I’ll Explain Later
The Highest Science, the eleventh New Adventure, is the debut novel of Gareth Roberts, bringing the number of Virgin writers who went on to write for the series to three. (It will peak at either five or six, depending on what you do with “Continuity Errors.”) As is normal for Roberts’s style, it’s largely a lighter, funnier book than its predecessors, although in keeping with the New Adventures style it has an exceedingly dark finish. It introduces the Chelonians, a popular New Adventures alien species that not only got a shout-out in The Pandorica Opens but also were originally set to appear in Planet of the Dead, which was once upon a time kinda sorta an adaptation of this story. They’re basically military-obsessed cyborg turtles. At the time Gary Russell praised it in Doctor Who Magazine as “nothing short of marvelous,” while I, Who went with “a brilliant book” and “one of the best stand-alone novels.” Despite this high praise and a largely (though not universally) positive set of reviews at the Doctor Who Ratings guide, the book is only ranked #23 in Shannon Sullivan’s novel rankings with a rating of 72.7%. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s February of 1993. Whitney Houston will always be at number one with “I Will Always Love You.” That is actually a total lie – she has held the position since November, and still holds it at the start of February, but is finally unseated by 2 Unlimited’s “No Limit.” Take That, Duran Duran, Annie Lennox, Lenny Kravitz, Whitney Houston (now with “I’m Every Woman”), and Depeche Mode also chart, the latter with the utterly fantastic “I Feel You,” which also has a sublimely good cover by Placebo if you happen to care.
In real news, since Transit came out Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, splitting into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bill Clinton actually became President of the United States. And, to quote one of my favorite sentences in Wikipedia, “the Bombay Riots take place in the city now known as Mumbai.”
While this month a bunch of Italian politicians are forced to resign in the wake of a large scale corruption investigation. James Bulger is murdered by a pair of ten-year-old boys around Liverpool, which sets off exactly as big a moral panic and controversy as you’d expect. Brian Mulroney resigns as Prime Minister of Canada. And the World Trade Center bombing takes place, killing six, injuring a thousand, and prefiguring more markedly tragic events.
While on bookshelves we have The Highest Science. To say that the Sylvester McCoy era is not the era most conducive to Roberts’s style and approach is one of those bits of droll understatement I typically favor. Roberts is, by his own open admission, most at home in the Graham Williams era. It’s a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a light and funny writer – he’s good at comedy, but it’s the base he works from, not his exclusive focus. But there is an extent to which Roberts is vocally not a fan of what might be broadly described as “darker” approaches to Doctor Who.
This leads a fair number of people to describe The Highest Science as a return to traditional Doctor Who after the radicalism of things like Love and War and Transit. This isn’t quite true. Yes, Roberts has a clear investment in a more whimsical sort of Doctor Who than his other Virgin stablemates, and there’s certainly a segment of Doctor Who fandom that did think that the New Adventures were “too dark,” and who thus glommed onto Roberts’s book as a tonic to that. But to suggest that Roberts’s book is a return to “good old days” Doctor Who just isn’t accurate. What we have here is considerably more complex than that simple formulation.
At the heart of this complexity is the whole question of what it means for the New Adventures to be “darker,” which is one of those things that it sounds straightforward to say, but that proves oddly complex. Just to make life interesting, let’s start with the end of the novel and work backwards. The book ends with the Doctor failing to figure out a way to stop a Chelonian gas attack from slaughtering a bunch of humans and having to just trap everybody in a pocket of slow time with the intention of coming back to fix it later when he’s figured something out. It’s a very bleak ending, to say the least. But it’s more complex than just saying that it’s dark.
For one thing, there’s a very clear target to the skewering. The plot of The Highest Science is largely divided into two only narrowly interacting parts. The first is a conflict between the Chelonians and the “eight twelves,” which initially seem to be some terrifying race of deadly robots, but in fact turn out to be a bunch of people on the 8:12 train to Aldgate who happen to be being protected by particularly deadly robots for plot related reasons. This is a relatively mundane and small scale, and the Doctor spends considerably more time on the problem of Sheldukher, a galactic wanted man around whom it turns out that an elaborate hoax involving a fake ancient civilization was built in order to trap him.
The latter of these is, in many ways at least, a parody of the Seventh Doctor’s own elaborate schemes, hinging on a terraformed planet laid as a trap spanning a century for someone. And that’s the one the Doctor spends most of his time on, leading fairly directly to his failure to avert the Chelonian gas attack. In other words, this version of the Doctor is viewed as not quite up to snuff – too prone to dealing with elaborate manipulations and lacking in improvisational gumption. Roberts even says as much, describing the Doctor as viewing working without “one of his spectacular contingency plans or clever traps” as being “just like the bad old days.” This is a Doctor who simply doesn’t like making stuff up as he goes along, and he’s put in a situation where neglecting a fluid, spontaneous situation in favor of one that was set up to take care of itself causes a lot of bad things to happen.
