If You Were That Old, And That Kind (Timewyrm: Apocalypse and Timewyrm: Revelation)
I’ll Explain Later
Timewyrm: Apocalypse is the third New Adventure and third part of the Timewyrm series, and is written by Nigel Robinson. Robinson was the editor of the Target novelizations until 1989, when Peter Darvill-Evans, who created the New Adventures line, took over. He thus continues the pattern across the first three New Adventures of using experienced writers from the Target novelizations. Timewyrm: Apocalypse involves societal revolution on an alien world, and is typically considered unambitous and tedious. I, Who goes with “sadly dull, especially in the middle,” and Sullivan’s rankings have it as the second-worst of the New Adventures with a 45.8% rating. Its reputation at the time of release was perhaps rosier, with Doctor Who Magazine praising it as “just excellent” and “well worth running out to buy.” DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
Timewyrm: Revelation is the debut novel of Paul Cornell, and wraps up the Timewyrm series while starting the (very) loosely connected quartet of Paul Cornell novels that ends in Human Nature. Unlike any previous Doctor Who story, it’s an intensely psychological book in which the bulk of the action takes place inside the Doctor’s own mind where his previous incarnations live eternally. It’s tremendously ground-breaking, and does more to define the New Adventures style than any other book. At the time, Doctor Who Magazine bent over backwards to try to avoid actually calling it the best New Adventure to date, but cautioned against following in its footsteps with future novels. I, Who calls it “One of the blackest, most invasive Doctor Who novels – and one of the best,” while the Sullivan rankings give it a slightly above average ranking of twenty-first out of sixty-one, with a 74.9% rating. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
It’s also December of 1991, where George Michael and Elton John are trying to keep the sun from going down. They are unseated after two weeks by a rerelease of “Bohemian Rhapsody” following the death of Freddy Mercury, which remains at number one through the end of the month and takes the coveted Christmas number one. These facts obscure a tremendously weird set of songs in the lower positions, as The KLF make it to number two, Right Said Fred have another hit that makes it to number three, and both Michael Jackson and Nirvana fail to hit number one with “Black or White” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” respectively. But most importantly, Hammer, formerly MC Hammer, hits #4 with a rap redo of the Addams Family theme.
In real news, Clarence Thomas is appointed to the US Supreme Court, while Bill Clinton announces he’ll run for President. Jean Bertrand-Aristide is ousted in a coup for the first time. Magic Johnson announces that he has HIV, and the KGB officially folds. And the Soviet Union formally dissolves.
While on bookshelves, as mentioned above, it’s Timewyrm: Apocalypse and Timewyrm: Revelation. I’ll confess that I decided to cover the former of these mostly for the sake of completism, feeling like I should do the entire Timewyrm series. It is an unheralded and unloved book. It’s true that I’d be hard-pressed to get two thousand words out of the book, but equally, there’s some stuff to say. Its biggest sin by far is a slow middle, but it’s also one of the shortest of the New Adventures, which makes slowness less of a sin than it might be.
It also introduces some tropes that become standard issue for the New Adventures. It’s got your standard “two alien faction” set-up, though in this case they’re not at war. It’s got more aggressively non-human aliens than the television series ever went for – unsurprising, given the books’ lack of budget restrictions. And it’s got the first of three cases where the Doctor flagrantly sabotages a budding love interest for Ace, which is part of a larger move towards the idea that Ace mistrusts the Doctor, one of the big New Adventure themes. All of this makes it a considerably more influential book than it gets credit for.
It also, after two books with a somewhat dubious relationship to maturity, has the most interesting and mature moment of the New Adventures to date. The Doctor, in fairly traditional fashion, helps to foment a revolution. But in something Doctor Who had never done before, the revolution goes poorly as the people rising up are effectively starved by the ruling class, and it eventually collapses. It’s a small thing, but it’s a take on the complexity of social upheaval that’s not quite like anything Doctor Who had tried.
Unfortunately, that’s about the book’s only moment of real creativity. Otherwise the plot is a fairly straightforward mash-up of The Krotons and Full Circle – a traditional Doctor Who by numbers piece with nothing that stands out as particularly interesting or clever. And while I’m tempted to stamp my feet a bit and claim that the book is due for a reevaluation, the fact is that the argument is that it should be moved off the bottom of the pile and to a position of middling “it made some progress but was mostly pretty boring.” It is wrongly hated, if not wrongly unloved.
It is more interesting by far to talk about Timewyrm: Revelation. I have previously endorsed a relatively progress-centric view of artistic production in which I’ve argued that, in a sort of absolute sense, Doctor Who, and indeed narrative media in general, improves over time. There are individual exceptions, of course, and periods in which the speed of improvement waxes or wanes, but for the most part over time we get better at doing art.
This has less of an effect on the formation of canon (a term I use in the “classic literature” sense here) than one might think, because for a number of very sound reasons we tend to read works in the context of their time. And so what we’re interested in in terms of identifying classics tend to be works that are unusually good for their time and context, a phenomenon unrelated to the general improvement. Both are sensible ways to evaluate quality, and only in one does the notion of continual progress apply. If you want to rank stories in terms of their original context it’s very easy to come up with arguments that something quite groundbreaking like The Rescue is superior to the better-done but more run-of-the-mill for its time Pyramids of Mars. But equally, I’d argue that even a mediocre-for-its-time piece like Dragonfire is, by simple virtue of having a more expanded set of tricks and more time to figure out what techniques work and don’t, better than a classic-of-its-era piece like The Invasion from twenty years earlier.
I say this because it means that, over fifty years, there are various points at which Doctor Who has put out the best Doctor Who story up to that date. Some are trickier to pin down than others. I’ll readily agree, for instance, that the firsts eason of the Hinchcliffe era clearly have at least one story that was, at the time of transmission, the best Doctor Who story ever. But I’m in no way confident enough to casually declare whether it’s The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, or both. There are, however, four points in the course of what we’ve covered where I am willing to say, flat out, that Doctor Who hit a new high with that story: The Power of the Daleks, Carnival of Monsters, Remembrance of the Daleks, and Timewyrm: Revelation.
