I’ll Explain Later
We’ve skipped The Pit, labeled as the absolute worst New Adventure ever published. Despite its general awfulness, it’s relatively on target in concepts. It’s tough to call it influential, given how wretched it was, but it does start to move the New Adventures down the road of treating Ancient Gallifrey in part as a source of almost Lovecraftian horror.
Deceit, by Peter Darvill-Evans, is one of the big turning points in the New Adventures line, reintroducing Ace some six months after her departure. This version of Ace, popularly dubbed “New Ace,” has spent three years fighting the Dalek Wars and is a much angrier and harder-edged character than the one that left in Love and War. The novel also includes Abslom Daak, the comics character created by Steve Moore in Doctor Who Magazine. Gary Russell, in his final reviews column for Doctor Who Magazine, declared said that “it is coherent, entertaining, pleasantly easy to follow, and, above all it has a darned good story to tell,” but then, he also praised it for “stabilizing the Whoniverse,” so let’s just stop there. I, Who is more in line with most reactions, saying it’s “hardly worth reading.” Shannon Sullivan’s rankings have it as the fifth worst New Adventure, giving it a 53.7% rating. DWRG summary. Whonivese Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s April of 1993. The Bluebells are at number one with “Young at Heart,” a rerelease of a song they previously recorded in 1984, itself a cover of a Bananarama song. It remains at number one all week. Shaggy, Madonna, David Bowie, and New Order also chart. Albums doing well around now include David Bowie’s Black Tie, White Noise (which means I’ve finally passed Pushing Ahead of the Dame in history!), R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, which meanders off to number one again, and Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion.
While in the news, March actually proved fairly uneventful, with the highlights being a brutal blizzard in the eastern United States, the release of Intel’s Pentium processors (the “can’t do math” variety, specifically), and South Africa’s official abandonment of its nuclear program. April is somewhat more exciting: the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas ends disastrously, with a fire that kills virtually all of the people inside. While in London a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence is murdered by five teenagers in a racist attack that takes until 2012 to result in a conviction.
While in television tie-in novels we have Deceit. As I explained later, this is not one of the most beloved of New Adventures. Indeed, it’s largely hated, and not without some reason. I said on Friday that as of The Highest Science the line had never put out something that could be described as a “generic” New Adventure. That record arguably broke last novel with The Pit, but that novel at least had some cool new ideas. This, on the other hand, has very little that doesn’t just feel like a standard recitation of Virgin tropes.
While in many ways aesthetically unsatisfying, this sort of “default” story is in many ways useful from a critical or historical standpoint, as it’s the stories like this that unambitiously repeat past glories that create tropes. Yes, many of the ideas here: the Doctor as an arch-manipulator, the obsession with virtual reality and cyberspace, big scary psychic consciousnesses as the major antagonist – are ones familiar from past New Adventures. But for the most part they were, in past New Adventures, trotted out as original and fresh ideas in their own right. Here, however, they appear without any real reveling in the ideas, as though they’re simply things one expects to see in Doctor Who these days.
This has an interesting implication, in that it establishes these things as part of a zeitgeist of Doctor Who instead of as ideas suited to specific purposes. Computers, manipulation, and vast cosmic forces are, it seems, simply part of what Doctor Who seems like it should be doing in 1993. And so it’s worth asking why that might be.
Actually, the fundamentals of this are things we’ve seen over the past few weeks. The influence of computers is straightforward: these were the early days of the Internet as something that was a part of semi-popular consciousness. The idea that computers were a big deal that were going to change everything about the world was becoming completely mainstream, and so of course they were popping up all over in Doctor Who. Just like rocket ships and space colonies were all the rage in the late 1960s, and energy projects were the obsession of the 1970s. (The Internet had a similarly large impact on Doctor Who fandom, but that’s another post.)
The focus on manipulation and vast “intelligences” as enemies is somewhat subtler. There’s an observation that I’m failing to quite place where I heard that interest in UFOs and alien abductions spikes when, basically, there’s nothing else to be afraid of in the world. So there was a big rash of it in the 1950s when the second World War wrapped up and before the Cold War hit full scary imagination. And then there was another rash of it in the 1990s after the Cold War ended and before 9/11 took us into the paranoia of terrorism. Basically, aliens are what we worry about when we don’t have anything else to worry about. And with aliens inevitably comes a spike in conspiracy theories.
We’ll deal with the specific iconography of aliens and conspiracy theories in a Pop Between Realities post that you get no points whatsoever for correctly guessing. It’s not the only version of this anyway – the uptick in interest in Lovecraft that came in the 1990s (and was also reflected in the New Adventures) is a similar switch towards there being uncanny things that threatened us instead of concrete fears. For our purposes right now, what’s more interesting is the basic fact that the default cultural concern is a diffuse and non-specific. So a manipulative Doctor (a concept that ties in with conspiracy theories well) and a bunch of malevolent psychic constructs (a concept adjacent to diffuse and hazily defined aliens) are very much reflective of the times.
This doesn’t, of course, rule out their relevance when handled skillfully, as they have been by past writers. But Darvill-Evans ends up simply throwing them in with the same untroubled “this is what Doctor Who does” attitude that brought monsters in Season Five or Hammer Horror pastiches featuring ancient foes returning from the dead in Season Thirteen. They’re not deployed with any sort of content, but as part of a simple conviction that this is what Doctor Who is these days. And it’s not really until that happens that you can take a step back and see the standard operating procedure.
