Steve Lyons’s Conundrum is the fourth and penultimate part of the Alternate History arc. It’s another sequel book, this time to The Mind Robber, so clearly I’m going to have some things to say below. As with much of this book arc, it’s also largely about ratcheting up the tensions within the TARDIS, and everyone is at everyone else’s throats for much of the book. It is quite acclaimed – indeed, the most popular of the five books, coming in tenth place on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings. Craig Hinton claimed it as an “absolute masterpiece,” while Lars Pearson calls it “Tremendous.” So obviously I’m going to have something terrible to say. Before that, however, the DWRG summary and Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s January of 1994. Mr. Blobby is still at number one. This comes to a swift end, as Chaka Demus and Pliers get to number one with “Twist and Shout” featuring Jack Radics and Taxi Gang, which seems like far too many people for “Twist and Shout.” Two weeks later it’s unseated by D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better,” which plays out the month, keeping “All For Love” by Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting out of number one. That also seems like too many artists, really, for anything. Culture Beat, Eternal, Haddaway, Depeche Mode, Toni Braxton, and Tori Amos all make the top ten as well, the latter with “Cornflake Girl.”
In the news, NAFTA is properly established. Nancy Kerrigan is whacked in the leg, setting off one of the greatest sports melodramas ever. In one of the greatest purely symbolic acts of foreign relations ever, the US and Russia sign the Kremlin accords, agreeing not to actually point their nuclear weapons at each other but to aim them only if they intend to actually blow up the world. Two blank shots are fired at Prince Charles in Australia. This is, so far as I can tell, utterly unrelated to him retiring from competitive polo a few weeks earlier. Katharine, Dutchess of Kent, converts to Catholicism. And Shannon Faulkner breaks the gender barrier at The Citadel, a US military college, and quickly dropped out in the face of the torrent of sexist abuse she received.
While in dead trees, Conundrum. Steve Lyons is something of a bogey-writer for me. He’s terribly well-acclaimed. According to Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, he’s got top-ten novels in the Past Doctors Adventures and New Adventures, and places at fifteenth in the Eighth Doctor Adventures and sixteenth in the Missing Adventures. And yet I’ve done his work twice – The Witch Hunters in the Hartnell book and The Fires of Vulcan here – and came away unimpressed both times despite the acclaim. And here I am with his most acclaimed book and yet again I have trouble with him.
Admittedly explaining the Land of Fiction was never going to be a way to win my heart. If there’s a premise for a Doctor Who story I’m more likely to outright hate than that, It doesn’t spring to mind easily. It’s not that claiming that the Land of Fiction was created by the Gods of Ragnarok is unreasonable from some sort of continuity sense. It’s perfectly plausible that beings like the Gods of Ragnarok would create the Land of Fiction. It’s just stupid. It takes a terribly inventive concept from Doctor Who – the idea that there’s a world in which all of the creations of literature and imagination reside as real beings – and makes it the discarded entertainment of a random villain from a late-80s story. Yes, Greatest Show in the Galaxy was a very good late-80s story, and the Gods of Ragnarok were pretty good villains, but there’s not a villain in Doctor Who that compares to the idea of a place where all of humanity’s ideas are real beings.
The problem here shouldn’t need to be spelled out, but just in case, it’s that this is Whoniversal logic. The Land of Fiction had, prior to this book, been a moment of oddity and whimsy – something that it was very difficult to explain within the context of the rest of the show. (Indeed, as I’ve argued, it’s something that seems to beg to be read in such a way as to break with the rest of the show.) This is not a problem, or at least, it shouldn’t be, save for the tediously Urizenic portion of fandom who’s hell-bent on making sure everything in Doctor Who makes rational, singular sense. And yet clearly it is and the Land of Fiction needs to be fixed into some continuity-bound thing explicable primarily in terms of other Doctor Who stories instead of, you know, the entire history and future of literature.
