Time Can Be Rewritten: Night of the Doctor
|“Man, this is the second-worst episode of Doctor Who I’ve been in.”|
Because my Patrons are just so gosh-darned nice.
|“Man, this is the second-worst episode of Doctor Who I’ve been in.”|
Because my Patrons are just so gosh-darned nice.
As a piece of television – as a historical artifact, say, to be observed at some future date, – this is bizarre. It can only be described as a nineteen-minute DVD featurette for the TV Movie. To some extent all of The Doctors Revisited are DVD extras, and this one is one of those ones in the rather weird tradition of trailers for a thing you’ve already decided to spend money on. “Here’s the interesting bits of what you just watched,” essentially. Except actually put before the TV Movie.
As a result, it inevitably comes off as an apologia, which, to be fair, it basically is. Moffat’s intro feels more selectively edited than usual. They have Marcus Wilson, who for a couple episodes now has seemed to be taking over for Caro Skinner in the job of being asked nicely to say something by the producer and then having the camera be turned on (I will be honest, I have no actual idea whether Skinner or Wilson were actually big Doctor Who fans who were expressing their genuine memories of the time or whether they are, like John Barrowman blatantly is, being briefed on Doctor Who lore and then put on camera), talking about how nice it is that they have Sylvester McCoy back. They have Sylvester McCoy footage on the TV Movie. The odds that they had McCoy on camera doing his party piece about how the biggest problem with the TV Movie was that he was in it are pretty high. They’re clearly doing their damndest to spin the TV Movie into a credible way to entertain yourself for ninety minutes, though I imagine they ran commercials so it was more like two and a half hours.
For what it’s worth, their defense is a good one. They set the TV Movie up to basically be read as the not entirely adequate pilot for a never-made American television series that could plausibly have evolved into something very much like the modern Doctor Who had it been allowed to run. This may or may not actually fit the reality of the production, but it works. They find enough little moments to show that are quite clever, at least. I’ll admit, I had completely forgotten the gag of the Master convincing Chang Lee that the Doctor was secretly Genghis Khan. That’s properly brilliant.
But in most regards, in hindsight, it’s what it’s not that’s significant. For one thing, it’s not a discussion of the Wilderness Years. Or, for that matter, an admission of them. This is in some ways genuinely sad, not least because they have Nicholas Briggs on there to praise Paul McGann’s performance, but Briggs never actually gets to talk about working with him and helping shape that performance, which he did for the overwhelming majority of McGann’s actual performance as the Doctor. And McGann is the only Doctor that Big Finish can say that about – most of the time Paul McGann has spent in his life performing the role of the Eighth Doctor has been for Big Finish.…
If you missed yesterday’s mini-post, I’m releasing Wednesday’s entry on Rose (over 13k and as good as I hoped it would be) as a backer-exclusive update on Kickstarter if we reach $10k there. So if you want to see it early, please consider our wide variety of inexpensive reward tiers. Also, if you’ve never bought any of my books, I’ve got a new reward tier that gets you all the existing ones in ebook form for $5 less than they usually cost. Plus you can pre-order the Logopolis book via Kickstarter. It’s all right over here.
So here we are. A spinoff of a spinoff. Doctor Who’s own planet Dust – the furthest extension of its narrative reach. The single most remote object that can possibly be called Doctor Who. Faction Paradox. Its effect on the world is vanishingly small. It could be wiped from history, completely removed from Doctor Who’s warp and weft, and the observable effects would be exactly zero. Faction Paradox has had no visible influence on Doctor Who, or, for that matter, on much of anything save perhaps itself. Its writers are marginal, its ideas arcane, and, notably, even Lawrence Miles hasn’t bothered to write for it in years.
The Faction, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way. Authorized ghosts, given free license to operate in the shadow of the greater text, Faction Paradox has never been more at home. This is their nature – the parodic, mocking reflection of the established order of things. The idea of Faction Paradox as a monster hit of mainstream culture isn’t just ludicrous on the face of it – because really, who would want to read this crap – it’s wrong. That’s not what Faction Paradox is designed to do. They’re designed to lurk in the shadows. Even here, in the book named after them, they do not appear as such. It’s never quite clear who, in the story, actually is Faction Paradox. All three main characters might be Faction Paradox agents. None of them might be. Faction Paradox is too obscure and marginal even for the most marginal thing in Doctor Who history.
