I’ll Explain Later
Andrew Cartmel’s Cat’s Cradle: Warhead is the second part of the loose Cat’s Cradle trilogy, and the first part of the tighter but non-consecutive trilogy by Andrew Cartmel, which continues in Warlock and Warchild. Cartmel’s contributions are straight-up near future thrillers, typically referred to as cyberpunk, but in practice somewhat more diffuse than that. This one is about an evil corporation and massive pollution that threatens to destroy the world, and introduces the two characters who link the three books together, Vincent and Justine. Vincent has psychic powers and can channel strong emotion into physical forces, whereas Justine is impulsive and pissed off. Gary Russell was at the time in awe of the story, but only as “a one-off journey through the ultimate dark-side of Doctor Who,” a viewpoint that stands in stark contrast to I, Who’s adoration of it as “brilliant, but only as the first part of a trilogy encompassing Warlock and Warchild.” (Pearson views it as “a drawn-out, snarled mess” that is difficult to follow.) Sullivan’s novel rankings have it as the best of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy at 42nd out of 61, with a 62.7% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s April of 1992. Shakespear’s Sister are still at the top of the charts, but are unseated after two weeks by Right Said Fred’s “Deeply Dippy,” because they’re not a one-hit wonder in the UK. They remain at number one for the rest of the month. Eric Clapton, Annie Lennox, Erasure, Def Leppard, Vanessa Williams, Iron Maiden, and ZZ Top also chart. Clearly we are firmly lost in the 90s now.
In real news, since Time’s Crucible we’ve had the Bosnian War get worse as Bosnia and Herzegovina declares independence from Yugoslavia, leading to lots of people shooting each other. Euro Disney, now called Disneyland Paris, opens in, shockingly enough, Paris. Manuel Noriega, former head of state of Panama, is found guilty of drug crimes in Florida. And the Los Angeles riots break out. But the big news for the UK is another general election, in which Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party puts a solid dent into the Tory majority, but is still defeated by John Major. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun claims credit for the victory, because he’s charming like that – an event that will lead to Tony Blair repeatedly selling what fragments of his soul actually still exist to win the paper’s endorsement in 1997. But more about that next year – for now, books, and specifically Andrew Cartmel’s Cat’s Cradle: Warhead.
If Time’s Crucible explores the idea of sidelining the Doctor from the action a la The Christmas Invasion or Turn Left, Warhead seems like the first real antecedent of stories like Love and Monsters or Blink, in which a Doctor Who story plays out with the camera primarily focused on someone other than the Doctor. There’s an accusation against the New Adventures in general, and often Cartmel in particular that they are prone to leaving the Doctor out of too much of the story. We’ll see how much water that claim holds when we get to the point where there’s a pre-existing thing you can talk about as the Virgin style that the novels are living up to, (we’re almost there – I’d put the transition at somewhere around Love and War or Transit) but in terms of this novel it’s rubbish. This novel doesn’t suffer from a lack of the Doctor – it revels in it.
It’s ironic, given that Platt’s novel set up large swaths of the so-called Cartmel Masterplan, that Cartmel should pen the middle novel of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy and have essentially nothing whatsoever take place that ties in with the larger trilogy. We discussed last time how the Cartmel Masterplan is a flagrant misnomer, but it’s not really until you see Cartmel’s novels for the line that supposedly built out his Masterplan that you get a sense of just how disconnected from that idea and approach he is. It’s not only not what he’s interested in, it’s an almost complete 180 from what he does. The so-called Masterplan as embodied by Platt in Time’s Crucible is a clanking epic about the dawn of time and ancient space empires. Warhead is about people living in a dystopic near-future. It’s as stark as the difference between The Daleks’ Masterplan and The Massacre.
But, of course, both of those stories shared an underlying similarity of approach. They were both stories that advanced John Wiles’s larger theme of suspicion about the Doctor’s heroism. Yes, one was a soaring twelve-part epic about Daleks and the other a small-scale historical piece about Steven in a time he doesn’t understand, but looking at them, they’re clearly coming out of the same basic vision of what the show is. And that applies here as well – Time’s Crucible may do all the things that Cartmel wouldn’t let Platt do on the series, and Warhead may turn its nose on the entire notion of a cosmic epic, but there’s an underlying similarity of approach. This isn’t a surprise, of course – Cartmel commissioned Platt, and was seemingly set to do so again in Season Twenty-Seven. Obviously they have some common interests and approaches.
But in a lot of ways these two books, with Timewyrm: Revelation before them, play out as a sort of reverse dialectic. After Cornell demonstrates how to do a truly, properly alchemical epic the New Adventures proceed to show us the two components in isolation: the sweeping ambition of Time’s Crucible and the human scale of Warhead. Reading them back to back is an odd experience, but this entire four-book stretch before Cornell comes back on the scene with Love and War is a bit odd. Cornell has already changed Doctor Who completely, but there’s a lag before the books quite catch up. Once we pass Love and War we get a string of novels by writers more associated with the New Adventures than the classic series: Gareth Roberts, Andy Lane, Jim Mortimore, David McIntee, and Peter Darvill-Evans all make their debut in the second set of ten books, with Kate Orman writing the twenty-first book. But thus far we’ve had books by John Peel, Terrance Dicks, Nigel Robinson, Marc Platt, and Andrew Cartmel, with Ben Aaronovitch appearing within the first ten novels as well.
