It’s July of 1991. Songs that hit number one this month are Jason Donovan’s “Any Dream Will Do” and Bryan Adams “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” while Erasure, Paula Abdul, and Guns N’ Roses also chart. In real news, the Warsaw Pact is dissolved, Boris Yeltsin becomes the first elected president of Russia, and Mike Tyson and Jeffery Dahmer are both arrested.
While in literature, the final Target novelization of the Sylvester McCoy era comes out as Ben Aaronovitch’s Battlefield is novelized by Marc Platt. For its part, Battlefield was transmitted from September 6-27 of 1989. During this time Black Box were at number one with “Right On Time,” while Alice Cooper, Tears for Fears, Tina Turner, Madonna, and, once again, Jason Donovan also charted. In real news, the IRA murder Heidi Hazell, the wife of a British soldier. John Major replaces Nigel Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The final election held under apartheid takes place in South Africa, and Vietnam withdraws from Cambodia after eleven years.
(In the gap between Battlefield and Greatest Show in the Galaxy, for reference, the famed fatwah on Salman Rushdie is issued, leading to the UK and Iran breaking off diplomatic relations. The Ayatollah Khomeini also, coincidentally, dies. Communism begins to fall on a number of fronts, most notably in Poland, where the recently unbanned union Solidarity wins elections. Communism stands up rather better in China, meanwhile, which just runs people over with tanks instead of allowing democratic reform. The poll tax is introduced in Scotland, the Exxon Valdez crashes, and the Hillsborough disaster kills 96 Liverpool supporters in Sheffield, followed by what is a strong contender for the most sickening moment in Rupert Murdoch’s career as the Sun falsely blames Liverpool fans for the tragedy.)
But in many ways, all of this is secondary to the Battlefield of 1991, and this fact is very important. Because one thing that happened during the Sylvester mcCoy era was that the novelizations of stories suddenly became important in a way that they hadn’t been since Malcolm Hulke was writing them – a fact that would prove extremely important when the series found itself continued as a line of novels from Virgin Books.
It’s a small sample size, due to there just not being that many Sylvester McCoy stories. There are about four novels that people really point to as dramatically expanding the scope of what the novels were: Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield, Ghost Light, and The Curse of Fenric. But these four proved to be significant simply because they provided the blueprint that the better entries in the Virgin line would follow.
They also, by and large, reflect a significant change in how Doctor Who was written in the Cartmel era. The writers of the Cartmel era, as discussed previously, were the first generation to have largely grown up on Doctor Who. And for several of them – most obviously Aaronovitch and Platt – the novelizations were a part of Doctor Who. (Cartmel recounts a story of Aaronovitch excitedly describing a Hulke novel as Communist propaganda.) And it’s clear that for these writers getting to do the novelization was part of the fun of writing for Doctor Who. In many ways this is an odd bit of nostalgia; even though by 1987 Doctor Who was a show that was obviously going to be rerun and, more to the point, taped and rewatched, Cartmel’s stable of writers had grown up with the novelizations being the “permanent” versions of Doctor Who.
And much as the lack of overt focus on the series from the BBC was surely part of how the Cartmel era was able to get away with being so radical, the fact that the novelizations were increasingly a hollow exercise in merchandising meant that writers who cared to could have some real fun with the novels. As a result there became, in the McCoy years, a tendency to use the novelizations to create “definitive” versions of stories that went beyond what television could depict. These didn’t just add new details and restore many of the scenes that got cut due to Cartmel’s chronic inability to get script lengths right (the McCoy era routinely overshot as much as an episode’s worth of material per story), but instead pushed towards creating new mythology for the show and a new style of telling stories about the Doctor. This new mythology and new new approach was, by and large, the starting point for the Virgin line.
Actually, the novelization of Battlefield post-dated the release of Timewyrm: Genesis, the first of the Virgin New Adventures. In this regard, if I really wanted to talk about novelizations and their impact on the future of the series I’d have wanted to talk about Ben Aaronovitch’s novelization of Remembrance of the Daleks. But since that entry was already four thousand words, I decided to do this one instead simply because of the McCoy stories with “major” novelizations this was the one that belonged to a story that is somewhat widely considered to have failed in its television version.