Timewyrm: Revelation is nothing short of a complete paradigm shift for Doctor Who – a story that is as flat-out revolutionary as anything the series has ever done. And it is ruthlessly, cuttingly brilliant. Its central innovation is that it is aggressively and thoroughly based on the idea of the Doctor’s interiority. It’s not the first bit of Doctor Who to go inside the Doctor’s head, but it’s the first to use that as its premise. (Yes, you’re very clever for that comment you want to leave about The Invisible Enemy right now.) The entire book is about the Doctor’s internal guilt and mental anguish.
This is not, in and of itself, a recipe for being a good book. In fact, from the pen of most writers it would probably make a pretty crap one. But this is by Paul Cornell. And he structures the book masterfully. His first trick is an old standard, but a crucial one – he grounds the book in the mundane. In the prologue he introduces, in amidst some fantastic concepts, perfectly ordinary people, who Cornell takes unusual care to describe with care and reverence, while not pushing the idea that they are anything other than ordinary, everyday people. The prologue also spends a lot of time focusing on mundane evil, with a slow wind through the mind of a particularly nasty bully.
Even when the book proper begins, its opening image is Ace’s interior monologue and self-description, spending more time describing her worldview than anyone had ever done before – and remember, one of the things that’s most notable about Ace as a companion is that she’s the first one since Barbara to have a significant sense of interiority and psychology. And yet nobody prior to Cornell had spent anywhere near the amount of time he does in the first chapter just calmly setting up and describing what Ace’s life on the TARDIS is like and how her mind works.
Perhaps more tellingly, the Doctor gets similar treatment, with Cornell introducing the suggestion – now more or less standard in Doctor Who – that the Doctor spends the time between documented adventures doing odd and strange things. In the case of McCoy’s Doctor, of course, these are manipulative, planned things. But even here Cornell is meticulous about grounding the idea of a chessmaster playing a long and elaborate game across time and space in the small scale, clarifying that “these little touches, the night moves in the Time Lord’s game, were not apparently dangerous. They consisted of such things as moving items of furniture, research on when things happened, and making sure certain couples never met. Bit mean, that last one.”
This is, of course, the playbook of the Holmesian epic, which the Cartmel era so delighted in through its shifts between the material and the grandiose. Cornell picks this up and takes it to the places the Cartmel era was constrained from going. There’s a glorious moment early on in which a possessed innkeeper casually kills his wife by reducing her to a pile of dust, then comments that “It’s a fitting end… for someone as concerned with dusting.” And it’s a wonderful moment – mundane and epic at the same time, and utterly, terrifyingly sick and twisted without a single bit of crass resorting to breast-grabbing or Nazis. It’s a tiny moment, but one that hammers the potential of this approach home, showing the way in which the Holmesian epic, when freed from the moralistic constraints of children’s television and fear of Mary Whitehouse, can just unleash itself.
But Cornell also demonstrates awareness of the implications of this linking of the small and the epic. A recurring theme in Timewyrm: Revelation is the old Ribos Operation concept of the same conflicts recurring at different levels of a system. The Timewyrm is linked explicitly to this concept, with her structure and nature being described as a fractal. And so Chad Boyle, the bully who tormented Ace at school, gets appraised by the Doctor and told, “you didn’t do anything big, not in cosmic terms, but to some of your victims, you were the most important thing int he world,” before being judged in the exact same words the Doctor used on Davros in Remembrance of the Daleks: “I have pity for you.”
These equivalences across levels of the system are also used to chilling effect. Again, the highlight focuses on Chad Boyle. Boyle tells the Timewyrm that he wants to do “really horrible things” to Ace, like filling her mouth with worms. In response, the Timewyrm shows him the true horrors of the world – war, torture, genocide, and the like. To which Chad responds, “those things too. But first I want to find some worms.” And in one shot, Chad Boyle storms to the head of the pack in the “all time great Doctor Who villains” list, as, really, the schoolyard bully was always meant to.
This focus on the equivalencies between the smallest and pettiest tortures of the world and its largest atrocities is also reflected in what is, for the purposes of this blog, one of the single most satisfying moments in Doctor Who, as the Doctor finally comes out and says, “as above, so below.” And on top of that, the Doctor finally breaks out the Blake analogies, describing the Timewyrm as being “like one of the Songs of Experience: dangerous, intelligent… but not as subtle as Innocence.” It’s fitting, then, that Timewyrm: Revelation employs not just the structure of the Holmesian epic, but that of the Whitakerian one. In this case the narrative collapse is brutally straightforward: fairly early on in the novel, both Ace and the Doctor get killed.
Not long after the narrative starts collapsing Ace, and later the Doctor, find themselves in a landscape that is defined by the material history of the program. Twice An Unearthly Child is referenced, first as a supporting character remembers hearing a distant voice in her childhood muttering, “fear makes companions of us all,” and later as Ace finds herself in a library within the Doctor’s mind that is tended by the First Doctor, and where the floor is tiled in a mosaic showing various pictures and patterns, including one of Ian and Barbara sitting outside I.M. Foreman’s. The interior of the Doctor’s mind, in other words, is in the end laid out in accordance with the material history of the series.
Having set himself up like this, Cornell lets loose a huge chain of philosophical and conceptual ideas. Some are idiosyncratic pieces of his own agenda and views on Doctor Who. He spends a lot of time sharply critiquing the basic concepts of Pertwee’s Doctor in a way that is very clearly a fictional working through of the same ideas he raised in DWB a few years later in the Terror of the Autons review where he infamously described the era as having “exiled the Doctor to Earth and made him a Tory.” But unlike his bomb-throwing invective in DWB, here Cornell calls the Pertwee era to account on its own terms, framing the critique (and indeed the whole story) in the Buddhist philosophy that ostensibly underpinned Letts’s tenure on Doctor Who, finding the Third Doctor lacking not from a broadly leftist perspective, but on the exact principles the era espoused.
