I’ll Explain Later
Original Sin, by Andy Lane, introduces Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej, the final two original companions of the Virgin line. It serves as a semi-sequel to Lucifer Rising, in that it fleshes out the time period and the nature of the Adjudicators (basically, at this point, cops), and has a surprise reveal of Tobias Vaughn as the villain behind it all. At the time Dave Owen, newly installed as Doctor Who Magazine reviewer, calls it “a truly auspicious debut for two new companions,” while Lars Pearson declares it “all the more impressive because it doesn’t try to impress you.” It’s quite popular, at sixth in the Sullivan rankings with an 83.1% rating. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s June of 1995. Robson and Jerome remain at number one with “Unchained Melody/White Cliffs of Dover.” A week into the month, The Outhere Brothers unseat them with “Boom Boom Boom,” which rides out the month. U2, Foo Fighters, Jamiroquai, Michael and Janet Jackson, Clock, Shaggy, and Seal all also chart, more than one of them with songs from the Batman Forever soundtrack.
In news, what is apparently the busiest hurricane season in sixty-five years begins. So that’s ironic, as I post this from generator power. Jacques Chirac resumes nuclear tests in French Polynesia. US Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady is shot down over Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is rescued. A hijacking situation in Japan is defused after a knife-wielding man attempts to force the release of Shoko Asahara. And John Major pulls a stunt resignation as leader of the Conservative Party to allow a leadership election, which he wins.
In exciting sci-fi television tie-in novels, Original Sin. The needle that the New Adventures perpetually threaded between serious-minded, action-packed sci-fi drama and the sort of ludicrous camp that Doctor Who can do better than any other sci-fi show of note is, perhaps, captured more perfectly in this than in any other novel. On the one hand we have a grim and murder-filled future, a book where the Doctor acquires a pair of cops as his newest companions, and a major secondary character who’s a serial killer. On the other, one of the new companions spends most of the book with a body modification making him look like a giant teddy bear.
This may be a strange thing to focus on, but it still gives some intriguing insight into the way in which the books go about things. There is, after all, no inherent reason not to give the Doctor a giant teddy bear as a companion in the novels. Left to their own devices the comics gave us a shape-shifting penguin, after all. And so the decision to have Cwej be a giant teddy bear for large swaths of this story, but to make sure he gets reverted to human form at the end presents a strange ambivalence: a moment where the books seem to say “this far and no further” in terms of that sort of mad inventiveness. Yes, of course this is just Andy Lane, at least in practice. In the next book (to be covered on Wednesday, incidentally, and not Monday – I’ve decided to pull the Pop Between Realities forward again) we’ll see Dave Stone draw the line in a very, very different place. Treating the Virgin line as a hive mind with a consistent vision is a mistake.
And yet there’s still something oddly compelling about the image as a basic frame of the book. Much of Original Sin shares this tendency to on the one hand explore an exciting idea but on the other hand to stop oddly short of embracing it fully. Sometimes, as with Chris Cwej the giant teddy bear police officer, this seems to be done with a clear sense of humor and wit. Other times it’s more ambiguous, and it’s not always clear what the joke is, or even whether there is one. The revelation of the villain is a prime example. Bringing back Tobias Vaughn a millennium into the future is certainly… clever. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone punching the air and going “holy crap! It’s HIM!” It’s at least feasible, given that The Invasion came out on VHS in 1993 and was a big, high profile release, as it was the first time an incomplete story was patched up with linking narration and released to the public. So this isn’t quite bringing back an obscure villain – the overlap between people who bought Original Sin and people who bought The Invasion was probably pretty high.
But equally, Tobias Vaughn just isn’t an a-list villain by any reasonable standard, and the sheer weirdness of bringing back a millennium-old version of him blunts the impact by introducing confusion to the revelation. And it’s easy to construct a redemptive reading where this is the point, and Lane is parodying the obsession with reveals of past villains as major turning points in Doctor Who, with the repeated scenes from the perspective of an unnamed Vaughn being reminiscent of such thrills as Obviously-Michael-Gough talking to Omega and of the Master muttering “show me” a lot. So he has a deliberately rubbish and underwhelming villain reveal that goes with the sort of playful absurdity of having the one of the Doctor’s new companions
Or, at least, it would be if anything else in the book pointed towards this as well. Instead the book gives an uncanny and difficult sense that it means to be taken seriously: that Lane saw Tobias Vaughn as a cool villain who had never gotten a comeback, and so put him in with the genuine belief that he was going to have an impressive reveal of a villain there. Certainly any good will this might generate is blown by the character of Zebulon Pryce. The idea there is clearly a sort of Hannibal Lecter figure for the Doctor to have to try to work with, and Lane gives Pryce a bunch of scenes where he tries to challenge the Doctor’s morality by showing that the Doctor has no coherent philosophical reason for his opposition to murder.
Much like the scene of the Doctor shooting Legion in Lucifer Rising, though, this all just falls flat. And it falls flat for similar reasons to how Tobias Vaughn’s reveal falls flat: there’s just not been a lot of attention paid to the details of how these big moments are going to play out. Just like the Vaughn reveal falters on the sheer weirdness of a human villain cropping up a thousand years after his apparent death, the entire Pryce/Doctor exchange assumes far more ability to unsettle the reader than exists. The climactic moment of the Doctor proclaiming that “killing is wrong except when it’s right, and I know the difference,” and Pryce acting as though this is some stinging defeat for the Doctor’s ethics is just… weak. First of all, the Doctor doesn’t function according to a consistent moral philosophy. Few fictional characters outside of overtly moralistic fiction of, say, the Ayn Rand variety can be said to be driven primarily by philosophical concerns. At the end of the day the Doctor’s ethics are those of a hero in an action-adventure story. That’s not to say that Doctor Who doesn’t have scads of political and ethical content in it, but to treat the Doctor as someone who has a coherent moral system that can be argued according to the terms of philosophy in general is simply a misrepresentation of how the narrative works. It’s a cheap shell game to try to score points for shock.
