I’ll Explain Later
The Dying Days is the sixty-first and final Virgin New Adventure, and the only one to feature the Eighth Doctor. In it he teams up with Benny and the Brigadier and repels an Ice Warrior invasion in contemporary Britain. And may or may not get it on with Benny for good measure before leaving her to star in her own already covered novel line. Dave Owen says that Parkin makes writing Doctor Who “look deceptively easy,” and Lars Pearson calls it simply “sterling.” It is ranked as the fifth best New Adventure, which sounds very good, right between Lungbarrow and Original Sin, which doesn’t really. Its rating is 83.6%. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s April of 1997. The Chemical Brothers are at number one with “Block Rockin’ Beats.” That lasts a week before R. Kelly takes over with “I Believe I Can Fly,” which lasts all month. Don’t worry. We’ve got a closet all earmarked for him. No Doubt, the Spice Girls, Depeche Mode, Blur, Suede, Orbital, Daft Punk, U2, and Robbie Williams also chart.
In news, Turin Cathedral is damaged by fire. Virtually the entire village of Thalit is slaughtered by guerrillas in Algeria, one of three massacres in Algeria this month. Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary are buried together, or, perhaps more accurately, shot into space. Martin Bell declares that he’ll run to be the MP for Tatton (an election he’ll win). And we lead right into the general election, which, as we’re skipping May, we may as well spoil: Labour wins big.
In books, the much acclaimed but still rather puzzling The Dying Days. By most reasonable standards, Parkin bites off more than he can chew here. He’s simultaneously in the position of wrapping up the Virgin line, setting up the Benny line, responding to the TV Movie, functionally establishing a character for the Doctor, and on top of that gives himself the twin challenges of cramming in a huge number of intertextual references and of never having more than two Ice Warriors in a scene. Being as I feel like the blog could use a bit of whimsy after Wednesday, let’s start with this last and somewhat curious point.
The stated logic for only having two Ice Warriors in a scene is that it’s a rejoinder to Philip Segal’s claim that the reason the TV Movie didn’t have any monsters was that it would have been too expensive and they could only have afforded one costume. So Parkin set out to demonstrate that you could do an entire alien invasion with just two costumes. Several things about this are puzzling. First, of course, is Segal’s comment. Segal is, of course, a terribly unreliable source about the thinking behind the TV Movie, making bewildering claims like that you couldn’t imagine any other Doctor but McGann’s on a motorcycle, or, more bemusingly, claiming that the logo for the TV Movie didn’t evoke any previous era. This budget claim on monsters is probably similarly dismissible – some monster costumes surely could not have cost more than a shot involving a bunch of chickens running around a freeway at night, which was put in for no discernible reason whatsoever.
More realistically, then, the reason the TV Movie didn’t do monsters is simply that Philip Segal didn’t want to. This made sense for the TV Movie, since monsters in the Doctor Who sense were, in fact, an odd fit for American television in 1996, and the TV Movie was trying to be as generic as possible. (The X-Files famously did monster-of-the-week stories, but “monster” never meant the same thing it does in the Doctor Who context.) So the quote Parkin is responding to had little to do with the motivations of those making the TV Movie in the first place. Even beyond that, the idea that the quote needed responding to is bizarre. After all, stretching the use of three monster costumes into an entire invasion of Earth is, in fact, the archetypal alien invasion plot for Doctor Who. Writing an alien invasion story where only two aliens appear at any given time in order to prove Segal wrong is like writing a Pertwee Missing Adventure where he rides a motorcycle to prove Segal wrong: you can certainly do it, but why not just put Day of the Daleks in your VCR instead?
But what is more interesting about Parkin’s little game is the fact that it exists in the first place. It is, after all, a terribly subtle point that almost nobody reading The Dying Days would have picked up on their own. It trades, in other words, on the fact that there exists a sizable network of Doctor Who fans in which Parkin is active and across which information like this can be spread. This is not a problem in any meaningful sense, but it does indicate that we’re dealing with a particular sort of thing here: Doctor Who in which the paratext of fandom is part and parcel of how it is supposed to be read.
Parkin is open about this in the comments on the BBCi version. Large swaths of the novel were written with the expectation that they’d be read in light of the fact that this was Virgin’s last Doctor Who novel and that anything could happen in the next 297 pages (RIP Gerry Anderson). Parkin delights throughout the novel in acting like he might just decide to do something really extreme that completely “spoils” Doctor Who with the knowledge that BBC Books is just going to retcon it next month anyway. In some ways reception of the book hinges on the reader being part of the insider crowd who had heard the rumors that Parkin was going to kill the Doctor outright, so that when they get to the moment in the book where the Doctor apparently dies they think the rumors might well have been confirmed.
But this in turn shows the ways in which The Dying Days cannot quite be what it seems to want to be. It’s clearly a critique of the TV Movie that wants to show how it should have been done, right down to adopting artificial constraints to make it “filmable.” But there is a fundamental sleight of hand involved in this. The TV Movie, for all its failures, is still fundamentally about trying to launch Doctor Who. The Dying Days is about wrapping it up. The TV Movie is about trying to find a new audience, however fumblingly it does it. The Dying Days is unabashedly a love letter to an existing audience. They’re doing different things.
Certainly it’s true that The Dying Days does a far better job of the thing it’s doing than the TV Movie does of the thing it’s doing. Where the TV Movie flails about without anything like an idea what it’s doing, The Dying Days has a clear sense of purpose and is ruthless about getting the job done. The TV Movie has the basic frame of an emotional arc, but relies entirely on dramatic conventions to get each step to work. The result is fragmentary, particularly in light of Grace, who is inconsistent from scene to scene. Parkin, on the other hand, builds meticulously to his emotional climax of the Doctor’s triumphant return.