In opposition to this Cornell presents the Fifth Doctor as the Doctor’s conscience – the one incarnation to object to the Seventh Doctor’s increased manipulativeness. Ace’s freeing of the Fifth Doctor, who has been imprisoned within the Doctor’s mind, allows the Doctor to see a solution to the problem of the Timewyrm that doesn’t involve killing her. And the Fifth Doctor’s fix to the Doctor’s mind is a parallel to the Third Doctor’s “daisiest daisy” story from The Time Monster, a comparison heightened both by the presence of the Third Doctor in the story and the fact that K’anpo himself makes an appearance in the story.
This portrayal of the Fifth Doctor is interesting. Davison’s tenure on the show is difficult to get a bead on – it’s in many ways the chunk of the blog I’m least satisfied wit, but equally, I’ve not seen much in the way of takes I like better, and I think Cornell’s here is just about the reigning gold standard. On the one hand he’s portrayed as a pleasant, innocent figure who just wants to play cricket in retirement. This is, in turn, shown to be necessary to the Doctor in a very fundamental sense. But equally, the Fifth Doctor is shown to be a source of at least some danger. The Doctor is shown to be haunted particularly by the death of Adric, after all – an event that is firmly within the Fifth Doctor’s responsibility. So the Fifth Doctor is, on balance, portrayed as an inadequate ideal – in one sense the noblest of the Doctors, but in another the most tragic, and perhaps the least effective of them because of it. It’s a wonderfully subtle take, particularly when extrapolated to his era as a whole instead of just his character.
These commentaries and insights on the past of the program are accompanied by more straightforwardly big and ambitious ideas. The introduction of a personification of Death waiting on the moon for the Doctor is a startling and intriguing jump in the stakes and scope of things. The establishment of the idea that the TARDIS can, with effort, land inside the Doctor’s mind (a concept that is lightly paralleled with traveling to the Land of Fiction, which comes up in the novel and is described as a similarly difficult place to travel to) is on the one hand merely a restatement of a throwaway concept in Enlightenment, and is on the other a at once astonishing and inevitable extension of the basic concept of the TARDIS. And then there are other ideas dispensed almost casually, like the moment when Ace confronts “the Doctor’s female self, the principles of maiden, mother, and crone,” who the Doctor has long ago lost contact with, hence his reliance on his companions. This is worth at least a book unto itself, but is instead as much of a throwaway as the TARDIS being inside the Doctor’s mind was in Enlightenment.
And yet for all that the book introduces a staggering mass of new ideas, it also grounds itself in the intimate and the small. All of these ideas are presented not as big, cosmic epics but as the foibles and terrors of the Doctor’s mind. Perhaps most significantly, this is a novel in which one of the most cathartic moments comes from the fulfillment of a basic fantasy of far too many Doctor Who fans – the Doctor comes to fight off the schoolyard bully. That’s the register in which these vast revelations that challenge so many fixed assumptions about the series come. This is a book that makes casual King Lear and Blake allusions, but never budges an inch from an intensely human frame. It proposes a narrative collapse of the series, then restores order on the basic principle of the friendship between the Doctor and Ace. The staggering, painful cost of surviving a narrative collapse is a single life, and the Doctor is suitably horrified at having to pay it.
It’s difficult to even frame the aftermath of this book. This book is hugely influential – Russell T Davies, in fact, has cited it as a major influence from which he has freely stolen over the years. But even with that knowledge it’s difficult to condense the implications of this book into a single image. There are so many new directions implied by it. More than any writer in decades, Paul Cornell has embraced the central tenet of the series – the fact that it can do anything – and decided to take it further than it ever had gone. But he did so entirely within the premises of what the series had been. And not just in the Holmes/Whitaker approaches – Cornell also owes a visible debt to Terrance Dicks, from which he clearly learned a tremendous amount about effective prose – something Davies also points out about the novel. The book reads like exactly what the New Adventures strove to be – both successors to the novelizations and bold new approaches to Doctor Who.
In many ways Doctor Who is still sifting through the implications of this book. Its central innovations are that big and that transformative. It completes the fusion of Whitakerian and Holmesian epics that the Cartmel era was approaching. It finally finds a way to have the Doctor be at the emotional center of a story while retaining his alienness and his status as a force of narrative. It introduces enough new concepts and images to sustain dozens of stories, and many of them do. Simply put, there’s no way to understand how the series got to where it is today from where it was in 1989 without this book. It is as important to the series’ history as The War Games or Genesis of the Daleks – a point where everything that follows has to be read, in part, in its wake.
And on top of that, it’s damn good.
August 17, 2012 @ 3:25 am
I think the most interesting thing about Timewyrm: Apocalypse is that it presents an alternative vision of where the New Adventures could have gone. It's essentially a Target Novelisation of an episode that never aired (and probably couldn't have, given some of the imagery). But it's divided into four parts, characters are described through little more than what they would have done onscreen, and the entire thing is very visual. Had Revelation not come along, I could very easily see the New Adventures going in this direction and just writing more novelisations.
But then, of course, Revelation, Time's Crucible, and Warhead came out. And the New Adventures were never the same.
August 17, 2012 @ 4:52 am
But even with that knowledge it’s difficult to condense the implications of this book into a single image.
For me, it's putting into a box the head that rolled into a church that's on the Moon, while Ace lays dead on an altar (and the Doctor, too? I can't remember.)
That it all takes place on the Moon is wonderfully metaphorical — for the Moon is often used to symbolize the subconscious mind, where over half the action in Revelation takes place, and juxtaposed with a sentient church, this suggests that the subconscious is a sacred place. The conscious mind is boxed up, and the box that's a magic door enters the head — and combined, these are alchemical images on the order of "Circling the Square."
