I’ll Explain Later
The Eight Doctors, by Terrance Dicks, is the launch of the Eighth Doctor Adventures line. Instead of getting all the Doctors together as you might expect, it’s got an amnesiac Eighth Doctor going linearly through his previous incarnations to regain his memories, meeting them during 100,000 BC, The War Games, The Sea Devils, State of Decay, The Five Doctors, Trial of a Time Lord, and immediately prior to the TV Movie. Plus you’ve got the Master three times, Rassilon, Borusa, Flavia, and the solutions to any stray continuity errors Dicks was bothered by. Dave Owen calls it “overambitious, perhaps, but nevertheless immensely enjoyable.” In the same issue of Doctor Who Magazine he rates all the New Adventures and gives Human Nature a three out of ten. So, moving on to sane critics, Lars Pearson calls it a “clusterfish.” It is merely the third worst of the seventy-three Eighth Doctor Adventures, but it is the worst one we will cover with a rating of 46.2%. DWRG Summary
. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry
It’s June of 1997. Hanson are at number one with “Mmmbop.” That lasts until the end of hte month, when Puff Daddy takes over with “I’ll Be Missing You.” Radiohead, the Rembrandts, the Cardigans, Bon Jovi, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, and Echo and the Bunnymen also chart. In news, there was a month gap in which Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov and Tony Blair defeated John Major. In the month itself, Timothy McVeigh is convicted of the Oklahoma City Bombing, the House of Commons votes to ban handguns in response to the year-ago Dunblane Massacre. (The US should be so wise.) And the first Harry Potter book comes out.
In books, meanwhile, The Eight Doctors. Oh dear.
It is still, over a decade later, difficult to quite wrap one’s head around what went wrong. The TV Movie was awful and looked to have killed any chance of Doctor Who returning on television for the foreseeable future, yes. But most of us had merely allowed ourselves to be optimistic about that. It wasn’t as if anyone thought an American remake was a sure bet of success. Nobody could sincerely say they were surprised by its flaws, or that the series did not come back after it. For all its flaws, it wasn’t even the worst case scenario. Once word of the Leekley bible came out the merely terrible TV Movie started to look pretty good, and there remain those of us who are battle-hardened enough to allow ourselves to remember when the consensus rumor was that David Hasselhoff was going to be the Doctor. The TV Movie was positively merciful. It was merely disastrous.
In context, The Eight Doctors felt far more glaringly wrong. We expected bad things from Fox. But this was Uncle Terrance himself come to deliver the killing blow. The man who had stepped in to show that the Virgin line had potential with Timewyrm: Exodus. A man about whom just about the worst thing that could be said was that Shakedown was a bit weak, but given that his brief there was to produce a novelization that wasn’t surprising. What should have been the absolute safest pair of hands to put the novel line in following the wreckage of the TV Movie and to get things back on track. And instead we get a legendary train wreck. What happened?
Two explanations present themselves: what we might call the Terry Nation option and the Robert Holmes option. Following The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Terry Nation’s Doctor Who writing career did not so much go off the rails as go to sleep. Subsequent efforts included half-completed scripts, shameless self-plagiarism, and other things that suggested that his only interest in writing Doctor Who was the paycheck. But in the middle of this painful period of abject laziness came Genesis of the Daleks, the best script Nation ever wrote for Doctor Who. This is, in practice, surprising. But it’s also explicable: he had a strong editor in Robert Holmes, and material that pushed him to do more than rely on his standards. Under those circumstances he excelled, but was otherwise turgid.
In this analogy Dicks switched onto autopilot somewhere in the Nathan-Turner era, probably while revising a five-year-old script to Christopher Bidmead’s specifications. By his own admission he abandoned plot logic in The Five Doctors in favor of just checking all the boxes asked of him. In this interpretation Timewyrm: Exodus is his Genesis of the Daleks, a story where the mixture of Virgin’s emerging editorial vision and the opportunity to cut loose and write for adults led to a perfect storm where his best attributes got accented and enhanced whereas his worst got minimized. Since then he’s had bland but fun books like Blood Harvest, but has basically been coasting on his reputation and doing exactly what’s expected of him.
And now The Eight Doctors is a perfect storm in the other direction. BBC Books started with an empty suit with no Doctor Who knowledge in charge. Its only creative vision was “less adult than Virgin,” a vision that ensured banality. And Dicks was picked as a safe pair of hands into which the launch could be entrusted. Give him a title and an order to introduce a new companion and send him on his way, basically. And with nothing to push him and no mandate whatsoever for innovation Dicks revealed himself as burnt out and past his prime.
The other option, of course, is the Robert Holmes option. Like Nation, Holmes burnt out on Doctor Who with The Power of Kroll and basically walked off of it. Unlike Nation he had the dignity not to phone in efforts, or, worse, not actually remember to call. Instead he came back some years later and, told to produce something great, did exactly that. Subsequently, when given a horrible assignment, he simply began trolling the series, writing The Two Doctors as a conscious attack on the series. As, in hindsight, The Power of Kroll and The Space Pirates were. In this interpretation, The Eight Doctors is a cynical lark through the series’ history that serves as a bleak parody of what people ostensibly expect when they say they want a book called The Eight Doctors by Terrance Dicks. Certainly Dicks’s later career lends credence to this – it is, after all, the explanation we used to explain Warmonger.
