I’ll Explain Later
We’ve skipped The Bodysnatchers and Genocide, which languish in the forties of the seventy-three Eighth Doctor Adventures unloved and unhated. We’ll be doing that a lot. War of the Daleks is the last of the books commissioned under Nuala Buffini (actually, this and Legacy of the Daleks apparently came in at the same time), and is absolutely loathed. It has… um… Daleks in it. And a very, very infamous retcon, which I talk about in enough detail below as to not be worth outlining here. It’s 66th out of 73. Lars Pearson says that the retcon in question “will skewer you in pitchfork-like fashion,” while at the time Dave Owen calls it an “unambitious tribute… rendered in hackneyed prose that should not have survived editing.” Ouch. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
It’s October of 1997. Elton John is at number one with “Something About The Way You Look/Candle in the Wind ’97.” This gets at one of the news stories we’ll talk about in a moment, and raises the question of what could possibly unseat a cathartic tribute to Princess Diana from the charts. Answer: The Spice Girls, with “Spice Up Your Life.” The Backstreet Boys, Oasis, Will Smith, Janet Jackson, Aqua, and Chumbawumba also chart, the latter with an unabashed and straightforward execution of The Manual. In news, since we last checked in Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Princess Diana died, causing everyone in America to be inexplicably upset, Scotland voted to create its own parliament, as did Wales, and Mother Theresa died too. While during this month, the Grey Lady goes color, and the BBC gets a new logo.
In books, meanwhile, War of the Daleks. That War of the Daleks is a mind-wrenchingly awful book at least mostly goes without saying. Still, since this blog is written for a non-specialist audience, we may as well rehearse its flaws. First among them is the simple fact that Peel is not a great writer. He never has been. And so with a book in which he’s stuck with an ambiguously characterized Doctor and a new companion he makes a harder swing to Generic Doctor than any previous book. Peel’s Generic Doctor is apparently Pertwee, with Sam defaulting smoothly to Jo Grant. But this masks the larger problem, which is that Peel is spectacularly uninterested in any of these newfangled ideas that have been cluttering Doctor Who up for the last ten years and just wants to do good old-fashioned adventure stories.
As a result War of the Daleks is overtly and consciously an imitation of Terry Nation’s style. The Doctor gives generic moral lessons of the most banal sort, mostly about following orders and duty and various other things. Peel is fascinated by the divisions of Dalek society and by describing Dalek weaponry and various special Daleks in detail, and more or less uninterested in stitching together an actual plot. On top of that, the plot he has is riddled with holes. To take only one example, in chapter seven Davros is informed that there are still Daleks loyal to him on Skaro, and treats this as good news. The next chapter he reacts with shock and horror at the idea that Skaro could still exist.
All of this pales, however, in the face of the retcon. John Peel, apparently, was not a big fan of Remembrance of the Daleks. And so he decided to undo its destruction of Skaro. Fair enough, I suppose – I’d suggest that the sheer shock of Remembrance of the Daleks is worth the loss of Skaro, which isn’t in and of itself that useful a concept. One can easily just have the surviving Daleks found New Skaro and get on with it. But sure, I can see why someone might want to rescue Skaro. Most people can understand that, I’d wager. What’s jaw-dropping about War of the Daleks is the way in which Peel attempts to sort this out. See, it turns out that the Daleks learned about the destruction of Skaro when they invaded in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Learning in Day of the Daleks that they can’t just change time they instead embarked on an epic project to ensure that the planet the Doctor and Davros destroy is not in fact Skaro but another planet. So they grab Davros off of Skaro, move him onto another planet that they terraform to look just like Skaro, and fake the entire Dalek/Movellan war of Destiny of the Daleks in order to persuade Davros that they’ve woken him on Skaro. Then the Doctor, having arrived on fake-Skaro and mistaken it for Skaro, learned the wrong coordinates for Skaro and set the Hand of Omega to blow up the wrong star.
All of this, which I have not embellished in any way, is established in one chapter in which the Dalek Prime just exposits recklessly. The best entertainment to be had in this book is in fact imagining most of this dialogue delivered by actual Daleks. My favorite line is “Sit down. You will be more comfortable,” although the use of non-dialogue phrases like “the Dalek Prime pointed out.” It’s at least as bad as it sounds, if not substantially worse.
