I’ll Explain Later
Kate Orman’s second New Adventure, Set Piece, is first and foremost notable for seeing Ace’s departure to become “Time’s Vigilante” and patrol a two hundred year period of Earth’s history via Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart’s mostly functional time machine. The book also finds room for ancient Egypt, Napoleonic France, and late 19th century France in the last days of the Paris Commune. Also a very evil spaceship staffed by robotic ants and a cafe that reiterates through space and time. It’s quite fun, and most people agree: Shannon Sullivan’s rankings put it at fourteenth overall with a 77.5% rating, part of that four-book cluster of Kate Orman books that I’ve mentioned previously. And yet the big two reviews are rather equivocal: Craig Hinton calls it “a masterpiece,” but grouses that Kate Omran is “rather self-indulgent on a number of occasions,” and Lars Pearson can only muster “Good, focused, and clear.” Fools. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s February of 1995. Celine Dion is at number one with “Think Twice.” And that’s February for the number one slot, at least. Madonna, Annie Lennox, Bon Jovi, and a bit of Riverdance also chart, as do things I’ve never heard of but that could well be important: Ini Kamoze, N-Trance, and MN8, for instance. In news, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers goes missing. Michael Foale becomes the first Brit to walk in space. Kevin Mitnick is arrested, and Barings Bank collapses after a securities broker loses $1.4 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. And The Independent publishes the first Bridget Jones column.
While in books, Ace (some would say at long last) leaves the New Adventures in Set Piece, largely wrapping up the strange phenomenon of New Ace. And it is, on the whole, difficult to come up with many words other than “strange” to describe New Ace. She was largely the pet project of Peter Darvill-Evans, who is by this time long gone from editing the New Adventures (it’s not quite clear where the transition was. The Whoniverse guide is the only overt claim I can find, and it has Darvill-Evans’s last New Adventure as Theatre of War), replaced by Rebecca Levene. But even Darvill-Evans seemed to have no real idea what to do with her beyond the concept. Her debut novel was, as we saw, a mess. Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore got one good shot out of the concept, Paul Cornell got two more (one years after the New Adventures had wrapped), and Andrew Cartmel did well enough with the character, though mainly by ignoring all of the New parts of New Ace and just writing Ace, older.
So it’s not a surprise that Levene, fairly early in her time in charge, saw to it that New Ace was written out. And tapping Kate Orman, one of the best Virgin debutants around, for the job is the very definition of sensible. But it leaves Orman with what we usually call the “nightmare brief,” namely having to wrap up a character who never worked in the first place. Central to why this is tricky is the basic question of what went wrong with New Ace. After all, while the idea may invoke the histrionic grimdarkness of the era it came from, the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing prima facie wrong with the idea of New Ace. Taking one of the Doctor’s companions, having him drive them away, and then having them return in a form that is less acceptable to the Doctor. It’s a neat idea for a story, but therein lies the problem.
Because New Ace wasn’t a story. Her first two books were, and then there was a sort of awkward arc about the tensions between her and the Doctor, but there’s not actually, over the course of the New Adventures, what you could accurately call a plot arc regarding Ace’s return. As with Warlock last time, much of this is that we’re in a transitional phase in which what we now recognize as the normal order of things is emerging. New Ace is a premise that Russell T Davies would have absolutely killed with – indeed, he played with things along those lines, particularly with Martha and in Journey’s End, though never in an extended fashion. But one of the innovations Davies really got working in Doctor Who that hadn’t worked right was getting story arcs to hang together on something other than its sci-fi trappings.
And New Ace, as a concept, falls between those eras. She’s an attempt at a broad character arc taking place over multiple stories, but it never comes together simply because the writers aren’t, on aggregate, consistent enough in how they handle it. In practical terms this is how Davies managed to get character arcs to work – he heavily controlled the scripting process, farming pre-selected story out to specifically chosen writers and rewriting scripts heavily to maintain a consistent tone. (Those seeking to understand why Moffat us writing an episode less in Season Seven than he has in previous years ought need no real explanation beyond the fact that Moffat attempts to maintain just as consistent a tone, but doesn’t do his own rewrites of other people’s scripts.) There’s simply no way this was ever going to work in the New Adventures. To take a particularly stark example, the idea that Paul Cornell and Jim Mortimore were ever going to offer compatible visions of character development is difficult to swallow. Both are solid writers, but the sort of world that Mortimore writes and the sort of world Cornell writes are wildly different, and without someone whose job it is to smooth them out into a single vision there was no way to ever give Ace a character arc.
Instead she got stuck reenacting a continual unresolvable tension whereby she was just rebellious enough and opposed enough to the Doctor to generate some dramatic tension, but never quite enough to have a payoff. From Lucifer Rising the extent to which the character could go was fixed. She couldn’t completely rebel against the Doctor because it would break the character, but she also couldn’t actually be repaired to where she has a completely functional relationship with the Doctor because the dysfunction of that relationship is the new hook for the character. Like the impossible to maintain “will they or won’t they” romance plots of Moonlighting and The X-Files, this left the character in a sort of unresolvable tension. The only place she could possibly go anywhere interesting was her departure story, which sounds like it’s setting Kate Orman up for a liberatingly easy job in the vein of The Caves of Androzani whereby she can throw out all the rules and break things with impunity – a task that would be disastrous in the hands of a mediocre writer, but that is right up someone like Orman’s alley. Except that New Ace’s departure actually-a-story has, by this point, just been too long in the making. This is the twenty-second book of New Ace. She’s been around nearly two years barely doing anything – it’s been ages since there’s been much interesting to say about her. And so while Orman has, here, the one book where the character can be made to work, she’s breathing life into a long dead fire here.
