I’ll Explain Later
No Future is the final book of the Alternate History cycle, and the third book in Paul Cornell’s loosely themed quartet. It features the resolution to the tensions among the TARDIS crew, as well as the return of the Vardans, the Meddling Monk, UNIT, and a Chronovore. Paul Cornell himself is on record as not being fond of the book, and nor was Craig Hinton at the time, saying that “we’ve seen it all before” and that “it doesn’t live up to expectations.” Thad said, he rather inexplicably describes Cornell’s writing style as “street-cred cyberpunk,” which really ought disqualify his viewpoints. (That he expresses disbelief that Ace would betray the Doctor over Jan when, in fact, that’s a complete red herring and the point is that Ace wouldn’t betray the Doctor over Jan makes this even more frustrating. I mean, I don’t usually thwap the reviewers here, but this one is a crappy review.) Lars Pearson is more praiseful, calling it “one of the strongest novels.” Fan consensus tends to side with him, putting it at sixteenth of the sixty-one New Adventures. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s February of 1994. D:Ream are still at number one with “Things Can Only Get Better.” Two weeks later it’s Mariah Carey with “Without You,” which closes out the month. This is uninspiring, as is the collection of other things to chart: Toni Braxton, Celine Dion, Reel 2 Real, and Ace of Base, the latter, inevitably, with “The Sign.” More fitting for the book we have on tap, Tori Amos’s Under the Pink debuts at number one, her lone number one album in the UK charts.
In news, Byron De La Beckwith is finally convicted for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, an American civil rights leader. He had previously twice avoided conviction when all-white juries deadlocked on his guilt. In one of these trials a former governor of Mississippi interrupted the trial to shake Beckwith’s hand. In Norway, “The Scream” is stolen in Oslo on the same day that the Winter Olympics open in Lillehammer. Police excavate the garden of Fred West, a serial killer, in Gloucester. And the Bosnian War drags brutally on.
While in literature, we have a Doctor Who book that tries to extend the UNIT era the few years further into the punk era, finally tackling the one great subculture that Doctor Who never fully embraced. In which Doctor Who finally makes direct reference to the Situationists and deals with anarchism as a social movement and philosophy instead of a vaguely defined tendency. One that smashes together huge swaths of continuity, revamping UNIT for the umpteenth time. And one that finally tackles and sorts out the tensions among the TARDIS crew. It is, in other words, a staggeringly ambitious, big novel. Clearly the only person who could be trusted to write it is Paul Cornell, at this point by far the established “marquee” writer for the Virgin line.
The book itself has a reputation for being a bit disjointed. Paul Cornell himself has largely dismissed it as a trainwreck of too many things going on at once. And while it’s certainly the weakest of Cornell’s three New Adventures that we’ve covered to date, and, I’ll go out on a limb here, probably the weakest of his five overall, this is largely an overstatement. If anything, what’s surprising about No Future is that for all of its disparate elements it’s a very unified book with a clear point to make. It is, however, a dense one, and we are a bit spoiled for choice as to which thread to pull first.
Let’s pick the setting first, since it’s the one gestured at by the title, which is of course the howling refrain of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen.” At long last we have overtly punk Doctor Who. This is, as we’ve noted before, one of the great gaps in Doctor Who. We made a show of linking The Sunmakers to punk as a sort of brief flourishing of it, but out of the many thousands of words of mildly strained points selected because they are sufficiently interesting to justify their tentativeness this has to be acknowledged as one of the bigger reaches I’ve gone for. Yes, The Sunmakers has a sort of anarchistic anger to it, but the idea of it appealing to a punk sensibility is laughable. The idea of most of Doctor Who appealing to a punk sensibility is laughable. Post-punk, sure. Doctor Who can do loads of stuff with post-punk. But punk itself is far too invested in the sincerity of its own rebelliousness to sit down and watch a ropey old BBC kid’s show.