But what is perhaps most interesting is that it was essentially rejected. It is not the first bit of Doctor Who to be controversial. Plenty of people rejected the New Adventures, and Russell T Davies was still proclaiming that Paul McGann doesn’t count only a few years before taking the reins of the series. The Wilderness Years were marked by widespread rejection of bits of Doctor Who. Plenty of people decided that the New Adventures weren’t canon, including, apparently, Terrance Dicks. Russell T Davies was insisting Paul McGann didn’t count only a few years before he was running the show. It’s not surprising that people decided that War of the Daleks and its massive rewriting of the series was to be rejected.
What’s surprising and relatively transformative, though, is that it was rejected almost completely. Essentially nobody took it seriously. Sure, lots of people rejected previous bits of Doctor Who in the Wilderness Years, but this was basically the first time that a book had the unanimous response of “thanks but no thanks.” It wasn’t some active campaign or a conscious, authoritative decision or anything like that. It was just a moment where the breaking point of Doctor Who fandom became clear. This was a bridge too far. Official license and BBC logo on the book or not, this was clearly not canon. Arguably the total rejection of John Nathan-Turner’s declaration that Dimensions in Time was canon and should have a production code prefigured this, but the problem there was that Dimensions in Time, Nathan-Turner’s insistence aside, was clearly not trying to be serious Doctor Who. War of the Daleks, on the other hand, clearly genuinely believes itself to be a serious attempt at new Doctor Who.
What this means, in other words, is that War of the Daleks marks the point where the idea of an official version of Doctor Who finally implodes. Whatever dissent the Virgin line and the TV Movie generated, they at least had a clear bloc of people who would advocate for them as the official, “proper” Doctor Who. So did the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and indeed, they still did after War of the Daleks. But War of the Daleks ensured that there would always be an asterisk next to that claim. The Virgin lines and the TV Movie were official because of the BBC’s assent. The Eighth Doctor Adventures, if they were official, were official because of fan assent, and that could be stripped away.
Which is an important concept with relation to War of the Daleks as well. John Peel, after all, is the embodiment of an “official” writer. He was hand-picked by Terry Nation as the acceptable Dalek writer, and he made a career out of being an establishment type in writing tie-in novels for virtually everything. But this reveals a fundamental flaw in the notion of the official in Doctor Who. Indeed, it reveals a problem with the basic idea of official histories, which is that they instinctively reinforce structures of power, regardless of truth. They are not necessarily useless, but they must be treated with considerable skepticism. And War of the Daleks illustrates the worst tendencies of them.
The matter of Terry Nation is particularly significant in terms of the problem with official history. Terry Nation, of course, created the Daleks. But he created the Daleks in the same way that Bob Kane created Batman, which is to say, he had a vague initial concept that someone else turned into an outright work of genius. Nation created the most generic space monster imaginable and wrote a few lines description. Raymond Cusick created the visual look of a Dalek – the thing that is actually responsible for their popularity. The problem is that Terry Nation, as a BBC freelancer, owned the copyright on whatever he created for the BBC, whereas Raymond Cusick, a member of the BBC’s staff, got his standard salary whether he created a multi-million pound creative juggernaut or the Slyther. So Terry Nation, with the aid of a very good agent, continued to extract solid money out of the BBC for every re-use of the Daleks, up to and including some solid brinksmanship with them in 2004 that nearly resulted in Doctor Who coming back without them. Raymond Cusick got a hundred quid bonus for creating them and that was it.