To revisit one question there, who would want to read this crap? Well, the answer, in practical fact, isn’t Doctor Who fans. At least not in any substantial body of them. Faction Paradox gives every appearance of being just barely profitable enough to publish, bouncing among several small presses over the years. It’s compelling enough to keep gong, in no small part because it’s obvious that many of the people working within it are absolutely fascinated by it, but its readership is tiny. I mean, I outsell Faction Paradox. Coming up with potential readerships is perhaps easier – reading This Town Will Never Let Us Go almost constantly reminds one of Grant Morrison. More than anything actually published under the Doctor Who name, up to and including Morrison’s Doctor Who work, this is the Doctor Who-related piece one can hand to a fan of The Invisibles and say “here, you’ll like this.”…
The list of proper “alternate Doctors” is relatively small: you’ve got Cushing, of course – the alternate Doctor who has actually impacted culture in any meaningful sense. You’ve got the Curse of Fatal Death set of Doctors, but they were never actually meant to be taken as seriously as they are. And you’ve got Trevor Martin, but since he was in a 1974 stage play that nobody knew much about until 2008 when Big Finish did an audio adaptation, he’s pretty firmly purely a trivia answer.
It’s worth thinking a little bit about the nature of “alternate Doctors” in this regard. Our pool of three noteworthy interests contains exactly zero that were ever intended by anyone as a serious alternative to Doctor Who. Cushing’s Doctor existed only to provide a platform upon which Dalek thrills could be built. The Curse of Fatal Death was, as noted, a joke, though for all its quality it turned out to be not nearly as funny as fans taking it seriously as a plot to kill off Doctor Who by burning through the remaining regenerations, a viewpoint that is fascinating in its utter wrongness. And Trevor Martin was a disposable product to handle the fact that Jon Pertwee didn’t want to do the show. None of these are “alternate” Doctors, as that suggests some sort of fully functional alternate history in which they are Doctor Who, and none of them could possibly support that. They’re trivia answers.
Which brings us to Scream of the Shalka. On the one hand it’s clearly a trivia answer – the hardest answer to “name the three contexts in which Richard E Grant has appeared in Doctor Who.” On the other, we have to remember that this was a completely sincere attempt at rebooting Doctor Who, intended as such a big deal that Davies cited his guilt over killing off the project as part of why he hired Cornell to write Father’s Day. (That and Cornell being bloody good, of course.) Richard E Grant was announced as the official Ninth Doctor, and the plan was that this would spin off into a proper series of Doctor Who. It’s just that before it actually came out it got completely pre-empted by Russell T Davies, and so Grant became an alternate Doctor by default.
And so the first and most obvious question to ask about Scream of the Shalka is whether it ever could have worked. Is this in fact the first properly “alternate” Doctor – an alternate launching point into forty years of new adventures, as Cornell breathlessly hyped it before the bottom dropped out. Certainly much of the familiar scaffolding is there: we have a post-traumatic Doctor with a new status quo following some hazily defined event. The Master Robot ruefully seeking redemption is charming, not least because Derek Jacobi is a national treasure who’s having an absolute blast. The villain is solid, which is impressive, as there was an awful lot else to launch in this story and doing a mediocre villain that’s just a placeholder against which the Doctor gets to define himself is a pretty standard response to that problem.…
Good morning everyone. Some orders of business before the post. First of all, the Kickstarter continues to be blowing me away. As I mentioned over the weekend, I was needing more stretch goal ideas. T. Hartwell had the winning idea: an art book version of the Logopolis entry formatted to look like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Read about it here, and consider contributing. The costs for ebook and print editions are the same there as they will be on Amazon, so if you’re even going to buy the Hartnell second edition when it comes out, go ahead. There’s also some new rewards to check out.
Second, if you missed it, I got invited to join Mac Rogers as a panelist on Slate’s Doctor Who recaps for this season, and got to discuss Hide with him this week. Given that the episode had what some are immodestly calling a shout-out to this blog (I remain silent but terribly amused), this was perhaps an auspicious omen. Certainly I had fun, and if you want a preview of some of my thoughts on the Moffat era it’s probably a good read. That’s up over here.
