4 years, 2 months ago
It's January of 2002. Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman are at number one with "Something Stupid." Daniel Bedingfield unseats them a week later with "Gotta Get Through This," then Aaliyah's posthumous "More Than A Woman," which was in turn unseated by the posthumous rerelease of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." Clearly a month for nostalgia and digging things up after their time for sentimental reasons. I wonder who's writing the story this month. In any case, S Club 7, Kate Winslet, Puretone, Pink, Dr. Dre, and the Chemical Brothers also chart. In news, the Euro enters circulation. Daniel Pearl, an American reporter, is kidnapped in Pakistan and eventually murdered. And it's the Queen's Golden Jubilee, if you're into that sort of thing.
While on CDs you can buy in specialty shops, Paul McGann kicks off his second "season" as the Eighth Doctor with Mark Gatiss's Invaders From Mars. I’ve already largely tipped my hand on this: I am decidedly not a fan of most of Mark Gatiss’s output. Invaders from Mars, however, presents an unusual sort of problem. Unlike Gatiss’s worst moments, it is at least not blatantly offensive. It avoids, for instance, accidentally backing the British National Party. Its storytelling is, by many reasonable arguments, deeply flawed, but there’s a reasonable case to be made that those flaws are more accurately described as a difference of aesthetics.
More than almost any other writer in the wilderness years, and certainly more than any other writer of the new series, Mark Gatiss has an aesthetic of nostalgia. Under many circumstances this would be outright unbearable. Gatiss was prone to a self-conscious embrace of the “trad” aesthetic, most notably in things like Last of the Gaderene, in which he does an almost note-perfect imitation of the Pertwee era. There are few writers who can be said to pull this off well. But whatever objections I might have to Gatiss’s work at large, it’s difficult to argue seriously that he wasn’t good at it. He wrote rarely, but his were among the most beloved of “trad” novels.
Part of this is that, although he is ruthlessly nostalgic, he has considerable range in his nostalgia. There’s a bit of a classical sensibility to his nostalgia; it reaches back to stuff that was already fairly old when Gatiss was a child. Gatiss is at home being nostalgic for Victorian fiction, 1950s sci-fi television, and World War II movies. It doesn’t make him any less prone to uncritical recitations of the things he’s nostalgic for, but it adds a pleasant sort of variety to proceedings. Invaders from Mars largely trades on this. It is, first and foremost, a piece of nostalgia for 1930s American radio. The result is that for all its traditionalism, it’s unlike anything else the McGann audios do. It’s terribly old-fashioned, but it’s so old-fashioned as to end up being reasonably creative.
It’s also, as with the best nostalgia, a meditation on tone rather than content. As a result, there’s a bit of a hodgepodge to it. Several genres are blended casually together such that a New York gangster story abuts with a sci-fi invasion. Light effort is made to blend them seamlessly: the aliens, for instance, turn out to be running a protection racket, creating a parallel between them. But for the most part the linking is based on tone and mood. Both are classic American radio genres, and so they can fairly easily be made to feel like they go together.
One thing that is notable about Invaders from Mars, in fact, is the degree to which real effort has been made to have the story match the tone. Old-timey radio cues and sound effects permeate Invaders from Mars, along with comical American accents. Unlike the disaster accents of Minuet in Hell, however, this time everyone is in agreement that the accents are to be played for comedy. Where Minuet in Hell felt like nobody was quite on the same page, this one has everyone united in doing pastiches of classic radio tropes, and ends up sounding much stronger for it. The accents are silly, but they’re silly in the same way that a story that contains cheesy musical cues and is called Invaders from Mars is silly.
There’s a bit of an aesthetic issue underlying this. The term “romp” exists in the standard critical vocabulary for Doctor Who almost specifically to segregate stories of this sort into a lesser category. But what exactly this means is obscure and seems to crumble the more one pokes at it. A romp seems to be a story whose primary goal is to frolic in amongst a set of tropes and signifiers. But this is a standard approach to Doctor Who and always has been. Is the objection simply a lack of ambition beyond having fun with a given story?
If so the objection seems unfair in some ways. Especially because it seems to build over time. “Doctor Who does X” was a standard of several television eras. We must be careful, especially with a project like this, of demanding ever higher standards as the series winds on. Especially because, for all the ostensible traditionalism of this story, it’s not like this is something we’ve seen before. This is traditionalist in the same way that Big Finish has been at its best: the sort of thing Doctor Who does, but not quite in a way we’ve ever seen before. Doctor Who hasn’t done old time radio before. It’s traditional, but it’s not traditional in the same way that yet another gothic horror piece would be. And more to the point, perhaps, it’s something that Big Finish had to do eventually. To do audio Doctor Who without any larking about in classic audio genres would be strange, to say the least. And US old-time radio is an obvious pool to play in.
Given that, Gatiss is the obvious person to go to. This is squarely in his wheelhouse. And he does well, keeping episode lengths short, the plot eventful, and a sense of playfulness. The story avoids overstaying its welcome and tours the high points of the genres. It’s not going for sprawling ambition, but that’s not its goal. Its goal is to be a fun opening to the new McGann series. And not only does it succeed, it succeeds with some plausibly interesting bits.