August 17, 2012 @ 5:49 am
I'm not entirely with you about art progressing.
Using English Literature as an example: it is certainly true that Dryden and Pope are better at the technical practice of verse than Shakespeare or even Milton, and they knew it. But they aren't therefore superior to Shakespeare in every respect. Likewise, I don't think Austen's continuing important is merely due to her being the first to exploit the ironic and psychological potential of the free indirect style. Indeed, a lot of what is going on in modernist art, especially in painting, is artists trying to unlearn the genuine advances in technique that were made since, say, the Renaissance.
Robert Holmes status as one of the best Doctor Who writers isn't merely that he introduced new techniques or subject matters for storytelling, surely?
August 17, 2012 @ 6:14 am
I think my formulation hedges fairly explicitly against the "every respect" claim. But I also don't think that innovation is the primary judge of quality. Holmes's status as one of the best comes from the fact that he used the techniques available to him phenomenally. It's not that Holmes developed new techniques – although he did, and that's certainly a big part of his reputation – but that he used the set of techniques available to him extremely well. Similarly, it's not just that Austen exploited free indirect style first, it's that she was damned good at it. (By comparison, there are plenty of cases where someone has originated a technique but not been the one to really nail it down.)
But even still, Moffat has suggested in several interviews that only The Ark in Space, of Holmes's work, could be dusted off and redone fairly straightforwardly in 2012. Which suggests that Holmes's quality as a writer is a historical phenomenon. Indeed, other than his one big success with Caves of Androzani, Holmes's 1980s output can be argued to suggest that he had already fallen behind the standard of the times.
I will grant that the degree of technological development involved in a medium does affect the speed at which this process moves. A technologically determined medium like film has advanced far more over the last century than novels have. And, of course, it's a general case picture – a trendline over a mass of datapoints, many of buck the trend.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:06 am
I'm not entirely sure I agree with you here either Phil: I've always found this premise of yours difficult to swallow but, on the other hand, I'm not sure I can provide a suitable alternative either. Given my background I tend to reel back instinctively from anything that even remotely begins to smack of technological determinism to me, but then again there's something to be said for some kind of material social progress, no matter how vague it might be.
All I know is I just watched an episode of a PBS children's TV show from 1995 that is, in structural terms at least, essentially "The Ribos Operation" fused with "Timeywyrm Revelation" in 30 minutes. That gave me quite a lot to think about.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:25 am
"A technologically determined medium like film has advanced far more over the last century than novels have"
While this is objectively true (though the editing in Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera," 1929, is more adept, striking and intelligently done than how the great, great majority of films are cut today—it's damning that digital editing, which gives a director a far more precise ability to cut, has so far produced, if anything, far more visually incoherent films—see Christopher Nolan). The argument comes with whether "advanced" carries a value judgement, which you are not making, if I read you correctly.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:29 am
I'm willing to make the value judgment: film of 2012 is, at a baseline, better than that of, say, 1940. Though I largely resist the critique of the incoherence of digital editing – I'm postmodern enough to view that more as discovering a broader field of what constitutes coherence than had previously been assumed.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:34 am
This is the thing that really strikes with me: The idea that so much from a past, "less advanced" time resonates so much better than contemporary works. I recently had a discussion with a friend about what "the greatest film of all time" was. She says it's James Cameron's Titanic. I'm generally opposed to such sweeping appeals to objectivity, but maintain something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis is far more deserving of such a title and more striking and evocative than any number of modern movies I've seen. Even on a rote technical level the practical modeling effects of Star Trek: The Next Generation are more capable of bringing the show's world to life then the overabundant CGI used in today's science fiction in my opinion. Even that show I talked about in my comment above comes across stronger to me than most recent TV dramas I've been exposed to.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:39 am
I confess, I'm just not as bothered by technological determinism as some people are. I'm something of a weak technological determinist – I think it's very difficult to overstate the social implications of technological developments. I break from the stronger forms of technological determinism in that I don't believe that the advancement of technology is culturally independent. And I tend to think that the gaps and inadequacies of technology are more important than its actual capabilities. That is both to say that most of how we use technology stems from working around its limitations and to say that technological progress tends to be based around patching holes in previous technologies or, more often, inventing holes in previous technologies based on the fact that they're patched. (My go-to example here is the obsession in early SNES graphics with using Mode 7 to rotate things. Nobody, writing a game for the NES, ever went "if only we could ROTATE this!" And suddenly, when the SNES hit, every game found an excuse to rotate something.) Which foregrounds human interaction more than most technological determinism, as it's not that technology guides us so much as that we are in a constant minor revolt against our technology.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:40 am
Phil and I were writing our responses at the same time again.
That's not to say everything made today is complete rubbish either, I hasten to add, or that new techniques are not being pioneered. I am just reluctant to grant than anything made today is by default going to be better then things from past eras. Different sure and maybe with the potential to be better, but no guarantees.
August 17, 2012 @ 7:47 am
Yeah, but you, like me, are a poster child for "takes historicized approaches to media." On its most basic level, take the best existent piece of Hartnell-era Doctor Who you want and show it to a contemporary viewer, and the things that strike them will be its failings. And they're right – the pacing is slack, the camera motion almost always uninspired, the acting often wooden, and the writing largely superficial. Put on an episode of something crap today – CSI, say – and you'll see consistent use of the camera for storytelling, more events in a 45 minute episode than in a Hartnell six-parter, multiple character-based plot arcs that are intertwined, and vastly more nuanced and expressive acting.
I'll readily argue that The Web Planet is better than any episode of CSI ever made, but I can't do it without heavily historicizing my argument. I'm very much inclined to historicize – I think most people prone to engaging in criticism are. But much as I argue for the importance of judging things by the standards of their time, it's not the only option, and it's not self-evidently correct. (Case in point, most of us here bristle at doing so according to ethical standards – I think most of my readers share my willingness to say that Victorian imperialism is, in fact, legitimately bad and that the "past is a foreign country" defense doesn't hold. So why is it unproblematically the case that we should do it for aesthetic standards?)