And yet Orman makes it work. The shortest explanation to give here is that Orman is the Virgin writer most similar to Paul Cornell – it’s not a surprise that they worked together on two books. She has the same skill at tunnelling down into the basic premises of characters and of the show, and of pushing bits of the show to their breaking point and no further. She is also, like Cornell, an unrepentant frock. Where she does differ is in her capacity for psychological sadism towards her characters. The opening chapters of Set Piece, in which we get a reluctant-villain’s-eye-view of the Doctor in a particularly horrible prison as he tries and fails to escape despite increasing torture, are chilling in a way Cornell never really tries. (Again, Orman’s roots in feminist fandom show through – this sort of aggressive torture is a common slash trope, and one referenced cheekily in Orman’s use of the slash term “Hurt/Comfort” as a chapter title.) But this is largely a difference of technique, serving the same purpose as much of what Cornell does: finding moments where the central premises of the show can become more visible via stark contrast. By torturing the Doctor so aggressively the series’ endless cycles of escapes and captures and the way in which the Doctor’s endless escapes are a fundamental part of the character – one that persist even when he is on the brink of death.
This means that Orman is able to deal with Ace, largely, by just going into the things that do define the character. So she splits up the TARDIS crew, stranding Ace in Ancient Egypt, and having her re-enact her start conditions on Desertworld instead of Iceworld. From there she appears to go bad, becoming an uncritical soldier of a cult of Set/Sutekh worshippers (Sutekh, in this case, being a complete red herring). And then she turns it around and becomes a solid good guy again. It is, in capsule form, a reenacting of her entire character history that’s in turn used to explain her departure. But to understand that transition we have to look at the other aspect of the book, namely its title.
The title is, of course, a multi-leveled thing. On the one hand it’s a reference to the use of Set as a metaphor – the book is literally a piece about Set. But more broadly it refers to the notion of the “set piece” in storytelling – big sequences that the story builds to and that are the “point” of the story. In film and television, particularly action-adventure film and television, these are usually the big action sequences. Doctor Who has always been fond of set pieces. The reputations of many of the lost classics of the Troughton era hinge on their memorable set pieces – the Cybermen waking up in Tomb of the Cybermen, for instance, or large swaths of The Web of Fear. Robert Holmes’s stories tend to be built almost entirely out of chains of set pieces. We talked way back in the Androids of Tara entry about how there’s a general bias towards set piece based stories within Doctor Who fandom. And accordingly, Set Piece itself is a big mess of set pieces, with Ace, Benny, and the Doctor all delivered to their own set pieces for most of the story.
The logic of the set piece is, of course, the logic of big, epic things. Set pieces say that single, big moments are the point of a story. And this is ultimately what Orman puts Ace in opposition to. After a story full of set pieces she arrives in Paris around the time of the fall of the Paris Commune, and she decides that she should stay there and try to save lives. Not to save the Paris Commune or alter history or make a big difference. Just to try to save some lives, because it’s the right thing to do. Implicit in this is a rejection of the entire logic of Ace’s big departure story – of the idea that something big has to happen to justify the character.
Instead, after taking the character apart and putting her through all her iconic moments again, Orman goes in almost the exact opposite direction. She finds a quiet dignity in her military service and status as a soldier, establishing her as a figure who, unlike the Doctor’s big, sweeping plans, just goes and tries to help. On the one hand this is the exact opposite of the normal expectation for the final New Ace book. Instead of getting the story that wraps up all her angst and drama we get a story that suggests that we were wrong to ever look for a resolution. It’s not quite a rebuke of the past books so much as it is a quiet reminder that so much of what writers tried to do with New Ace was unnecessary – that she could function just fine as a companion without having to have her soldier-nature be a source of conflict. (To be fair, this is largely an accurate description of how post-No Future Ace worked, but in practical terms the character never shook the reputation of her first year.) Instead of the hard-edged soldier/nice gentle Doctor divide that New Ace seemed to embrace, Orman substitutes a different one, with Ace as the soldier who realizes that nobody deserves to be sacrificed for the cause, and who adds this to the incomplete list of rules the Doctor presented Ace with in Dragonfire, and the Doctor as someone continually at risk of losing touch with the level that she lives on.
Which is, of course, a restatement of the “the Doctor needs his Jackie Paper” idea that Cornell floated in Love and War, only redone to work with New Ace. And it’s a perfectly good set-up for the characters. One that could have worked perfectly two dozen books earlier. And having established it, Orman packs it in, letting Ace roam a small section of time and protecting what she can. Because while the Doctor may need someone like Ace to keep him grounded, at the end of the day Ace doesn’t need someone like the Doctor to give her purpose. Ace can function as a heroic character on her own. It’s a lovely end for the character, full of humanity and grace and dignity instead of epic bombast and violence. And it gets at what’s really the impressive thing about the New Adventures when they’re at their best: not their ability to execute big, dark and epic stories, but their ability to make searingly emotional and harrowing stories out of basic human dignity and decency. Set Piece is, in that regard, a triumph of the line. And once we understand how it works we can start to move towards what is, by consensus, the high point of the Virgin era. There’s just one book of setup to work through first.