It’s February of 2002. Enrique is at number one with “Hero,” which lasts the entire month. Britney Spears, George Harrison, Pink, Ja Rule, No Doubt, Alien Ant Farm, Brandy, S Club 7, and Victoria Beckham also chart. In news, the Golden Jubilee proper happens, as do the Mitt Romney Winter Olympics. Slobodan Miloševi?’s trial begins at the Hague. And Princess Margaret dies of a stroke.
While on audio CDs, we have one of the highlights of the McGann era: Rob Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight. If Invaders from Mars was frustrating for its lack of places to hook critical analysis onto, The Chimes of Midnight is at least a story where we’re spoiled for choice. Rob Shearman is a critic’s writer; his stories are dense with themes and references, bristling with self-awareness and commentary. They almost compel a critical response. In a way it poses its own problem. Invaders from Mars prompts little at all, existing in such a way as to defy speech. The Chimes of Midnight is almost more dangerous: it is a work that is capable of dictating its own critical response. It’s terribly easy to write an entry that is exactly what you’d expect a critical look at The Chimes of Midnight of being.
Critics hate this sort of thing. I was talking with my co-author on the They Might Be Giants book the other day about the way in which art rock is lacking in academic respect in a large part because it self-analyzes, and in doing so defies critique. The cynical explanation for this is that we hate being made obsolete. The more worked through explanation is that there’s a value to critique being independent of the work, and the self-awareness of art rock and other such self-critiquing forms is a barrier to that.
But these objections omit the possibility that there’s a reason for self-awareness beyond controlling the critique. The Chimes of Midnight is a prime example. Yes, it’s terribly self-aware, but this is part of Shearman’s basic theme for Doctor Who. All of his stories focus on confined worlds. The Chimes of Midnight is a prime example, taking place across just over two hours in the servants’ quarters of one house, although those two hours happen several times. But more than its limited space and time, The Chimes of Midnight, again like much of Shearman’s work, is focused on the constraints of our internal worlds. As the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that we are not so much in the basement of a house as in the internal psychic world of one of its inhabitants.
This works very, very well on audio, especially modern audio. The survival and, to a real extent, proliferation of audio as a narrative medium in recent years stems from one simple fact: it’s terribly good for a commute or an exercise routine. The Big Finish audios are overwhelmingly listened to in cars or through headphones. This makes audio an unusually claustrophobic medium these days. Unlike the screen-contained video, audio surrounds us in a tight bubble of diegesis. And that’s uniquely, particularly suited to the disturbing, enveloping worlds that Shearman creates.
In this regard there’s a real progression from Shearman’s previous audio, The Holy Terror, to this. The Holy Terror featured a world that steadily closed in on the characters, getting more and more claustrophobic as it reduces towards one specific character’s individual psychology. But The Chimes of Midnight steadily opens outward. Even as we find out more and more about what kind of world the Doctor is trapped in the implications of that world grow larger and larger. The story progressively becomes not just about Edith’s trauma but about the social circumstances that created that trauma.
In The Chimes of Midnight, this takes the form of a commentary on class. This is, admittedly, not necessarily the most incisive critique available in 2002. Ultimately Edith’s world hinges on her mistreatment as a servant in the early twentieth century. That’s all well and good, and it’s certainly true that class relations of the early twentieth century were awful, but in 2002 this seemed largely obvious. There is a point to all the drama, but it’s a deeply uncontroversial one: people have value and the working class isn’t just “nobody.”
But if The Chimes of Midnight pretends at being a moral parable about the value of the working class, this is mostly window dressing: the sorts of standard Doctor Who values that have to inhabit a story like this. They’re only the point if you assume that The Chimes of Midnight is first and foremost a story about having a moral. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption, and plenty of reasons to assume that things are more complex than that. For one thing, that would be remarkably strange to have that moment of sincerity in amongst what is, otherwise, a delicious bit of black humor.
In this regard it is very much like the best work of Robert Holmes – an author who we haven’t had cause to mention in a distressing amount of time. Shearman, however, is a proper successor to Holmes. Like Holmes, he’s got a basic belief in human dignity and all that jazz, but his focus is more often on the perversity of the world. And The Chimes of Midnight exemplifies this. It’s about the mistreatment of the servants in an ostensible sense, but its content is overwhelmingly sickly funny. It’s a story that wants to spend the bulk of its time wading through the terrible things people do to each other. It’s first and foremost an angry story that wants to lash out at unjust structures in the world. Yes, it has a sense of what would be more just, but its animating passion is its anger at what is.
And one of the things that it’s angry about, actually, is Doctor Who. It’s easy to miss the extent to which The Chimes of Midnight is subversive within the context of Doctor Who. Doctor Who’s central premise is the idea of falling out of the world. It depends on a logic of escape: on the fact that it is possible to depart the world, and, more to the point, depart it to a truly radical extent. Whereas Shearman’s worlds depict the exact opposite perspective. His worlds are traps, not just in the basic sense of places in which people are confined, but in a far more radical and unnerving sense where the very contours of the world are a trap.