August 17, 2012 @ 7:53 am
Immediate question to Josh: What show is that? I really want to watch it.
On the general idea of technical progress. I think what Phil is getting at isn't really a kind of technological determinism — that would be anathema to pretty much every other philosophical point he's made in the course of the blog. Technological media of any kind become more complex over time, providing there's some kind of continuity in their living history. For example, being a Community fan has taught me a lot about the techniques and tropes of sitcoms. I Love Lucy were remarkably innovative in their time, because they introduced and were remarkably good at using techniques that had never been seen in television production. They started using the medium in ways that had never been done before. What was innovative in 1955 became incorporated into the television industry's handbook, and is now so ubiquitous as to become ordinary. People making television learn more things, but they learn them more casually, building a progressively larger store of techniques on which one can draw for their work.
Novels work the same way, albiet more slowly, because it isn't as technically complex a medium as television or film. The history of the novel shows that technical progress is limited by the self-definition of memory as much as anyone else. It's become kind of a cliché (at least for me) that pretty much all of post-modernism and magical realism in novel writing amounted not to any genuinely new techniques, but remembering what precisely Cervantes and Rabelais did, and refining their developments, articulating contemporary concerns with them.
August 17, 2012 @ 8:27 am
I'm going to have to think about that Holmes comment. It seems like The Krotons and Carnival of Monsters could be remade today, at the very least. Kroll could work too, if you'd really want it to. I happen to love The Two Doctors, but it wouldn't fly today not because it's too unsophisticated (except, arguably, politically) but because it's too dark and perverse. And I can't think of anything in the modern series that's as subtle and sophisticated as Ribos. There's no question in my mind that 2012 Who has the resources and intellect to do something that surpasses the classic series, and maybe that's why I find it so exasperating, because it almost invariably refuses to do so.
I did really like Human Nature, though, in televised and written form, and generally I agree that Paul Cornell's NAs are strong. The only thing of his I haven't liked so far is Goth Opera, which I bought by mistake (I'd ordered either Corpse Marker or Alien Bodies, I forget which) and which I'm still struggling through. I haven't read this one, though, and now I really want to, because it sounds splendid. Will I regret buying and reading it without having read the first three?
August 17, 2012 @ 8:33 am
I can't read the "it's X of 1991" sections in this post and last without thinking of the eighth Doctor audio Brave New Town, where That Bryan Adams Song plays a small but key role. I don't know if you intend to cover it – at this distance I can't see why you would, though it's one of my favourites – but if you are considering it please try not to get spoilered. It works so much better coming to this one fresh (and quite frankly the Wikipedia entry spoilers it horribly). As one reviewer said, it's the Poirot model that works here rather than the Columbo.
August 17, 2012 @ 9:05 am
Not sure that I agree that technically, the average film of 1940 is inferior to the average one in 2012. Yes, special effects are better, and staging/shots are livelier, actors generally give more "natural" performances (and the baseline is improved–you hardly ever see a really crap acting performance, even among tertiary characters, in a Hollywood film now, where a 1940 film would often have a couple of "jeez, where'd they find this guy?" mouth-breather types in it.
But at the same time I would argue that cinematography has arguably deteriorated as much as it's improved (has there been any film in 2012 that was shot as well as Gregg Toland shot "Grapes of Wrath") and scripting, especially of light comedy, has deteriorated–nothing in 2012 to match the craft and economy of "His Girl Friday" or "Shop Around the Corner" to my mind.
I see what you're arguing and it makes a great deal of sense. But there's a thin line between this argument and the Philistine dislike of moves/books for being "old."
August 17, 2012 @ 10:24 am
Count me as one for whom that rather arbitrary argument that Dragonfire is automatically better than The Invasion because "it's newer" borders on philistine for me in a way that has made the Eruditorum blog entries lose credibility all of a sudden to me.
I could have gone with an argument that newer episodes should be better because of those factors, and therefore should be judged to a higher standard. But to say it automatically is the case, comes off as a bit self-deluding to me. As if wanting to see progress after a dark time for the show, and seeing it in things that aren't there.
I get that there have been advancements and new avenues in visual storytelling. But that's why I find the Davison era so unforgivably bad- coming as it does right after the show's Tom Baker era golden age, where there should be no reason whatsoever the makers should forget so quickly how to make even a broadcastable piece of television after that learning curve), and even that the spin-off material (can't comment on the books, but I think it holds with Big Finish) is progressing on the very developments going on in narrative fiction that the TV series was practically sleeping through in the 80's (beyond a few fits and starts like Enlightenment and Revelation).
August 17, 2012 @ 10:28 am
Sudden? I've made the argument three or four times before…
That said, the argument is not that Dragonfire is automatically better. I'm arguing for the existence of a general trend, not a universal rule. I think the Dragonfire/Invasion comparison does work, hence my making it. But, for instance, I think a Time and the Rani/Mind Robber comparison is one that clearly reverses the trend – an unusually high point for the 1960s that beats an unusually low one for the late 1980s.
The argument is, if you'll forgive an appeal to quantification that goes beyond what can really be supported with aesthetic judgments, if one were to graph (historically decontextualized) quality of art versus year of release there would be a statistically significant trendline that demonstrates that as year of release increases, so does quality. There would also be a ton of outliers and noisy data points that buck the trend.
August 17, 2012 @ 11:15 am
My impression is that when good creative writers like Moffat say 'Ark in Space is the only one that could be done straightforwardly today' what they mean is 'I find Ark in Space helpful to me in writing my story about weeping angels on a space ship'.