Let’s talk nightmare briefs, shall we? Here’s a corker: you need to wrap up the Eighth Doctor Adventures because the Eighth Doctor is no longer the incumbent. Accordingly we need to fix this whole mess we’ve made of destroying Gallifrey because, well, everyone knew that had to be cleaned up before it got handed off lest there be some massive disjunct between the Gallifreyless Eighth Doctor era and the Gallifreyful Ninth Doctor era. Of course, it’s possible the television series is going to go down as one of the most epic failures of modern television and the series is going to go crawling back to the novels, so however you wrap it up, it should probably not foreclose anything. Oh, and your book is actually going to come out a few months after the new series starts.
The list of people you can call to get this nightmare brief settled is, historically, very short. Peter Grimwade was good at this sort of stuff. Ben Aaronovitch had his moments, and also, for that matter, had Battlefield. Pip and Jane Baker, for all their faults, really only wrote as many stories as they did because they could handle assignments from hell. In books, of course, Kate Orman and Jon Blum lived for this sort of stuff. And then there was Lance Parkin. Lance Parkin, who so loves nightmare briefs that he tends to create them for himself. And who had closed out the previous book line, thus making for a neat piece of symmetry.
Another piece of symmetry appears on the cover. This is the third Eighth Doctor Adventure to feature the Seal of Rassilon on the cover, the previous two having been The Eight Doctors and Interference Book One. This is an odd trilogy, to say the least, but one that manages to capture the overall arc of the Eighth Doctor Adventures surprisingly well, from their beginnings as crushing disappointments to their flare of promise in the middle through to their awkward but not entirely lacking in quality latter days.…
Thanks to everyone again on the Kickstarter. This has… been humbling.
It is entirely possible that Sometime Never… contains the single dumbest retcon in all of Doctor Who. Given the competition for the title, this is no mean feat. But Justin Richards is up to the task, answering for all of the negative four people who were really interested in what the Doctor’s origins were in the new post-Time Lord universe. We’ll get to the particulars of this revelation in a few paragraphs and deal with the sort of awe-inspiringly pathetic flop that it makes when it arrives, but for now let’s take a step back and look at the score, as it were.
This is technically not a Time Can Be Rewritten post. Actually, we’ve been suspended oddly in limbo since The Creed of the Kromon in that regard, having done an extended jaunt through the Big Finish audios and their Eighth Doctor endgame and then wandered over to do the comics and some Pop Between Realities. So we’re still in the same month of The Creed of the Kromon. Why did we wait so long before circling back to the exact same month? Mainly because the finale of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which we’ll do on Monday, actually is a Time Can Be Rewritten, as it came out after Rose, and so I decided to anchor the tail end of the Eighth Doctor Adventures there. (Of course, we’ve still another full week of entries between The Gallifrey Chronicles and Rose, but that’s mainly me on a “form follows content” kick of wanting the wilderness years to end not with a bang but with a weirdly extended whimper.)
So this is very much the Eighth Doctor Adventures in the same position Zagreus was in – doing a big story about their own mythology that was designed when that mythology was still a credible contender for “proper Doctor Who” and then released into a world where all hope of legitimacy that it had was already gone. In this regard there’s almost nothing Sometime Never… could possibly have done that would have been adequate. There’s just no way to do a big revelatory story about the nature of the Eighth Doctor Adventures and have it matter anymore as of January 2004.
And so we should have some sympathy in reading Sometime Never…, as it’s a book that doesn’t have an era. This is always a problem with the wilderness years, given how much they were pre-empted by the new series, but as with Zagreus we here have a work that never enjoyed any time in which it wasn’t pre-empted by the future. There was never a period where its revelations could have worked, and thus discussing them is almost tragic.
On the other hand, even if there had been an era where the basic conceit of this book could have worked, it’s difficult to see how this particular iteration of that conceit could have. So, OK. Here’s the score. It turns out that all this time Sabbath has been an agent of the Council of Eight, who want to become Lords of Time and the like.…
Let’s start with a quick update on the Kickstarter for the second edition of the Hartnell book. Short form: it’s doing amazingly. We’re well over goal, and working our way through stretch goals at a pleasant clip. Right now the stretch goals are commentary tracks for specific episodes. So let’s talk about that.
