I’ll Explain Later
The Blue Angel is Paul Magrs’s second Doctor Who novel, co-authored with Jeremy Hoad. It features Iris Wildthyme in a dense plot weaving its way through multiple levels of reality, a Star Trek parody, and a few other bits of postmodernism to boot. Lars Pearson calls it “passionate, whimsical and charming,” while Doctor Who Magazine likes it, but only when it can contextualize it against “the inherited story arc’s desire to crumble the Doctor.” Regardless, it fares rather worse than the other Magrs books in the rankings, stuck at forty-eighth out of seventy-three Eighth Doctor Adventures. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
It’s September of 1999. Lou Bega is at number one with “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of…),” which is impressively only one of two songs in the top two with “Mambo” in the title, and one of four in the top ten with explicit Latin influences, which clearly constitutes a bit of a fad. Two weeks later Vengaboys take number one with “We’re Going To Ibiza!,” and a week after that Eiffel 65 takes over with “Blue (Da Ba Dee).” Tom Jones and the Cardigans, Enrique Inglesias, and Ricky Martin also chart. In news, an earthquake kills 143 in Greece, and another kills 2,400 in Taiwan. The President of Indonesia is successfully pressured to allow an international peacekeeping force into the country. And the Midland Bank renames itself HSBC, a name under which it will do lots of impressively bad things.
While in books we have The Blue Angel, the first of two times in which Paul Magrs immediately follows Lawrence Miles in the running order, helping establish a strange sort of dualism between Faction Paradox and Iris Wildthyme as the defining ideas of the era. More than any other book in either the BBC or Virgin line, The Blue Angel wants to stand alone as a novel. It’s a novel that luxuriates in its own structure and space. Its style is not ostentatious or over the top – this is not Sky Pirates!, nor even, for that matter, The Scarlet Empress. But the entire book gives a continual sense of being structured and deliberate. Its casual play with multiple realities and refusal to impose an overall structure on them makes the book actively difficult to reconcile with the rest of the line in any direct way. It doesn’t contradict anything, but so much of what it’s doing stems out of its own structure and feeds into its own concerns that it seems almost silly to spend too much time connecting it elsewhere. On top of that, it is a book that actively declines to offer explanations for itself. It’s not quite a difficult book, but it’s a strange one that doesn’t quite fit in. In this regard it’s a welcome break from the pace of the EDAs I’ve mostly set for myself – in many ways it’s the one EDA I’m looking at because it’s interesting on its own merits instead of because it fits cleanly into the larger narrative of the series. Which is not, of course, to say that it doesn’t do that as well.
It’s possible, of course, that The Blue Angel was always intended to lead into plot events exactly as it does, with Paul Cornell’s revelation regarding Iris’s intentions in The Shadows of Avalon being exactly in line with what Magrs was writing. But it feels wrong, and I can only really go with “feels” here because it’s not well documented. Certainly Magrs isn’t completely cut off from the metaplot here – I have zero doubt that fitting Compassion with a receiver hooked to the TARDIS was an editorially mandated point. But that seems likely precisely because of how arbitrary a moment it is within The Blue Angel. Iris tricking the Doctor and keeping him from stopping the war, on the other hand, is what the entire book leads up to, and it’s built to in a way that feels so idiosyncratic and specific to this book that it’s difficult to believe that it’s intended as a bit of metaplot setting up the Compassion arc.
But if we assume that The Blue Angel isn’t self-consciously concerned with setting up plot material for future books, it’s still difficult not to read it as commenting on them. Simply put, a book about an inevitable future war that the Doctor is told he can’t win has resonance coming after Interference in a way that is particular to that era. For all that they are both wrapped up in their own concerns, it’s unthinkable that one could swap these two books, and not just for the way in which Iris works over the two books. As of Interference (and really as of Unnatural History) the Eighth Doctor Adventures moved into a period of being overtly concerned with Faction Paradox and the War plot. It’s telling that save for a little bit of advancement of the Dark Sam plot in Seeing I nothing in the eighteen months between Alien Bodies and Unnatural History really demonstrated the idea that the War was going to be the primary focus of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. For all that the Faction Paradox stuff is what people focus on in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, the run where it could possibly be said to be the major focus of the line goes from June of 1999 (Unnatural History) to July of 2000 (The Ancestor Cell). It’s a one year storyline that somehow ate the oxygen from everything around it. (Admittedly that year had five books primarily concerned with that arc: Unnatural History, Interference, The Taking of Planet 5, The Shadows of Avalon, and The Ancestor Cell)
And The Blue Angel, unlike The Scarlet Empress, falls into that year. Which makes its concerns with a plot that faintly echoes the War plot worth remarking on. On the one hand, the end of The Blue Angel is terribly unsatisfying. Iris yanks the Doctor out of the plot and refuses to let him go back and fix things. It builds to what is very consciously a non-resolution. But Iris’s explanation to the Doctor is telling: “you can’t always win,” she says, and explains that “I’ve sorted it out so you don’t have to go” to the Obverse.
We have noted that one of the major problems with the War plotline is the fact that it cannot possibly be executed within Doctor Who as such. As interesting as it is, a massive war where the first thing we learn – before, even, everyone who’s fighting in it – is that the Doctor dies in it is something that cannot actually be depicted in Doctor Who. The list of things that would actually completely disrupt the capacity of Doctor Who to keep telling new stories is short, but the War plot that was, at the time this book came out, consuming the novel line is actually one of them.
