You Were Expecting Someone Else 30 (The Coming of the Terraphiles)

(34 comments)


In November of 2009, it was announced that Michael Moorcock would be writing a Doctor Who novel. This was something of a big deal. Moorcock, after all, is a proper writer, as opposed to one who came up through Doctor Who itself. He was a contemporary of J.G. Ballard, one of the most influential figures in the British side of the 60s new wave of science fiction, and the writer of countless series in various flavors of fantasy, most famously Elric of Melniboné, his angst-ridden answer to Conan the Barbarian, and most acclaimedly Jerry Cornelius, his polymorphously perverse secret agent. He’s one of those sci-fi/fantasy authors to have successfully gained a non-trivial measure of respect from the literary establishment, due largely to the sheer number of writers he was a major influence on - a venerable old man of the genre, and a celebrity writer of the sort that the Doctor Who novels had simply never seen anything like before. 

In other words, he potential audience for a Michael Moorcock-penned Doctor Who novel is by any measure quite large, incorporating as it does both Doctor Who fans and Michael Moorcock fans, both of which exist in significant quantities, and, more to the point, with non-trivial overlap. And yet the question of exactly what one would want from such a cultural intersection is, at the very least, complex. Michael Moorcock and Doctor Who are both massive cultural touchstones, not just in popularity but in sheer size. Fans being fans, there’s a certain desire for nods and in-jokes, something Moorcock and Who have both courted over time, Moorcock by regularly crossing over his own series, Doctor Who through several periods where it was kept afloat by die-hard fans alone. But balancing this is tricky - what expectations do you fulfill? What ones do you let down gently?

Still, a poll of the potential audience for The Coming of the Terraphiles would almost certainly not have settled on a book based heavily on Moorcock’s Multiverse, with very little Doctor Who lore, that’s substantially a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche full of clueless socialites. This is, however, what Moorcock delivered, to mixed reviews. 

It is clearly a Moorcock book, for better or for worse - indeed, it’s on the whole more Moorcock than Doctor Who. It is, as mentioned, a book about the multiverse, with Moorcock’s standard themes of law and chaos in full view. The entire premise - fans of Earth (the eponymous Terraphiles) playing a poorly reconstructed set of Earth games - is visibly a few doors down from Dancers at the End of Time. There’s a Jerry Cornelius analogue - an interstellar pirate named Captain Cornelius - who is presumably yet another incarnation of the Eternal Champion and who flits intriguingly at the edges of the narrative. Various other things appear that certainly seem like they belong to Moorcock’s mythos and are suggested as such in various reviews also appear, but to be honest, I’m not enough of a Moorcock buff to catch them all, so they are left as an exercise for the reader. 

It’s not that the Doctor Who material is off. There’s a very nice explanation of why the Doctor is unique in the multiverse that stems neatly out of Doctor Who lore. And Moorcock makes some good use of the question of how the Doctor fits into the much-vaunted balance between law and chaos.  Perhaps more to the point, Moorcock’s characterization of Smith’s Doctor is impeccable, especially given that he must have based it on some preview DVDs, given the timing of the novel. His Amy is a little more “generic companion,” but certainly not unrecognizable. The book is a clear and sincere love letter to Doctor Who. But the book is a Michael Moorcock book first and foremost. 

It is worth noting that this is, in many ways, a product of its specific time. It’s difficult to imagine Moorcock writing a Doctor Who book in any other era. Indeed, this is the first time that we’ve really had a celebrity writer doing a Doctor Who book, though not for lack of trying at some points in history. It’s not until the series came back and was massively popular that such a thing was possible. Even then, it’s fitting that this comes under Moffat’s watch, both because it neatly parallels the Moffat era’s move towards hiring celebrity writers for scripting duties.

More broadly, however, the Moffat era is one of the most writerly eras of the show’s history. The fact that Moffat is more inclined to give notes than rewrite scripts means that there’s considerably more variation of tone in his Doctor Who than in, say, the Davies era, where there was a pretty clear default style. Under Moffat, the extent to which different writers present different sorts of stories is emphasized more, simply because writers are allowed to go off in their own directions a bit more. And so the question of “what will this particular writer bring to Doctor Who” becomes more present, such that the idea of a Michael Moorcock Doctor Who novel makes sense and feels like the sort of thing that might emerge organically from the era, instead of being an outlier. In this regard, the P.G. Wodehouse inspiration is also fitting, given Moffat’s own debt to Douglas Adams and his love of farce. A Doctor Who story that pays its debts to the long and venerable tradition of British comedy feels right in this era, and like something that should exist as a part of it. 

