I’ll Explain Later
Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is the fifth New Adventure, and the kickoff to the Cat’s Cradle trilogy. Unlike the Timewyrm series, the Cat’s Cradle trilogy is somewhat more loosely connected. Basically, in this book, the TARDIS gets Time Rammed by an ancient Gallifreyan timecraft after being attacked by a largely unexplained alien. This results in it exploding into a city, lots of what we now call timey-wimey stuff about juxtaposed timelines within the city, and a missing and then amnesiac Doctor, leaving Ace to do most of the actual heroing in this story. The book lets Marc Platt indulge in his pet theories of ancient Gallifrey. The big ones are the idea that the Time Lords are sterile and reproduce asexually via what are called “looms”; that there was an ancient conflict between magic, championed by a woman called the Pythia, and reason, championed by Rassilon, on Gallifrey, and that reason won; and that in addition to Rassilon and Omega there was a more mysterious third figure known as the Other involved in the early days of the Time Lords (a concept borrowed from the novelization of Remembrance of the Daleks). The TARDIS is incompletely repaired at the end of the book, and a silver cat that serves as the avatar of the TARDIS’s repair circuits persists through the next two books, with the TARDIS being repaired at the end of the third one. I, Who describes Time’s Crucible as “a complete and bloody train wreck,” and Shannon Sullivan’s rankings puts it at 50th of sixty-one with a 58.7% rating. Gary Russell was kinder at the time in Doctor Who Magazine, politely noting that it was not “the best thing Marc has written, nor is it the best of The New Adventures,” and expressing “a growing sense of alarm” at the marginalizing of the Doctor and the similarities with Timewyrm: Revelation. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s February of 1992. Wet Wet Wet are at number one with “Goodnight Girl,” remaining there for three weeks before being bounced by Shakespear’s Sister with “Stay,”which does just that for the rest of the month. Prodigy, Kiss, Genesis, Kylie Minogue, and Michael Jackson also chart.
Meanwhile, since last we checked in, George Bush has vomited in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister. Absolutely nobody has ever claimed that this was one of the causes for Japan’s apology to South Korea five days later for forcing women into sexual slavery during the Second World War. Boris Yeltsin and George Bush reach a largely symbolic (but potently so) agreement to stop having nuclear missiles pre-targeted at one another. And John Major calls a general election for April, more about which next entry.
While during the month this book came out, the Winter Olympics happen in Albertville, France. The UN approves the deployment of a peacekeeping force in Yugoslavia. And 613 civilians are massacred in Khojaly in Azerbaijan. And the Maastricht Treaty, which establishes the European Union and begins the process of establishing the Euro, is signed.
While on bookshelves, it’s Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. There is an alternate universe in which this book is well-regarded. It’s only a few doors down from ours, so to speak. The difference is simple – in that universe, this came out before Timewyrm: Revelation and is widely recognized as an incremental step towards that novel. Whereas in this universe, it came out one book later and is a visible let-down.
Time’s Crucible, to be sure, has problems. None of its secondary characters are well-developed enough to hang a plot line on, and so the lengthy stretch of the book in which Ace is wandering around the City looking for the Doctor drags painfully. The City itself, with its three time zones endlessly intermingling, is one of the most visually impressive ideas that Doctor Who has pitched to date. Sadly, this is a novel, and Platt never finds a good way to signpost where or when we are at any given moment. With the Doctor partially sidelined for almost the entire book this becomes a real problem, as there’s nobody to explain the plot. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense – it does, by the end. The problem is that the explanation is held back too long, and while it’s absent it’s difficult to invest in anything the book is doing.
On the other hand, the book features the TARDIS turning itself inside out to become a city, with separate time zones demarcated by river’s of mercury and a silvery ghost of the Doctor hovering over proceedings as a war for the (past) future of Gallifrey plays out in the background. It’s difficult not to award some grudging respect here for the sheer ambition of things. This is Christopher Bidmead’s Doctor Who without budget constraints. Again, this is a mixed blessing – Bidmead’s Doctor Who worked in a large part because of the visual component of Bidmead’s ideas. Lacking that visual component, Time’s Crucible flounders. But on the other hand, if the visual components were what made Bidmead’s Doctor Who work, they weren’t what made it valuable. There’s pleasure to be had in the ideas themselves here.
But Time’s Crucible does not require such a narrow defense. There’s more going on to the book than that. Like Timewyrm: Revelation before it, this is a book that tries to reconceptualize what the Doctor is. In this case it’s perhaps most useful to ground it in the future: this is out of the same basic playbook as The Christmas Invasion – the Doctor makes only sporadic appearances as Ace steps up to the major role. This feels routine now, both through its execution in the new series and through the fact that partially sidelining the Doctor eventually becomes a standard trick of the New Adventures, but Platt deserves real credit for being the first to try this. Yes, sidelining the Doctor happened periodically in the classic series, both through the occasional episodes in the 1960s where the actor playing the Doctor got a week off and through occasional short-term tricks like The Leisure Hive (where the Doctor is sidelined for a few episodes) or The Horns of Nimon (where Romana takes over the plot so Tom Baker can lark around). But the only story that provides a precedent for this level of a thorough marginalizing of the Doctor is Castrovalva, which, to be fair, is a clear inspiration for this story in more ways than one.
As I said, the problem with this approach is that this story really needs someone who can explain the plot in time for anybody to care about it, and that’s not something Ace can really do. But it allows Platt to get into the Doctor. It really is the same trick Davies eventually uses for The Christmas Invasion: define the Doctor by making a Doctor-shaped hole in the story, and then finally filling it. So we first get Ace having to figure out a world without the Doctor, then we get the Doctor without his memories, improvising desperately and speaking about how he’s a potential Doctor in an act of becoming.