So there are clearly some competing things here. On the one hand, The Highest Science is itself a very dark book. And not even just at the end – the extended section of Benny slowly dying of bubbleshake poisoning is exceedingly grim. On the other, it’s clearly a critique of the New Adventures, so the people who suggest that it’s a break from them are clearly on to something. And with the idea of “darkness” being such a common motif in the critiques there’s clearly something going on there.
I’m not sure how long it’s been since I last brought it up, but there’s a stereotypical distinction made about the novels line that splits them into “rad” and “trad” novels. “Rad” novels try experimental and bold approaches to storytelling, whereas “trad’ novels attempt to be good old-fashioned Doctor Who like you remember it from television. And people, apparently, prefer one camp. Paul Cornell and Ben Aaronovitch are “rad” writers, while Gareth Roberts usually gets lumped as a “trad” writer.
This distinction is, of course, so absurdly problematic as to be almost but not entirely useless, as the most traditional approach to Doctor Who imaginable is to go “right, let’s do something we’ve never done before.” Doctor Who is, originally, the sort of show that decides that it’s never done a straight-up comedic farce, so tries that, and then follows it with a story featuring no humanoids other than the main characters. Then, for good measure, does Shakespeare followed by existentialist theater. So “trad” is itself an absurd category. Even if you decide that there have been plenty of times when Doctor Who has gone into a consistent style, with twenty-six years of televised Doctor Who there’s no coherent notion of tradition to fall back on. Even within a relatively narrow time-frame tradition breaks down – what is “traditional” in Season Eleven is utterly unlike standard operating procedure for Season Thirteen, and completely alien to Season Fourteen.
But this just gets back to one of my standard critical hobby horses, which is that while people are usually quite reliable on the matter of whether they like something or not, if you actually ask them why they do or don’t like something the resulting answer is supremely unlikely to make sense or be particularly accurate. People know what they like, but it’s rare to be able to usefully articulate why, and if you give someone shat they say they like or want you will often not get the positive reaction you were shooting for. So no, the statement that people want “traditional” Doctor Who isn’t accurate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there.
What’s funny is that at any given moment the “rad” books are actually closer to tradition than anything else. We’re not quite to the point where such a thing as a bland and stereotypical New Adventure exists, but we’ll get there next entry. “Virgin style” is already well-developed. The labeling of Transit as “rad” is particularly jarring, in that it is, in many ways, quite close to being a straight-up Virgin style book: it’s nothing more than Doctor Who doing a straight cyberpunk story, which was an exceedingly obvious thing for the books to be doing given that they’d been toying with it for almost a year by that point. Whereas a “trad” book is, by its nature, resisting the norms of its era. That it resists in terms of nostalgia is unsurprising – when you have nearly thirty years of history to draw from it’s difficult to justify not seeking the future in the past. There’s surely something there to repurpose or reclaim.
So while yes, there are lousy “trad” novels that just attempt to redo the greatest hits of the past with no thought given to the fact that the 1970s have been over for a long time, The Highest Science isn’t one of them. It’s a novel that turns to the past in order to allege that the present isn’t up to snuff. It’s suggesting that the focus on big epics and brilliant schemes is detracting from the more fundamental pleasure of watching the Doctor be enormously clever and fun, and that there’s something genuinely wrong about this version of the Doctor if he thinks that not having a pre-existing plan at the start of a story belongs to the “bad old days.”
This does, admittedly, tie in closely with the idea that Roberts writes “funny” Doctor Who. Which he clearly does – throughout the New Adventures, Big Finish, and the televised series Gareth Roberts writes comedy episodes. And the truth is that there’s not a lot of room for humor in the Virgin “manipulative chessmaster” Doctor. It’s just not a role that lends itself to a lot of larking around. And Roberts very clearly finds fault with that.
But equally, we’ve just come off a whole post about how comedy is more than stringing together funny bits, and Roberts fits smoothly into the tradition of merging comedy with something more serious and sharp. He’s very funny – the book brims with great lines and zingers. But in the end what we have here is not a return to Williams-era comedy (which is itself a more serious business than most people give it credit for being) but a reasonably standard Virgin story. The only change is that the manipulative plan that would normally be given to the Doctor is given to a bunch of aliens who built a planetary trap, freeing the Doctor up for comedy business. But other than that the story is paced and structured as fairly standard Virgin style. It’s just that there are a bunch of jokes, and those jokes lead up to a sucker punch of an ending.
This is an important thing to note. Because as much as Roberts’s style jars with the New Adventures, The Highest Science isn’t some regressive move that breaks with them. Yes, it’s a critique of them, but it’s a critique that comes out of them – a question posed within their structure and approach. It’s not a rejection of them: it’s a challenge to them to come to terms with the fact that pure whimsy is a part of Doctor Who too, and to find a way to fit it into their structure. Yes, Roberts ends bleakly, suggesting that he does think this challenge is difficult. And, indeed, it is. But to separate The Highest Science as a break from what the New Adventures is doing is simply a mistake.