4 years, 5 months ago
|Well, it's almost the right cover.|
The Book of the World was, in essence, Lawrence Miles showing off that he could write a good Doctor Who script for the modern series. He put it up on the web for a week before taking it down, but you can still track down copies with only a little bit of dedication because nothing vanishes from the Internet. The script actually dates to late 2007, making it a Tennant-era concern, and it wasn’t actually released until just before Silence in the Library, so actually is virtually a Moffat-era concern. But, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to keep Lawrence Miles around as a theme that long. He’s a wilderness era theme, and the nature of his point here applies just as well as it would closer to the time of composition. Better, in many ways, as The Book of the World is very much an attempt at showing how Lawrence Miles would have rebooted the series, and holding that discussion back until 2007/2008 would have seemed strange. The script’s concerns are very much 2005 sorts of concerns, wherever it came from.
So in the wake of Lawrence Miles’s last moment of any major significance to the course and direction of Doctor Who, let’s look at him as a whole. One of his most steadfast assertions, which carries through virtually everything he says about or in Doctor Who - and even if I’ve not covered it all, I’ve read virtually all of it - is that he is not a science fiction person. This claim must come off strangely to anybody who is not Lawrence Miles, since reading his material it’s self-evident that he is, in fact, a science fiction person. Surely only a science fiction person would ever come up with the premise of Alien Bodies, in which a time traveller discovers that his own body’s “biodata” is being used as a weapon in a futuristic war. I mean, it sounds like something only a sci-fi person could ever come up with.
Certainly his fanbase is overwhelmingly comprised of sci-fi people. I mean, this goes without saying, yes? Someone whose writing credits exist entirely in spin-off media of a sci-fi show, and, at times, spin-offs of those spin-offs, and who is buried neck deep in the cult television paratext is clearly and self-evidently a sci-fi person, right? Well, sort of right.
See, the real point Miles is making when he says he’s not a sci-fi person and Doctor Who isn’t a sci-fi show is that in his view Doctor Who is a fantasy show in the tradition of magical realism. Which, again, he’s not wrong. The logic of Doctor Who is, as we’ve said before, really a traditional British one of eccentric spaces and portals to other worlds that has as many roots in Alice in Wonderland and Chronicles of Narnia as it does in, say, Quatermass. That’s not the only tradition Doctor Who comes out of, of course - it also owes a lot to the tradition of literary science fiction that the BBC was invested in. But in essence it’s always been science fiction with the attitude of Narnia.
And yet something about Miles’s point rankles. Less because of the very savvy point that Doctor Who is not a straightforward science fiction show is somehow incorrect, but because of his claim that Doctor Who is not for sci-fi people. Which actually may be the even stranger thing to be thrown by simply because it’s so self-evident in the wake of the new series that, in fact, Doctor Who has a massive appeal well beyond the cult television ghetto. But wait. We’re conflating two things here - sci-fi and sci-fi people.
At the heart of this is a relatively complex interplay between the idea of science fiction as an iconography and as a genre. Because science fiction as a genre - I.e. As a narrative structure with a given set of conventions - is actually a relatively narrow thing that existed in the early-to-mid 20th century. And it’s a weird little beast based on problem-solving and manipulation of ideas. And it was very much a product of the technological expansion and role of science in that part of the century. It’s all very interesting, but it’s largely dated and the last time Doctor Who did anything even remotely like it on a regular basis was the Bidmead era.
As we’ve observed before, since Star Wars science fiction has really been a set of images and ideas. If it’s not too much to look ahead, let’s think about Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, especially as it’s the episode most similar to Book of the World. One of the most interesting things about that episode was the way in which the interior of the TARDIS swung back and forth between being understandable in sci-fi terms and being understandable in “the land of fairy” terms, and the way in which these competing iconographies were used as a source of tension.
That’s what sci-fi usually is these days. I mean, there are occasional exceptions whereby sci-fi in the golden age style still happens - Duncan Jones’s rather fabulous film Moon springs to mind as an absolutely lovely example over the last decade or so. But for the most part science fiction is simply a set of images - a particular flavor we put on a broader action-adventure genre. Which is fine, and I’m not going to say that the sorts of stories you can do with various flavors doesn’t matter tremendously, but the flavor isn’t the story in much the same way that the map is not the territory.
Except for sci-fi people. If we’re going to suggest what the fundamental flaw that separates cult sci-fi readings from anything that can possibly thrive in the mainstream (or should thrive, for that matter) is that even in the face of a world in which science fiction has stopped being a genre and sci-fi concepts have become flavorings and accents for other stories they persist in holding to the golden age model whereby the substance of the sci-fi ideas actually matters. They think that sci-fi is about the particulars - that the mark of a good sci-fi story is the nature of the idea. And that’s just not the way it works, except in marginal cult shows that cater to those sorts of people. (This hermeneutic also explains all sides of the question “was the ending to Battlestar Galactica any good.”)
And the thing is, for all that Miles rails against sci-fi people, he blatantly is one. In all of his work it’s the big ideas he cares about. Which, fine. I mean, I’m not going to knock it, being, by any reasonable definition, a bit of a sci-fi person myself. But it remains the case: Lawrence Miles cares about big, cool ideas. It comes through in every review, every novel, everything. So why does he declare that he hates sci-fi people? Well, mainly because he isn’t quite one. Yes, he’s got all the trappings, but there’s one teensy detail: he doesn’t like science fiction very much, and prefers magical realism.