And yet for all of this, the weight of the book’s existence seems to drown out the book itself. It’s not that the book is bad by any measure. It’s perfectly pleasant, if perhaps a little long in the middle, and has some fantastic gags and laugh lines. Moorcock is, shocker of shockers, an accomplished prose-smith. He can and does turn out a solid and enjoyable adventure yarn. But for all that the book is not quite what anybody expected from the combination of Moorcock and Doctor Who, it is nevertheless primarily about being exactly that: the cultural intersection of Michael Moorcock and Doctor Who.

But equally, it’s not clear that anything could have been louder than that basic fact. That’s the nature of the crossover - often the pleasure is not so much in what you do with the elements as it is the basic existence of their juxtaposition. This is, after all, the logic that animated things like The Five Doctors, or even, frankly, swaths of Day of the Doctor. They’re fun because they exist, and their existence is ultimately the entire point. Moorcock was surely an influence on scads of Doctor Who writers. And if you go to two generations… well, Moorcock was a major influence on Alan Moore, and Moore was the single largest influence on the Sylvester McCoy era, along with, again, scads of writers. And that’s just one of Moorcock’s major literary descendants. Neil Gaiman’s another… the list really could go on for quite a while.


And now you have Moorcock writing Doctor Who. A monument erected on the site of a cultural intersection. In this case, it’s not the design of the monument that matters so much as that it is there to visit and look at. And so a book that feels, in many ways, like a slightly odd curiosity is almost exactly what this should be. A footnote, yes, but let’s face it - the footnotes are usually the most interesting bits anyway. 

Comments

Froborr 2 years, 8 months ago

If that last line isn't a build-up to a discussion of Terry Pratchett, I don't know what is...

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Spacewarp 2 years, 8 months ago

"Even then, it’s fitting that this comes under Moffat’s watch, both because it neatly parallels the Moffat era’s move towards hiring celebrity writers for scripting duties."

Have you missed out something here? "Both because..." expects an "and" but you haven't.

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Alex Antonijevic 2 years, 8 months ago

I'd never even heard of this before now.

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jane 2 years, 8 months ago

Huh.

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John Anderson 2 years, 8 months ago

I really, actively disliked this. It felt like one massive in-joke - with, and here I must disagree with Dr Sandifer, a poorly defined Doctor and Amy - wrapped in a meandering, episodic quest plot. I don't know whether a greater familiarity with Moorcock's body of work would've enhanced my enjoyment any, but that just sounds like an excuse for a work that I found... well... rubbish.

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David Anderson 2 years, 8 months ago

I think I've said this before, but although this may be the first time in Doctor Who history that you could have got a celebrity author writing a Doctor Who novel, Moorcock does Doctor Who could have been done at any time in the last thirty years. When I was growing up in the eighties Moorcock's sword and sorcery was ubiquitous in cheap paperback editions. Saying eighties or nineties UK genre fiction is influenced by Moorcock is like saying that a fantasy novel is influenced by Tolkien. It's not whether it's influenced by it; it's how much the writer in question has reworked it.
The disappointment of Coming of the Terraphiles isn't that it feels like Doctor Who does Moorcock - it's that it feels like Doctor Who does Moorcock pastiche. And the influence of Moorcock on Doctor Who by now is too deep and too mediated by subsequent writers for that really to be worth doing.

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Spoilers Below 2 years, 8 months ago

I would have guessed David Foster Wallace, if I didn't already know it wasn't coming...

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

My comment on Coming of the Terraphiles from two years ago.

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Anton B 2 years, 8 months ago

I've tried a number of times to read The Coming of the Terraphiles and always fail to finish it. I was (and probably still am) a massive Moorcock fan. I think at one time my bookshelves held every one of those cheap paperbacks with their lurid covers that often had nothing to do with the content and a fair few of the rarer hardback 'serious' novels. I happen to think the Cornelius sequence of interconnecting narratives to be one of the finest flowerings of the speculative fiction genre. Unlike most of their contemporaries (excluding Ballard who's work remains timeless) they stand up well even today. I expect my opinions and love for Doctor Who needs no detailing here. However, this book is a mess. I have to file it next to David Lynch's Dune as a work combining an auteur that I admire with a narrative that I love that has no reason to fail and yet does so spectacularly.

