its themes about the Valeyard and the Sixth Doctor may actually be a positive note for Head Games, whether Lyons intended it or not. I looked back over some of your posts from Season 23(ish) and I think I finally understand what was going on there, and how it can feed into the Valeyard ideas as they came up in this novel.

The Valeyard presents a problem without a solution, the seemingly inevitable progress of the Doctor toward his moral collapse (and what better narrative collapse could there be for Doctor Who than the moral collapse of its hero, which I think is the point behind Waters of Mars). Alan's fanwank can, coincidentally, provide support for this, as the progress of the Doctor's life since the Seasonish is itself bringing him closer to becoming the Valeyard, or at least an equivalent figure. As he gets older, to control his more dangerous tendencies, he begins to make moral rules for himself (giving his threat to Mme Kovarian in A Good Man Goes to War about having so many rules a sly new meaning), slowly becoming just what Holmes conceived the Valeyard to be: a creature of rules and regulations. Also, it fits with Lyons' conception of history as a progress of inevitability: all that the Doctor does moves him forward on his progress to become the Valeyard.

Yet the Valeyard is a problem without a solution in that the character makes no sense. This aspect, though, actually supplies a solution. A puzzle so twisted and messy that there's no way to solve it is no longer a puzzle, but just a mess: that's the Valeyard, Trial of a Time Lord, Season 23, and the Seasonish. From this situation, there is no way forward. So we have the only solution: reboot.

Diegetically, the Seventh Doctor kills the Sixth from whatever pocket of virtual potentiality of a tendency he was in at the time. Meta-textually, all the various regeneration narratives of the Sixth Doctor into the Seventh happen regardless of their mutual incompatibility — Head Games, Spiral Scratch, Time's Champion, whatever other fanwank you can think of. Para-textually, Colin Baker is unjustly blamed for the failure of the show's creative direction and is fired, refusing to film a proper regeneration story, and allowing Andrew Cartmel to begin his tenure entirely fresh. The real-world production and the various fictional regenerations all become different aspects of the same event: the total collapse of Doctor Who itself being avoided through the show itself regenerating.

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Eric Gimlin 8 years, 2 months ago

Not directly related to this book, but it seems like comments have been dropping off recently. I know in my case I hit my tolerance for reading two Doctor Who books a week a few weeks ago, so I have less to say but am still enjoying the articles immensely. I just didn't want lack of comments to come across as lack of interest; it's just that without having read the books it's harder for me to comment.

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encyclops 8 years, 2 months ago

So cool to be mentioned in an actual entry of one of the two blogs I check daily (even when I know there isn't going to be an update)! :) If that part survives to the print edition, I'd be happy for you to use my real name if you like. Drop me a line at encyclops@encyclops.com and I'll send it to you (though it's no big secret). I hope I didn't make you too self-conscious about those terms. The only one I really dislike is "romp" -- the rest are just funny ways you know you're talking to a Doctor Who fan.

It's become such a cliché to bombard our archetypal adventure heroes with moral crises of the "we are not so different, you and I" variety now. All three of the New Series Doctors get it left and right, and of course there's this book in particular and the Valeyard in general. Which of course brings to mind the Sherlock / Moriarty pairing (though, refreshingly, no one expects Sherlock even to be nice in the Moffat series, let alone morally upstanding). And now, outrageously, there's James Bond: I was just watching Quantum of Solace the other night in anticipation of Skyfall, and not only is there M's "stop killing people before we can question them" thing, there's even a Hellblazer "you get everyone around you killed" moment. Really? He's a SPY. He's trained to be the one guy who makes it out of a dangerous situation, not to protect everyone he meets or talk them out of trying to help. I'm not sure what it means or what the alternative is (hopefully not Dexter or Hannibal Rising), but it's becoming so tiresome.

Alan's theory above, on the other hand, is really fun to think about, especially in light of the fact that Eight is presumably the one who destroys Gallifrey.

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Archeology of the Future 8 years, 2 months ago

It just occured to me what the Valeyard is; he's not the endpoint of morally corrupt or violent tendancies of The Doctor, he's The Doctor who has given up his faith in people and the possibility that they can do good works.

He's The Doctor who has worn out his rebellion and his belief that power can be challenged where it runs contrary to the wishes of people.

The Doctor operates in the gap between what rules are meant to do and what they actually do, using knowledge to dance around the structures and strictures imposed by systems and precendents.

The Valeyard is the Doctor who has lost his faith and energy for the freeing possibility from the bounds of power and has instead recognised the great power and possibility inherent in the rules and regulations he had previously danced around so beautifully.

Knowing how great the power of rules and laws and the way that bringing truth to a situation can defuse them, the Valeyard is The Doctor who moves from either lying or telling the truth to bullshitting because he knows that it is not truth but power that defines reality.

The Valeyard uses law and rules to make people act, recognising that it is more direct to use power that already exists than to try to democratise it.

The Valeyard is what happens if The Doctor falls to despair and self doubt, a creature that uses the intimate knowledge gained as a freedom fighter to better build the systems of control and dominance using, rather than challenging, the laws and rules and the shape and constrict people's actions.

He's basically the Doctor who has 'grown up' and decided to use 'the system' to further his own interests rather than trying to pry possibility from it by undermining it. Looked at like that, The Valeyard isn't just an evil future version of The Doctor but really the embodiment of The Doctor's (and our)fear of growing up and betraying our own ideals.

It's logical then that the seventh doctor become more politically commited, more of the underminer of rules and more of a ethically rather than law guided figure.

Though where that leaves his future selves and their appeals to the outside authority of the Shadow Proclamation is another question.

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Archeology of the Future 8 years, 2 months ago

I think 'The Doctor Monster as Destroyer of Worlds and Meddler of Time' is a different fear to the fear of becoming The Valeyard. That's quite an interesting fear.

The fear of becoming The Valeyard is much more mundane: The fear of imposing a rule rather than convincing someone through argument and charm and finding it so much easier. Then doing it again.

I think the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors wrestle with the fear and responsibility of being a god. The sixth wrestles with the fear of becoming a petty despot.

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5tephe 8 years, 2 months ago

Ooooh. I don't mind that - as far as continuity dominated fan ideas go. That's pretty good.

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BerserkRL 8 years, 2 months ago

One of the great things about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (book, miniseries, and movie alike) is that the HERO is the one who gives the VILLAIN the "we're not so different, you and I" speech.

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thepoparena.com 8 years, 2 months ago

Kind of wanted to chime in to offer some support to the Eruditorum, haven't really been participating in blog posts and such because I'm trying to speed read my way through the novels, but I'm only up to Terminal. Obviously the contents of the blog have gotten away from me, but I promise to be much more active when we get to the new series.

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Russell Gillenwater 8 years, 2 months ago

I meant to post about this on the weekend, but I just want to add that this is one of the best ideas about the Valeyard I have read and that this would make the character finally make sense.

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neroden@gmail 7 years, 1 month ago

This is the one of the earliest of the "Consequences of what the Doctor irresponsibly simply forgets about" books.

The first such story was of course The Face of Evil, but it had been promptly ignored since then; Paul Cornell edged towards the theme in some of his earlier books, then backed away. The New Adventures ran a whole lot of such stories in a row after Head Games, up to Bad Therapy. The theme was taken up again in Aliens of London and more obviously School Reunion.

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