I’ll Explain Later
EarthWorld is the first book after the stuck-on-earth cycle, and features a futuristic earth colony, a museum, and some evil princesses. It’s the second book featuring Anji Kapoor, the latest companion in the BBC Books range, the first being Colin Brake’s Escape Velocity, where her boyfriend died horribly and she inadvertently got abducted by the Doctor. EarthWorld’s reputation is middling: Lars Pearson calls it “a drastic misstep for the eighth Doctor line,” while Doctor Who Magazine calls it “an accomplished and enjoyable debut.” It’s forty-sixth on the Sullivan rankings, in any case.
It’s March of 2001 again. These things happen.
So it’s EarthWorld today – one of the myriad of books that takes as one of its major themes trying to square away the amnesia plot. This is a problem, as the amnesia plot is more or less impossible to actually square away. The biggest problem is one Lance Parkin pointed out: amnesia isn’t a concept that motivates someone. Or, rather, the only motivation it provides is memory. That’s a pretty solid problem, and one with a meaningful general case: a lack needs to be filled. This is the central logic of a mystery. Or really, of a lot of things. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever seen on the subject of puzzle-writing is “leave blanks for the solver to fill.” There is a deep-seated desire to fill in a blank. And while the Doctor’s memory isn’t a mystery for the audience, keep in mind that the structure of the genre had long been stretched by things like Cracker where we know who did the crime and just wait for Fitz to solve it too. Which is to say that even though we know the contents of the Doctor’s lost memories, we expect that he’ll pursue them because they are, within the story, a mystery. If nothing else, the idea of the Doctor blandly ignoring a great big mystery jars.
So the problem is less that the amnesia doesn’t help create any stories as that the story it helps create is the one story that Justin Richards has decided they shall not tell: the story of the Doctor trying to find his memories. Which means that every single book starts from a position of frustrated desire for the reader. Everything the reader knows about how stories work tells them to expect to see the Doctor trying to get his memories back. And every single book is saying “no, we’re not doing that.” And that’s not a death sentence for the books, but it’s a problem. It means every single book is starting at a slight but significant disadvantage with readers.
And on top of that, there’s the basic fact that the amnesia was never going to stick. I mean, BBC Books were putting out twenty-two Doctor Who books a year. Eleven of them were set in the Eighth Doctor’s memory. Big Finish was doing another twelve, all with a memory-having Doctor. And the assumption is still that Doctor Who is going to run forever. What the amnesia plot really runs into, at the end of the day, is the fact that there’s no way it’s going to last forever. Even if Justin Richards really were completely intractable on it and really were never, ever going to reverse the amnesia – and that turns out to have been more or less what happened – he wasn’t going to be editor forever. The odds that no future editor was ever going to do the most obvious high-selling event book ever, The Return of Gallifrey, was nil. The same logic applied to the Russell T Davies era. Everybody knew something like The End of Time was coming. We still do. We haven’t seen the last of that fabulous headgear.
The writers, mind you, were not fools, and generally knew this. And the writers had a lot of say in this period, since Justin Richards’s position as editor was a part time one (which explains how and why he self-commissioned three times) and they had to sort out a lot of what they were doing themselves. This was also a mixed blessing: the writers were generally smart enough to see the problems with the amnesia plot. Which in turn meant that they felt compelled to do something about it. Which exacerbated the problem. The amnesia plot as Justin Richards wanted it is, much like the problem of Susan, one that can work so long as you just bury it. If the amnesia becomes, like Susan, an odd part of the series’ past that everyone agrees not to talk about, that’s just about fine. But ironically, that only worked in 1964 because the writers were so unfocused on the idea of Doctor Who as having an ongoing arc that it never occurred to anyone that there might be a problem of Susan until it was far too late to solve. Here the writers are hamstrung by noticing the problem early on enough to try to fix it.
EarthWorld is the first real attempt to fix it. The earthbound arc, after all, built inexorably towards Escape Velocity, which people assumed was going to fix things. It didn’t, though this was presumably no fault of the author. Leaving Jacqueline Rayner to try to sort it out with EarthWorld. And so more than any other book, this is the one that most suffers from having points deducted over the amnesia plot. Because it’s a book that comes right after it’s made clear that the amnesia thing was not getting fixed.
Indeed, it comes right after the amnesia thing is made worse, because the books take the utterly inexplicable decision to bring Fitz back as the companion. Not that Fitz is a bad companion, especially after everyone just decides to write him as Cwej from the New Adventures. It’s just that he’s another indelible link to the past that the Eighth Doctor Adventures are trying to avoid. Fitz makes it trivial to restore the Doctor’s memories, or at least key parts of them. And yet the books can’t pull that trigger. Their long term solution to this is to start wiping Fitz’s memories of Gallifrey as well, but it’s a clunky solution to an obvious problem. And Rayner, in any case, doesn’t get to start with that. She has to start with a Fitz who could bring this whole tortured amnesia premise to a halt.
It’s tricky, in many ways, to see why she was put in this position. Fitz stubbornly connects the Doctor to the very life he’s ostensibly trying to discard. Considering this, it’s tough to see what the argument for keeping Fitz on as a companion was in the first place. If ever there was a time to boot the old companions and start over it was this, at a moment when starting fresh was the order of the day. And yet instead we get Fitz, serving as a continual irritation of the status quo – an itch that compels scratching.