But all of this was done better by Paul Cornell just two months ago. Attempting to define the Doctor by his absence alone just doesn’t hold a candle to the mad, sprawling redefinition offered by Timewyrm: Revelation. Once we’ve seen the Doctor’s interiority laid bare it’s just not that interesting a question to ask what would happen if he lost his memories. Once we’ve seen Ace chased by her schoolyard tormenter through the Doctor’s mind it’s difficult to get that excited about her being chased by a giant worm through a city that is the TARDIS. Similarly, when you hit a passage like “The Doctor had always found children very agreeable people. Their uncomplicated nature was refreshing and often disarming. They seemed to find a natural affinity with him and he with them,” you really just find yourself wishing you were in a Paul Cornell book and were getting this insight into the Doctor through something other than a third person narration tell-don’t-show commentary.
But all of this is terribly unfair to Time’s Crucible, which was, after all too soon after Timewyrm: Revelation to be influenced by it. And more to the point, we know the pre-Revelation approach of Marc Platt was a major influence on Paul Cornell, who obviously draws heavily on the portrayal of Ace from Ghost Light, and, more broadly, on that kind of aggressively symbolic story in the first place. Time’s Crucible is a story of this sort – one that enabled Cornell to do what he did. It’s just that it came out after it, and so nobody reads it as an antecedent.
The other big aspect of the book is, of course, the laying of the foundation for the New Adventures version of Gallifrey, which proves to be something of a big deal. The usual term for this is the Cartmel Masterplan, a term I’ve bristled at previously, and continue to do so. In practice it’s the Platt Masterplan. And crucially, it’s something that never would have flown on television: neither Cartmel nor Nathan-Turner would ever have signed off on a script as heavy on revelations about ancient Gallifrey as this. None of this is the secret intention of the people who were writing the tail end of the classic series – it’s the theories of a fan-turned-writer who pitched them to the television series and, let’s be clear here, had them rejected.
I do not mean this as a criticism of Platt’s Gallifrey. It’s just that we should be clear about what it is: a fan theory that broke out into legitimacy. This isn’t actually the first time this has happened – Timewyrm: Revelation is an adaptation of a piece of Paul Cornell’s fanzine-published fan fiction. So on one basic level, the fact that this has happened twice in two months suggests that something very fundamental has shifted in the way things are done.
It’s worth comparing something like Platt’s Gallifrey to fanwank as practiced previously. Compare it to Attack of the Cybermen, or even to Timewyrm: Genesys. Both of those stories use referentiality as their fannish engagement. In many ways what’s most astonishing about Attack of the Cybermen is that despite having Totter’s Lane, the Mondas encounter, and a return to Telos in it, it manages to not add a single new thing to Doctor Who’s mythology besides the Cryons, who are the one bit everyone agrees Eric Saward added. There’s nothing there but references to stories. But Platt and Cornell are doing a different sort of fannish engagement – something more akin to Remembrance of the Daleks, where the past is mined in order to rewrite it. But even there Platt, and arguably Cornell, are less referential than Remembrance. For all that Platt is proposing a huge new fan theory of Doctor Who, there’s not actually that many references to the past of the series here. You’ve got a throwaway reference whereby we get an explanation for the origins of the Sisterhood of Karn, and some very low-key stuff like the inclusion of mercury in the TARDIS or a mention of time rams, but this just isn’t that invested in playing spot-the-reference.
Instead this is engaged in a sort of “what if” game – enacting a mad idea for the series that is interesting less for its clarifying effect on the past and more for its implications for the future. This is less like Attack of the Cybermen and more like The War Games – a story that simply adds a ton of detail to the premise of the series. In this regard it’s part of a more respectable tradition than the referential style of fanwank. And more than just that, Platt deserves some basic credit for having cool ideas here. The looms are a neat concept. His vision of Gallifrey’s past, along with the idea that the Time Lords are just narrowly something other than magical, are solid. Bringing some mystery into the origin of the Time Lords via the introduction of the Other is neat, and although there’s eventually going to be an uncomfortable reckoning when the “is it or isn’t it the Doctor” tease gets settled, that’s a matter for another day. And perhaps most substantively, the idea that the past of the Time Lords is forbidden territory – that it is “the one rule [the Doctor] had never broken” – is a thematically astonishing principle.
But on the other hand, there has been, since 1969, a nagging sense that something was lost when the Time Lords entered the occasion. We’ve been improvising madly at every turn to try to find some way to preserve the mad and mercurial potential of things that existed prior to The War Games, and it’s become harder with each passing Gallifrey story. Their de facto elimination after Trial of a Time Lord was, for the most part, a good thing. All of which is to say that the impact of a big dump of revelations about the nature of the Doctor is not entirely positive. Done as part of a sweeping epic like The War Games or The Three Doctors, or as part of an insane experiment like The Deadly Assassin the price may be worth it. But it’s a heavy price, and there’s a reason that in practice Cartmel was reluctant to pay it. And at the end of the day, even if you don’t compare it to Timewyrm: Revelation, Time’s Crucible just isn’t good enough to be worth the price of its revelations. Even if they are good ideas – and they are – and if later writers do get good results out of them – and they do – it’s difficult to justify them in the context of this book.
But on the other hand, the sort of twilight legitimacy of the New Adventures saves things somewhat. The looms and the Pythia are intriguing concepts, but they are limited, by and large, to the Virgin line. There is a sense that the Virgin novels know that they are never going to be universally considered “canon” or “real Doctor Who,” and that they recognize that, accordingly, they can throw out the rulebook and not worry about hurting the series at large. For all that this book doesn’t quite work, there’s an increasing sense of the New Adventures forging their own distinct identity and vision.