It’s March of 2002. Westlife are at number one with “World of Our Own,” which goes a week before Will Young takes over with “Anything is Possible/Evergreen.” This lasts almost to the end of the month, but Gareth Gates’s “Unchained Melody” ends up playing us out. Kylie Minogue, R Kelly, Shakira, Nickelback, Ali G and Shaggy, Celine Dion, Marilyn Manson, and Natalie Imbruglia also chart. In news, the US war in Afghanistan goes on, though really, it’s not like I’m going to write that for every entry for the remainder of the blog. Milly Dowler goes missing, which will turn out to have impressive effects on the British newspaper industry. And the Queen Mother dies, it being another bad year for the monarchy.
And in specialty shops, Seasons of Fear. There is a problem that plagues writers. It manifests in one of the most depressing comments imaginable from readers: I liked your old stuff better. Nobody likes being told this. And understandably so, given that its distinct implication is that you’re washed up and past your prime. It applies to all forms of art, really. But there’s a real problem underlying the complaint: people early on in their careers have a hunger and an ambition that often fades with critical and financial success. Even a very good writer like Neil Gaiman suffers from it: once he hit mainstream American success with American Gods he entered a decade-long fallow period in which he did virtually nothing that wasn’t predictable and catered to his existing fanbase, and it was only when he was put in the position of writing for an audience that hadn’t heard of him, and with an editor who was as accomplished a writer as he was that he turned out The Doctor’s Wife. (And notably, this, along with marriage, seems to have given him a late career spring in his step.
But there’s another and somewhat bleaker reason this happens, which is that some artists fuel their best work with anger or depression and, as they mature, grow to be altogether stabler and happier people. And in terms of his Doctor Who work, Paul Cornell largely has that problem. His first four New Adventures are all brilliant, but they’re animated in a large part by Cornell’s tangible anger in the period. When, later in the New Adventures, he settled down and wrote his comedy books like Happy Endings and Oh No It Isn’t!, both of which are terribly fun, but neither of which have anything like the impactful heft of Love and War, little yet Human Nature.
Cornell has said that he wrote The Shadow of the Scourge and The Shadows of Avalon from a very dark place, and it shows. Both are flawed works, but they very much rekindle the crackling passion of his early New Adventures. But by Seasons of Fear Cornell had gotten his head screwed back on, was working with his girlfriend and soon-to-be fiancee Caroline Symcox, and was largely back to the more comedy-adventure mode of his latter New Adventures. And, well, the fact of the matter is that though Cornell is very good in this mode, it’s not the approach he’s Paul Cornell for. And so while Gatiss and Shearman were ultimately hired by Davies to do things very similar to what they did for Big Finish, Paul Cornell was, with Father’s Day, given the brief to go back to the New Adventures style – a brief that was made even more literal with Human Nature/The Family of Blood.
In fact, the truth is that after Human Nature it was Kate Orman who most thoroughly embodied the stuff Cornell was known for, and for most of the late 90s/early 00s she was the brighter star and better Doctor Who writer. It’s not like Cornell was slacking in that period, however – he racked up soap opera credits and established himself as a credible force in television. But in terms of the sorts of things he was best at in Doctor Who, Orman was beating him handily. The only thing is that Cornell broke meaningfully into British television, and part of the deal with the BBC showering money on a revamp of Doctor Who was that it wasn’t going to be massively beholden to fans and was going to use real television writers. (So much so that Davies actually had to have a bit of a fight to get Shearman, who was only a terribly well-acclaimed playwright and radio writer with a television episode under his belt) So Kate Orman was simply not in the cards because she’s not a television writer, and the BBC, for wholly understandable reasons, would prefer new television writers not start with their terribly expensive flagship series.
I mean, I’m not suggesting that Cornell was somehow the second choice. He was friends with Davies, had worked with him before, and was a superlative Doctor Who writer with solid television experience. He was a no-brainer to hire. But I am noting that he was hired primarily on the basis of work that, by early 2002, was seven years old. This is an odd sort of criticism. Effectively it means that Cornell was the first writer to qualify to write for the new series. But he ended up stuck in amber for a bit. I should also note that this does not amount to a criticism of his entire career. These days Cornell works mostly in comics (though he had a good-sounding book out with London Falling that I’ve not had time for yet), where his work is a mixed bag that occasionally tips into outright brilliance. He’s found ways of balancing his instinct towards frockish levity with his skill at emotional drama and genuinely dark material, and can more reliably hit the balance that characterizes his best Doctor Who work.
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that Seasons of Fear puts Cornell strangely far from the stuff he’ll be doing in just three years time. Unlike Gatiss and Shearman, who are moving closer to what they’ll provide for the new series, Cornell is actually retreating from it a bit, writing something less like his new series work than The Shadows of Avalon, where his treatment of grief and the Brigadier put him very close to Davies territory. What’s particularly strange about this is that in The Shadows of Avalon we noted that he ended up not really working with the ultra-passionate Doctor created by Orman and Blum in Vampire Science, despite the fact that this Doctor seemed tailor-made for him. Here, however, he does work with that Doctor, but the result is oddly disappointing. There are two aspects of this, both of which are worth discussing.