August 17, 2012 @ 11:17 am
He's said it at two different points that I'm aware of – more recently, where it does connect somewhat to his Weeping Angels two-parter, but also on the commentary for the Library two-parter. It's also somewhat self-serving there – he admits to pinching the extended opening of just the Doctor and Donna in the library from Ark in Space – but it's also clear that he has a general case respect for it as a high point of Doctor Who scripting.
August 17, 2012 @ 11:46 am
Reading this in the context of your reply to my first post above, are you saying that Invasion makes better use of the techniques available, and that Dragonfire has more and better techniques available?
I find it hard to compare Dragonfire and Invasion directly. (The closest point of comparison is the characters of Kane and Vaughn, but there I think Invasion wins. Of course, Invasion has Kevin Stoney.) I can see how the point applies to Invasion and the Tennant-era Sontaran Stratagem. Yet I don't think I'm being perverse in thinking that I'm more likely to sit down and enjoy Invasion again than Stratagem.
August 17, 2012 @ 12:03 pm
My impression is that when good creative writers like Moffat say 'Ark in Space is the only one that could be done straightforwardly today' what they mean is 'I find Ark in Space helpful to me in writing my story about weeping angels on a space ship'.
In his introduction to the re-released Target novel, he says the script is "perfect," a "paradigm," and "the only story" that could work with "any of the various regular casts."
August 17, 2012 @ 2:18 pm
Well, that's because Helen Raynor was generally a crap writer, whereas losing Derrick Sherwin to Paul Temple was something of a blow for the show.
August 17, 2012 @ 3:42 pm
At least, temporarily.
August 18, 2012 @ 12:02 am
Will I regret buying and reading it without having read the first three?
No. There are brief summaries on the events of the first three, but other than the Timewyrm being in all of them, there's only one plot point that's related to a previous book. There's a character who reappears from Exodus. You don't need to be familiar with the earlier book to follow the plot or understand the character, but if you're the sort of person who's bothered by not being familiar with all of a character's history (and, as you're here, that seems relatively unlikely), you might want to read Exodus first.
August 18, 2012 @ 12:06 am
Random question. In the previous I'll explain later, you linked to the Doctor Who Reference Guide's synopsis and the Discontinuity Guide review/continuity guide for both books. In this entry, you didn't link to either. Both sites cover all the NAs and EDAs, so if you're going to include these links for those less familiar with the books, you should really include them for every single one of these sections.
August 18, 2012 @ 5:12 am
Yes – I meant to include them, but forgot. I've added them back in now.
August 18, 2012 @ 8:15 am
On technology and the arts: I'd say that progress is always happening… but there's the constant danger of forgetting something you already knew. In the rush of a new technique, old techniques sometimes get left behind. Luckily, the Internet currently acts as a buffer against that, acting as it does both as a repository of our shared knowledge and as a place that people with deep memory can share it.
August 18, 2012 @ 8:33 am
While I'd say that, overall, the state of the art gets better over time, I don't think it's such a smooth and continuous transition as Dr. Sandifer seems to.
Part of makes it appear so is that, whatever era you're in, you're more used to its failings than those of previous eras. It's easier for a random member of the general public in 2012 to ignore the cliches and problems with 2012-era TV than the ones in 1963-era TV. It's not that it's better that makes the difference (though in many ways it is), it's simply that they're used to it.
(Of course, on the flipside, experts have the same problem of perspective. The people exalting model work over CGI often fail to remember how it felt to have cheap shitty model work around – not far off from the feeling cheap shitty CGI induces, I'd say.)
August 18, 2012 @ 9:38 am
I can see Ark in Space, but I think that the most obvious influence on the opening of Silence in the Library is Carnival of Monsters. (That is, you have the Doctor arriving in one place and time and other characters in some apparently entirely different place and time, and the plot is going to turn on how the two places and times turn out to be linked.)
'Self-serving' is a negative way of putting it. Let's say that I think Moffat inevitably looks at Doctor Who stories through the eyes of someone who is either writing or going to write a Doctor Who story himself. I mean, the comment that 'The Ark in Space' would work with any regular Tardis crew is apparently untrue: episode one would need quite a lot of rewriting to work with only one companion. But I think out of other regular Tardis casts the one that would work best with the story is Smith, Gillan, and Darvill.
In so far as the wife in space blog is a guide to how modern viewers react to classic Doctor Who (which is perhaps not very), Spearhead, Carnival, Ribos, the Autons, Brain, Deadly Assassin and Talons all work better than Ark (although Ark lost a mark for the bubble wrap).
August 18, 2012 @ 12:01 pm
In the introduction to The Ark in Space, Moffat mentions Hartnell/Barbara/Ian, Smith/Amy/Rory, and Tennant/Rose/Mickey — in this context, he's referring to any two-person crew, of which there's several to choose from. I could see Pat/Zoe/Jamie and Davison/Tegan/Turlough working just as well. Bits of dialogue would need tweaking, but the architecture of the story works regardless — possibly because it's not a story oriented around a particular character's issues.
August 18, 2012 @ 1:01 pm
I think Ununnilium has found exactly what it is that's made me sceptical of the whole "state of the art is always improving" thing. Sometimes parts of the art are forgotten, and sometimes the failings of yesterday's stories are simply more obvious than the failings of today's.
If you want a good example of where this happened, have a look at the American comics industry. There was a gradual, consistent, and discernable improvement in the quality of the comics up until about the late 1980s. Then storytelling took a massive dive in quality with the trends of the 90s. Many of these trends were simply that certain modes of storytelling (e.g. the 90s anti-hero darker and edgier vibe) became all-pervasive. Big event comics began to be prized more highly than well-written ones, simply because fans bought them in greater numbers. Art became more important than storytelling – a trend that largely persists to this day. Which was even more baffling given that some of the then-popular comic book artists (most notably Rob Liefield) weren't even very good.
