I’ll Explain Later
Vampire Science, the second Eighth Doctor Adventure, does Vampires in San Francisco, and is pretty straightforward in that regard. It’s by Kate Orman, now joined by soon-to-be husband Jon Blum, who will co-author three of Orman’s four Eighth Doctor Adventures. It’s reasonably popular. Dave Owen calls it “a far more intellectually rewarding read than The Eighth Doctors, which is perhaps understatement. Lars Pearson calls it “a playful – if sometimes overly sappy – story.” Overqualifications aside, it’s the twelfth most popular Eighth Doctor Adventure, and one of only five from the first twenty books to end up in the top half of that list. (For whoever was asking, the lowest-ranked is The Infinity Race.) DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s July of 1997. Puff Daddy and a bunch of other people remain at number one with “I’ll Be Missing You.” Two weeks later Oasis unseat them with “D’you Know What I Mean?,” only to have Puff Daddy take it back a week later. No Doubt, Hanson, Verve, Sheryl Crow, R. Kelly, and Coolio also chart. God, that brings back memories. None of them are good. In happier news, the Pet Shop Boys also chart in there, and Radiohead does quite well for themselves on the album charts with OK Computer. In news, the month opens with the UK handing Hong Kong over to China. The drug fen-phen, a dieting drug, turns out to, erm, kill people. Andrew Cunanan shoots and kills Gianni Versace, and scientists announce DNA analysis of a Neanderthal skeleton supporting the “out of Africa” theory of human evolution.
While in books, Vampire Science. The BBC Books line was, as the current idiom goes, a bit of an omnishambles at launch. So the only sensible way into Vampire Science is in light of that mess. In a period as hazily documented as the BBC Books era some care is necessary in any authorial criticism. Nevertheless, tea leaves exist and I politely welcome anyone with more information to correct me here, especially since I know several figures with personal involvement read the blog. Orman and Blum thank the writers of the next two Eighth Doctor Adventures, Paul Leonard and Mark Morris, for their collaboration in developing the tone and approach of the Eighth Doctor. Conspicuously absent from this list is Terrance Dicks. Separately, in his notes on The Dying Days, Parkin mentions having wanted to incorporate references to The Eight Doctors but being unable to, but does incorporate a reference to Vampire Science. Taken together, these facts suggest that The Eight Doctors was written more or less in isolation, with Dicks not meaningfully participating in the larger development of the line beyond the obligatory and perfunctory introduction of Sam.
This run of three books in which real attempts at making the Eighth Doctor work as a character and concept are bounded on the other end by War of the Daleks, which we’ll deal with on Monday. Like what The Eight Doctors seems to be, War of the Daleks was essentially put into the line fait accompli along with Legacy of the Daleks. And on the other side of that we have Alien Bodies, where things, to say the least, get a bit interesting. But what we have here is a run of three books in which a desperate attempt to get something approaching an actual game plan for the BBC Books line and the Eighth Doctor comes together. And up first at bat is the stunningly prolific Kate Orman, paired now with Jon Blum, an authorial partnership that doubles as a rather sweet trans-Pacific dot-com love story.
If Terrance Dicks was a safe pair of hands gone surprisingly awry, Orman and Blum provide what should on paper have been an unexpectedly edgy pair of hands that prove eminently safe. As much as Orman, by the end of the Virgin line, represented the embodiment of the “house” style, making up such a massive portion of the last chunk of books as she did, she was in 1997 still one of the major innovators of the Virgin line. Based on the reputations of Doctor Who writers in July of 1997, and remembering that Paul Cornell had actively chosen to retire from writing Doctor Who at that point (which is a pity, as he’d have had a field day with the Eighth Doctor), Kate Orman was pretty much the single most obvious person to call on to establish a firm and interesting creative vision for Doctor Who going forward. And sure enough, this book reads like a concentrated effort to just get the Eighth Doctor up and running as a clear concept.
The problem, of course, is that all of this exists alongside the clear desire on the part of BBC Books to be less “extreme” than Virgin’s offerings. Which is to say that Orman and Blum may have had the mandate to get this whole Eighth Doctor thing working, but they didn’t actually have a mandate to use the approach that Orman’s reputation would suggest. But here, in an odd way, the general incompetence of BBC Books ends up working in their favor. There’s a strong sense that all anybody at BBC Books actually knew about the Virgin line was that they’d had to be told off over Transit for the sex and swearing. And given that Nuala Buffini didn’t actually know anything about Doctor Who either, Orman and Blum had something of an advantage, which was that what Orman had been doing for years at that point wasn’t actually incompatible with what BBC Books wanted. All they really had to do was make an ostentatious display of rejecting the trappings of the Virgin approach and write a ripping adventure yarn and they’d be good.
And so Orman and Blum pull what is the single most straightforward trick in the New Adventures playbook, namely firmly positioning the story around the effects the Doctor has on the people around him. But since this isn’t one of the things that makes up the stereotype of the New Adventures it manages not to get caught up in the hazily defined counterrevolution. This sets up the novel to be very active and thorough about defining the Eighth Doctor as a usable character. This, of course, runs into the second major problem that the Eighth Doctor had been saddled with, namely that his defining characteristic was “he’s more spontaneous than the Seventh and doesn’t have a big manipulative plan.”