First there’s McGann, who, as we’ve noted, is mostly uninterested in playing the Doctor as a foppish adventurer, although he can get into moments of giddy excess occasionally. Cornell, in at least one interview, sounds just a bit prickly about this, actually. He complains that McGann’s Doctor is “difficult to get a handle on” and “very straight down the middle… it’s a question of giving him stuff he can use. And what he can use, at the moment, is from a quite narrow band as he finds his feet.” There is an extent to which this is true: McGann’s performance is still embryonic. This stretch of six audios was recorded over the course of a twelve-day period, McGann hasn’t spent a lot of time with the character, and there certainly hasn’t been a lot of work done on the nature of the character. In terms of time spent playing the character, since the TV Movie McGann has been in studio about as long as it used to take to make two episodes. Add in the five weeks spent shooting the TV Movie and you’ve basically got McGann having spent as much time in the part as Patrick Troughton had at the end of The Highlanders Episode One. So we’re still in “I would like a hat like that” territory.
But there’s a sense of a larger tension bubbling under this. McGann has, quite reasonably, not taken his cues from the years of stories written in his absence, but is trying to figure out the part anew. Writers are still trying to catch up. Cornell is still describing the Eighth Doctor as one defined by “passion,” which is a ways from McGann’s sardonic adventurer. So everyone is writing for generic Doctor and hoping McGann puts his stamp on it. McGann is hitting the mark squarely each time, but nobody’s been confident enough to push the character yet. McGann may have only spent a little time on the character, but the writers have spent more with it. Everyone is still a bit gun-shy.
But there’s a second issue, which is that the Eighth Doctor era, even in 2002, is still in a large part a rebuke against the Virgin era that defines Paul Cornell. The Virgin era had dramatically accelerated the process that existed embryonically in the latter Cartmel years, and incompetently in the early Baker years of making the Doctor a somewhat darker figure. This was, at the time, controversial, and the regeneration into McGann’s Doctor was used as an opportunity to have a counterreformation, moving the Doctor back into being a lighter figure. And for all that Paul Cornell is a hopeless romantic and the granddaddy of the frocks, this is simply not an approach that served him well. Cornell’s best work came from the contrast between his romanticism and the darkness of McCoy’s Doctor – so much so that he’s associated as much with the darkness as with the romanticism. But McGann’s Doctor, as developed at this point, doesn’t have the toe-holds for that, leaving Cornell to go for pure romantic silliness. He’s great at pure romantic silliness, but it’s not where he does his best work.
And it’s notable that the new series made its choice definitively in this regard, and it chose the Virgin approach. Not in the completely literal sense of having the Doctor be manipulative again, but in the sense of making sure that the Doctor always had a dark side, whether it be Eccleston’s post-traumatic angst, Tennant’s angry hubris, or Smith’s self-loathing. The fact of the matter is that the counterreformation against the darkness of the Seventh Doctor was a mistake. The savvy authors realized this immediately, with Orman and Blum rushing to find a way to reskin “romantic and passionate” as “reckless,” and Miles quickly realizing that the way you had to make the Eighth Doctor work was to have him blunder into a terrifyingly dark situation like, say, his own death and a war that threatens to destroy time itself. And the arc of the Eighth Doctor Adventures is a steady backpedaling from the counterreformation.
Ironically, McGann has no patience with the counterreformation either. He clearly wants darker material, and to start figuring out ways to balance the Doctor’s romanticism with darkness. Which isn’t actually hard, since, you know, the romantics weren’t exactly all sweetness and light themselves. (In this regard it’s telling that McGann’s first audio begins with a discussion about the composition of Frankenstein, a romantic horror, and that the character eventually ends up with Mary Shelley as his companion.) But the idea that the Virgin era had “excesses” was, in 2002, still influential, if not as openly stated, given that it was a five-year-old war at that point.
All of which highlights another key truth about this period. We’ve covered the complex fan politics of the era several times. And there’s a degree to which the story of the era is the way in which the monster success of Davies’s Doctor Who in 2005 finally washed most of those politics away. But it’s key to realize that the toxicity of the fan politics wasn’t just, or even primarily the way in which they were divisive within Doctor Who fandom. After all, they weren’t; with few exceptions, as we’ve noted, Big Finish and BBC Books shared authors. What was poisonous was the way in which a given work was contextualized. What was really, really bad was the fact that every single piece of Doctor Who had to have a position on the rad/trad debate, a position on the frock/gun debate, a position on how dark the Doctor should be, preferably a theory of continuity, and if it’s not too much, maybe a new take on the Gallifrey debates. Left to fandom the paratext and metatext of Doctor Who had simply gotten too dense and weighty to sustain.
For the most part Big Finish’s great innovation was stepping away from that, and to their credit they mostly managed just that. But the problem with the fan politics were that they had grown to the point where they didn’t need to be consciously engaged with. They had become the ideology of the time – a passive system that lurked perpetually in the background of everything in Doctor Who. You didn’t need to actively engage fan politics. If you were actively engaging Doctor Who you were stuck in them. What’s crucial about the new series isn’t that it was successful and replaced fandom. It’s that it was monstrously successful and won. Its position on every single fan debate became the winning side by virtue of it being an absolutely massive hit.
But before that happened a story like Seasons of Fear, which is mostly a fun bit about a villain who the Doctor fights when he should have helped and about the amusing return of the Nimon, held back with conscious irony as though their appearance was a big deal and a surprise instead of a joke, had to become a story where we get bogged down for two thousand words on the tension between Virgin Books and the romanticism of the Eighth Doctor and how Paul Cornell fits into various eras of the series. Given this context, it’s no wonder McGann can’t quite get anywhere with the character despite his obvious skill at it.