The failings of the era are very much evident looking back at comics from that time. And they almost certainly contributed to the crash of the industry. Furthermore, the culture of today's comic fans seems to have institutionalised the demand for some of the failings. Big event stories are now business as usual. They still sell significantly better than normal stories, even though everybody knows that events like the death of will be undone a few months down the line. Today's narrative techniques seem popular amongst fans, but often make the story more difficult to follow for non-fans. There's been a definite improvement in how nice the art looks, but it appears to have been at the expense of the general level of storytelling.
August 18, 2012 @ 1:22 pm
Note we're specifically talking about American superhero comics, here. And in that case, there's a specific problem:
1.) The genre was reintroducing itself to older audiences and continuing to move forward. (The problem, of course, being that it was in danger of cutting off its younger audiences.)
2.) A short-term trend cropped up for stylized art, which was pushed quickly into disturbingly overstylized.
3.) At the same time, the industry discovered that this older, more invested audience allowed several ways to exploit it for short-term increases in sales.
4.) A speculator bubble happened; the super-stylized comics and the short-term shock techniques were the ones that were popular when the bubble hit its apex.
5.) Naturally, there was a crash.
6.) The market shrank precipitously, meaning that only a few companies were still viable.
7.) Ever since, there's been a struggle between the people who think that doubling down on the short-term shocks will somehow bring the industry back to that apex, and the people who, y'know, actually want to keep the industry moving forward.
So there's basically a retardation of forward motion due to this unfortunate situation.
August 18, 2012 @ 3:27 pm
As I see it, "progress" in the arts happens in a similar way to progress in the sciences; not through straightforward advancement but rather through a Kuhn-ian process where periods of static development are punctuated by moments of revolutionary turmoil which introduce new ideas and techniques.
The early New Adventures are one of those paradigm-shifting moments of discontinuity, where for a year or so the writers are visibly thrashing about trying to find a way to make Doctor Who function in its new medium, after which time there's a long period of linear development working through the implications of Cornell, Platt and Aaronovitch's innovations.
August 18, 2012 @ 5:33 pm
Nick: Indeed! One can often see these moments of turmoil happening in the culture at large, as well; they generally get fancy "movement" names.
August 18, 2012 @ 6:14 pm
I must admit to having a soft spot for Tymywyrm: Apycylypse.From what I remember, it hasn't aged as badly as some of the others (including, I'd argue, Cornell's offering). After the other two, it was a breath of fresh air, since as I recall the author actually had a discernable style. It's also not quite idea-less: we get an outing of the Omega-point for (I think) the first time in Who, after all.
I didn't like Revelation; I seem to recall finding it smug, preachy, and rather trite. But again, it's hard to tell how much of that is simply because I read it 20 years later.
"but for the most part over time we get better at doing art."
Ahem. Sorry. But how do you differentiate between "art gets better" and "more recent works accord more closely to the present aesthetic zeitgeist"? In another 80 years or so, 1940s films may look better to an audience than the films of 2012.
Josh Marsefelder: "Even on a rote technical level the practical modeling effects of Star Trek: The Next Generation are more capable of bringing the show's world to life then the overabundant CGI used in today's science fiction in my opinion."
The interesting one here, of course, is Babylon 5, which embraced CGI and, for its first series at least, now looks dreadful. It's bastard sibling Deep Space Nine, by contrast, used models up until season 4 (?), and the modelling stands up today. (Generally, I'd argue that DS9 is the better-executed of the two; not least because B5 is so overweeningly full of itself.)
Dr. Sandifer: "And they're right – the pacing is slack, the camera motion almost always uninspired, the acting often wooden, and the writing largely superficial."
Are they? Or are they catering to different tastes?
August 19, 2012 @ 4:34 am
Somehow I doubt they were thinking, "Let's cater to those with a taste in slack pacing, uninspired camera motion, wooden acting, and largely superficial writing." And sure, we can be relativists and say that different values and intentions are at play, and that ranking them is problematic at best — we can even use pejoratives in the antithesis (frenetic pacing, pretentious camera angles, in-your-face performances and self-indulgent writing) — but by and large Phil has a point in charting the last hundred years of film-making.
But a hundred years is a tiny blip. Considering the last several thousand years of human art, I'd suggest the Myth of Progress is just that, and that the more likely pattern is cyclical, as it is in nature. We rise, we fall, we rise, we fall, and it all comes back around. What's forgotten isn't always remembered.
But I liked Apocalypse, and the kind of iconography it trucked in, and like you I appreciated Robinson's style after the first ten pages or so, more than Dicks or Peel. I especially liked the conclusion, which features a lunar Ascension after all those Omega Point references (Teilhard anyone?)
August 19, 2012 @ 5:03 am
Reading this in the context of your reply to my first post above, are you saying that Invasion makes better use of the techniques available, and that Dragonfire has more and better techniques available?
I took it as more than that — Dragonfire doesn't just have more and better techniques available, it uses them with enough proficiency to, for example, provide spectacle with more technical savvy and originality than Invasion, imo, which was just borrowing from the Dalek Invasion playbook. And it's not like Invasion was directed by nincompoop; Camfield was very, very good, while Chris Clough… well, he doesn't come up very much in conversations about Who directors, despite having shot six serials.
And then there's the story. As Phil pointed out in July, here we get an emphasis on interiority, something rather lacking in Invasion — and this isn't limited to Ace, all of the primary characters have more dimensionality to them than we get from Invasion, with more polished acting to flesh them out.
And there's a philosophical complexity to Dragonfire lacking in Invasion. The monster isn't automatically a baddie, and there's pathos in its death. The villain has a soft spot, while the Doctor's friend Glitz has some moral depravity. At this point the show has some self-consciousness, an important feature for modern mythology, I'd argue — aren't myths, at their best, vehicles to help us become more self-conscious?
August 19, 2012 @ 7:37 am
I think progress actually happens; it's forgotten sometimes, many times, not everything is remembered, but overall we've been saving more than we've been losing.
