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.