Back with The Dying Days we noted the way in which this is a deeply and frustratingly limiting take on the character because it defines him entirely in terms of what he isn’t. To be fair, every new Doctor is in part a reaction against the previous one, but there are degrees. For all that Peter Davison was an active attempt to find a quieter and more low-key Doctor than Tom Baker, at least at first the writers clearly enjoyed finding structures for Doctor Who that didn’t have to cater to Tom Baker’s ego and star power. And this paid off actively: things like Kinda and even, for all its flaws, Earthshock would have been unthinkable with Tom Baker. (Yes, Kinda was originally a Baker script, but Bailey completely redid the role of the Doctor in it for Davison.) Compare with the transition from Peter Davison to Colin Baker, however, and you end up with a mess. Davison was an active return to the Troughton-esque approach whereby the Doctor nudges things from the sidelines. Since this hadn’t been done for over a decade it could safely be considered a new idea – the sorts of situations the Doctor would lurk around the edges of had changed enough by 1981 that this constituted a new thing the Doctor could do, as opposed to merely being the removal of the sorts of things Tom Baker did.
The only idea they had for Colin Baker, on the other hand, was “well let’s make him loud and garish instead of quiet and subdued.” There was no attention to the sorts of stories this implied, and ironically the only people to really do anything with the idea were Pip and Jane Baker, who clearly enjoyed the Sixth Doctor’s bombast. Otherwise the only real direction given to the character was “don’t do what the last guy did.” The novels’ Eighth Doctor suffers a similar problem – the only character trait he really has is that he can’t do any of the things that worked with the Seventh Doctor. There’s been no pool of new approaches. After all, the fact that the Seventh Doctor could be used in a story where he had a grand and manipulative plan from the start in no way obliged writers to do that. Plenty of New Adventures involved dropping the Doctor off randomly in a situation he had no foreknowledge of and having him use his wits to escape.
In other words, the Seventh Doctor’s manipulativeness wasn’t a constraint on the character, it was another trick in the writers’ arsenal. And the “he’s not manipulative” approach to the Eighth Doctor, on the surface, is just the foreclosing of one type of story without a corresponding addition of a new approach. Here, however, Orman and Blum are better suited to the task than initial impressions might suggest, even given how much both are avowed fans of the Seventh Doctor and his manipulations.
At the heart of this is the fact that Orman is an unabashed frock. And while the frock approach, when working at its best, traded in part on the way in which the Doctor was a deeply troubled and troubling figure, that’s not the only way to do it. In essence Orman and Blum end up engineering a version of the Eighth Doctor that is not merely “not manipulative” but who is actively spontaneous and chaotic in a way that is unique and story-generative. Their version of the Eighth Doctor is an endlessly chaotic figure who bounces from task to task and idea to idea, getting distracted and pulled in constantly new directions by everything around him. It’s an edifice that is almost charming in its extrapolation from minimal data – an entire character built out of the one decently Doctorish moment McGann got in the TV Movie, the “these shoes fit perfectly” line.
But it works. It’s a distinctly new way of writing the Doctor. Now he gets carried away more than everyone around him by the ordinary business of life. In many ways the best moment of the book comes when the Doctor momentarily abandons the entire vampire plot because he’s decided he should go patch up somebody’s marriage for them. It’s absolutely great – a properly new thing this Doctor can do. The Seventh Doctor might have involved himself in a couple’s domestic lives, but the fact that the Eighth can get distracted by it, seeing it as an essentially equivalent task to stopping a bunch of vampires, is absolutely delightful and perfect. And we get that not just from the Doctor’s perspective but from the perspective of the people around him. We see the strangeness of traveling with a man so disjointed as he is, and the appeal and joy of it.
And it works. For the first time we have a vision of the Eighth Doctor that works. It’s a simple lark of a story, but that seems a ridiculous thing to complain about given that so far the Eighth Doctor has only really worked when given a supporting cast and a permission slip to be “generic Doctor.” Here the Doctor is at once obviously the Doctor and obviously not a Doctor we’ve seen before. He’s a distinct character who allows for a distinct approach. As a result, this is the first thing to feel specifically like an Eighth Doctor story.
That it would have made a better launch for the BBC Books line than The Eight Doctors is obvious. More to the point, with a few judicious edits it would have made a better launch than the TV Movie, and its American setting seems almost a calculated measure to make sure the two get compared. It is, after all, the story the Eighth Doctor has so badly needed all along: one that is about introducing what sort of character he is and what sorts of stories he can be used to tell instead of one that is about introducing Doctor Who.
But it’s also not the salvation it could have been. BBC Books editorial may have been lax enough that Orman and Blum could sketch their approach around the vague “stuff not to do” list, but equally, it was too lax to make anything of their innovations. Orman and Blum have come up with a way to make the Eighth Doctor work, but there’s nobody who’s trying to bring the entire crew working on the novels onto the same page in order to follow this (or any other) approach.
This doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. It could work fine to have everybody going in different directions, with every book being a completely new take on Doctor Who and the Eighth Doctor. But there’s no will for that either. Instead we have the books not merely going in different directions but fighting with each other. Dicks set up the Eighth Doctor Adventures in a separate continuity from the Virgin line, so Orman and Blum sneak in a reference to Yemaya. Dicks had the Doctor too casually kill a bunch of vampires, so Orman and Blum lampshade it. They’re not just disagreeing on what direction to take Doctor Who, they’re fighting over its supposed “correct” form, still trying to fix one version of what the line is. And this is a basic truth of serialized multi-author fiction: you need editorial guidance that has a direction for the whole line in mind. That direction can be contradictory anarchy, but it still has to be a direction that gets everybody on the same page, even if that page is “don’t agree with anyone else.” And right now BBC Books doesn’t have that. Orman and Blum have cracked the mystery of how to write for the Eighth Doctor. But nobody’s listening anymore.