I’ve been musing off and on about whether there’s a sequel to be had in terms of TARDIS Eruditorum. And in terms of the blog, no, there isn’t. I’m not going to have much more to write on Doctor Who when I’m done. I mean, I’ll come back at the end of every season or so and do a catch-up, but it’s not like I’ve developed bold new interpretations of The Web Planet since 2011. But there’s always been a dimension the blog hasn’t been great at doing: the visuals and storytelling of episodes. Simply put, that’s stuff that’s easiest to talk about when you have clips in front of you. And while I’ve occasionally done video blogs (Here’s a random example) that talk about this, it’s just not what the blog is best at. It’s the wrong medium.
And so I want to at least experiment with another way to go through the series: commentary tracks that can be played alongside episodes such that I can talk about the stories in terms of how they’re put together and what their storytelling says. And right now the Kickstarter has moved on to funding some experiments with that.
So far we’ve unlocked commentary tracks for The Rescue, The Ark in Space, Paradise Towers, and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. Next on deck are Kinda, The Mind Robber, and The Three Doctors. All told I have ten stories up for grabs. And what I’ll do is record commentaries on them over the next few months and post them for free.
If the commentaries are good and people like them we’ll continue in this vein, going out of order and posting commentaries on episodes. Eventually it’ll switch to a model where the latest one is free and the archive costs $.99 a story or so, bur that’s in the future.
So if you haven’t contributed to the Kickstarter yet and are interested in exploring possible futures for the blog and my Doctor Who criticism, please head on over and pledge. I’ve just added some new rewards, and there are plenty of shiny things to be had among the low-price rewards as well. Every bit helps. You can donate over here.
Meanwhile, today’s entry: Harry Potter.
Another crucial piece of the puzzle, so to speak. What almost everybody who comments on Harry Potter gets out of the way very early on is that there is not actually very much in it that is original. They’re straightforward instances of classic British children’s literature. The closest thing to innovation they can be said to have is that they perform a genre collision of the school story genre with fantasy, but this isn’t even new: off the top of my head Jill Murphy did basically the same setup in 1974 with The Worst Witch, and Mary Stewart had something along the same lines in 1969 with The Little Broomstick.…
First off, an announcement: I’m funding the second edition of the William Hartnell book via Kickstarter. The link is here. Please, contribute, spread the word, et cetera. There are some lovely perks available – most of the tiers amount to “pre-order the book,” but if you’re interested in signed copies, that’s up there too. Also, for all the people who have ever requested that I cover something in one of the future volumes, here is your chance to make me. Plus there’s a Kickstarter-exclusive essay to be had at any donation level.
You might fairly ask why I’m funding the project this way. The answer is pretty simple: I know the financials on a new book. I know how much a book makes in its first month and how to balance production costs against that. But I have no idea how to budget an updated edition, and I don’t want to put out a bunch of money on production and then have the book take six months to earn out. So I’m trying to fund it via presales. If the Kickstarter falls through it doesn’t mean the book won’t happen, but it’ll mean some… reevaluating.
Also, I have some really fun stretch goals if it funds, so, you know. There’s that. So, yes. On to today’s post.
As we said on Wednesday, there are six Eighth Doctor eras, abortive as some may be. And with this we come to the final one of them: the Doctor Who Magazine comic. It’s telling that of the eight Doctors to have had a comic in Doctor Who Magazine the only three where the comic is highlighted as a specific and important part of the era are the ones that coincided with what is widely, if not universally, considered a problematic era elsewhere. The Mills and Wagner Tom Baker strips provided a desired tonic to the controversial levity of Season Seventeen. The Parkhouse/Ridgway Sixth Doctor comics were valued in a large part because of how problematic the era itself was. And here we get the third era of Doctor Who Magazine comics that people are very invested in: the Eighth Doctor comics.
