So, some explanations. Terrance Dicks’s The Eight Doctors is written so as to follow directly from the events of the TV Movie. Notably, it’s also next to impossible to reconcile with Lungbarrow, though you can just about do it if you squint and are determined to make it work. (Dicks, clearly, was in no way determined to do so.) But before The Eight Doctors came out in June of 1997 Virgin did one last Doctor Who-focused New Adventure, which featured Benny meeting the Eighth Doctor – that’s The Dying Days, released in April of 1997. Then, the next month, Virgin released Oh No It Isn’t!, the first of their new New Adventures, which featured Benny as the lead character. Benny’s status quo in this book stems out of The Dying Days, but, for obvious legal reasons, it makes no reference whatsoever to any Doctor Who concepts.
The reason for the shuffle, dear reader, is simple: the Benny line is the future of Virgin, which we’ve been dealing with for months. The Dying Days, on the other hand, is first and foremost a response to the TV Movie. So these books go here, as the final two entries of what will become the Sylvester McCoy book, The Dying Days goes as the third entry in the Paul McGann/Christopher Eccleston book, and it all makes thematic sense even if the chronology is at this point absurd.
As its basic nature and title would imply, Oh No It Isn’t! is a bit of a defiant book. It’s a book about doggedly carrying on the Virgin torch even after the ostensible reason for their existence has gone away. The usual line about the Benny books, shamefully repeated by Peter Darvill-Evans in the “Wilderness Years” documentary on the TV Movie DVD, is that there’s no point in doing Doctor Who without the Doctor. First of all, this is a frankly nasty slight at the decade-plus successful run of Benny adventures at Big Finish that outright put the lie to his suggestion that the Benny books couldn’t work. They just apparently couldn’t work under his company, and so petered out after about two years. And while it’s certainly possible that the problem is just down to the differing expectations between what a company like Big Finish expects their margins to be and what a company like Virgin Books does, the larger problem is one of branding.
Simply put, carrying on the Benny books as though they were continuations of the New Adventures proclaimed them to be, well, Doctor Who. Which, indeed, is probably not a great idea to try to put out without the Doctor, although that certainly hasn’t stopped people here and there. Whereas the correct approach – and certainly the one Cornell visibly intends in his book – is to say that these aren’t Doctor Who, they’re Bernice Summerfield, who is her own sort of protagonist with her own sort of adventures. That her fans are largely coextensive with Doctor Who fandom is an interesting historical accident, but a Bernice Summerfield story is still a fundamentally different animal.
Still, there is a cheeky defiance underlying this. After the supposed final New Adventure we get a book that puts its attitude right on the cover: Oh No It Isn’t! It’s the Virgin line insisting adamantly that life goes on and that their aesthetic can carry the day. Or, more thoroughly, that they don’t need the Doctor to do the sorts of stories they’re good at.
There’s an obvious problem here, however, which is that the Virgin aesthetic and what people wanted the Virgin aesthetic to be were always at loggerheads. Or, at least, partially so. There were, of course, terribly serious writers in the Virgin stable who wanted to write “adult” science fiction where “adult” is defined as “all the violent stuff you outgrew when you were nine.” And through some strange and not entirely explicable process this became what Virgin was known for. It was helped along, certainly, by the fact that those writers with different instincts still liked making the Doctor into a slightly oversized and scary character. So even Paul Cornell had a streak of epic darkness running through things and Kate Orman loved a good bit of torturing the Doctor.
But crucially, this just flat-out isn’t what Benny supports as a character. I mean, we’ll look at the way in which she can be used for a dark story on Friday, but given that she’s at least partially defined by the degree to which she undercuts anything along those lines. She’s a character defined in a large part by her irreverence and the extent to which she rejects and takes the piss out of the standard conventions of sci-fi. In this regard she’s a fantastic character who can absolutely support an original fiction line, but she’s a wretched candidate to carry on the supposed grittiness of the New Adventures. And so unsurprisingly what people wanted out of the Benny New Adventures was not what they were good at providing.
