|“Man, this is the second-worst episode of Doctor Who I’ve been in.”|
time can be rewritten
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.…
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).…
It’s a fair question why this exists. The continuing adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, long after their quasi-era had ended. Really, the entire existence of Big Finish as the last man standing from the wilderness years is strange. As we’ve pointed out before, almost all of the creative debates of the wilderness years are settled. Russell T Davies, by making Doctor Who an unequivocal part of the mainstream again, settled them. The future of Doctor Who was secured. What use can we have for the calx of the wilderness years? And this is, of course, the hardest to understand one. Nostalgia for the Davison or McCoy eras makes sense. Even nostalgia for the Colin Baker years makes sense as a sort of redemption. But nostalgia for the culturally irrelevant speck that is the McGann era? Why would we miss it? Why would we want to sustain it?
This isn’t quite the last Time Can Be Rewritten entry, but it’s getting there. All that’s probably left after this are the two Lucie Miller audios we’re going to cover and The Gallifrey Chronicles, and the latter one is a debatable case. (Of course, I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the October Destiny of the Doctor audio will manage to sneak into the Tennant posts.) But even the Lucie Miller audios aren’t Time Can Be Rewritten entries in the usual sense. They were McGann audios in the Tennant era, yes, but they were essentially another McGann timeline – a fifth draft of the Eighth Doctor. This is the last time we get a Time Can Be Rewritten entry in the proper sense: an active revisitation of a past era of Doctor Who. And it is, by its nature, a bit of an odd one.
After the Eighth Doctor Adventures had resolved themselves with The Gallifrey Chronicles, it was announced that the Eighth Doctor would continue to appear in the Past Doctor Adventures. This was a bit of a feint. The Past Doctor Adventures, after all, only lasted six more months after the demise of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which meant that there was only one Eighth Doctor novel in the line before this entire phase of the operation and experiment were, in essence, shut down forever (save for a single episode of an Eighth Doctor audio that featured Fitz, in the context of celebrating the various spin-off lines in which the Eighth Doctor has appeared). At this point it seems clear that the narrative loose ends of the Eighth Doctor Adventures are never going to be resolved; that this vision of Doctor Who is in practice abandoned. And so this book is the one throw of the dice: the sole attempt to go back and fill in the gaps of the Eighth Doctor Adventures.
This is, of course, in part impossible. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but The Gallifrey Chronicles pointedly leaves the Eighth Doctor Adventures unfinished. The line ultimately admits that it can’t possibly come to a coherent end, little yet dovetail into the new series. So all the Past Doctor Adventures could plausibly hope to do is repair job on the past of the series. Given this, it’s telling that the novels harken back to this point. Even after its resolution in The Gallifrey Chronicles the amnesia plot rankles. With one chance to go back and rewrite time, this is what it seems was needed.
It is in some ways telling that this happened at all. The Past Doctor Adventures, and for that matter the Missing Adventures, rarely went for attempts to “fix” past eras. Other than a strange profusion of attempts to explain Liz Shaw’s departure and to give Mel a debut story, most attempts at past Doctor stories have fit into spaces that are gaps in name only. But Fear Itself inserts itself into what is, in many ways, a very real gap.
The problem, of course, is that the act of inserting into a gap in its own way acknowledges the gap as a historical fact.…
Lungbarrow at least attempted to feed directly into the TV Movie. It didn’t last. There’s about three dozen stories, mostly from Big Finish (whether audio or their Short Trips series), that feature an “older” version of the Seventh Doctor. Arguably the first one of these actually comes just three months after Lungbarrow in the form of Terrance Dicks’s The Eight Doctors, but claiming that would involve trying to reconcile The Eight Doctors with the Virgin line, or, for that matter, with anything at all. But I’m two weeks ahead of myself.
A Death in the Family, ironically, only minimally features the post-Lungbarrow Doctor, focusing primarily on what is normally taken as a pre-Virgin Doctor situated between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys. (Though even that’s difficult to square away, as we’ll see.) The post-Lungbarrow Doctor appears, and is indeed absolutely central to the story, but as a peripheral character lurking in the background. But despite the relative briefness of his appearance he’s central to affairs. A Death in the Family is at its heart a story in the vein of Battlefield in which the infamously manipulative Seventh Doctor falls into the schemes of the one person who can out-manipulate him: his own future self.
But where Battlefield played Merlin as something that put the Doctor off his game, A Death in the Family has the two Doctors in relative lockstep. Indeed, they are sufficiently compatible in their goals that it borders on a plot hole: the older Doctor’s scheme relies on the younger Doctor making specific decisions requiring knowledge of the overall plan, but on the other hand the younger Doctor is clearly unaware of the older Doctor’s plans. This can be explained as the Doctor faking surprise at various moments, but it’s not an entirely satisfying explanation.
But then again, there’s a fundamental difference between McCoy’s Doctor falling into the schemes of some future incarnation and him falling into the schemes of McCoy’s Doctor only down the line. In this regard it’s telling that A Death in the Family straddles the Virgin era as it does. Because much of the story’s theme is right out of the Virgin playbook: an extended meditation on the nature of the Doctor’s manipulations. And it’s telling, then, that there are no particular differences highlighted between the two Doctors. Their manipulations are wholly compatible, such that the younger Doctor can smoothly slot in and finish a plan he hasn’t actually come up with yet.