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Jack 2 years, 8 months ago

As a longtime fan of both Doctor Who and Michael Moorcock, both of which popped up almost at random intervals throughout my teens and early twenties, I suspect I rather enjoyed this book more than most. I can't particularly complain that it was basically Moorcock riffing on his usual Multiverse mythos and then adding the Doctor to it, because at this point asking Moorcock not to do what Moorcock does is like asking a blues guitarist not to use the same chords he's been using for forty years. It's who he is and it's what you're going to get. The basics might change-along the way, Moorcock's characters went from actively championing Law to actively opposing it, Chaos becoming the defining principle of resistance, as far as I can tell, sometime in the 90s with his Eternal Champion comics-but when you get Moorcock, you're going to get variations on a theme.

So I was less than shocked to see a cast of Dancers At The End of Time knockoffs running headlong into another iteration of Jerry Cornelius and all of it involving a hunt for a Law themed Macguffin. What did shock me was the other expectation that I had, namely that Moorcock would set up one of his usual situations, and then throw the Doctor at it and see how he deforms the narrative, largely didn't really come to pass.

It's not like Moorcock isn't conversant with the show-famously, Harlan Ellison cited him in the introduction to the first run of US releases of the Target novelizations as the person who introduced him to Doctor Who-so I had hope we'd get that sort of thing, but it didn't really happen. Part of the problem might have been the space the Doctor usually has in a story, in Moorcock tends to be held by the Eternal Champion figure, which means that the best the Doctor could have hoped for was being the Moonglum-sidekick character (which actually would have been an interesting dynamic given how often the sidekick character in Moorcock can explain the plot, mostly in the Corum books.) Which leaves us as a novel that fails as a Moorcock novel-David Anderson hits it right on the head when he calls it a Moorcock pastiche, because it truly feels like it-and also fails as a Doctor Who story. The Doctor, aside from one clever bit at the end where he does something that changes the entire set up of the story, mostly reacts to the Multiverse/Chaos and Law set up of the story, becoming to a certain extent subsumed by it rather than deforming it.

And yet I still like the damned thing. It fails, yes, but it fails trying to do things Doctor Who as a novel line in the past few years hasn't tried to do. Subsequent "event" books in the range were far more traditional in terms, almost as if the editors gave Dan Abnett, Stephen Baxter, and Alastair Reynolds a copy of this book and said "don't do that." Which is a shame, because while Terraphiles manifestly doesn't really work either as Doctor Who or Moorcock, it EXISTS. It's the single bravest statement Doctor Who as prose as made since the New Adventures, written by a marvelously talented writer who basically said "you know what, I might go down with the ship but I'm going to go down swinging!"

It really does deserve to be liked simply for existing, and we'll likely never get anything quite this crazy out of the novel range again.

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Theonlyspiral 2 years, 8 months ago

The book really benefits from a familiarity with P.G. Wodehouse (although the televised Jeeves and Wooster provides a fine primer) as well as a familiarity with Moorcock's work. It's a pastiche and a tribute, so if the source material isn't enjoyable to you it's going to fall flat.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

Moorcock’s characterization of Smith’s Doctor is impeccable

This is my biggest disagreement. My experience was precisely opposite: I found Moorcock's Eleven almost completely unrecognisable, and his Amy even more so. Thus I pretty much agree with both Andersons above. And in response to the former's wondering whether more familiarity with Moorcock would help -- well, I've read something like 97% of everything Moorcock has published, and it didn't help; it just meant that I could recognise "oh, here's a more lacklustre version of something he did much more interestingly in Blood or Dancers or ...."

Trivia alert: technically this is not the first crossover between Moorcock's Multiverse and the Whoniverse. A guest list in Moorcock's 1977 Condition of Muzak lists "Doctor Who" and "a Dalek" among the guests.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

As I've written yet elsewhere:

"How the new book’s space travel theme is to be reconciled with Moorcock’s recent remark that 'the moment a spaceship turns up, you’ve lost me' is just one of the many mysteries of time and space that bedevil those who dare to steer their TARDISes along the Moonbeam Roads."

