Speaking of Christmas, and the general season of gift-giving it implies, have you considered just how much all of your friends and family want copies of the first two volumes of TARDIS Eruditorum in book form? You should probably make their dreams come true.
Unless, of course, you don’t think they’d want a copy. Then you should think about just how good family or friends they are, and whether they deserve to have their dreams come true. Then you should get them copies anyway.
I’ll Explain Later
We skipped GodEngine, to someone’s sorrow, I’m sure. It had Ice Warriors and lots of continuity references.
Christmas on a Rational Planet is the debut book of Lawrence Miles, which is almost certainly the most important thing about it. It features the intrusion of the raw forces of chaos into our universe and Chris making the decision as to what the fundamental nature of the universe should be, albeit manipulated by the TARDIS. It also introduces the idea of Eighth Man Bound, a Time Lord game about previewing your future regenerations. Lars Pearson, still a number of years away from employing Lawrence Miles, calls it “delicious, but a bit text-heavy and fragmented as hell.” Dave Owen, at the time, bemoaned the release schedule, saying that if the book had “been among the first handful of New Adventures it would have been immediately seized upon as radical, unprecedented, and exhibiting a fresh approach to Doctor Who storytelling,” but suggesting that the disposable nature of the novels means that it won’t get the second reading it deserves. Shannon Sullivan’s rankings have it embodying mediocrity – at thirty-first out of sixty-one it is the median New Adventure with a 69.1% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide (worth it for the attempt to figure out if fan rumor of a reference to every Doctor Who story is true. It’s not – Miles misses thirty-three even by a sympathetic count).
It’s July of 1996, one of those months where the number one single changes weekly. Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds start us off with “Three Lions.” Then we get The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” Gary Barlow’s “Forever Love,” and finally the real news in The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.” Los Del Rio, Underworld, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Belinda Carlisle, and Mariah Carey also chart. While in news, Dolly the sheep is successfully cloned, Boris Yeltsin is reelected, and Eric Robert Rudolph, an anti-abortion domestic terrorist, bombs the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In books, it’s Lawrence Miles’s debut novel, Christmas on a Rational Planet. Which means we finally have to do Lawrence Miles. Except he’s not Lawrence Miles yet. Which is an odd thing to say, but bear with me. Lawrence Miles, the grand figure of myth who provided the primary creative vision of the Eighth Doctor era, has his debut novel with Alien Bodies. That’s the book with which Miles immediately seized the crown of “most interesting writer in the line.” But that title relied in part on just how dire the early chunk of Eighth Doctor Adventures were on the whole, and, for that matter, how utterly uninspiring the entire Eighth Doctor thing was.
But in July of 1996 we were in an altogether more ambiguous point, as I’ve already observed. The Virgin line was already the past of Doctor Who. And Lawrence Miles embodies that tension perfectly. For all that he’s, creatively speaking, associated primarily with the Eighth Doctor line, aesthetically he’s a much better fit with the Virgin line. Indeed, he’s said in interviews that the Virgin era is outright his favorite period of Doctor Who. And, not to flip too far ahead, for all that he’s the major creative figure of the Eighth Doctor range, his time there is enormously fraught and comes to a crashing and unsatisfying close. Miles is, in many ways and for many reasons, an oddly liminal figure that doesn’t quite fit into any era. As such, this liminal period in which Doctor Who lacks an era is actually perfect for him. This truly is Lawrence Miles’s native era – not so much a part of Doctor Who as a figure haunting Doctor Who with the uncanniness of its alternative histories.
And haunting perfectly describes the role this book plays. For one thing, no matter how much Miles disclaims the book (he’s visibly not fond of it in interviews, suggesting that the correct acronym for it is CRaP), the truth is that several of his Big Ideas show up here: Grandfather Paradox, a bottle universe, Eighth Man Bound, the possibility of something uncanny regarding the Third Doctor, a fascination with the notion of Time Lord biodata. And they show up in ways that are oddly coherent. The idea that Grandfather Paradox is loosed upon the world because of a conflict regarding the teleology of the universe that occurs within the frisson between the Seventh and Eighth Doctor’s eras is, for instance, aggressively, perfectly right. Even though, in 1996, none of that future was visible in the least, Miles’s larger aesthetic siege on Doctor Who seeps out from this book.
But perhaps the more important thing to observe is that the notion of alternative mythologies haunting the narrative is in fact Lawrence Miles’s primary concern not only throughout this book but throughout Miles’s work. Here the central idea is that the rational universe established by the Time Lords is continually haunted by a sense of irrationality. This, of course, is just a rejigging of what Marc Platt did way back in Time’s Crucible, but here the idea goes subtly and wickedly further. Miles explicitly presents irrationality as a literary, narrative logic, having, at one point, irrationality’s avatar, the Carnival Queen, challenge Chris, asking “do you have a sense of justice? A sense that somehow, sometime, there has to be a happy ending and a way of tying up all the loose ends?” Which, of course, there is, in point of fact, in Chris’s world given that he exists inside a novel that is broadly governed by Aristotelean structures.
