I’ll Explain Later
Lungbarrow is the final New Adventure featuring the Seventh Doctor, and ostensibly leads straight into the TV Movie. It dusts off the script that Marc Platt had to revise into Ghost Light, which was originally a bevy of revelations about the Doctor’s past and the nature of Gallifrey. As a book it becomes even more sprawling, finally rendering explicit the whole of the not-actually-Cartmel Masterplan, establishing at long last the relationship between the Doctor and the mysterious Other. The Doctor is the Other reincarnated. So that’s a thrilling shock. At the time Dave Owen wasn’t thrilled, calling it “rather more frustrating than rewarding” and saying that “it’s weird and wunderful – but, unfortunately, never simultaneously.” Lars Pearson, more recently, went with calling it “one of the most ambitious ‘Who’ novels ever, worthy of considerable praise.” Pearson’s view carries the day: it comes in fourth in Sullivan’s rankings with an 83.6%, which is good for a tie with fifth place. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s March of 1997. No Doubt remain silent at the top of the charts. After two weeks the Spice Girls have a single out – “Mama/Who Do You Think You Are.” That’s not one that charted in the US, but it goes straight to number one and stays there for the rest of the month. The Bee Gees, En Vogue, Bush, Ant & Dec, Boyzone, the Fugees, R. Kelly, the Backstreet Boys, Madonna, and the Pet Shop Boys also chart.
In real news, one of the most famous UFO sightings ever, the Phoenix Lights, takes place. Yes, The X-Files was tremendously popular around now, why do you ask? Hale-Bopp makes its closest approach to Earth, the Tamil Tigers kill over two hundred people in Sri Lanka, and the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cultists takes place in San Diego. While in the UK, John Major calls his doomed election, and The Sun promptly endorses Blair. And Teletubbies debuts!
While in fine literature, Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow. The book’s existence is an oddity. On the one hand, it was inevitable. The simple reality of Doctor Who fandom was that all of Virgin’s playing around with the Cartmel Masterplan had to be paid off. Never mind that there wasn’t actually all that much playing around with it – the Death/Time/Pain set of Eternals feature far more heavily than the mythology of the Other. It had to be done. Whatever one might think of Lungbarrow, the idea that the Virgin line could end without doing this story is unthinkable.
Which is largely a pity, because it’s rubbish. Every revelation in this book is complete rubbish. Neil Gaiman relates the story of how in an early draft of The Doctor’s Wife he had a line about how the Corsair was an inspiration for the Doctor leaving Gallifrey, and Moffat told him to take it out because the Doctor “does what he does for reasons too vast and terrible to relate.” Which is pretty much the problem – a problem we first noticed way back around Season Twenty and Longleat. Fans may spend hours debating things like why the Doctor left Gallifrey, but no answer can possibly be as interesting as the debate. Case in point: why did the Doctor flee Gallifrey? Because of political machinations on the part of one of his cousins. Why can’t he return? Because the Hand of Omega caused the TARDIS to go back into the ancient history of Gallifrey, which violates the new First Law of Time.
Does anyone seriously think that the series is improved by this revelation? Does anyone actually find this more satisfying than the original mystery? Whatever one might think of the Looms and Houses, or even the mythology of the Other, surely nobody would actually say that the explanation that the Doctor fled Gallifrey because of a family argument is a good or reasonable thing. Surely nobody thinks that the series is better for having squared that away. Like any answer to that question the only possible response to it is “oh, is that all?” It’s striving for the mythic and landing with a damp thud. Which, of course, Cartmel knew from the start, which is why his ostensible “masterplan” never actually involved revealing any of this. Cartmel has always been adamant that he wanted to increase the mystery about the Doctor. It would be difficult for this to be more incompatible with that goal.
The business with Rassilon and the Other is only a slight improvement. At least the ancient history of the Time Lords is something that can be revealed without any major damage to the series. The results may be dull and masturbatory, but they are at least inoffensive. The Doctor may be a Time Lord, but Gallifrey is not his milieu, and the Time lords are ultimately just another species for him to cast himself opposite. They can be defined as anything so long as it’s something the Doctor has broken from. In this regard, at least, the revelations about them here are no worse than the retcons of Genesis of the Daleks, which is to say, not bad at all. The problem is in the interplay between the Other and the Doctor.
