4 years, 10 months ago
The Infinity Doctors, BBC Books’ 35th Anniversary book, presents the adventures of an unspecified version of the Doctor having adventures on Gallifrey, seemingly, but not necessarily prior to An Unearthly Child. The result, unsurprisingly, is wholly incommensurable with continuity. Cheekily, and typical of Parkin, he builds this out of an excessive loyalty to continuity. Parkin has noted that he built The Infinity Doctors by taking all of the Gallifrey stories at once and taking them seriously in such a way as to generate a tangled mess that makes internal sense but contradicts virtually everything outside of it. So if you try to place The Infinity Doctors as a prequel leading up to the series you run into the problem of Susan’s tangible absence. Repeated reference is made to Lungbarrow even though it provides an alternate theory of the Doctor’s departure from Gallifrey. The villain is nicked from The Three Doctors and another character from The Arc of Infinity, but both stories are nearly impossible to reconcile with the Time Lords’ relationship with Omega here. And so on and so forth. It’s all true, therefore none of it is.
As with Iris Wildthyme, the most interesting question is where the brakes get slammed on in this process. Parkin, after all, is not going to just casually destabilize the entire narrative of Doctor Who. The Infinity Doctors is carefully related to everything that’s going on around it even as it rebels and blows up all of the normal structures. The main clue, unsurprisingly, comes at the end, as the Doctor ponders the adventure here and comes to the conclusion that Gallifrey is unable to change and thus broken, and that he’s therefore going to have to go have adventures in time and space instead. So there we have it: the defining aspect of Doctor Who and what keeps it coherent is its mutability: the fact that it is subject to change.
In a purely factual sense, at least, this is more or less true. Doctor Who is still on the air in 2013 in a large part because Innes Lloyd took the decision in 1966 to recast the lead actor, thus allowing the show more or less completely free rein to change with the times. And while I might be the sort of person to quibble that this is perhaps somewhat flatter than a broad philosophical commitment to pleasure and fun in as many configurations as can be found, it seems unfair to complain merely that Parkin doesn’t have as thoroughly philosophic and theoretical a foundation as Paul Magrs.
Anyway, there’s a more interesting point to be made in all of this, which is that Parkin also constrains the extent of change. This takes place both on a pragmatic level - however much The Infinity Doctors may embrace change, it doesn’t throw anything from the past away. But more telling is its conclusion, in which the mind duel between the Doctor and Omega is resolved in part when the Doctor says that the power to rewrite anything renders it meaningless. Which is to say that Parkin is careful about what he means by change. He does not suggest that Doctor Who thrives through continually throwing out the past and inventing something new. He distinguishes between change and wholesale rewriting and reconceptualization. No, change is an incremental process based not only on what the thing changing becomes but on what it was at the start.
On a broad level, Parkin ties this to the arc of history. The problem the Time Lords have is that they are unable to change in a historical sense - their society has no sense of progress. So there’s a significant bit of parsing to be done here, distinguishing between a sort of mad flux of change and inventiveness and good old material social progress. The present, and more to the point the future, are of interest and given meaning only inasmuch as they extend from the past. Hence the sequence in which the Sontaran/Rutan war is resolved by locking General Sontar and the Rutan Host on the Doctor’s TARDIS for a good long while with a state of temporal grace in effect such that the two of them progressively work through trying to kill each other, independently seeking a solution, and finally cooperation and peace, effectively collapsing centuries or millennia of social development into one event.
But The Infinity Doctors takes seriously the prospect of change beyond mere linear development. It does not, after all, advance Doctor Who on to the Ninth Doctor. Instead it creates an alternate Doctor Who. This is significant - it’s a change not based on incremental historical development but on an act of creation. This too is something posited within the book itself - the Doctor defeats Omega with a non-existent anti-singularity, engaging in a raw act of creation. This creation is, of course, still influenced by the past; it’s still a form of change and progress. But it’s not linear development. It’s something else: a different form of history.
There are, of course, obvious parallels to be drawn to the act of writing and creation. Most of the Omega/Doctor duel doubles neatly as this. When the Doctor warns Omega that nothing has any meaning if you’re all powerful, he uses the example of creating and uncreating Skaro at will. So that’s a bit of an obvious swipe. But there are larger concerns as well, of course: the conventions of genre, for instance. Parkin notes in an interview that “I tried to tell something radical and ended up with the High Council plotting against the Doctor and ancient evil and ‘by Rassilon’s fingers’ and all that.” Which is to say that even in excess of what Parkin attempted, the conventions of the genre and form of “Gallifrey stories” weighed on him.