All of which sounds like setup for “why this book doesn’t work.” But it’s not. No, what we have going on here is something a bit stranger: why the Eighth Doctor Adventures as a series don’t work. But what’s odd about them in their latter half (and The Ancestor Cell/The Burning land precisely at the halfway point of the line) is that despite the line not working the individual books often did. And despite being a book set up to solve a completely impossible setup, this is a prime example. The book works.
There are two basic reasons for this. The first is that the book is just terribly clever. This is an interesting decision, and I’m sure for some it was an off-putting one. But it has the effect of setting up a tacit wall within the book. Yes, the book has a clear position in the line and a job to do, but it does this alongside a willfully comical fairy tale. This does interesting and mostly successful things with the reader’s expectations. The effect is to draw a line between the book’s job as a part of the Eighth Doctor Adventures and it’s job as a book in and of itself. And it’s unabashed in putting its emphasis, or at least its sense of what it enjoys, on the side of being a book in and of itself. Yes, it has the job of taking care of many of the plot threads involving the Doctor’s memory, but these clearly aren’t what Rayner wants to write.
There’s something a bit self-defeating about this. Yes, it salvages the book, but it does so at the cost of throwing the Eighth Doctor Adventures under the bus. It is in many ways a tacit admission of the bankruptcy of the entire project of “arcs” in Doctor Who – a declaration that the real fun in the series comes from the individual and one-off ideas, not from the larger sweep of things. We talked on Monday about the way in which these last few Wilderness Years felt, and in many ways feel as though we’re getting further and further from a situation where Doctor Who can come back even as we, historically speaking, know that we’re getting closer and closer. Here we have one of the strangest outbreaks of it. This is a book that creates a compelling case for abandoning the entire idea and structure of long-term plotting that has infested genre storytelling since at least The X-Files.
Now, of course, in practice we know that Doctor Who will embrace season plots, and even embrace them well. Its first season back will be a stunning setup in which every single story contributes in some meaningful fashion to the season finale, and every season will have at least some arc-based plotting going on. In the Moffat era, this meta-plotting will become absolutely huge. But right now, in March of 2001, it looks like there’s reason to abandon the whole thing.
Of course, they don’t. Indeed, in eight months they kick off another big one, spending until January of 2004 wrapped up in an arc (and one accidentally originated by Lawrence Miles, no less). And we not only do we now know that this was probably the right decision, since arcs could work, it was probably the only decision they could have taken. Arcs simply are a part of genre storytelling by 2001. You can rail about how special effects were better before CGI too if you want, but you’re not going to win either fight. Still, there’s something charmingly noble about the effort to remind readers that Doctor Who’s real strength is in its anthology nature, not in its ability to do the same sci-fi arcs as everyone else.
The other reason that the book works, however, is Anji Kapoor. In several regards EarthWorld pulls the same trick that both Father Time and The Burning did: reenacting portions of An Unearthly Child. In this case it’s the decision to frame the novel through the perspective of an ordinary person, restoring the sense of looking in on the Doctor’s world from ours. This is, of course, a fragile sense: even with an amnesiac Doctor there’s an inexorable gravity towards his perspective, simply because after nearly forty years we’re very familiar with it. With Fitz around as well, there’s only so long you can sustain Anji-the-newbie and her perspective on things.
But it’s a good perspective, and even if it can’t possibly remain the primary one it’s useful. Anji is a return to a trope we haven’t seen since Tegan, and since Ben and Polly before that: someone who is traveling with the Doctor by necessity, as opposed to by choice. She is not someone who wants to be a hero, and her perspectives on heroism are pleasantly fresh. She’s capable of commenting on the genre tropes of adventure fiction from the perspective of someone not designed to be in an adventure story. This is, of course, almost a necessity in post-Buffy genre fiction, but Anji comes at this task from an interesting and idiosyncratic perspective. The dirty secret of Buffy is that its meta-commentators are mostly carefully designed to be standard genre trope characters with added self-awareness.
But Anji is consciously created to break with that. She’s actively designed to have more banal origins that aren’t well-suited to a life of adventuring. This again goes back to An Unearthly Child and manages to restore some of the “falling out of the world” frisson that story traded on. As a concept, she’s the best companion the Eighth Doctor Adventures have had, and frankly the best since Benny. Beyond that, and it’s frankly shocking that we’re in 2013 without this happening on television, she’s the first companion of Indian or Pakistani descent (the writers get a bit confused here and there), which is more than a bit unfortunate given their size as a British demographic.
And so between these we get what is, actually, thoroughly characteristic of the latter half of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. This era has, on the whole, considerably more well-regarded individual books than the first half of the run. There are bunches of great books that we’re just skipping: The Year of Intelligent Tigers, City of the Dead, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Sleep of Reason, The Tomorrow Windows, and I’m not even done. But as a line it’s much less well regarded and less respected. Despite the good books, the whole never quite worked. And EarthWorld serves, if nothing else, to start that tendency off.