4 years, 9 months ago
It’s June of 2002. As it feels so empty without him, Eminem is at number one. Things empty fast, as Will Young takes over with “Light My Fire.” Two weeks after that is Elvis vs JXL with “A Little Less Conversation,” which plays out McGann’s second season. Atomic Kitten, Enrique, Ant and Dec, Kylie Minogue, Nelly, Scooter, and Oasis also chart. And in news, a ten meter-wide object casually explodes over the Mediterranean Sea. Also, the sun goes dark. Thankfully, they’re totally unrelated. Also, the US Congress admits that the telephone was actually invented five years before Alexander Graham Bell by Antonio Meucci.
While on audio we have McGann’s second “season finale,” Neverland. Doctor Who, prior to the new series, was never good at the season finale in the contemporary “wrap up all the plot lines” sense. In total the number of times it’s solidly stuck the landing in capping off a story arc number about two - Enlightenment and Timewyrm: Revelation. It’s not always that the efforts are bad - No Future, for instance, is a charming book, albeit the weakest of Cornell’s first four New Adventures, and So Vile a Sin is a tour de force that was wrecked only by its scheduling problems. But past that you have lackluster efforts like Lungbarrow, The Ancestor Cell, and, to go back a bit further, The Armageddon Factor or Trial of a Time Lord.
Indeed, the history of Doctor Who is, up to the point we’re at now, mostly a series of exceedingly good cases against the entire logic of metaplots. They’ve never actually gone well for the series. And not just in the “one bum installment” problem that any serialized work is going to have: Doctor Who has consistently, when getting to the end of its metaplots, failed spectacularly to stick the landing.
And it’s not even that Neverland is bad. At least twenty minutes too long, sure, but not entirely unpleasant. The problem is really that, conceptually, it’s a damp squib at best. Gallifrey is facing the greatest crisis in its history, all of time is unraveling, and oh look, we’ve got some fresh new revelations about Rassilon. Fantastic. I mean, Doctor Who was really hurting for all of these things.
It would be one thing if Neverland actually had anything new to say about any of these ideas. It doesn’t of course, a fact that may or may not be related to the fact that there is nothing whatsoever new to say about any of these ideas because they are mediocre ideas that have been done to death. (Shall we recall the funniest sequence Kate Orman and Jon Blum ever wrote, in which “Dark Sam” plays up the Doctor’s dark and mysterious past to some villains, prompting the Doctor to ask how she knew all of that, to which she replies that it was just the plot of a Babylon 5 episode she’d seen once?) But there’s not having anything new to say and there’s the lengths of superficial banality that Neverland shoots for in its concept, and, unnervingly, the latter is by far the more impressive.
The crux of Neverland’s problem is its unproblematic embrace of one of the great banalities of science fiction: the idea that everything must have an opposite. Since this principle carries through both this and the next audio we’ll cover, let’s divide and conquer a bit. A week from today we’ll do Zagreus, and we’ll look at this idea within the context of Doctor Who’s history. For now let’s take it on its own terms: the idea that all things in the universe are balanced out somewhere by their opposites. And thus, of course, in addition to time there is anti-time, a dangerous force that, if unleashed, could destroy all of history just as antimatter destroys matter.
First of all, let’s point out the catastrophic problem at the heart of this: anti-time is meaningless. I don’t mean this in the “it’s sci-fi technobabble” sense of the word, either. I mean that the idea makes no sense. Nowhere is there any clue as to what anti-time might mean, what it might be like, or how it might work. I mean, anti-matter is a tricky scientific concept, but at least there’s an intuitive dimension to it: you take matter, you take anti-matter, you put them in contact, and there’s an explosion. Stuff that destroys whatever it touches. That’s not too hard. But what the heck would anti-time even be? How are we meant to understand it as a concept? Even if there is some concept in theoretical physics that could fairly be characterized as anti-time, unlike antimatter it doesn’t lend itself straightforwardly to being used as a plot point in a sci-fi adventure because there’s no intuitive handle to be had on how it works.
Of course, that’s not really a problem for Neverland, given that all it really needs anti-time to be is generically evil. It doesn’t have to make any sense, because it sounds like an evil thing. Which isn’t a problem in and of itself - evil things are often needed for sci-fi adventuring, after all. But it does rather mute the effectiveness of the actual concept. I mean, when all your big epic Gallifrey-destroying crisis has going for it is “it’s rather evil,” you’ve not exactly landed in the realm of brilliance. Doctor Who is brimming with evil things. You don’t need to introduce anti-time to do it, and in fact, it would be a heck of a lot more satisfying if you just used something with more mythic resonances. (In this regard the existence of The Apocalypse Element, which does a generic base under siege with Daleks, only set on Gallifrey, is one of the most telling chapters in Big Finish’s history. They manage to hit on the special sauce that makes the Time War eventually work as a properly epic conflict, and they squander it on Part Two of a trilogy of generic Dalek stories. That the degree to which this plot can’t be topped for sheer epic stakes was not a disastrous blow to Big Finish’s subsequent use of the Daleks or Gallifrey speaks volumes of how mediocre The Apocalypse Element really was.)