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Jesse 2 years, 8 months ago

Trivia alert: technically this is not the first crossover between Moorcock's Multiverse and the Whoniverse. A guest list in Moorcock's 1977 Condition of Muzak lists "Doctor Who" and "a Dalek" among the guests.

And now we know that that's canonical. Next they should get Joe Dante to write a Doctor Who book, so he can do the same for the Dalek's cameo in Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

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ComMaxil 2 years, 8 months ago

I've never read anything by Moorcock before this and I loved it for the reasons some people have set out above, namely that its totally weird and totally original and like nothing else in Doctor Who. Go further compound the weirdness I started with the unabridged audio book read by Clive Mantle who (notwithstanding his work with Big Finish) appears never to have seen an episode of Doctor Who before and does Amy with the sort of cod Scottish accent not seen since the days of Russ Abbott in his pomp. It gets off to a very slow start and yet somehow it drew me into this world which was not one we see the Doctor in often, both alien and familiar. The only mild criticism I have is that the Doctor is perhaps a tad generic, was easy to imagine Tom Baker or maybe even Pertwee. but given that it was written largely before Season 5 aired that's understandable. I also feel Matt Smith might be like Troughton in that respect, the way he plays the Doctor is hard to capture on paper (I had the same issue with The Silent Stars Go By). I wouldn't want my Doctor Who novels to be like this all the time, but this was a treat. I even got my hard copy of the book in Poundland for a quid!

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encyclops 2 years, 8 months ago

Pale Fire?

Just as long as it's not Dave Eggers.

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encyclops 2 years, 8 months ago

David Lynch's Dune is my favorite failure in cinema. I can't defend it as a work of art but it will probably never leave my top ten movie list, if only for sentimental reasons.

This is in no way an objection to the way you've characterized it, which I think is perfectly reasonable.

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encyclops 2 years, 8 months ago

I'm sure we'll get to it eventually, but "Nothing O'Clock" is the only Eleventh Doctor prose I've read (unless you consider the comics to be prose). What are our thoughts on whether it captured the Eleventh Doctor well, and if so, did it do a better job than this (which I haven't read, but honestly now want to, failure or no)?

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Matter-Eater Lad 2 years, 8 months ago

I am pleased to be of such an age that the fact that Nothing O'Clock cannot possibly fit into Series Five where Gaiman says it does is amusing, and not irritating.

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Allyn Gibson 2 years, 8 months ago

So I was less than shocked to see ... another iteration of Jerry Cornelius

Moorcock wrote on his bulletin board shortly after the book came out that he had intended Captain Cornelius to be Jack Harkness but the BBC nixed that. Ever since then, I've looked at Terraphiles's Cornelius not as a Jerry Cornelius iteration but as the Jack Harkness of that era living under a new identity. I found that gave a character that had, frankly, been rather bland some life and vitality.

Well, and I liked the idea of Jack and the eleventh Doctor having an adventure together.

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Jack 2 years, 8 months ago

Ahh, suddenly a lot of things about that particular character make a lot more sense. I actually avoided a lot of the usual places where people would talk about Doctor Who when this book came out because there was a hilarious discussion on one Livejournal community that argued Moorcock wasn't fit to write Doctor Who and I figured commentary on the book would largely be "see, we were right!" and totally missed that fact.

I have to admit that if anyone from Doctor Who could be reconfigured into the Cornelius role, it'd be Jack Harkness, but when you remove him from the equation, it falls apart. Makes sense now.

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Jack 2 years, 8 months ago

It falls apart in the sense that, without this character being Jack Harkness, you wind up with a generic Cornelius character. Jack-as-Jerry would have been interesting, but without that frisson, the fun is lost.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

I love Wodehouse. But I rather doubt that Moorcock loves Wodehouse. In any case, the Wodehouse pastiche fell flat for me because I'm familiar with the source material (Code of the Woosters in particular).

That's what bugs me so much about the book. Three things I love -- Doctor Who, Wodehouse, and Moorcock's Multiverse -- that are all combined in a lacklustre way.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

Okay, that's interesting; if I ever reread it I'll try to keep Harkness in mind for the Captain.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

So what about Abducted by the Daleks?

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Anton B 2 years, 8 months ago

Thanks. Have you seen the TV mini series of Dune? Apart from some bad casting decisions it achieves a far greater affinity to the source material on an appreciably lower budget. The luxury of the longer running time of a series over a movie allows for a more leisurely unfolding which is closer to Frank Herbert's writing style.