As for Babylon 5 vs. DS9, DS9 was using tried-and-proven techniques while Babylon 5 was one of the earliest ones to try and figure out how to use cutting-edge stuff on a budget. Of course it looks worse, but that's not because CGI looks worse than model work from a historical perspective, it's because one of these techniques had the benefit of the progress we've been talking about, while the other didn't.
August 19, 2012 @ 11:07 am
Replying to several people at once:
I think the issue of forgetting is an interesting and substantive one. And I think it's one of the biggest reasons why historicized approaches are necessary. Part of progress is digging into the past and finding the lost and abandoned within it. Though there is a secondary issue of outright obsolescence – we just don't do storytelling on vases the way we used to.
But equally, I feel like people are arguing against a stronger form of my position than I'm inclined to take. I'm content for a progress narrative to be a not-useless way of looking at art over time. I'm outright hostile to any notion of it being the only way to do so.
August 19, 2012 @ 11:45 am
So, has Cornell ever said anything about why he hasn't yet written for Smith?
August 19, 2012 @ 11:47 am
I think the reason people are arguing against it is that it's a thought-provoking position. And the stronger form is more thought-provoking.
August 19, 2012 @ 11:48 am
Well, fair enough. I just figured I should clarify my weak-form position. 🙂
August 19, 2012 @ 12:37 pm
He's said that he's not writing for the TV series now, but nothing beyond that. Presumably he's either not been invited, or was invited and turned the offer down. In either case, this seems like a private matter between Cornell and the DW production office.
He's a busy writer, and there are plenty of opportunities around to enjoy his work. I'm very much looking forward to his new novel London Falling, which is out at the end of the year.
August 19, 2012 @ 2:38 pm
(Though now I want to do some epic vases…)
August 19, 2012 @ 2:39 pm
Has he ever written for TV? He might just not like working in the medium.
August 19, 2012 @ 2:54 pm
It's more fun to argue against the strong position — helps to clarify the strength of the weaker form.
August 19, 2012 @ 6:05 pm
…um, yes, he has? "Father's Day"? The "Human Nature" two-parter? :-/
August 19, 2012 @ 9:24 pm
…plus Robin Hood, time-travel/sci-fi monster-of-the-week show Primeval, and various UK soaps.
He semi-officially announced at some point that he wouldn't be writing for Who anymore because he'd gotten his own pilot up; while this hasn't gone anywhere, he's stayed so busy writing several monthly comics that he's likely not had time or brainspace to get back into Who's series-arc-&-rewrite-heavy grind.
August 19, 2012 @ 9:52 pm
Has he ever written for TV?
Beside Doctor Who, he's written for Coronation Street, Born and Bred, Casualty, Holby City, Doctors, Robin Hood and Primeval; he also wrote a pilot for his own supernatural medial drama Pulse.
August 20, 2012 @ 4:39 am
…so, yeah; he has. 😛
August 20, 2012 @ 7:23 am
…you see, the thing is–
takes off running quite fast
(But thank you on that point, Kit.)
August 21, 2012 @ 12:54 am
I'd agree that as a general trend "TV drama tends to be better now than it was before". However that's a very simplistic way of describing what is probably a complex effect. What we watch on the screen is invariably the sum of many different parts, and those parts change with time. I don't think that writing and acting necessarily improves with age – there were incredible stories and awesome performances in the 40s and 50s, and there are stories that just don't work nowadays, as well as actors that don't quite cut it. However Directors are getting better at Directing and Camera-men are getting better at using their cameras, probably through a combination of improvements in equipment and in their own experience. In the same way that Formula 1 racing has improved with age – the drivers are more experienced and the tools they work with are more responsive, far improved over the vehicles of yesteryear.
Thus as Phil points out, modern-day Doctor Who is snappier, tighter and overall better-shot and directed than it was in the 60s. And this goes for other TV drama too. That doesn't necessarily mean it will always be better- you can have a whole kitchen full of the latest 21st Century gadgets and still fail to make anything that anyone wants to eat – but it does mean that if the writing is good, and the acting is good, and your production team are good, you have a far better chance of making a stunning piece of television than you would have 30 years ago.
Advances in SFX are almost irrelevent in my view, as all they do is allow you to show something that you couldn't do in the past. CGI can give you a fantastic explosion, but unless it works hand-in-hand with the story, it might as well just be window-dressing. Watch the opening minutes of "A Good Man Goes to War" when the Cyber-fleet explodes. What are you looking at? You're not watching the pretty fireworks, you're looking at the expression on Rory's face, and it's chilling. That's what SFX should do.
September 11, 2013 @ 1:28 pm
In Timewyrm: Revelation, the symbolism of the roses around the gate, and the First Doctor picking a rose in his garden, does seem to generate a future connection to the New Series and the choice to have the Ninth Doctor's first companion, the first in the newly reborn Doctor Who, be called Rose. As he was a writer in the first series, a friend of Steven Moffat, and most likely friends with Russell T. Davies as well, do you think Paul Cornell had a hand in suggesting the name?
September 11, 2013 @ 1:31 pm
Probably not, simply because both "Rose" and "Tyler" are names Davies had used before, and was clearly fond of, and that's a simpler explanation. (Though Cornell and Davies are friends – they'd worked together on Springhill.)
December 7, 2013 @ 12:39 am
I completely disagree that art progresses in this sense; this is humans' narrative pareidolia at work, seeing stories in places they just aren't. I've constructed plenty of narratives of artistic progression myself, but when I turn a sceptical eye to them I see individual artists using an eclectic selection of absolutely everything they can get their hands on to do a good one this time around with the abilities they have. There's such a thing as genres, and there's such a thing as traceable artistic influences (particularly before the Internet, when this was harder), but the universe doesn't actually run on stories.
This applies even to science, a field where there is actually such a thing as progress – the typical physics Ph.D is working with much more advanced science than Newton had, but I'd hope they'd be sensible enough not to therefore consider themselves a better scientist than Newton.
Technique arguably advances, but the artistic quality of the result doesn't, as far as I can tell.