On a purely emotional level, I just sort of want to scream a lot about how the least this segment of fandom could do is let the rest of us have The Mind Robber without fussing. I mean, I’d happily trade the ability to critique the most Whoniversal of Doctor Who stories – let’s say Attack of the Cybermen – in exchange for everyone else agreeing not to fuck up The Mind Robber. I mean, if there’s one story that we ought to get to keep for the “Doctor Who is weird and eccentric” brigade it’s The Mind Robber, a story whose entire point is a sort of playful allusiveness and an insistence on working through associative logic.
But Conundrum exists, and so we have to confront an attempt to ruin one of the best stories in Doctor Who. Fine. Let’s look at what we have, then. The first thing we can see is that Conundrum does make a serious bid at correcting the closest thing to a fault that The Mind Robber had, which was that it wasn’t as technically inventive as it could be. The example I used back in the actual post on the story was the one in which Jamie reads the ticker tape upon which the Doctor and Zoe’s encounter with the Minotaur is being recorded. Nowadays any television writer worth their salt would realize that you want to put the cliffhanger on Jamie reading out text about something horrible happening to the Doctor and Zoe, not on the Doctor and Zoe being charged by a Minotaur. But The Mind Robber doesn’t, and there are a host of similar little things where the story opts against a genuinely interesting bit of technique in favor of playing things a little more straightforwardly.
Conundrum, on the other hand, is intent on exploring the technical implications of its premise. It’s narrated by the current Master of the Land of Fiction, who is diegetically writing the novel. And so there are all sorts of clever moments when the narrative actually gets out of the control of its ostensible author and he struggles to get it back, or where the narrator makes amusing metatextual nods at the reader. As the story goes on the characters, particularly the Doctor, start becoming increasingly aware of what’s going on, leading to snarky exchanges between the Doctor and the narrator, most memorably when the Doctor correctly identifies that a chapter is ending. Eventually other characters get in on the game, including Benny, who has a fantastic moment when she gets outraged that she took a bath during the novel.
There are also a few moments that push the premise further. Ace is, at one point put on trial, with the accusation being that she’s outlived her usefulness as a character. On top of that, she’s attacked with books, including Dragonfire, Love and War, and Deceit. This isn’t the only moment where the fictionality of Doctor Who starts to bleed into the narrative either – there’s a moment towards the end in which it’s fleetingly implied that the Doctor knows that there’s always an audience watching him. These are quite clever, and push the idea of the Land of Fiction in directions The Mind Robber was too shy to explore.
Lyons is also taking a swing at character drama, continuing a theme that’s been building for several books now about the tensions among the TARDIS crew. At this point in the series they just seem to flat-out not get along very well, and Benny admits in the book that she’s thinking about leaving, while Ace discusses her reasons for staying and comes across stunningly unsympathetically in doing so. (Basically, she’s staying on the TARDIS to try to one-up the Doctor.) There’s an extent to which this begs to be read as the Davison era done right – an attempt to have a soap opera going on within the TARDIS crew. And there are some good scenes, particularly Benny’s confiding to someone that she’s just met that she’s thinking of leaving the TARDIS.
And for all that there are reasons to be grumpy about Conundrum, it’s not as though its implication is that we have to simply pack up our elaborate theories about the Land of Fiction and go home. This is a bit odd, actually, since the odds that Steve Lyons was trying to imply that the Doctor is the exiled ruler of the Land of Fiction seem low at best. And yet there are moments like the one where the narrator tells the Doctor that “you’re the whole reason this place exists.” Admittedly this can also be parsed in terms of the larger plot of someone meddling in time and setting up the Land of Fiction anew, but it works just as well to suggest an inherent connection between the Land of Fiction and the Doctor.
But so what if there is? Who cares if the Doctor is the ruler of the Land of Fiction when the Land of Fiction is just an abandoned plaything of the Gods of Ragnarok? The Land of Fiction is pathetic in this book – a run of the mill alternate dimension that’s easily disrupted by McAllerson’s radiation, a concept seemingly utterly lacking in point. (And a missed opportunity: the correct name is blatantly McGuffin’s radiation) Even the idea of becoming fictional is rubbished, with the Doctor suggesting it really just means that the Master of the Land of Fiction kills you and then writes stories about you. Yes, you can still link the Doctor inherently to the Land of Fiction. Heck, you can do it even more easily if you build off of the Doctor’s line in Greatest Show in the Galaxy about fighting the Gods of Ragnarok across all of time. But there’s no fun in it anymore. There’s no point. All the mercury’s drained out.