So what we have is a writer who acts like a sci-fi person in every significant sense, except that he happens to be really attracted to magical realist ideas instead of sci-fi ones. And he’s attracted to them in a very fundamental, abiding sense such that he builds vast metaphorical labyrinths that rival the vast expanses of ideas that one could find in golden age sci-fi, except they’re built out of symbols and magic. But at the end of the day… he has the same relationship to cool magical realist concepts that Ian Levine does to references to the Troughton era.
This is, in a nutshell, what reading The Book of the World is like. It’s not that the book doesn’t have good ideas. The idea that the Earth was stolen and hidden as a book, or of the TARDIS turning into books is… astonishing. It’s a fantastic idea, and would make for an amazing episode. Nor is it that the storytelling is off. The decision to introduce the Doctor the way they do is marvelous. The gimmick of him counting how many times people have said various things to him is cute, and pays off marvelously when he gets to look at a character and just say “one.” But…
It’s a mystery with no payoff, which, fine, that’s what first episodes are, but let’s look back at the long list of times in which Lawrence Miles has actually paid off one of his high concept plot threads. Which is to say that Miles doesn’t exactly have anything you could call a stockpile of good will that makes unexplained mysteries seem viable from him. And, of course, it’s unfilmable. Miles has fallen into the trap of believing that CGI is free, and so writes a script with jaw-dropping visual excesses that are almost as bad as the infamous “night shoot of Wembley Stadium full of cats” script that caused The Invasion of Time to get made. The plot is Doctor Who by Numbers in a way that not even Mark Gatiss scripts usually manage.
But the biggest problem isn’t any of that. It’s that there’s nothing to it beyond the ideas. Lawrence Miles, by all appearances, seems to think that the heart and soul of Doctor Who is nothing more than really cool ideas and a vaguely anti-authoritarian bent. There are no character arcs here. The two proposed companions are the heights of blandness. Note in particular the mystery surrounding Marissa. Now, as someone who is thoroughly non-bothered by Clara I’m certainly not going to complain about a character who is, in effect, Generic Companion only with a mystery. But at least with Clara the mystery is very explicitly “who is she.” With Marissa? “What planet is she from” and “what species is she?” The difference is subtle, but marked. Miles’s script ultimately thinks having a cool idea is sufficient, and doesn’t care about piddly little things like character drama.
None of this would have been surprising in 2003. But in 2007 it’s bizarre, simply because it’s a rejection of so much of what demonstrably worked in favor of what didn’t. I mean, we’re still early days in the new series, and I’ve not really gotten around to a post where I just talk about character arcs and emotional storytelling and why it’s so brilliant, but can we at least take as by this point read that one of the central tenets of the Davies era is the realization that you can use sci-fi flavoring to merge together wildly different things so that, for instance, you get an action-adventure soap or a costume drama zombie flick, yes? That is, part of what Doctor Who did that was so utterly transformative was realizing that you could do the emotional drama sort of storytelling that was dominating absolutely every other sort of television imaginable by 2005 in sci-fi, or, at least, in Doctor Who.
And so it’s tempting to throw Miles onto the same pile as far too many idiots on message boards who genuinely believe that the secret to Doctor Who’s success (because, of course, a show that’s reliably in the top ten programs for the week needs help succeeding) would be if it would just act more like it were still the 1970s. But that’s not quite fair either. And there’s plenty of time in the next year or so to talk about those sorts of people. So let’s stick with Lawrence Miles in his sublime weirdness.
Because the thing we have to remember is that the “sci-fi people” approach isn’t bad in some absolute sense. The golden age of science fiction happened and was terribly important. There really was a period where Quatermass and The Space Museum were legitimate mainstream entertainment. Yes, that time is in the past, but it happened. The obsession with ideas for their own sake had a period of real creative relevance, and it coincided with a set of specific historical concerns. And what we have in Lawrence Miles is something of a one-man movement to create a golden age of magical realism - a period where the manipulation of symbols and culture is to be considered as important and seriously as rocket ships were in the 1960s. And, to boot, he was going to do it with Doctor Who.
He was wrong. Spectacularly so. But for reasons too obvious to mention, it’s a project I have more than a small measure of sympathy for. One that was not so much misguided as too weird and paired with someone too difficult to work with for massive success. This doesn’t erase its value - the fact of the matter is that Lawrence Miles is by some margin the most consistently interesting detractor of the new series, and his ideas for Doctor Who remain fascinating. The Book of the World is a lovely read. So is Faction Paradox. Really, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t read his stuff - I can’t imagine many people who like this blog who wouldn’t love Miles’s work.
But this is where his influence on the story ends, and thus where we’ll leave him - if only because he’s so quick to delete his comments on Doctor Who these days that it seems rude to analyze them at great length after this. He doesn’t want to be part of Doctor Who’s story anymore. So we’ll leave him out of it from here.
But let’s be clear. We are not leaving him in any sort of failure or ignominy. No, no. Lawrence Miles gets the proper send-off; the farewell to one of Doctor Who’s great minds. Because he had a vision of Doctor Who that still fascinates, even if it does not consistently appeal. Because there was never anyone like him before, and will never be again. Because, in his own way, he was closer to the spirit of David Whitaker than anyone else who ever wrote for Doctor Who. And because even though he’s staggeringly, epically wrong about what successful Doctor Who in the 21st century would look like, even in his wrongness he remains impeccably fascinating.
So farewell Lawrence Miles. You were Doctor Who’s greatest weirdo.
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