And Edith exemplifies that. She’s held in place by a complex interplay of class, sexism, education, and emotional turmoil. She’s exhibit A for intersectionality. She can’t fall out of the world because there’s nowhere for her to fall, save for into death. Even the things she holds to, most obviously Charley, are fundamentally lacking. Charley, after all, doesn’t remember her until well into the fourth episode. Edith misjudges Charley as a friend, when in fact Charley was only ever the nicest of her oppressors. And by clinging to the illusion that the nice oppressor is not, in fact, still an oppressor Edith gets herself killed. And this is the Doctor’s companion. Yes, the events that mean that Edith kills herself are the ones that predate Charley traveling with the Doctor, and it’s very much the Doctor and Charley that rescue Edith from her internal prison. Nevertheless, it is still striking that the good guys are still part and parcel of Edith’s self-imprisonment. The Doctor isn’t morally above the fray in this story.
In terms of Shearman’s career, all of this is fairly straightforwardly setting up Jubilee, which we’ve already covered. You can see how Shearman goes from The Holy Terror, where the closed world is entirely one person’s personal tragedy, to this, where it’s a personal tragedy framed in the larger social order, and, more to the point, one in which the Doctor is partially implicated. Then, finally, comes Jubilee, in which, as we saw when we covered it, the larger social order is the bulk of the closed world, and it’s defined entirely in terms of Doctor Who’s larger mythos.
Which brings us to something about this first stretch of McGann audios in this “season,” which is that the writer list is recognizable as “the people Davies tapped to write for the first season of the new series.” Beyond that, this season is structured with much more of a sense of story arc – the earlier stories put pieces on the board in preparation for the big finale. The result is something that feels very much like a dry run for the new series. But equally, nobody is quite there yet. Much of the approach needs just a little more time to cook.
In Shearman’s case, this manifests with the ending. I recognize that, by convention, The Chimes of Midnight is above reproach, but if we’re being honest… the ending is a bit wibbly. There’s just a bit too much introduced in the last episode. Edward Grove is a magnificent villain in practice, but he gets lost in the rush of things in the episode. The exposition of what’s going on with Edith is a bit late. And the basic idea is just a bit too contrived: the Doctor and Charlie happen to intersect Edith’s life so as to cause a time paradox. The entire premise of the audio relies on a huge coincidence. It’s not so contrived as to not work, but it blunts the impact of the ending ever so slightly. It’s still brilliant – better than the five McGann stories on either side of it. But it’s not the beacon of holy perfection of its reputation.
Jubilee has flaws in its ending, certainly, but the basic shape of it holds together. Chimes of Midnight doesn’t quite have its overall shape in place. It has a few too many things going on and too many themes. But equally, Jubilee, and by extension Dalek, are both clearly works that follow from this, once Shearman figures out how to set up a social structure and tie it to the basic nature of what Doctor Who is. Much like the Eighth Doctor Adventures almost but don’t quite figure out how to give the Doctor a clean break from Gallifrey, this is almost but not quite figuring out how to do the story that eventually becomes Dalek.
Which is to say that in both of these first two stories, despite their flaws, we can very much see writers who are working in the same way that they will on the television series. Shearman is going to write a story very much like this, only where the confines of the world are some of the formative myths of the series. Gatiss is going to do another nostalgia-trip, but one that’s bound up tightly both in the past of Doctor Who and in the legacy of BBC television. The relationship between the next audio and Father’s Day is less straightforward, but it’s not like Cornell’s preferred themes changed wildly in three years either.
And this comes, we should note, not two years after the Eighth Doctor Adventures made their closest approach to the territory of the television series. And it’s far closer to managing the future than the Eighth Doctor Adventures got. In just a handful of audios Big Finish has gotten their storytelling together to an incredible degree. And more than that, they’ve gotten a sense of variety. And what is particularly compelling about this is that it’s not as though they have a house style. The last time Doctor Who made this sort of decisive jump in its storytelling was the Virgin era, but there was, if we’re being honest, a certain homogeneity across the best of the New Adventures. Big Finish doesn’t have a style.
So what is it that’s advanced Doctor Who for Big Finish? Part of it is their cadre of writers. And part of that is just that this is a particularly good stretch – it’s notable that the back half of McGann’s second “season” has a very different set of writers and a very different tone. Another part of it is simply that the production line approach of Big Finish does spur creativity. While it’s easy to argue that Big Finish puts out too much stuff, a collaborative pressure cooker is often a boon to creativity.
But another part of it – a very big part – is simply the dividends of the “storytelling first” strategy that Big Finish has been pursuing from the start. Having gotten in the habit of telling functional stories they’re in a position to make mad ambition work. The truth is that The Chimes of Midnight has as many rough edges as Father Time or EarthWorld, but it also has a team of people working on it who know how to bring out the good parts and minimize the weak parts. This is what collaborative production lets you do. In this regard, it’s more than just that Big Finish is hiring the same writers that Russell T Davies will. It’s that it’s focusing heavily on the basic task of learning to do collaborative storytelling and production. This obviously isn’t a new invention, nor a new addition to Doctor Who. But in applying it seriously to Doctor Who for the first time in over a decade Big Finish laid genuine groundwork for the series’ return. It’s not, in other words, that Big Finish picked the same writers as Davies. It’s that Davies picked writers from Big Finish.