But if The Eight Doctors is Terrance Dicks trolling it is the first real and thorough effort at it, and two major problems arise. The first is that nobody at the time had seen Dicks in troll mode, which meant nobody read it that way. Second, if it is the case then Dicks ended up with a strange case of first novel syndrome, mixing in an excess of snark and swipes at additional targets that end up detracting from his point. Either way, the result was the same: The Eight Doctors went over like a lead balloon. As such, in a practical sense, it was a titanically awful launch to the Eighth Doctor Adventures – one far worse than the Virgin line mustered. Which was, to say the least, a bit of a problem. The Virgin line at least had the advantage of launching with no discernible alternatives, and to an audience of fans to whom a generally poor quality of Doctor Who was at least familiar. By even the most generous of standards Doctor Who had been routinely problematic as recently as 1986, and the fact of the matter is that most fans thought it didn’t pick up until 1988. To launch a novel series three years later and after the series had been cancelled was fundamentally easier, carrying with it a low weight of expectations.
But the Eighth Doctor Adventures debuted after a botched effort at reviving the series and supplanted a popular and successful series of novels. The expectations were substantive. If these books weren’t going to be at least in the same league as Virgin’s efforts than what was the point? In this regard, even if Dicks was trolling it would be ill-advised. This just isn’t the book to do it with. This is a book that has to be regular good, not mocking genius good.
And really, even as a mockery there are problems, simply because the breadth of mockery is too great. The swipe against the TV Movie as “full of improbable, illogical events” and the swift retconning of the “Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS” business is, at least, understandable. But the obvious disdain for the Fifth and Seventh Doctors is far more unfortunate. The Fifth is overtly portrayed as weak and useless, and the Seventh is absolutely skewered as bitterly depressed and borderline suicidal over his own actions. On top of that, Dicks goes out of his way to retcon out the New Adventures, or at the very least Lungbarrow, which just seems inordinately petty. That Dicks contradicts the end of Lungbarrow and its setting up of the TV Movie is, at least, excusable – after all, the two books were written around the same time. But Dicks was surely aware of the Loom mythology and the Romana Presidency, and yet goes to unnecessary length to contradict both.
In the face of these bouts of cynicism the things Dicks does opt to focus on become at once perplexing and frustrating. Only the Third Doctor – i.e. The period Dicks script edited – gets all of his adventures to date explicitly listed, a tedious bit of ego-stroking. Indeed, it’s conspicuous that for every Doctor Dicks has written for the Eighth Doctor meets him during the story Dicks wrote. On top of that, the Seventh Doctor goes to Metebelis 3, and the Sixth Doctor section harkens back heavily to The Five Doctors. It’s frankly a wonder the Eighth Doctor didn’t meet the First in a rose garden right before a black trapezoid tumbled from the sky, but instead Dicks decides to smooth out the prickly bits of 100,000 BC and slap the Doctor around a bit for the skull-bashing incident. Very small favors.
Similarly bewildering is the decision to try to patch up the continuity errors of Trial of a Time Lord. That these exist is, of course, not in any dispute. But is there anyone who would even attempt to argue with a straight face that the kickoff to the Eighth Doctor Adventures is the place to try to resolve a decade-old continuity snarl. Except, apparently, for Terrance Dicks.
For all the criticism of the Nathan-Turner era that Dicks unleashes here and elsewhere, the fact of the matter is that The Eight Doctors resembles nothing so much as The Twin Dilemma. It is a book that does not merely fail to do the job set out for it, but one that fails in such a systematic way at to leave the reader slack-jawed and trying to figure out how anybody thought this was a good idea. You even have the sense of moral outrage, with Terrance Dicks managing to be more prone to waxing poetic about the need for great and noble leaders to rule over the common rabble than ever. The stuff with the Shobogans in the Sixth Doctor segments is absolutely vomit-inducing, with Dicks establishing them as the Gallifreyan working class/criminal underworld (these seem to be the same thing in his mind) who the Doctor enjoys getting drunk with and dispensing favor to. With astonishing creepiness, Dicks ends their plot by saying “even the Shobogans were content with their lot” and leaving it at that, a line that comes horrifyingly close to just saying that the working class are just meant to be poorer than the nobles.
Despite this, it’s tough to say that this is entirely Dicks’s fault. The entire enterprise is utterly misbegotten, from putting Nuala Buffini, who by her own admission knew little about Doctor Who, in charge of the line to taking the line away from Virgin with no actual ideas of what to do with it. The entire plan, it seems, amounted to the observation that Virgin was making money off a BBC property, so the BBC should probably do so instead. So other than taking out the thing that apparently some people objected to about the Virgin books, that they were too adult, there were no ideas beyond “cash in on the stupid anoraks.” Given this, is it any wonder that we got a book so insipid and downright insulting as The Eight Doctors?
But the BBC has, within barely a year, managed to level Doctor Who to smoldering wreckage with even more efficiency than the Nathan-Turner/Saward team could muster. After selling Doctor Who to a Canadian liquor company so that Rupert Murdoch could air it in the US, putting out an execrable TV Movie as a result, and cancelling the actually very good Virgin series, they replace it with the most breathtakingly cynical novel line imaginable.
And so, in less than a year, the great relaunch of Doctor Who craters in the most spectacular of fashions. Seven years of progress and improvement in Doctor Who are effectively wiped out, and wiped out in a way that actually moves the series measurably backwards. There is next to no way to imagine how the series could possibly come back in the foreseeable future, and less of one to imagine how it could possibly be any good when it does. We have, in effect, reached the single darkest point in Doctor Who’s history.
So now what?