But this poses a bit of a tension with the Virgin era, which does ultimately posit an arc for the Doctor’s character from beginning to end. This arc is actually for the most part opposite what people claim for the Virgin era, as we’ve noted: the Doctor’s vastly manipulative schemes increasingly fade to the background as more and more writers favor actually chucking the Doctor into unfamiliar situations. Notably, Paul Cornell, who took the manipulative Doctor as far as it could go with the idea of the Doctor leaving notes to himself from the future, actually stopped doing books where the Doctor has a plan going in after Love and War.…
Technically, actually, everything until Boxing Day should either be a Pop Between Realities or a Time Can Be Rewritten post, but we’re not going to do that. Still, it’s worth starting by making this point explicit, since we’ve been sidling up to it for two weeks now. This is the book that came out the same month as the TV Movie. This creates the single biggest whorl in the timeline of Doctor Who. The TV Movie aired in May of 1996. The final New Adventure didn’t come out until May of 1997, and for the purposes of this blog we’re actually going to go to September of 1997 and Lawrence Miles’s novel Down before we tack back and do the TV Movie.
I went back and forth on how best to do this, and ultimately went with this. The main reason is, honestly, that I’m organizing the book versions by Doctor, so it makes sense to keep the blog organized that way. (Though ironically this does mean I’m breaking Benny’s timeline somewhat badly by covering Oh No It Isn’t! and Down prior to the TV Movie. This is because, on the whole, it makes more sense to keep those in the same book as the majority of the Virgin material.) And more broadly, because the TV Movie didn’t have that much influence on the tail end of the Virgin line except conceptually – through the very fact of its existence and what that meant for Virgin.
Which was, of course, that the party was over. Remember that the Virgin line was actually a fluke. Virgin Books had bought out WH Allen, and thus acquired Target in the process. The New Adventures came when they realized they were out of television stories to novelize and asked if maybe they could do some original novels, to which the BBC, having just cancelled the series, basically said “yeah sure, whatever” to. And so they did, and they turned out to be successful and actually alarmingly good, and so the BBC used the TV Movie as an excuse to take the rights back. So the Virgin line went into a year in which the Doctor they were using had already been regenerated on television and the line itself was facing cancellation.
This isn’t the first time that the future of Doctor Who has consumed its past. The Five Doctors and all of Season Twenty-One, for instance, aired after the announcement of Colin Baker as the next Doctor, rendering all of those stories the lead-up to an already-happened ending. The way in which the big press launch of Matt Smith preceded the 2009-10 specials season made this even bigger, with David Tennant’s regeneration happening as a cultural event nearly a full year before it actually got televised. But this is by some margin the most extreme: Sylvester McCoy regenerated into Paul McGann on television, and then we went back to Sylvester McCoy stories for a year.
It was, of course, not immediately clear how everything would play out.…
Back in the dark days of the wilderness years, when I mistakenly thought I had either talent or inclination to write fiction, I had a fiction teacher who cautioned me off of being clever. Cleverness, he gravely told me, is a trap. Once you are pigeonholed as a “clever” writer it is all over for you. Steven Moffat, as it happens, is terribly clever. And this is the source of most of the attention paid to “Continuity Errors,” hailed as one of the best Doctor Who stories of the Virgin era, focuses on how clever it is.
This is not wrong. The story is utterly clever. The Doctor meddling extensively with history in order to check out a library book is one of the greatest premises ever. Telling it from the librarian’s perspective so that the shifts in her history happen between the lines is a beautiful little trick. And the cuts away to a lecture about the dangers of the Doctor that casually renders many of the ridiculous premises of the series diegetic add a splendid bit of menace to proceedings, making the familiar trappings of Doctor Who just a bit uncanny.
This, of course, is also the problem. This sort of cleverness comes perilously close to breaking the structure of the series. Yes, it’s terribly fun to have a Doctor who does things like handle a stray attack of evil plants just to make a librarian less angry so that he can stop an alien war. But the entire story hinges on the fact that this sort of thing only works if your perspective isn’t lined up with that of the Doctor’s. The entire point is that the Doctor is having a comically elaborate adventure for seemingly small stakes. This is good for a short story from the perspective of the people affected, but you really can’t build it into an ongoing series where the Doctor is the main character.
In Moffat’s defense, of course, he doesn’t try to. He writes a twenty-six-page short story and then buggers off out of Doctor Who for the next three years, then for another six after that. The fact that he eventually ended up in charge of the entire series does not mean that it’s sensible or valid to interpret his first story as some sort of blueprint for the future. Not even when several of the ideas get used then. Yes, there’s the objection raised by Lawrence Miles to the Graham Williams era whereby granting the Doctor seemingly unbounded power and suggesting that maybe he and Romana can fly “breaks the narrative” or whatever, but that remains as silly in 1996 as it was in 1978. As ever, the issue is that the rules are different in different contexts. It’s much like the old rule of thumb in Marvel Comics that Doctor Doom is a villain that takes the entire Fantastic Four to defeat, except when he’s in a Spider-Man comic, in which case Spider-Man can do it. Or in an Avengers comic, where it takes the entire Avengers.…