This is terribly unfair, of course. Battlefield is flawed as a television story, yes, but it’s not actually nearly as disastrous as its reputation. Let’s look at the major charges against it. Yes, it misjudges the size of its budget badly and ends up doing some ropey and unconvincing action sequences, but everyone believes their bubble wrap decently. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Doctor Who story whose biggest problem is that it looks a bit cheap, as opposed to that it was fundamentally misconceived on every level from its basic design on up.
There’s the complaint of childishness, focused mostly on Bambera’s use of the word “shame” where she obviously means “shit” and on the “boom” scene towards the end of the first episode. Bambera’s fake-swearing can be adequately squared off with the same “children’s television that’s gone above its station” principle that we’ve been using for a while now. The sort of character who casually falls in love with Ancelyn over the course of about 24 hours and one of the most flaccid courtships not to involve alien royal jelly is also the sort who has a dumb fake-swearing catchphrase. One ought read Bambera’s swearing as one of the guideposts the story gives you for what sort of thing it is. Instead of treating it as a placeholder for “shit,” treat it as Battlefield staking out territory among the sort of shows that have fake-swearing.
Put another way, one can easily treat the fake swearing of the Cartmel era as a very slightly camp performance of children’s television – something that provides a needed hedge against the potential misconception that Doctor Who is somehow engaged in serious drama or straightforward literary science fiction. It’s something that forces the audience to read the show as children’s television punching above its weight instead of as epic science fiction that has no budget. And a similar explanation serves for the “boom” scene, though that one isn’t helped by the fact that Ling Tai isn’t exactly giving Sophie Aldred a lot to work with.
The botched near future? I mean, really? We’re going to complain that this story tries to actually do the “near future” concept that UNIT supposedly went for and in practice completely ignored? That it had the gall to get it wrong about the Cold War? Yes, it had some rather spectacularly bad luck in that Communism began imploding right as the story was being made. Yes, things like the lack of a five pound coin stick out now, but if this is meant to be a serious critique of the story then God help most Doctor Who.
And then there’s the complaint about pacing. Yes, this is a three part story that got stretched to four. Yes, as a result the final part drags, with a profusion of extensions to continue the crisis past its selling point. All told it’s not actually that bad, though. The pacing is lax for a military techno-thriller, but given that the military techno-thriller aspects are already unconvincing due to the budgetary issues the leisurely pace isn’t actually detracting from much of anything. There’s maybe five minutes of excess padding in the final episode – again, a reason to ding the story a few points, but surely not a reason to treat the story as a failure.
About the only critique of the story to really stick is Tat Wood’s observation that they should have killed the Brigadier, as the story was visibly about coming up with a new vision of what UNIT is. This is true – killing the Brigadier would have paralleled nicely with Arthur turning out to be well and truly dead, applying one of the Cartmel era’s most persistent themes – that the past cannot be recovered – to the series itself. Structurally the Brigadier serves as the series’ version of Arthur: the old hero returned in an hour of need. What should ensue from this is twofold. First, his version of UNIT, anchored in a “keep calm and carry on” vision of national identity and, let’s be honest, supremacy, should have been shown to be past its time regardless of its nobility. Second, the new and improved version of UNIT, a genuinely international effort, should have been shown to be a worthy successor. Instead Bambera is mind controlled and shown up while the Brigadier remains top dog.
Instead the Brigadier is cheated out of one of the best scenes in the show. His casual, unpresuming confidence in the face of The Destroyer is fantastic. But if that had been the Brigadier’s death scene it would have jumped to one of the top scenes in Doctor Who. Instead the show veers towards cheap nostalgia in a way that cuts against everything it’s been doing in the Cartmel era, treating Pertwee era values as somehow immutable and unchallengeable. And it’s the last chance to do that – after this the Brigadier is above reproach. And he didn’t have to be – Battlefield was a one-time opportunity to simultaneously let the Brigadier go out in a phenomenal blaze of glory and to close the book on the ethics of the Pertwee era, allowing that era to be simultaneously respected and left in the past. But frankly, this is the line of critique that’s least taken against this story simply because fandom, for wholly justified reasons, adores the Brigadier and didn’t want him permanently written out of the show or subjected to any sort of sustained critique. And fair enough, as Nicholas Courtney is reliably fabulous.