Official histories, of course, focus entirely on Nation, who portrayed himself as the proper “chronicler” of the Daleks. This, in turn, meant marginalizing other people, most notably David Whitaker who, despite generating the overwhelming majority of early Dalek material as a ghost writer, was proclaimed by Nation to have not “gotten” the Daleks in Power of the Daleks and Evil of the Daleks. Nation, while he was alive, forbid further use of Whitaker’s creation of the Emperor of the Daleks because he didn’t like the Daleks to have an emperor, preferring the Dalek Supreme or Dalek Prime or whatever. Despite it being an iconic and memorable character. That Nation profited off of the Daleks while other significant creators did not, or that he repeatedly told the history of their development in a way that flattered him is depressing, but not surprising: it’s the same attitude at play in Bob Kane’s erasure of Bill Finger’s role in the creation of Batman, or in Stan Lee’s ability to secure far better financial terms for his role in creating most of Marvel Comics than Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko ever did, despite the nature of their collaborations being such that the artists did the lion’s share of the actual creative work.
And, of course, the official histories of Marvel and DC continue to essentially back that party line. They may include a brief and fleeting mention of Bill Finger’s marginalization or of Jack Kirby’s acrimonious split with Marvel, but they’ll be side points in a narrative otherwise defined entirely by complete deference to the official company line. And the companies carefully control this history because they control who has access to the archives and who gets interviews. It’s not, to be clear, overt corruption. Nobody cornered Les Daniels or Sean Howe and told them what to write. It’s far more implicit, much like the structures of corporate governance that allowed Rupert Murdoch to evade culpability for anything that happened at News International (or for that matter at Downing Street). Nobody needed to be told what to do. Everybody knew exactly how to behave. Nobody has to tell the official historian to make the officials look good. If they don’t know to do it on their own they don’t stay official historians for long.
And John Peel played that role for Terry Nation and his estate. Rewarded with things like Nation’s original scripts for stories, Peel dutifully glorifies Nation in his work. So when picked as the acceptable author for the two Dalek books BBC Books were allowed to do, Peel dutifully reverted everything back to the way it was before all those damned interlopers started mucking around with the Daleks. Given the keys to the Daleks he promptly takes out anything that Nation would have objected to, turning in a novel that feels like an imitation of Planet of the Daleks. Admittedly he steamrolls one of Nation’s stories along the way, but let’s face it, nobody was going to miss Destiny of the Daleks. Worse, he does so in Nation’s name and in a way that exacerbates the already problematic history of Nation and the Daleks. In Doctor Who Magazine Peel asserts that Nation “hated” the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks. Maybe he did, but given that he approved the script and vetoed other elements in the story, it’s a tough line to believe. Peel, perhaps, hates it and is willing to ascribe it to Nation. But if Nation hated it he had the opportunity to do something about it. He didn’t. But Peel, acting in his name, does it for him. No doubt without actually asking, because that’s not what the official lapdog – sorry, historian – does.
But it came at the exact wrong moment in the series’ history to pull that. With everyone still defaulting to “hugely suspicious” of the Eighth Doctor Adventures and their mandate to be simpler and more traditional, a book that cack-handedly retcons vast swaths of Doctor Who out of the belief that it’s preferable to have stories like Planet of the Daleks to ones like Remembrance of the Daleks was utterly, astonishingly out of step with what anyone wanted. Especially coming so soon after the bizarre trainwreck of The Eight Doctors, War of the Daleks felt like the worst nightmare of what the BBC Books like could be, and John Peel was acting like the worst possible version of what people feared he might be.
But more to the point, the BBC Books line was at this point too uncertain to be worth caring about. No matter how controversial Virgin got, it had books that were hugely loved. But at this point the best thing the BBC Books line had going for it was that Vampire Science had been pretty good. Given the choice between preserving Remembrance of the Daleks and the BBC Books line’s status as the official Doctor Who, there just wasn’t any reason to pick the latter. And so fandom revolted and declared that the emperor had no clothes. Peel, for all his connections and authorization, was hung out to dry. Terry Nation’s hagiography was rejected wholesale.
This was, by and large, healthy. For one thing, it broke the hold of continuity fetishism that pushed Doctor Who into the moronic cult direction of the TV Movie. Doctor Who fandom increasingly became factionalized and split after this, but equally, that meant that it was possible to experiment with what Doctor Who was in ways far bolder than what Virgin could ever have gotten away with. With the idea of “official” Doctor Who badly damaged the pressure was, in a strange way, off. Suddenly, and in the most radical sense ever true, Doctor Who was once again something that could do absolutely anything.