A couple of things jump out about this status quo. First, it is definitely not the same approach as the Cartmel era. And this is important to note. The Cartmel era had a Doctor who knew a lot about situations going in and cheated gods on a regular basis, but the Doctor as the great conspirator for whom manipulation of everybody, not just bad guys, was standard operating procedure is largely an invention of the New Adventures. Of the actual televised McCoy stories only The Curse of Fenric really began to approach this sort of broad manipulation. Yes, he’s been manipulative since Remembrance of the Daleks, but there he just manipulated Daleks. Manipulating innocent people isn’t a big part of the McCoy stories. The televised version of the Seventh Doctor was a force of nature, not a scheming chessmaster.
The villains are markedly different as well. Yes, McCoy’s Doctor fought godlike beings fairly regularly, but they were, again excepting Fenric, metaphors for authority of some sort. They were godlike because that’s a good metaphor for powerful authority structures. But that’s very different from Pool, the villain of Deceit, who is more a sort of unexploded bomb – a powerful intelligence that existed because of previously unknown schemes surrounding a war. He’s closer to what Warren Ellis has called the unexploded bombs of the twentieth century – a version of the post-Cold War anxiety to the effect of “what are all of these dangerous Cold Warriors going to do now that they don’t have a war to fight?” The McCoy era’s villains weren’t unfathomable and horrific others, they were distorted authority figures.
And that, in many ways, is at the heart of the difference between the Virgin approach and the Cartmel approach. At the end of the day Cartmel was animated by the anti-Thatcher counterculture that had been so neglected by Doctor Who over much of the 1980s. McCoy’s Doctor was built to be the sort of figure who could stand against the vast, systemic, and institutionalized horror of Thatcher’s Britain. He was an attempt to evolve the Doctor beyond the individual plucky anarchist who could bring down the system and into a force of massive, historical change. But by 1993 Thatcher had herself been brought down in a stunning anticlimax, the Iron Lady all but rusting out. Her successor was a dead man walking, marking time until a now-inevitable defeat in 1997. The Cold War was over, and we seemed to be settling into a period of relative calm. There was no vast and systemic terror to face, and McCoy’s Doctor had been built to face systemic and institutionalized evil.
And so the Doctor shifted into a morally ambiguous antihero type. We’ll talk about the prevalence of those in the 1990s on Wednesday, but for now let’s simply note that this is a significant change in the scope of Doctor Who, and one that only really becomes clear once these changes to approach become “default” instead of “new ideas about Doctor Who.” But this observation about the Doctor becoming less of a clear-cut hero is also important because Deceit is the book that brings us New Ace.
The particulars of New Ace as a character are better left for Friday and Lucifer Rising, a book in which Ace gets several surprising moments that do a lot to define the new version of her character. For now let’s talk about the basic idea. First of all, as is going to become relatively clear on Wednesday, the antihero approach implicit in making Ace a violent and battle-scarred veteran of the Dalek wars is fairly standard for the era. And it’s clearly what’s going on, hence the use of Abslom Daak, who is an over the top parody of that sort of character who thus serves to clarify Ace as a more reasonable version of the same thing. One can quibble with the aesthetic choice – certainly there’s a very sensible argument to be made against the basic nature of antiheroes.
But equally, they were, as we’ll see, part of the game for the 90s. They weren’t invented in the 90s, and they don’t end there, but they’re part of the game. Of course Doctor Who was going to do them, because the only time Doctor Who fell out of step with the zeitgeist of its era was in the depths of the Saward era, and we saw how that went. So taking Ace and moving her in an antihero direction is, if not my top choice for what to do with the character, at least a move that it’s easy to understand the thought behind, and in the broad sense a reasonable decision for 1993.
And while some of the objections to New Ace are a blanket aesthetic dislike of antiheroes, which, fair enough, others, I suspect, come down more to the ineptness of her introduction. Because Deceit is not, at the end of the day, a very good book, and many of its problems center on its reintroduction of Ace. The biggest problem is that there’s no inherent reason why Ace’s reintroduction has to go in the same book as the story about Pool. Ace’s reintroduction wraps up the “infected TARDIS” plotline that’s been hanging in the background since Witch Mark, but it turns out the entire point of that plotline was to create an excuse to bring Ace back. Basically, the Doctor manipulated Ace away so that he could clear the infection out of the TARDIS. People talk about how this retcons the ending of Love and War, but that seems unfair – the plan was always to bring Ace back, and so it seems more likely that Deceit’s version of events was always intended as the “truth” of Love and War.
The idea that the Doctor deliberately drove her out in Love and War is fine. It’s how dumb the plot that hinges on that is, especially compared to Love and War, that kills it. The infected TARDIS plot has no impact on anything, and is just a long-running plot thread that turned out to lead to Ace coming back. Yes, the same MacGuffin is used to defeat Pool and to explain Ace’s return, but this is hardly a substantive link. Ultimately, the problem is that the Ace return plot is arbitrary and pointless. And that gets the character off to a bad start. It was always going to be controversial to revamp an established and praised character into a less likable version, and botching the launch is a significant flaw that the character never quite recovered from.
I’d be remiss in moving on from Deceit if I didn’t talk at least briefly with the essay at the end of the book. The main thrust of it is an attempt to create a definitive explanation of how history works in Doctor Who. Its claim hinges on the idea that the “present” of Doctor Who is Gallifrey’s present, and that Gallifrey is actually in the ancient past of the universe, so present-day Earth is actually a fairly fungible future in Doctor Who. It’s a clever explanation, and comes closer to a general theory of Doctor Who than most others. It’s also, like most explanations of Doctor Who, limited in utility to the actual era that attempted to employ it. Since it doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with Deceit, however, we should mostly file it away and pull it out again for a novel where it has actual implications to explore and is more than a cool fan theory that got published at the end of a book because the fan was the author and editor.