It’s telling that for all the ways in which Conundrum pushes the envelope in ways The Mind Robber didn’t, The Mind Robber is ultimately the story that is willing to push the big, conceptual envelope. Conundrum plays at boldness, attacking Ace’s validity as a fictional character, but then the novel just pulls away from that, letting her pull herself out of her nightmarish dream sequence and return to reality through a supreme act of willpower. Which, having raised the game to where the character is in active existential danger, just feels like a cop-out.
And this just about sums it up. Conundrum feels as though it thinks it’s brave for pushing the Land of Fiction concept further than The Mind Robber does, but it has nothing to say about it. It’s clever, but it’s shallow in its cleverness. The Mind Robber had a wealth of ideas, but in hindsight what is so striking about it is how laid back it is about them and how willing to is to be understated in its execution. There’s a playful inventiveness to The Mind Robber, and a confidence that its ideas can stand up on their own merits. Conundrum has far fewer ideas, and is far more ostentatious about them.
But this is oddly appropriate. Conundrum takes another step in advancing one of the New Adventures’ pet theories, namely that the Seventh Doctor forced the regeneration of the Sixth, and that the Sixth was particularly prone to becoming the Valeyard. Given the fleeting presence of the Valeyard it’s fitting that the exorcism-like nature of the Colin Baker era comes up here. Because the fact of the matter is that Conundrum’s problems are the problems that have been plaguing the entire line since at least Deceit. It’s trying for anti-heroic, edgy storytelling, and it just can’t figure out how to reconcile that with being Doctor Who. And it knows it.
In Conundrum, at least, this crosses into something else. The most telling bits are the bits about the White Knight and Doctor Nemesis. It’s not quite clear what they’re trying to do. It’s tempting to say that Lyons is imitating the darkening trends in superhero comics themselves of the time, but superhero comics were going in the Image Comics hypermasculine direction in the early nineties, not in this sort of deconstructed nostalgia direction. If Lyons is trying to parody that by making a dark and violent version of an Adam West-style character, on the other hand, he runs into the problem of misjudging the future: Conundrum’s approach is almost indistinguishable from a Geoff Johns comic. If it’s a parody, it’s one that has since been subsumed by reality. And that makes its efforts to resist the gravity of hard-edged anti-heroic storytelling strained.
And this is the problem. Most of the New Adventures writers don’t know how to do antiheroic storytelling effectively, in no small part because it’s hard and character-based and nothing like what Doctor Who usually does. The novels are trying to do this big plot about tensions on the TARDIS, but to do that right the audience should sympathize with everybody. Instead everybody is eminently punchable. The tensions are paper-thin and irritating. The only person to have made them work is Kate Orman, and she did it by absolutely breaking the Doctor. As standard operating procedure, this just isn’t successful.
And in a way, Conundrum is the perfect symbol of this. Like the entire line thus far, it’s got some good ideas about what more mature storytelling techniques should be used for Doctor Who, but not a lot of ideas about what to stories to tell. And here it ends up finally eating its own tail, applying its slightly misguided techniques to the story that is most capable of resisting them and exposing the techniques for what they are. The result is a novel that seems to move the New Adventures to a point of crisis. Simply put, there’s not a plausible way to continue like this. These joyless triumphs of style over substance are not a plausible approach, even with some very clever bits. Even if this is what Doctor Who had to be for the cultural moment of the early 1990s, this book seems to mark the point where the limitations of that approach become restrictions. Simply put, this may have been what the New Adventures had to do in this period, but the use of this approach is running out. And while I’ll readily agree that Conundrum is more technically impressive than, say, Blood Heat, I think in its success it reveals its weaknesses more deeply than Blood Heat did. It seems, not for the first time in the history of Doctor Who, like something has to give.