In this regard, Oh No It Isn’t! is defiant in another way. Paul Cornell, after all, was never going to pander to the grim ’n gritty crowd in launching the Benny New Adventures. In this regard the book is willfully disappointing. Here’s Paul Cornell, fan favorite writer, launching the new New Adventures, and he’s being even sillier than usual. It’s Planet of the Panto People. It’s not that this isn’t what anybody wanted – Paul Cornell’s reputation as Frockmeister Supremo was established by this point, and he was still widely regarded as Virgin’s best writer. But Paul Cornell’s celebration of the everyday and determined rejection of the sweepingly epic is at odds with the expectations of a high profile spin-off launch like this. Even without the weight of Virgin’s misguided reputation, expectations for what the launch of a new line would entail would naturally push towards something more serious and weighty than this.
Instead, however, Paul Cornell gives the most unrepentantly silly thing he’s ever written: an unrepentant piece of comedy in which all of the characters end up inside a panto. Which is a rough premise on top of it – it’s more aggressively and self-consciously British than just about anything Virgin has published to date. If you’re not familiar with the basic conventions of panto, which, let’s face it, rules out most Americans. Which, I mean, I don’t pretend that the US was the primary distribution venue for the Virgin line, but we were at least a fair chunk of the audience. And this book bordered on the outright unintelligible. The defiance implied by the title (which is, of course, first and foremost a panto reference) is, in other words, also a complete refusal to meet audience expectations or compromise in the least on Paul Cornell’s vision of what these sorts of stories should be.
And, you know, fair enough. It’s a fun book. It at least proves Cornell’s basic thesis, which is that things like this are fun and worth doing. But there is the faintest trace of a problem, and it’s one we’ve seen before in Cornell’s work, specifically in Love and War. The problem is that Cornell has taken the approach as far as it can go. Nothing after Love and War ever managed to come close to that book’s depiction of a manipulative Doctor and the lengths he might go to. Cornell identified the theme and explored it fully. There wasn’t anything left to do with Ace or the manipulative aspects of McCoy’s Doctor after Love and War.
Likewise, as much as this confirms the quality of Paul Cornell’s frock, it feels as though there’s nowhere else to go with this approach. This feels as though it has taken this particular sort of over the top silliness and celebration of the everyday and lowly within a sci-fi adventure to its limit. Nothing else is going to quite manage to top or even equal a sci-fi adventure blended with panto for sheer plucky ridiculousness. Short of doing an audio adaptation in which you cast Nicholas Courtney as Wolsley the temporarily talking cat there’s just not a way to build off of this.
And in that regard, at least, it fails at its ostensible most basic task. This is in no way an effective start to a new line of books. The first book in a series is not the place to do a “take it to the limit” sort of approach. It’s a fabulous book, but it’s not one that leaves you with much of a clear reason to buy the next one. Which, when you’re trying to herd cats and get nineties Doctor Who fandom to buy something that doesn’t say “Doctor Who” on the front, is a problem. The ostensible audience for this book, after all, are the same people who wanted Lungbarrow. Getting them to keep buying the books without the Doctor was already an uphill battle. Throwing a willful piece of defiance that doesn’t really successfully set up a future for the line is just suicidal.
Especially because, and Cornell had to have known this, it wasn’t like people were going to follow in his footsteps. The next five writers of Benny books were, according to a 1996 interview with Cornell, supposed to be Gareth Roberts, Matt Jones, Lance Parkin, Andy Lane, and Justin Richards. Richards and Jones ended up being right, but the next three after that were Dave Stone, Lawrence Miles, and Gary Russell. On either list, the idea that they were going to be similarly frockish was clearly nuts. Cornell knew full well that his book wasn’t setting up the novel line that was going to follow from it, and his editors knew it as well, which begs the question of why his book did. Purely the perceived trading power of his name? The fact that he has a built-in audience who would pick up the first Benny book based on him? Perhaps, but if so it’s the sort of short-term thinking that dooms long-term projects like novel lines. And sure enough, doomed it was.
All of which is a somewhat ignoble end for the Virgin era. It basically spelled the end of Virgin as a sci-fi publishing company. Which is mostly unfortunate, as the Doctor Who line largely showed they were pretty good at it. Indeed, there’s something just a bit puzzling as to how a company that had been so good at the Doctor Who line, making it succeed in ways that a spin-off novel series had no right to succeed, could have failed as thoroughly as they did to capitalize on it. But they managed it, leaving their legacy as the temporary custodians of Doctor Who as more or less the extent of what the imprint is known for in terms of science fiction. It is by and large the very definition of anticlimax.