Which, on its own, could be fine. After all, Blood Heat’s alternate universe was also a shell game to generate shock, and while I viewed that as a bit cynical, it did work. But here the shock doesn’t even pay off. In a novel line where challenges to the Doctor’s ethical validity have included destroying universes and killing Ace’s lover there’s just not a lot to the observation that he kills people without a well-developed moral system. Nobody reading it fails to see the difference between a serial killer who tortures his victims and the Doctor, and Lane doesn’t seem to appreciate the basic inertia he has to fight against to equate them. The hand of the author leans all too visibly on the scale in these sequences.
All of which sounds like I wasn’t fond of the book, which, given that it’s about a thousand words of complaining about it, is a reasonable conclusion. But the thing is, it’s actually a pretty good book. I’m not sure it’s the sixth-best New Adventure – in fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. But it was a fun read, and more enjoyable than a reasonable proportion of what I’ve done in the course of the Virgin era. The action is pacy, it has some good ideas throughout the book, and it rolls along. The broadsides at the horrors of empire land better than they did in All-Consuming Fire, since it’s not actually dealing with a real historical empire while simultaneously dealing with fictional genres that extended out of that empire. The book is strident in places, but it’s also got some fantastic moments in its critiques. The moment where Benny and the Doctor discuss how the Hith, a race driven from their homeworld by the human empire, have taken on new names, and the Doctor imagines the effect: “some human security guard asks him who he is. ‘I’m Homeless Forsaken Betrayed and Alone.’”
Similarly, the relationship between Roz and Cwej is sharp. They both develop distinctive voices and worldviews quickly, and they immediately meet the basic test for introducing a new companion, namely that their sections of the book are as compelling as the sections dominated by the familiar characters. In many ways their debut is sharper than that of Benny, who, while a phenomenal character, was in many ways drowned out in Love and War by the sheer magnitude of other stuff going on in that book. This is a solid book. The problem, if we’re being honest, and it stands in particularly sharp relief simply because this book comes after Human Nature, which actually is a good enough book to be counted among the greats of Doctor Who. Whereas Original Sin would have been one of the better stories of the Eric Saward days.
This is, perhaps, the real unfortunate thing about the Virgin era. For all that it introduced and explored important new ideas to Doctor Who, the fact of the matter is that when you’re putting out a series of tie-in novels to a cancelled television show you just don’t get the best crop of writers in the world. The fact that multiple writers on the line actually were good enough writers to do actual television work makes the New Adventures an absolutely extraordinary line. But its bread and butter were writers good enough to write tie-in novels for a cancelled television series and not much better. Andy Lane is a good writer by those standards, and the writers who can do that are still a heck of a lot better than most writers. I’m honestly not knocking Andy Lane here: I couldn’t write a Doctor Who novel half as good as Original Sin.
But even when the book is good there are visible limitations to what it tries to do. Roz and Chris are effectively characterized, but that has as much to do with the fact that they’re two of the most cliched character types imaginable: the grizzled veteran cop with a flare for the unorthodox and the bright-eyed but clever rookie. Of course they come to life quickly and effectively: they’re pretty much every buddy cop movie ever. Which isn’t a criticism – the book does work, as do the characters. But like much of the line it’s playing in a shallow pool. When it works, it’s trying fairly easy things. When it doesn’t work, which is reasonably often, it’s because it’s trying genuinely hard and impressive things, but it doesn’t quite have how to do them down.
The gulf isn’t huge. As I said back in the post on Warlock, the New Adventures are often good enough to be in the same league as award-winning literary science fiction. But that’s in a period when literary science fiction was in terminal decline as a cultural force (such that top notch writers often started working outside the traditional science fiction market). And they’re in the same league in the same way that Wigan Athletic is in the same league as Manchester United. Every once in a while you get a novel like Warlock that holds its own, or even one like Human Nature that manages a freak win. But first, those are the exception, and second, being a set of TV tie-in novels that occasionally are as good as the best science fiction novels of their year is still an absolutely staggeringly good result.
Which is to say that there’s an important distinction to be made. Yes, the New Adventures are responsible for a number of genuinely important ideas in the series, including the most thorough exploration of the moral complexities of the Doctor to date. Yes, they include at least one story good enough to make for television. Yes, they have a number of writers who eventually had substantial television careers. But making Doctor Who work on television would still, by any standard, involve more than just hiring the New Adventures writers to do it straight-up.
And more broadly, this is something that it’s just worth being honest about with the New Adventures. They’re incredible for what they are, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another sci-fi property with a tie-in novel series as good as them. But part of their ambiguous relationship with “proper” Doctor Who is simply that they are not, on average, good enough. And even their best books – and Original Sin is quite good – simply don’t measure up to the quality of storytelling that would constitute good televised Doctor Who in 1995. To some extent the novels are the architects of their own misfortune here: their reach gloriously exceeds their grasp. Nobody would notice Original Sin’s failings if it didn’t try something as ambitious as the Zebulon Pryce scenes.
And this just about sums it up. The New Adventures try the right things, and they deserve all the credit they get and then some for that. But the effect is, as with Original Sin, often of books that are made up of bits of classic Doctor Who and elements that are good ideas, but that are assembled without an understanding of how the parts actually work and fit together. Too often the New Adventures understand what a great story looks like, but don’t quite understand what one is. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even necessarily a flaw so much as it is a reasonable assessment of expectations. But it’s a real phenomenon that has to be admitted in the context of these books and what they are.