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David Anderson 2 years, 8 months ago

It feels more as if Moorcock's using Wodehouse as his source for generic English upper-class twits, rather than directly invoking Wodehouse if that makes sense.
I don't know whether Moorcock has an opinion on Downton Abbey; but I would guess he'd think Phil is a bit soft on it. Basically, I think Moorcock is sending up those kinds of Downton Abbey ideas, and if you do that without making your characters actual villains you can't really avoid the shadow of Wodehouse. The thing is, it's territory Moorcock has covered before, most obviously in Dancers.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

But the plot situation does mirror Code of the Woosters in what feels like more than an accidental way.

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Dave Simmons 2 years, 8 months ago

Moorcock's fantasy stuff always feels like a guilty pleasure to me. It veers from excellent to mediocre depending upon which series you're reading, and yet I'll always have a soft spot for it.

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David Anderson 2 years, 8 months ago

The story goes that every time New Worlds got into financial trouble, Michael Moorcock would spend the weekend knocking out a sword and sorcery novel and use the proceeds to keep New Worlds afloat. New Worlds was an experimental sf magazine. Moorcock wrote a lot of sword and sorcery novels.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 8 months ago

Kim Newman is also a sf writer with some literary respect, isn't he? I mean, not Moorcock level, but still. And he wrote a Doctor Who book back in 2001.

As a casual Moorcock fan, I enjoyed the book, but the only injokes I noticed were Cornelius, and that the Second Aether was presumably a reference to the Second Ether series, which I haven't read.

The Doctor and Amy ... well, there was nothing about them that struck me as wrong, but they could be a bit generic in places. But we got the Doctor doing weird tangents with lots of verbal backspaces (which, yes, Tennant did a bit as well, but it's the definitive aspect of Smith's performance) and Amy at least gets a couple of lines that nod to her being Scottish.

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Kit 2 years, 8 months ago

As you say, Newman is far from on the level of influence or recognition of Moorcock; he's also - if one must categorise - a horror/fantasy writer far more than SF; and a novella for a small press with limited distribution is less notable than a full-length hardcover original from the largest book publisher in the world (and the first Who novel baaaaasically for adults in over half a decade, the first since the show returned).

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encyclops 2 years, 8 months ago

I couldn't stand the TV miniseries the first time I saw it. Yeah, I thought the cast was impossibly bland (William Hurt standing out, but I can't think of a single exception offhand), but also the sets and costumes cheap and uninspired, and the storytelling soporific. I watched it with several friends, including at least one other Dune fan, and by the end all of us were chewing our own legs off to escape.

At time of writing there hasn't been a second viewing. I do intend to give it one more chance someday. It might even be soon, though I really need to watch INLAND EMPIRE first.

The thing is, I didn't really care much about the affinity to the source material, though I respect and understand why someone else might. For me, Lynch's Dune was my first exposure to the story. I don't remember finding it at all difficult to follow (mind you, I saw the extended Alan Smithee version, not the theatrical cut), and I took for granted that the book would be longer and deeper. I brought to the book the film's visual imagination and strangeness, and had the story fleshed out for me in complementary ways. I'm not sure I would have fallen in love with the gestalt in any other way.

That said, I did watch Children of Dune, and I had a pretty good time with that. Partly I think it was that I had no other version to compare it to, and partly it was probably that James McAvoy was a lot more fun to watch than the dude who played Paul. Then again, Matt Keeslar was more fun to watch than Sting, and that didn't help block out the Bene Gesserit Cowgirl Sisterhood, so I don't know.

I just...I like the weirding modules and the heartplugs. I know, right? Freddie Jones versus Brad Dourif. Francesca Annis, Dean Stockwell, Linda fucking Hunt. Over it all, that bizarre Lynchian mood, convincing me like no one else could that this is, what, eight thousand years from now?

It could have been better. Yet somehow I think better in any direction would have been worse.

Again, I realize this is an entirely personal opinion. I'm okay with that. :)

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Daru 2 years, 8 months ago

Hmm, not eead it read but will do so. I have read read masses of Moorcock and I have a feeling that I mat still enjoy this as I am a fan of footnotes and the kind of sideways narrative experiments that Alan Moore wove into his works.

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