And Magrs’s book tacitly acknowledges that. Even though the Obverse War is not so self-evidently destructive to the longterm health of Doctor Who as the War, it’s presented in parallel: a war the Doctor cannot win, that the TARDIS itself recognizes as a hazard. In this regard Iris’s declaration that the Doctor doesn’t have to go to the Obverse is compelling. The Obverse is described in the novel as a realm where “Time and Space are not only not one, but never have been and never will be. In fact, they are barely on speaking terms. Can’t abide each other. And the Obverse is colossal. And none of our rules apply.” Which is to say, it’s a universe in which the assumption of coherence and unity is already broken.
(Several people have attempted to nail down Iris’s origins as hailing from the Obverse, but this misses the point so spectacularly as to not really be worth discussing – it’s almost as bad as the people who take a throwaway joke in a thing Paul Magrs wrote for Doctor Who Magazine as a sincere suggestion that Iris is a Faction Paradox construct.)
Saving the Doctor from going to the Obverse, in other words, essentially amounts to saving him from the narrative collapse that the War plot would point towards. But there’s, if not a problem, at least a concern to be raised here, which is that narrative collapse doesn’t seem inconsistent with what Magrs wants to do. After all, Magrs is, more than any other writer, prone to celebrating the multiplicity and irreconcilability of Doctor Who. The prospect of the Doctor entering the Obverse seems, superficially at least, like it should be gold to him.
But Magrs’s game is subtler than that. He’s not interested in smashing up the unity of Doctor Who, but in playing in the gaps within it. Magrs requires the existence of a quasi-unified Doctor Who in order to react against it and subvert it. This is, in fact, one of the key differences between postmodernism and complete epistemological anarchism. For all that postmodernism is about subverting and undermining singular truth, it still requires a dominant culture to work against. This is the paradox of the marginal, and is closely related to what ultimately brings down Miles and Morrison. The margins require a mainstream to animate them.
And Magrs seems at piece with this, to the point of having his most overtly postmodernist character, Iris, actively work to protect the Doctor from losing a sense of mainstream coherence. But this, in turn, must be thought of in terms of The Blue Angel’s genre: magical realism.
In the afterword to The Scarlet Empress Magrs argued that magical realism was the proper mode for Doctor Who. This fits with The Scarlet Empress, which amounted to throwing the Doctor (and Iris) into an essentially magically realist world and letting them get on with it. But The Blue Angel subtly tweaks that approach. Instead of putting the Doctor into a magically realist world, it takes a magically realist lens to what are mostly some standard Doctor Who tropes, with the odd bits of the Doctor and his lodgers, Fritz and Compassnion, going to the greatest extreme and being an almost stereotypically magically realist story that’s built up around the Doctor.
This involves a slight inversion of the normal order of things. In general when Doctor Who and a defined genre collide Doctor Who comes out on top. But here Magrs makes Doctor Who work according to the logic and aesthetic of magical realism. This creates an odd parallel with Interference, which was, after all, at least in part about putting the Doctor in situations where he wasn’t able to dominate the narrative, whether in the form of putting the Eighth in a Saudi Arabian prison to be tortured or in the form of putting the Third in an adventure he was unprepared to handle. This is, in many ways, one of the things the Eighth Doctor Adventures bring to the table that the Virgin line never did: the idea of stories where the Doctor was not the primary ontological force in the narrative. On the one hand this reflects on the changing terms Doctor Who existed on. The Virgin era had a swagger that the BBC Books era could never muster, and the fact that in 1999 it still looked to everybody like Doctor Who was dead as a doornail and never coming back meant that there was an innate lack of confidence in it. The idea that Doctor Who would win out over everything else seemed farcical.
But for Magrs that shift has a different tone. In both this and The Scarlet Empress Magrs takes specific aim at the Virgin line and its excesses, particularly the idea of the Doctor as Time’s Champion. In other words, for him, at least, it seems like Magrs’s move away from having the Doctor trump the entire narrative form has more to do with the shift from the Seventh to the Eighth Doctor. For Magrs, at least, making it so that the Doctor isn’t intrinsically trumping everything else in the narrative is part of proceeding beyond the hubris of the Virgin era.
But it’s also significant that Magrs opts to subsume Doctor Who within magical realism specifically. As a genre, magical realism is concerned with the line between the everyday world and the fantastical, and in the idea that there is something truly inexplicable about that line. The fantastic elements of magical realism sit beyond the realm of what is subject to explanation or understanding. It is, in other words, closely related to the question of the mainstream and the marginal. (Indeed, depending on your definitions, and particularly whether you see magical realism as a specifically Latin American literary genre, a wealth of magical realist writers can simply be reclassified as “postmodernist” or visa versa)
Magical realism, in other words, is in many ways a defense against the aesthetic direction that the Eighth Doctor Adventures seem to be moving in at this point in time. The flickering relationship between the mainstream and the glorious chaos of the margins is what Doctor Who thrives in. Certainly this is compelling, and fits in with the basic tenets of the show. Doctor Who is, after all, a show about a Victorian adventurer who has been repositioned to the margins instead of placed in the imperialist mainstream that he was designed for, and the notion of mercury as an alchemical concept sticks close to the line between the mainstream and the outside.
And so The Blue Angel winds up, in a very strange way, having its cake and eating it too. On the one hand it pushes towards a more fragmentary and incoherent Doctor Who than anything around it, and on the other it makes a quiet but firm argument for the importance of some center to Doctor Who. It is both more radical than anything else the Eighth Doctor Adventures do and an illustration of why the turn they’re about to take and the subsequent fragmenting of Doctor Who as a concept is so problematic.