But there’s a larger problem here, which is that the entire frame of “everything has its opposite” is morally bankrupt. In effect it excuses the existence of evil and trivializes the existence of good by declaring that both will necessarily exist. There is no reason to do good - the self-maintaining “balance” of the universe will ensure, after all, that somebody will. And there are no real grounds to condemn evil when its existence is pre-ordained as a basic force of the universe. And so all moral force simply drops out of the equation. There are no actual stakes, because nothing can ever change.
The result is horrifyingly reactionary, often without any particular intention on the part of the people writing it. When nothing can change and evil is excused as a fundamental feature of the universe then what ultimately gets endorsed is the status quo. So any existing structures of repression become permanent. When meaningfully doing good or reducing evil becomes a completely pointless act there’s no reason to try to change anything. Ethically, of course, this is poisonous to anything that Doctor Who has ever been good at. At every functional moment in the series’ history the idea that trying to change the world is pointless is anathema to it. But it’s such an ingrained principle in post-Campbell sci-fi epics that people are oddly addicted to it. And so people apply it reflexively to Doctor Who when trying to write a Doctor Who epic, and in the process turn Doctor Who into appallingly reactionary crap.
Which, as it happens, Neverland is. Eventually it’s revealed that the anti-time Neverpeople are the people erased by the Celestial Intervention Agency’s Oubliette of Eternity, which, in a characteristically original concept, makes it as though people never existed. Let’s pause here and consider how astonishingly good a metaphor Neverland hit on here. Because it’s a better metaphor than Barnes could possibly have been going for when this was written. The Celestial Intervention Agency is, of course, originally a joke about the CIA. So Barnes has the CIA conducting horrible atrocities in the name of the state. And these atrocities are completely covered up - after all, once a person has never existed at all there’s nobody to ask questions about them. So we have extra-judicial black ops killings conducted by the CIA. Barnes has, quite by accident, created a Doctor Who story that is a perfect stand-in for the United States’ handling of the War on Terror. And even if that wasn’t his intention, the metaphor works. This is, in fact, the War on Terror to a tee.
So what’s his end position? That the Neverpeople are abominations that must be destroyed. That the CIA head who, realizing the horror of what the CIA was doing, erased herself from existence is, in fact, a bitter, twisted and irredeemable person. And that, ultimately, the objections of the Neverpeople to their oppression on the part of Gallifrey are for naught and only reasoned and careful reform as executed by Romana can effect meaningful change. I mean, yes, the CIA comes in for criticism too. But that only makes the situation worse. OK, sure, extrajudicial killings are bad. But they’re not bad in a way that creates any moral obligation on the part of the state or anyone in it to do anything about it. An uprising from a population subjected to genocide is forbidden. Overthrowing the oppressive state is bad. Because, of course, all things need balance. If the CIA is wrong to erase people from time then the people erased have to be wrong to try to overthrow the state that’s murdered them. The CIA may be wrong, but there’s nothing for it but the slow workings of the existing political system as embodied by heroes like Romana.
And all of this stems from the original decision to have the Neverpeople be anti-time creatures and thus fundamentally evil. This is hammered home at the end, when the Doctor’s corruption by the anti-time of the Neverpeople turns him into the monstrous Zagreus. Once you’ve committed to that you’ve foreclosed any possibility of a more interesting relationship between people and their oppressors. And, look, I really don’t think it’s too much to ask for stories in which the message is not “horrifically oppressed people shouldn’t be so uppity.” Because there’s not actually a moral difference between what the Neverpeople want to do and what’s been done to them. Both sides are genocidal. It’s just that one side is a legitimate western-style government and the other side are inherently evil terrorists. And while the western-style government may do bad things, they are by definition the non-evil side, and so must be seen to triumph over the inherently evil terrorists. Which, without siding with any particular terrorists, is perhaps a bit blinkered.
Much like Earthshock, of course, we can’t make any sort of causal case. Neverland was recorded months before 9/11, and could not possibly have been intended as a commentary on terrorism and the appropriate response to it. But it doesn’t matter. We deserve better. “Not putting Doctor Who on the same basic side as the Bush administration” is, in fact, a reasonable baseline expectation of Doctor Who, and one that Neverland fails spectacularly. It doesn’t have to be consciously written as Bush-administration propaganda to be awful; there are other routes to horrible besides 24. But Neverland fails at that.
And let me be clear, I really don’t think it fails because of active neo-conservative beliefs on the part of Alan Barnes. I think it fails because the logic that Doctor Who is striving for in this story is fundamentally morally bankrupt. I think it fails because Doctor Who is, in doing a big epic in which Gallifrey faces down the Pure Evil Thingy-Things, is deciding on an appallingly reactionary worldview that is first and foremost about endorsing the status quo and the inherent and unquestionable moral legitimacy of the state. And I think for a series that was originally based on mercurial anarchism and whose most influential single writer was a curmudgeon who hated nothing so much as self-righteous authority that this is, if not inexcusable, at least a case for why this approach isn’t worth pursuing. Why should Doctor Who claim a major place in British culture if all it has to offer is the selling out of all of its good points over the years? Who cares?
In spite of all of this, Neverland is structured quite nicely. Lala Ward is always fun to listen to, and though McGann clearly is not loving his technobabble, he has some lovely scenes. India Fisher is wonderful, even though she spends most of the story in a refrigerator being symbolically raped. It does everything an epic season finale should do. The problem isn’t with its quality.
It’s that there’s no point to Doctor Who if this is what it’s going to shoot for.
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