Implicit in this is one of Miles’s great hobby horses, which is his firm belief that Doctor Who is not a science fiction series. A cursory glance over his various published Internet musings reveals this, particularly his insistence in the time before Russell T. Davies brought the series back that the only way it was ever going to come back was as a cult television show in the model of Babylon 5, where it would fail spectacularly and kill the series off forever. Wrong, clearly, but instructively so both in terms of how accurately he diagnoses a particular version of fandom’s vision. During that time, however, Miles was taking to the letters column of Doctor Who Magazine (issue 233, specifically) arguing that this completely misunderstood the nature of Doctor Who, which, in his view, has its roots “in Arthurian romance and European mythology” but that uses science fiction props. This, at least, pretty accurately describes, for instance, the Hinchcliffe, Bidmead, and Cartmel eras, but it cuts against a huge swath of thought about the show that we’ve been characterizing as the Whoniverse approach. Needless to say, that’s largely fine, at least in terms of this blog’s agenda. We have, after all, never been fans of the Whoniverse.
But what Miles does here is considerably more interesting and nuanced than just suggesting that Doctor Who is actually fantasy and not science fiction, which was at least part of the problem with Platt’s approach – it went as far as noticing that the Time Lords could just as easily be magical, but then said “ah, but they picked science fiction” and left it at that. Instead Miles jams the two together, staging a confrontation in which the irrational universe reasserts itself as an irreducible Other to the supposedly rational universe that Doctor Who, as a series, is prone to insisting that it is. And Miles is ruthlessly consistent in this, even in his choice for what the irrational forces call the Time Lords, namely the Watchmakers. On the one hand this invokes one of the common arguments for the existence of god, typically phrased as “if you found a watch lying on the beach you would assume that there is a watchmaker because it is too complex to have arisen naturally.” But this, of course, frames the Time Lords in terms of the supposed irrationality of religion, trapping them in the very logic their nature resists.
But there’s an added sting involved in the label “watchmaker” for the Time Lords, which is that it’s a backhanded demotion for them. There is a world of difference between the idea of Time Lords and Watch Lords. If they are mere watchmakers than all they have done is created a tool and a system of measurement for time. They rule it only because they’ve used language to describe it, and language, as a tool, trends inexorably towards the forces of irrationality. They don’t rule time – they rule a particular framework for understanding time.
Indeed, one need only look at the peculiarities of how the term “watchmaker” is used to signify the Time Lords. On the one hand, it’s clearly a reference to the argument for god. But that argument was most famously advanced by William Paley in 1802, whereas the term “Watchmakers” within Christmas on a Rational Planet is framed as part of a primordial conflict about the nature of the universe. Which is to say there’s no way that the Carnival Queen could have been referencing Paley when she picked the epithet. And yet the name is an obvious reference to Paley. The name itself, in other words, defies causality, illustrating exactly the sort of thing that the Time Lords’ perspective cannot grasp.
Again, the underlying trick here is that the universe of Christmas on a Rational Planet really is running according to the grounds it stakes out as irrational. Being a novel, things really do work according to a metaphoric logic. The nature of things really does vary depending on context and circumstance, as opposed to things having fixed and absolute definitions. There is no such thing as atheistic fiction for the simple reason that the “world” of any given work of fiction really was created by an intelligent and (in terms of that world) all-powerful being. And thus no matter what the Time Lords try to do they cannot impose a “life of ordered calm” onto the world they live in because the underlying principles of their world are ordered towards a logic that isn’t just imposed by an external force, but one that exists from a different universe entirely. (This is central to the notion of the bottle universes that Miles plays with at such length in future books)
For instance, look at Eighth Man Bound. Ostensibly it’s a Time Lord game about seeing future regenerations, with the eighth regeneration being, apparently, the first one that is impossible to foresee. That’s a reasonable enough concept that has an internal logic within the narrative, much like “watchmaker” makes sense as a swipe at the fact that the Time Lords do not control time but instead control the description of time. But much like “watchmaker” is obviously a reference to the external logic of William Paley (who writes three years after the novel is set, making him doubly inaccessible as a reference within the book), Eighth Man Bound is also clearly a reference to the external logic of Doctor Who as a television show that got cancelled while on the Seventh Doctor such that, within the confines of the Virgin line, the Eighth Doctor was unforeseeable. But this logic is completely foreign to the Time Lords if we treat them as imaginary people – it’s wholly impossible that they have even the slightest concept of this. That’s what the threat of irrationality imposes – not illogic, but a logic from another system entirely.