But this marked an odd sort of problem. Doctor Who disengaged with Earth right around the time of punk’s rise, with The Hand of Fear and its abandonment of the standard Earth companion structure coinciding with The Sex Pistols getting signed to EMI, and the release of “Anarchy in the UK” coming six days after the end of The Deadly Assassin. Punk was what Doctor Who missed, the very thing it turned away from. Cornell makes quite a show in No Future of pointing out the bad times that loom over 1976, but secondary to that is the fact that Doctor Who largely avoided those fights. By the time the Cartmel era and its anti-Thatcher fire arrived Thatcher had already won her last election. Thatcher was the monster Doctor Who never faced, at least, not at her terrifying prime. And Doctor Who’s turn away from Earth at the dawn of punk is oddly inextricable from that, just as punk and Thatcher are themselves two different sides of the same coin, the inevitable hell that had to be paid in the aftermath of 1968.
So Doctor Who is stuck still playing the same old War Games. The challenge of the Pertwee era stands largely unanswered. The Doctor was cast down to Earth, yes. He recovered and redeemed himself, yes. But something about that mandate towards genuine engagement with the material was never fulfilled. We were told the secret to alchemy was material social progress, but no sooner than the words were uttered we ran from the socially material. Even before that, though, is the weird tension of the Pertwee era – its embrace of the establishment inevitably read as a response against the mercurial anarchy of the Troughton era. The two aren’t irreconcilable, but there’s an irreducible tension between them. And this is a Cornell book, so it’s no surprise where he falls. The book drips with suspicion of the Pertwee era and of UNIT.
Over in the comments section on Jack Graham’s Shabogan Graffiti, a phenomenal blog that, depending on the day, either spares me the trouble or denies me the honor of being the most blatantly leftist agitprop Doctor Who blogger around, Jack and I (along with frequent-commenter Josh Marsfelder) have been going back and forth over the question of whether an overtly Marxist Doctor would be a good idea (given, after all, that an overtly default western liberal Doctor is altogether standard). My contention is that aside from the obvious reasons why the BBC is never, ever going to have their flagship family series begin openly spouting Marxist propaganda, the truth is that Doctor Who has always had an inherent sympathy towards Situationist tactics inasmuch as those tactics involve parodic reappropriation of cultural icons and a desire to overthrow the established structures of power. On a basic level a series about screwing around with the conventions of other types of narrative with a main character who likes toppling governments is going to be at home with that particular flavor of radical Marxism. And in a real way the divergence of Doctor Who and contemporary Earth with The Hand of Fear was a bit of a misstep for Doctor Who. The lost engagement with Earth coincided with Mary Whitehouse’s devastatingly effective blow on the series and its slumping towards mediocrity. The road not taken, Doctor Who’s overt engagement with punk and its neo-Situationist tactics, is in a real sense a reconnection with the program’s history.
But the position that the Doctor is a Marxist figure outright is flawed, simply because that’s not all he is. It’s an important strain of the series’ DNA, but it is not the entire story. Cornell makes this explicit in a fantastic scene where an anarchist leader and the Brigadier meet, with the anarchist declaring the Doctor to be a hero of their movement and an anarchist, while the Brigadier claims that “the Doctor symbolizes the best values of British life. Eccentricity, the creative amateur, and civilization.” And, of course, Cornell’s point is that both statements are true, and that this is the paradox of the Doctor. Doctor Who’s relationship with the varying trends of its time was hardly ever straightforward mimicry. It spent the late 1960s being torn apart by the tension between British imperial values and psychedelia. It spent the glam era making Ziggy Stardust into an action hero who worked with the military.
Which brings us to this present moment, in which Doctor Who has been drawn inexorably into the orbit of the grim and gritty “update” to classic properties. And Cornell lobs a very simple question at this entire aesthetic, asking, essentially, “so why should Doctor Who’s engagement with grim and gritty consist simply of Doctor Who being grim and gritty?” Which is, in hindsight, just about the most sensible question anyone has mustered about the whole Virgin era. And so Cornell sets up a straightforward little narrative collapse. The Doctor’s dark and manipulative games have driven everyone away. NewAce has finally become an outright villain. Everything is ruined forever and is terribly dark as London explodes in terrorist rage. However can we possibly survive?