So why does this story have a somewhat rougher reputation than much of the McCoy era? I mean, I’ll readily grant that the niggles outlined above are sufficient to put it behind a tour de force like The Curse of Fenric or Remembrance of the Daleks, but this ought still qualify easily as solid Doctor Who. And yet it by and large doesn’t.
Part of the answer is, frankly, the novelization. Or, rather, the reason the novelization exists, which is that by this point the series was doing things that were, to say the least, a wee bit ambitious. Sandwiched as it is between a horror circus about the failures of the 1960s and a Victorian horror story about Darwin, ultimately Battlefield’s biggest sin is that the story it’s trying to be is so good that the merely passible result is a crushing disappointment.
And the book goes a long way towards repairing that. It can afford to show the Doctor as Merlin. It can give Bambera a proper globe-trotting past that we get to see pieces of. And perhaps most of all, it can go into the Doctor’s head a bit and make clear one of the story’s biggest ideas. After a season that repeatedly stressed McCoy’s Doctor as a manipulative figure who is often a static presence around whom chaos occurs, Aaronovitch – responsible for the script that flipped McCoy over to this – does what is in many ways the ultimate trick of the McCoy era. Having established McCoy’s Doctor as an infinitely clever person who can outsmart anyone and anything, Aaronovitch figures out the one person who can successfully cast McCoy’s Doctor as a pawn: a future Doctor. And so we get a story of McCoy’s Doctor being a pawn in one of his own schemes. It’s a great conceit, but the televised story doesn’t really have a way to hammer it home. The novel, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable at this.
(Inevitably, the twist has roots in Alan Moore, who proposed the exact same trick as the resolution to his aborted Twilight of the Superheroes crossover, which ends with the revelation that John Constantine has, through the entire story, been being played by his own future self. Interestingly, in this case the connections are completely coincidental, as the Twilight of the Superheroes plot didn’t leak to the general public until the Internet came along.)
The novel can also go further in destabilizing our assumptions about what the world of Doctor Who is like. The first chapter of Platt’s novelization, for instance, contains a substantive section written from the point of view of the TARDIS. It’s terribly interesting, but what’s interesting about it is largely philosophical: it depicts the mind of a sentient machine. The entire point of it is the word choice and the phrasing used. There’s not an equivalent technique in film or video. There are things film and video can do that prose can’t, but equally, there are things that language can do such as depict a train of thought that a television program simply can’t. More to the point, experimental prose is easier and more utilitarian than experimental video. Metaphor, pataphor, and sudden transitions are much easier with words. Prose, in other words, allows for a wider variety of strange techniques, and it’s clear in Battlefield that Platt is interested in what those techniques can do for Doctor Who and what new things it lets Doctor Who depict.
In this regard, then, what’s ironic about Battlefield is that despite kicking off the last season of Doctor Who it’s an incredibly forward-looking story. It suggests that in a real sense a move to prose novels was a natural evolution for the Cartmel era. That’s not to say that the impending cancellation is a good thing, but it is to say that the transition from Survival to Timewyrm: Genesis is a smoother and more straightforward thing than it appears.
This is fitting for a story that so confidently treats the future of Doctor Who as a given. Yes, we’ll probably never see the Merlin period of the Doctor’s life explicitly. (Although the novel’s assertion that the Merlin incarnation of the Doctor has red hair provides humorous justification for the Doctor’s desire to be ginger) Which is a pity in some ways, as a storyline rooted in the ancient heritage of Britain about a mysterious woman who rises from a lake, who eventually traps the Doctor in a prison for all eternity, and to whom the Doctor appears to live backwards in time would be really, really interesting.