This is terribly clever, especially for Doctor Who, a series that is, historically, all about pulling code switches such that what looks like one sort of story suddenly starts working according to the logic of another sort. The idea of haunting Doctor Who itself with a logic that is necessarily outside of its own comprehension is absolutely brilliant. And what’s really brilliant is that it puts the Doctor (and, by extension, the TARDIS) in the position of not being able to understand how they work. Both believe that they can only function as creatures of rationality. This makes sense for them – they, after all, have no way of recognizing the genre tropes and literary conventions that in fact explain how they work. (Or, rather, they can, but it requires that we zig instead of zag within the series’ history, picking The Mind Robber instead of The War Games.) The Doctor cannot understand his own actions as the intrusion of one genre on another, and thus mistakes himself as working rationally. It’s a glorious deconstruction of the concept – and for once I mean deconstruction in its proper sense where, once dismantled, the concept continues functioning not just in spite of its contradictions but because of them.
But there’s a larger problem here. Well, two, actually. The first is that Miles inexplicably and ill-advisedly ties these principles to gender essentialism, having men be the forces of reason while women are the forces of irrationality. “The male and the female of the species, in every humanoid species, have completely different psychologies,” Miles has the Doctor mansplain. “Men build… their fundamental purpose is act as architects. Towers. Pillars. Bridges. All men’s things. In a man’s world, everything has to be defined, named, planned with precision… the female psyche has no need to construct, no need to control… no need to define. The female psyche is adaptable, mutable. That’s why little boys dream of killer robots and little girls dream of faerie queens.” Which, you know, great. Thank you, Lawrence Miles, for making stereotypical gender essentialism a fundamental principle of the universe. Brilliant. Now we can move on to Dave Sim’s vision of Doctor Who, I hope. What’s particularly frustrating about this is that it mucks up what would otherwise be a fantastic idea, namely the Gynoids, which are robotic creatures who are not built but who simply are. It’s a great, chilling concept, and even plausibly an antecedent to the existential horrors of the Silence and the Weeping Angels, except that Miles frames it in a shockingly sexist manner that just poisons the concept.
The second problem, however, is the tying of history to rationality. Rationality, throughout the book, is repeatedly tied to the progress of history, with the development of human warfare culminating in the atomic bomb being explicitly presented as one of the consequences of allowing the universe to remain based on Reason. (Miles does distinguish between the capitalized and uncapitalized versions of the word, with several jokes throughout the novel hinging on people noticing the capital letter in ostensibly spoken dialogue) To some extent this makes sense, serving as an extension of the critique I made about why science fiction in its classic Golden Age form is an irreparably flawed genre. And given that the bulk of the novel is set in the past there’s a wicked cleverness to this. On the one hand, as a matter of practical reality, the atomic bomb is the inevitable teleology of 1799. But if we accept that as an inevitability then the novel’s system of belief forces us to also accept the sci-fi teleology of things like Babylon 5 in all its oppressive horror. Which is quite clever.
But the idea that irrationality, as presented, lacks any necessity or teleology is fundamentally flawed. The rest of the time the book trades heavily on the fact that it is a novel and thus has the irrationality of Aristotelean narrative structure. The whole point of Aristotelean narrative structure is that the ending of the story is made inevitable by the beginning and that the beginning is necessary setup for the ending. This is part of a larger incoherence in Miles’s system that depends on the assumption that art and Reason are a coherent dichotomy. He avoids the worst form of this assertion by having irrationality continue to persist and haunt the edges of the Rational universe, thus showing that the dichotomy cannot be absolute. In many regards this isn’t a huge problem – art and Reason don’t have to be 100% opposed in all contexts to work as a thematic division in a novel any more than the White and Black Guardians had to be a perfect division. But as one might expect from someone who doesn’t really like The Ribos Operation, Miles doesn’t quite manage to paper over the gaps within his metaphor so as to build an even temporarily workable frame.
My objection here is not, of course, that Miles does not tie everything off into a neat structure. That would cut against what’s so interesting about what he’s doing in the first place. But for a novel that is self-evidently trying to make a point about the nature of history and of totalizing ideologies it’s a fairly substantive problem. But equally, it’s a first novel. Miles will do better with these concepts in future works. Paul Cornell didn’t get his definitive statement of what he wanted to do with the Doctor together in Timewyrm: Revelation either. Which is an apt comparison, because this is the single biggest infusion of new ideas Doctor Who has seen since that book. Much is made of Alien Bodies and how Lawrence Miles swept in and provided a direction and vision for Doctor Who at a point when it was otherwise floundering badly in the disastrous start of the BBC Books line. Not nearly enough, however, is made of how Christmas on a Rational Planet, as the Virgin era wound down towards an uncertain future, showed that there was, at least, such a thing as post-Virgin ideas.