From the start the point of the Other was that he was almost certainly the Doctor. A mysterious figure in Gallifrey’s past about whom little is known revealed in Doctor Who is obviously going to be eventually shown to be the Doctor mucking around in Gallifrey’s past. Nobody doubted that. The tension around the Other was entirely based on the question of whether the series would pull the trigger on that. After all, there is a heavy degree of point of no return with it. Once you’ve revealed the Doctor as the secret lost architect of Gallifrey you’ve pretty much decimated all notion of him as the little man who brings down empires. He becomes a massive, mythic figure forevermore at that point. So the tension of the Other is one of apprehension – what looks like the natural consequence of the storyline seems unsatisfying, but until that consequence plays out the story looks interesting. This happens to also be the crux of the problem The X-Files eventually ran into.
In this regard Lungbarrow’s solution can be described as serviceable. The Doctor isn’t actually the Other, he’s just the Other’s genetic material reincarnated through the Looms. It’s not quite a cop-out, but it isn’t exactly thrilling either. It’s a deft splitting the difference – the Doctor himself remains distant from the epic sweep of ancient Gallifrey, but the Other still gets resolved in the way that it always had to be. But there’s still something just a bit drab about it. Now we know why the Doctor is special, which leaves the question of why we needed to know that in the first place. Surely thirty-three years of history establish why he’s special well enough without a secret origin.
Which leaves the House of Lungbarrow itself. Admittedly an ancient and sentient house hidden under a mountain and torturing its residents is a neat image. But that’s the problem: it’s an image. It’s designed to look cool in a non-visual medium. The fact that Lungbarrow was originally intended for television is altogether too obvious here. Which means that the good bits of Lungbarrow are the ones we already saw, since all of the visual creepiness of the story was done by Ghost Light. Oddly and ironically, at the very end of the Seventh Doctor’s time in the Virgin Books, we go back to the most basically lame conception of the books imaginable: books that wish they were television episodes. Stories too sensibly vetoed by John Nathan-Turner for the small screen.
Which, at the end of the day, is the dirty secret of Lungbarrow. Yes, it was inevitable. There was never any way that the Virgin line could avoid paying off the supposed Cartmel Masterplan. But the reason why it was inevitable is telling. There was, after all, nothing all that good about the Cartmel Masterplan. That’s why Cartmel had next to no interest in the thing. But because legend had it that this was the lost destiny of the television program it had to be explored. Never mind that it wasn’t. The merest hint that this might have been something that could have gone on television obliges it to be completed. This is, of course, still prevalent logic – it’s why Big Finish’s Lost Stories line exists.
At their best, however, the New Adventures at least aspired to escape that gravity. That was the heart of their delightfully bold claim that they were Doctor Who now. Doctor Who was a line of novels now that had happened to be a television show once. But here, at their end they slink dejectedly back into the orbit of television. In this regard it’s fitting that this is where the Seventh Doctor era ends, feeding obligingly into the TV Movie. albeit with a few small petulances, most notably its tacit rubbishing of the idea that the Doctor is half-human. (The first of many.) The Virgin line was ultimately brought down by the vicissitudes of television, and so, after the swaggering heights of The Room With No Doors we get a story that is painfully beholden to television.
For all that we’ve spent the Virgin years developing a wealth of innovative concepts to secure the future of Doctor Who, the fact of the matter is that a controlling bloc of fandom wanted a television show. The ambitions of the Virgin era might have been literary, but there was no real mandate for it. The Virgin line was always keeping the seat warm for television, and when its end came it was never going to be allowed to be a high concept character study that pushed the nature of the Doctor to new extremes a la The Room With No Doors. It was always going to be Lungbarrow and the slow deflation back towards television.