But the nature of this build reveals the real difference. The Dying Days works because we have two very well-established characters, Benny and the Brigadier, responding to the new Doctor and to his apparent death. Because their natures are so well-established they become anchors whose reactions guide the reader through things. It’s not just that the TV Movie didn’t have any characters like this; it couldn’t possibly have. The TV Movie had to assume a new audience and thus couldn’t use an established POV character. It’s not just that the TV Movie was never going to use Benny. It’s perfectly possible, after all, to imagine a televised version of The Dying Days using Sarah Jane. The problem is that this couldn’t have worked. Not just because Fox was never going to approve more than one Brit in the movie, but because The Dying Days depends on our familiarity with its POV characters.
In this case it’s worth flipping ahead for a moment and considering how Davies and Gardner solved this problem in 2005. So much of Rose is focused on establishing Rose Tyler as a character, making sure that we get a good sense of her so that we can use her as a lens into the Doctor. The TV Movie botches this by starting with McCoy, but further botches it by having Grace be so inconsistent and reactive a character such that the Doctor ends up being the POV character on his own story. The differing openings of the two are deeply revealing. The TV Movie starts with the Doctor, whereas Rose opens with a whirlwind tour of or POV character’s life, then introduces the Doctor to that. In this regard, at least, Rose is more like The Dying Days.
But this comparison is misleading. Rose may solve one of the fundamental problems of the TV Movie by giving it a POV character, but it matters what the character is supposed to be providing a POV on. Rose and the TV Movie are introducing a new character. But The Dying Days is about how the Doctor has changed. In this regard too Parkin cheats cleverly. Stuck with a lack of characterization from the TV Movie Parkin does what any decent fan writer does on a new Doctor and writes for Generic Doctor. This is more or less the same thing that happened when writers for Season Two hastily rewrote scripts intended for Eccleston’s Doctor for a new and yet-to-be-defined Doctor.
It’s always a bit interesting to see what a given writer uses as their Generic Doctor. In this case, at least, Parkin ends up basically writing for Tom Baker, which, fair enough. Parkin, by his own admission, mostly conveys the sense of change in the Doctor through Benny, giving her lots of interior monologues about how he’s totally different but also the exact same man. But this again gets at the odd relationship between this book and the TV Movie. This isn’t really an Eighth Doctor book as such. It’s a “Next Doctor” book – a book that features the unspecified and undefined future of the show interacting with what was, in April of 1997, still in a meaningful sense its present.
This does, however, turn out to set up the norm for the Eighth Doctor. In the absence of a lot of characterization on McGann’s part, what exists of the Eighth Doctor is largely reaction against the Seventh. Seven schemed, so Eight flies by the seat of his pants. Seven was detached from humanity, so Eight is romantic and, as Benny puts it, has “started to go in for hugging.” Parkin doesn’t completely nail the characterization that later Eighth Doctor novels will take, but he’s got the gist of it.
There’s a problem here, though. The Eighth Doctor, in this book, is defined wholly in terms of the Seventh. It’s a problem very much like what Colin Baker faced in characterizing his Doctor. The only ideas John Nathan-Turner had for his second new Doctor were to do everything completely opposite to how he had done it with his first. So in every regard Colin Baker is just Peter Davison done backwards. And this is one of the major problems with the Baker era – it’s entirely negatively defined. It only really knows what it doesn’t want to be, not what it wants to be. A similar problem is already plaguing the Eighth Doctor, and it will only intensify: the only ideas in place for how to move forward are “don’t be like the Virgin era.”
Sure enough, the Eighth Doctor is a bit of an awkward fit for the Virgin era and its trappings. This is, to be fair, part of the point – a demonstration of what the series is leaving behind. That it looks more interesting than the future is inevitable. Parkin was, after all, writing without substantial knowledge of what that future would be. More than that, it’s deliberate. Parkin is writing the farewell to the Virgin line. If Virgin went out without making the reader miss them it would be, by any reasonable standard, a bit of an own goal.
But the way in which Virgin is missed in the wake of this book is telling. Parkin delights at times in the adult tropes of the Virgin line, and even where he’s not gratuitously denuding Benny he’s writing a particularly Virginy book, so to speak. But what steadily becomes clear is that the Eighth Doctor is an awkward fit for this book, to the point that, when he leaves Benny for her own adventures at the end, it’s ever so slightly a relief that she can finally go enjoy herself without being sucked up into his adventures. Parkin’s final act for Benny, having her jump the Doctor’s bones, is delightful not just for its sheer cheek but because it highlights something very real, which is that the New Adventures have a wider palette of options in what they can do. It’s not that having Benny shag the Doctor is necessarily a good idea. The joke is that BBC Books would never in a million years try it.
Which is a problem coming up. Because right now every idea about the future of the series appears negative. Don’t do things like the TV Movie, go lighter and more romantic than the Virgin era, and make it for kids again. After a decade in which Doctor Who consistently had a positive vision of what it should do it finds itself in the awkward position of not having anything but a list of things it shouldn’t do. The Doctor feels like a constraint on the Virgin books right now, and though, as we’ve seen, his absence proves a problem as well, the two lines are necessarily diverging at this point. And more to the point, Doctor Who looks less ambitious than Virgin at this point.
And so, although Parkin, cheekily, writes, “‘To a,’ Benny paused for a moment, and then smiled, ‘Doctor who might change, but won’t ever die’” the fact of the matter is that it’s visibly entering a rocky period right now. A bombed TV Movie, no clear direction, and a strong sense that nobody has a good idea what they’re doing. BBC Books has a big lift with their first book. Thankfully, they’ve got the most reliable writer imaginable for it: Terrance Dicks. What could possibly go wrong?