But the texture of the narrative collapse is revealing. Perhaps the most significant detail is just who the villains are. No Future features a team-up of the Meddling Monk and the Vardans, with the Monk being assisted by a captured Chronivore. It’s a hilariously B-list set of villains, and Cornell absolutely revels in their crapness. Benny hilariously mocks the Vardans as the only race ever to be outwitted by the Sontarans, while the Vardans speak with awe at how the Monk “was technical adviser to both the Moroks and Yartek, leader of the alien Voord.” But, of course, they’re RETURNING VILLAINS! And thus inherently dangerous and terrifying, right? Of course not. Cornell is mocking the entire idea that “using a villain from the past” and “bracing epic” are somehow synonyms. Still, he plays at it for a while, letting the Monk run the table and play terrible tricks on the Doctor and manipulate Ace into apparently killing him.
But in the end, of course, Cornell gives up the ruse and admits that the entire structure of this narrative collapse is ridiculous. He hints at this resolution about halfway through, when he abruptly wraps up a plot in which the Brigadier appears to be a mind-controlled enemy agent by having the Brigadier suddenly about-face and be on the Doctor’s side after all, explaining that he’s adopted the Doctor’s Buddhist philosophy, which helped him resist the mind control. Because of course the Brigadier isn’t going to be a bad guy. Likewise, the entire plot of Ace appearing to betray the Doctor and join up with the Monk is done away with straightforwardly, with Ace explaining that of course she’s always been on the Doctor’s side, but that she saw the opportunity to play the double agent and took it.
The narrative collapse resolves by falling back on an inviolate principle of the narrative that is sufficient to escape the collapse’s inevitability. Things become impossibly bad and then, at the last moment, some principle of the narrative reasserts itself and says “ah, but the story works this way” and shoots down the collapse. The original narrative collapse in Doctor Who, The Chase, traded on the fact that Doctor Who changes stories, so at the end of six episodes the TARDIS crew basically decides they’re bored with being chased around by Daleks and wander off to the next story. As they do at the end of every story. This time the resolution is equally simple: the Doctor and his companions have a tremendous amount of fun. Traveling on the TARDIS is fun. That’s Cornell’s resolution to his big narrative collapse. That’s his resolution to the TARDIS crew all hating each other. “Oh yes, this is all great fun.” Which is, of course, the perfect response to all of the problems that Doctor Who has been having in this era. “By the way, Doctor Who is really fun.” Which most of the books had been forgetting. Even the requisite price of resolving the narrative collapse is elided in good fun. Yes, the Brigadier dies, but even that is undone as Ace uses the freed Chronivore to undo that. Sure, some sort of terrible price has to be paid to get away with escaping the villain’s trap, but why should we have to be so depressed about it?
And I think it’s fair to argue that there’s a turning point in the New Adventures line here. The books do cheer up after this. They do start being willing to just… enjoy being Doctor Who. The next two books we’re going to look at are outright larks, and the trend continues with some regularity across the rest of the line. Sure, there are some very dour books ahead, but No Future seems to draw a line across the New Adventures, marking the point where they’re finally ready to have some fun again. I don’t think it’s that big a limb to suggest that the passage of the thirtieth anniversary was a big part of this switch, but equally No Future is, by and large, a book about navigating that switch. The TARDIS crew remembers how to be a Doctor Who cast again, and the line of books follows.
But the result does, and I think this is what Cornell reacts against in his own book, make for a bit of a mess. It has to. Cornell’s book is a repair job on a malfunctioning series. Of course it’s messy, because what it’s starting from is a mess. The book is starting from a context where its ridiculous conceit of having the Meddling Monk be the supreme manipulator who has been plaguing the Doctor for five months now makes sense. Because, of course, the mysterious foe alluded to since Blood Heat has to be someone from series history. There has to be a big “season finale” style payoff to the arc. And while the point of Cornell’s book is that, actually, no, there doesn’t have to be and we could do just fine with having fun there’s a necessary messiness. No Future only works if it is an overblown, oversized mess of influences and ideas. Because its end point is that all of that is secondary to the basic fact that Doctor Who only works if there is joy in it. That doesn’t mean rejecting complexity and darkness. Cornell is a master of both. But it does mean remembering that maybe, just maybe, a story about a mad eccentric who travels through space and time in a phone booth should be fun.