It’s not accurate to call this a shift or a development in Doctor Who. Rather, and fittingly for the argument being made, it is a reconceptualization of something that was always there. Doctor Who’s relationship with history and progress has never been one of social realism. This has at times been a frustration, as the series exists side-by-side with social reality and as a result interacts awkwardly with it in places. But the way Doctor Who engages history and progress is via the act of writing and creation. This is, of course, the most blatantly obvious thing imaginable to say about a work of fiction. But Parkin is entertainingly unwilling to simply let the fact lie there obvious and unstated, instead migrating the logic of how one usefully engages history and progress via fiction from a writerly concern to one within the narrative.
Which brings us to the question of what the book is doing in the broad sense. Of the books of the BBC era, The Infinity Doctors is perhaps the one that sticks out the most oddly in hindsight. Its entire basic mandate is to be the big movie version of Doctor Who. This was, in the 1990s, a chronic concern. Everyone was well aware of what the TV Movie had spared us, but with the failure of the TV Movie the newfound status quo was that if Doctor Who came back it was going to be as a BBC Worldwide produced movie, and Doctor Who Magazine dutifully repeated whatever the most recent flavor of rumor about the movie was. Doctor Who’s return to television was arguably delayed by a solid half-decade as initial meetings with Russell T Davies came to naught due to BBC Worldwide’s complaint that a new series might scupper their movie plans. So in 1998, for the thirty-fifth anniversary, all evidence was that if Doctor Who came back it was going to be a big Hollywood version, which was, inevitably, assumed to be a reboot of some sort.
Obviously, in 2013, this is something of a faded concern. Not an entirely faded one, as the frankly bizarre slow burn spat between David Yates and Steven Moffat on the subject of a Doctor Who movie demonstrates, but one that doesn’t way on day-to-day life particularly. At this point even if there is a movie the future of the television series seems secure for the foreseeable, which means that the prospect of a movie that overwrites television continuity isn’t really a risk. And let’s be clear, that is the big thing that people don’t like about the idea of rebooting Doctor Who. It’s not that the idea of a movie that doesn’t tie into TV continuity bothers them - after all, nobody loses sleep over Peter Cushing. It’s the idea of Doctor Who’s primary form denying its history. Which is understandable, as there’s no earthly reason why it should have to. As long as you start from the perspective of someone into whose world the Doctor drops and end with them falling out of the world there’s no reason you can’t start Doctor Who with the Eighth, Ninth, or Fiftieth Doctor.
Even within that, though, there’s a concern, which is that a movie would involve Doctor Who being run by people who didn’t “get” it. What getting it entailed is, of course, terribly contested, since there are plenty of us who would, for instance, say that Ian Levine doesn’t get Doctor Who. Nevertheless, there’s a sense, right or wrong, that before you get to be in charge of Doctor Who you have to earn your stripes, so to speak. So what we get here, from Parkin, is a demonstration of what a total reboot could look like if built out of an encyclopedic knowledge of the series - you know, by the guy who wrote A History of the Universe. And it’s interesting enough, and it works, but there’s something lost to it simply because its concerns are oddly foreign to the present day. The question of how you’d do a total reboot of Doctor Who seems wholly academic.
Worse, and if we’re being honest Parkin already identified the problem here, Gallifrey is boring. He couldn’t really escape that, ultimately ending up with the same broken structure of Gallifrey that he was reacting against. A thorough explanation of Gallifrey ends up being less than the sum of its parts. There are great ideas here, but they don’t have great implications. Which is what Gallifrey has always been - a cool and compelling image that has no usable depth, and that becomes less compelling the more clearly you show it. More broadly, this entire novel serves to prove a point that is, in hindsight, not as interesting as it seemed in 1998. Yes, he’s figured out how to do a reboot of Doctor Who, but that’s a kind of hollow prize in hindsight. Because all he’s done is reconfigured the mythology of an essentially unchanged show. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the 1990s, and for that matter of the 1980s, the Doctor’s relationship with Gallifrey is not the most interesting thing about the show. It’s just about the least interesting part of it, in fact.
Look, there’s no way to get around saying this, so let’s just bite the bullet: Parkin gets it wrong here. It’s vividly clear in hindsight that one of the best ideas Russell T Davies had in rebooting the series was nuking Gallifrey because it solved for once and for all the tension between having the Doctor be dwarfed by the magnitude of the Time Lords and having him be the narrative center of his universe. The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. Perfect. Now he gets to be bigger and more important than all of them while simultaneously allowing them to be mythic and larger than life. Parkin’s strategy here, going back and finding a way to make Gallifrey work, turns out to have been the wrong one. Wiping Gallifrey out and leaving it to the imagination works so much better.
All of which is to say that despite seeming impressive, there’s something oddly insubstantial to The Infinity Doctors. It solves the wrong problems, and its solutions seem less weighty than they act. It’s a book that seemed very important at the time, and not just because it was proclaimed to be the 35th Anniversary book, but that in practice mostly reveals just how far off the reservation the BBC Books line had wandered. A brilliant solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is, in the end, not compelling.
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