That list is somewhat deceptive – Cartmel, Aaronovitch, and to a lesser extent Platt all end up being very NA-style writers, with another five-and-a-half books among them. But it underlines the way in which this period of the New Adventures features them running to catch up a bit. Still, if Time’s Crucible and Warhead are treated as the two component parts of the Cornell approach then it’s pretty clear which one of them is the more important. Because while Time’s Crucible felt on the whole a bit pointless, this book absolutely sings.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The human element of Doctor Who is baked much deeper into the series’ DNA than the space opera epic. The show was originally about two ordinary people who fell out of the world into a set of adventures that they were actively not the right protagonists for. Its only successful period of discarding or minimizing the human element of its cast came under Graham Williams, who made up for it with unusually solid characterization in the guest characters. Whereas grand epics were actively prevented by the original conception of the show, in which the Doctor’s origins were wholly obscure and the TARDIS couldn’t ever return somewhere to provide a sense of continuity. About all you had prior to The War Games was “Daleks! Again!” Whereas a story about two ordinary schoolteachers being put through absolute hell? Take your pick of the first season.
But Cartmel still has a big innovation in Warhead that moves beyond the “focus the story on a human” approach – something that Time’s Crucible does, after all, if less successfully. Although there certainly are lengthy stretches of the book in which Ace takes center stage, there are also multiple chapters that are structured around telling us about an ordinary person in the world Cartmel sets out, giving details from their perspective, and then having the Doctor cross their path. Over and over again we get vignettes about what it’s like to meet the Doctor, and for large swaths of the book the Doctor’s scheme plays out in the background. It’s not that the book isn’t about the Doctor – it absolutely is. But it’s about how a world responds to him, not about what he does and what his plans are.
Let’s look at a specific instance. The third chapter of the book tells the story of Maria Chavez, a night-shift janitor at the villainous Butler Institute who is suffering from terminal cancer. A third of the chapter goes by before she even meets the Doctor – instead we get her life history, her love of dancing, the ways in which her life hasn’t worked out, and of her deceased lover. Then, finally, she stumbles upon the Doctor doing some light computer hacking. All told, the Doctor is only around for half of the chapter, and for much of his appearance we see Maria trying to figure out what she should do about him and whether she should alert security.
Eventually she decides to cover for the Doctor, and we get a brutal glimpse of human cruelty, as she pulls up a fake e-mail to an ex-lover in which she talks about missing him at night, in response to which the security guards belittle her, telling her that a “woman your age should be ashamed.” It’s ugly and mean, and one of the most compelling moments in the chapter. The drama isn’t whether the Doctor will be caught (really, who cares if he will be – it’s a Doctor Who story, and a series of captures and escapes for him are standard issue), but about Maria’s humiliation and shame, and her willingness to help a man she’s just met.
This makes the chapter’s resolution, in which Maria asks the Doctor to take her with him and is turned down, all the more brutally compelling. The Doctor flatly refuses, because of something that’s been going on on the fifty-first floor that she knows about, saying “you’ve known for years, and you’ve let it happen” before walking off and abandoning her. The chapter ends a page or two later with Maria dying in what sounds like a seizure, still narrated from her perspective. The result is a chilling and uncertain view on affairs in which it’s difficult to tell who, if anyone, are the good guys.
An even more chilling moment comes at the end of the next chapter, where the Doctor, after getting information from a child killer, leaves him to be murdered by gang members without any seeming remorse or issue. It’s a dark and cynical moment – and not the only one in the book. The Doctor later declares that “Ordinary people don’t have the ability to alter the course of events. Only the big corporations and the very rich have the power to do that.” This latter comment is a fascinating moment. On the one hand, it’s easy to bristle at, even if there are reasonably compelling arguments for its practical truth. On the other, and perhaps more interestingly, it jars with a novel that has, up until that point, been meticulously focused on ordinary people and their world. The result is that the Doctor gets put in the same category as corporations and the very rich – as one of the forces that changes the world. He’s one of the good guys, certainly, but looked at from this angle he becomes as uncanny and monstrous as the things he fights.
And this is clearly the angle on the Doctor Cartmel is interested in. There’s a fabulous scene around the two-thirds mark of the book in which Justine shakes Ace’s worldview by pointing out that the Doctor could just as easily be a sorcerer as an alien, and that nothing would change about her life except for the language she uses to describe it. This gets at a fundamental aspect of Cartmel’s approach to Doctor Who here. He’s not interested in the particular mechanics of the Doctor. He’s interested in the question of what happens when a good monster – a figure who is at once utterly Other and yet fundamentally on our side – is unleashed into a world. The explanation for the character is, by and large, just window dressing that dodges around the issue of his nature.
Quietly and meticulously, Doctor Who is changing out from under us. And though the next two books do little to advance things (a mediocre book that tries to do outright fantasy in Doctor Who, with a resolution to the damaged TARDIS plot bookending it, and a upstanding but ultimately very staid number by Mark Gatiss), the ninth New Adventure would prove to be another massive turning point for the series.