Most notable is its use of radio history. The story is built around the famed Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which, by popular legend, was confused with a real newscast by listeners, prompting a panic over the prospect of Martians actually invading. Those with a thing for the history of media will recognize this event as a variation on a popular theme: the fantasy of media so immersive it’s mistaken for reality. The archetypal one is the screening of the Lumiére Brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, in which the audience is said to have mistaken the film of a train for a real train and panicked. This myth is, however, thoroughly debunked, and sensibly so: it requires that we believe that a projection of a train on the wall of a room in which there could not possibly be a train would be mistaken for the real thing despite, unlike a real train, being silent and not in color.
This is typical of legends of the immersive fantasy: they almost all crumble under a sustained interrogation. We talked back during the Virgin era about Ghostwatch, a television program supposedly mistaken for reality, and found it similarly wanting in a factual basis. And the Wells story is similarly exaggerated: it appears that there were some people who called the local authorities in concern over the broadcast, but by and large the furor seems overstated, and the myth mostly serves as a parable about the totemtic power of radio as a medium.
Totemic power suits the concept well, in fact, especially in the context of Invaders from Mars, which culminates in the Doctor getting Orson Welles to do a second version of the show to trick the alien invaders. In the myth the success of Welles’s broadcast is primarily down to the fact that its form mirrored that of a news broadcast. But this is a power that comes from cultural context. The broadcast supposedly fooled people because it fit into a particular context of how a medium works in a particular way.
But Gatiss’s script treats it markedly differently. In Gatiss’s script a pair of aliens with minimal knowledge of Earth’s culture are still terrified by the broadcast and mistake it for reality. This turns its “realistic” power from being something that comes out of the culture that produced it and into a totemic object that can convince people of its reality simply by existing. This is strange from any realist perspective, but, of course, that’s a ludicrous perspective to approach a Doctor Who story from. Gatiss is treating the Welles broadcast the same way he treats everything in this story: as a genre trope, valued for its symbolic strength.
But this fits oddly with the rest of the story. For one thing, the fetishization of radio is odd for Big Finish to do. Invaders from Mars got run on radio eventually, but it’s an audio drama. The Welles broadcast derives its power from the fact that it was broadcast live - that it was in a sense immediate. A sold-in-stores two-CD set lacks that context, and so for it to so valorize the Welles broadcast so completely seems strange. For all that this is a romp through old-time radio, it’s not old-time radio, and Gatiss’s reliance on the totemic power of it ends up off base.
This is exacerbated by a structural problem. Gatiss traces the Orson Welles storyline through the entire audio, but it only ends up intersecting the actual plot in episode four. This puts even more stress on the Welles aspect of it by making it hang over the mantlepiece of the story waiting to be fired, and makes the strange way in which it’s finally employed even more jarring and dissonant. This is in some ways typical of Gatiss: he’s prone to not quite earning his endings.
So let’s excuse it. Yes, the ending doesn’t work. But that is typical of Gatiss, and with at least nine more Gatiss entries to write it’s going to get pretty boring if I point that out in detail every time. So let’s just accept that the ending is a bit of a flop and look at the piece conceptually and as a whole. Because the interesting thing that pops out if we do that is that this is surprisingly close to The Adventuress of Henrietta Street.
Both stories are, ultimately, concerned with the way in which Doctor Who is structured around the world of symbols. The difference is that The Adventuress of Henrietta Street makes that terribly obvious by running around and inserting lengthy monologues about how it’s structured around the world of symbols, while Invaders from Mars just gets on with it. But that’s unfair too. Nothing about Invaders from Mars, or really anything in Gatiss’s career indicates that he’s a writer who has spent a lot of time reflecting on the particulars of narrative theory or philosophy. Everything about Miles’s work suggests that he has. So it’s not that Miles thinks he’s terribly clever so much as that Gatiss works instinctively over territory Miles spells out.
If anything, Miles comes off looking better here. Certainly it has always been easier to get a blog entry’s worth of thought about a Miles book than anything by Gatiss. Because while Gatiss’s work functions along the same logic as Miles’s, it doesn’t engage with it. There’s ever any sense that Gatiss has a point. Yes, he’s romping merrily through old-time radio, which is kind of neat from a historical perspective. But he doesn’t have anything to say about it as such. Yes, he turns the Welles War of the Worlds broadcast into a strange fetish object with magical powers, but there’s no content to that decision beyond its narrative function.
And there’s an extent to which, as a critic, I feel like I should shut up. Yes, Gatiss has niggling storytelling problems and occasional outbreaks of inadvertent extreme conservatism, but those are in many ways window dressing for an objection that really amounts to “ he’s particularly uninspiring for the purposes of analysis and criticism. But this isn’t a real objection. Yes, he makes my life harder, but God help us if Doctor Who ever starts being written for crazy postmodernist bloggers. Gatiss is writing to the aesthetic goal of “be reasonably interesting and fun and kick off a new series of Paul McGann audios.” He comes within reasonable margins of succeding. There’s not actually a lot more interesting than that. But there doesn’t have to be.
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