Implicit in this, though, is the fact that the “cult” model for Doctor Who was still well and truly in place. And remember, this is chronologically after the TV Movie. We’d all seen the cult approach dash itself pathetically on the rocks. But here the logic of cult television is firmly back in place. You have to do an origin story, you have to have big, epic resonances, you have to properly worship at the feet of the larger continuity. Indeed, the only objections anyone bothered to raise against the TV Movie were the ways in which it had violated the larger continuity: the stupid half-human claim. It’s clear that Platt has no interest in the TV Movie or anything it did. He feeds into it grudgingly and perfunctorily, because that’s what the last Seventh Doctor book has to do. His detailed account of the Doctor’s origins in the looms makes a mockery out of the half-human claim. But that’s his only objection, it seems: the fact that the half-human claim doesn’t gel with what we know about Gallifrey and the Doctor. That and snogging are the apparent extent of the objection to the TV Movie. Everyone still seems to believe that if only the TV Movie had been done more faithfully to the original series it would have thrived.
We’ll get to the wealth of things that were wrong and misconceived about the TV Movie in a week and a half. But it’s telling that the logic of this last bit of raging against the dying of the light and the logic that birthed the TV Movie are indistinguishable. There’s nothing Lungbarrow is trying to do that is incompatible with the TV Movie’s goals. The only difference is that the TV Movie is doing standard issue Joseph Campbell where Lungbarrow is doing… well, actually, standard issue Joseph Campbell again. In other words, the logic that made Lungbarrow inevitable is the same logic that led to the TV Movie itself. Which is to say that whatever the TV Movie’s flaws, and there are reams of them, it too was inevitable. It didn’t matter how good the Virgin books were. Doctor Who was doomed to become a crappy American cult sci-fi show, and the Virgin Books couldn’t hope to escape the gravity of that black hole.
Which basically brings this phase of the operation to an end. We’ve got three more entries that are going to go into what will eventually be the sprawlingly massive Sylvester McCoy book – A Death in the Family on Monday (you can buy that here), and then Oh No It Isn’t and Down rounding out the week. As with any era transition, it’s a period of checking off a last few boxes and setting up some themes I’ll have use for as we start the next era. Then on Christmas Eve we’ll do the Pop Between Realities entry that will kick off the McGann/Eccleston book, and do the TV Movie on Boxing Day. And then, actually back to Virgin again twice in the next month. But this is basically how it ends – stuck in a not-entirely-interesting bit of continuity and feeding into a TV story it clearly doesn’t even like.
In the spirit of wrapping up loose ends, then, let’s tug briefly at one strand of all of this: Susan. Lungbarrow, for all its faults, offers the closest thing to a compelling account of the character as exists. It’s clear that the pre-Unearthly Child era is something of a pet project for Platt – in addition to Lungbarrow and a pair of Unbound audios dealing with an alternate Doctor that never left Gallifrey he’s done a Companion Chronicle based on the briefly alluded to Quinnis, plus he wrote an Eighth Doctor audio in which the Doctor and Susan reunite. So there is perhaps no other author quite so interested in the Problem of Susan.
And to his credit, the explanation given here works. Susan is in fact the Other’s granddaughter, and recognizes her grandfather’s essence in the Doctor. This is, of course, a blatant retcon to the Hartnell era, casting Susan as a character who is in key regards more knowledgeable than the Doctor. But it also literalizes the essential tension of Susan. What is challenging about Susan is the way in which she haunts the narrative, insisting on it going in directions it doesn’t want to. In the Hartnell era proper she haunts it by introducing sex and sexuality to the series, both in her own coming of age and the implication her very existence brings that the Doctor has investments and loves and roots. Her existence necessarily posits a limit on how much the Doctor can fall out of the world, and her relationship with the Doctor forces a limit on how much she can grow into it. Then, in the aftermath of the Hartnell era, she becomes the thing that cannot be squared away: the companion that it simply cannot be reasonably explained why the Doctor has never gone back for. The detail of Gallifrey that never quite makes sense. And Platt, by establishing her roots in the ancient past of Gallifrey, finds a way to literally put her in a period where she haunts the narrative, serving as a lost mythology literally as well as figuratively. At last there’s something of an explanation: the Doctor doesn’t go back for her because she is a relic of a mythology that no longer quite connects to the present.
Much like Lungbarrow.