They’re not the salvation of the Paul McGann era. I mean, nobody expected me to say they were, right? They have some charming ones – most notably “Where Nobody Knows Your Name,” a one-off strip featuring the return of Frobisher. Several of the moments of high drama work quite well – when the Doctor’s main comic strip companion, Izzy, gets turned into a fish person there’s some lovely emotional beats. And a fake regeneration into Nicholas Briggs’s Audio-Visuals Doctor is delightfully cheeky, as plot twists go.
There are, in other words, lots of bits to love. But it’s still a Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, which means characterization is at a minimum. The Eighth Doctor is as featureless here as ever, running firmly as “generic Doctor” with occasional outbreaks of fight scenes. As with the previous two times there’s been a selection of people who think that the comics are the “real” version of the Doctor, it’s more a criticism of the rest of the era.…
But equally, now they were back to being aimed at the same fan audience of virtually everything else from Big Finish. And in the big conclusion to the Lucie Miller run, the two-part Lucie Miller/To the Death (another convention absorbed from the new series) we can see very clearly what the implications of this are. We’ve got Susan, her son Alex, Daleks, the plot of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Meddling Monk, and, for good measure, a plot thread picked up from one of the Sixth Doctor/Charley audios. This is as hardcore as continuity porn gets without namechecking the Borad.
But what’s interesting is that Big Finish have, by this point, figured out how to do both at once. They’ve got a character-based story – this is the old standard “the companion has to function without the Doctor” story that every Davies companion got at least one of. (The Christmas Invasion, Last of the Time Lords, Turn Left) It’s They’ve got payoff to things set up in previous stories. They’ve got a big tragedy for the Doctor that sends him off sulking. It’s all very successful season finale stuff of the sort nobody once got to work in the wilderness years. And it’s also absolutely swimming in Doctor Who continuity.
And as this is the last thing we’re going to look at that Paul McGann was actually involved with in some fashion, this is worth pausing and celebrating actively. I’ve argued previously that there’s a reasonable lens by which Doctor Who steadily improves in a technical sense. But one of the biggest holes in that is the Paul McGann era, which, if we’re being honest, never really managed the consistent quality of the New Adventures or the Cartmel iterations of the Sylvester McCoy era. And with this he finally gets something that feels like a precursor to the new series. It’s not, of course – it’s a post-new series attempt to do McGann adventures in that style. But it is the most successful fusion of the McGann era as it existed – dense continuity references for fans – and what the McGann era in practice led into.
And this does matter. It’s strange that it does, but it does. The standard configuration of Doctor Who eras is, after all, based on the lead actor.…
Like The Girl Who Never Was it’s doing so in the wake of the new series. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the new series that made the McGann audios on BBC Radio happen in the first place. Doctor Who was big business, so why wouldn’t Radio 7 try to get in on it? And given that there was no way the new series was going to spin off into audio unexpectedly the obvious thing to do was to use a past Doctor. And at that point since you’re basically recreating Big Finish’s schtick, you may as well just have Big Finish do it.
More significant in many ways is the fact that it was Paul McGann doing it. In many ways, he’s the only one who could have. Tom Baker might have done, but there’s a self-conscious retroness to that choice that Paul McGann doesn’t have. McGann is instead an oddly lost Doctor. He has name recognition, but his era, having mostly happened in the obscurity of fan-centric publications, for all practical purposes doesn’t exist in a larger cultural sense. As the Doctor who occupies the strange space immediately prior to 2005, he’s the one who can be reinvented for audio.
In practice, of course, it’s not a reinvention so much as a marginal refinement. By this point people finally had a sense of how to write for McGann specifically, and so we finally have audios that play to his strengths. He’s accordingly on form, and with good reason, as Human Resources basically gives him an unending flood of interesting things to react to, and so he gets to do what seems to be his favorite thing to do as the Doctor: react sardonically to various absurdities. The pace is accelerated a bit, there’s a decent amount of attention to character, and the whole thing feels refreshingly streamlined (in, oddly, a way that The Girl Who Never Was, recorded a year later, doesn’t).
Beyond that, the influence of the new series all but runs rampant. We’ve got forty-five minute episodes, with most of the season being self-contained stories. When we do a two-parter there’s a heft to it such that the story feels oversized (more about which in a minute).…