One more post of dotting ts, crossing is, and playing with some of the concepts from the Deadly Assassin Megapost, then we’ll do Face of Evil on Wednesday. Here I want to look again at the ways in which having an understanding of history and of the world more complex than the ones I critiqued in the Deadly Assassin entry – or for that matter in the Masque of Mandragora essay – makes for better writing than those of Big-Ass Science or the limited views of the nature of time and history espoused by mainstream fandom. And for that we have Peter Darvill-Evan’s almost but not-quite excellent book Asylum.
The first thing that should be said about Asylum is that Darvill-Evans is a much better writer than he is a historian. It’s actually a relatively minor point within the book, but he goes out of his way to have the Doctor endorse a particular historical view of Roger Bacon in which he is not actually a meaningful figure in the history of science on the grounds that his overall worldview was insufficiently empiricist. I am not a medieval/renaissance scholar, and I am not going to wade too far into this debate, but Darvill-Evans’s view amounts to a variation on the idea that the rise of science was a light switch that got thrown somewhere in human history in which everybody became an empiricist.
And this is very clearly what Darvill-Evans does. He has the Doctor say that Nyssa’s thesis is inaccurate. Her thesis is explicitly that Bacon is a proto-scientist and that an understanding of the “dawning of the technological age” should extend back at least as far as him, as opposed to merely to the twentieth century or the Industrial Revolution. To say that is flatly untrue is, well, flatly untrue. Whether or not Bacon ought be called a “scientist” proper is beyond my expertise, but he clearly has an important place in the history of science.
This isn’t quite nitpicking, but it highlights an important point about the relationship between art and criticism. Darvill-Evans is a pretty good writer, all told. I mean, he’s not one of the greats of the English language, but as guys who writes books based on a ropey old cancelled sci-fi series go, he’s got some real game. He writes a good story. And we know for a fact he was a damn fine editor, because he edited the Virgin range, and those were massively transformative books for Doctor Who.
That said, his critical essay at the end of the book is… well, see, I don’t want to say rubbish. It’s not rubbish. What it is, however, is a good writer trying his hand at criticism and missing a bit. Because there is a relationship. If you can write a good novel, you know enough about how novels write to do decent criticism. If you can write a good piece of criticism, you can probably bash out a novel if called to. But that doesn’t mean they’re the same concept. They’re just closely related. Darvill-Evans writes an essay that is genuinely good for somebody who has no training in criticism, but it gets some basic stuff wrong. Then again, if I were to bash out a Doctor Who novel, I’d probably manage some staggeringly basic screw-ups too. They’re different skills.
So for example, you have in his little concluding essay the fact claim that “the fact that place names and even some buildings survive for centuries gives a misleading impression of continuity.” Well, no, it doesn’t. It gives a completely accurate impression of continuity – the fact that the present developed out of the past. What it gives a misleading impression of is stasis – the idea that the past is identical to the present, or that any given thing from it has survived. And so as a result he confuses “Roger Bacon is different from a contemporary scientist” with “Roger Bacon was not a predecessor to modern science.”
And here we have the rub. Darvill-Evans has a great book here, but he doesn’t quite have the know-how of theory and criticism needed to do the job he’s trying to do correctly. And so he gets that detail wrong. But what’s interesting is that he gets it wrong in a way that is largely incidental. It’s one specific detail he gets wrong in a book that has much larger ambitions and that ends up being a quite impressive commentary on and partial indictment of Doctor Who in 1976.
The comics writer Warren Ellis, for a while, knocked on fascinatingly about the idea of the unexploded bombs of the twentieth century – the unresolved detritus of history still recent enough to feel visceral but buried enough to feel forgotten. This phrase – unexplored bombs – necessarily has more power in the UK than in the US. In the UK, there is still the problem of literal unexploded bombs – mostly German-made ones from the war – lying around in places and waiting to maim or kill someone. This is the metaphor Ellis is going for – the lurking disasters of wars we thought were over. In this book, then, Darvill-Evans deals with the unexploded bombs 1970s Doctor Who – the Baker era most obviously, but also and significantly the Pertwee era.
The most obvious aspect of this is the Doctor/Companion pairing – the Doctor some four seasons before he meets Nyssa, and Nyssa from long after she parted company with the Doctor. This is a carefully chosen pairing. Baker’s Doctor and Nyssa go together, but just barely. But Nyssa at the end of her story really and in a fundamental sense doesn’t go with Baker’s Doctor. There’s one very simple reason for this: Adric.
So, not to spoil the big surprise or anything, but there’s this companion named Adric who shows up late in Baker’s run, and he bites the dust towards the end of Peter Davison’s last season in a big, moving episode with a silent credit sequence so that fans can properly hear the sound of their own delighted cackling. We’ll do a more even-handed treatment when we come to it, but this is significant in that he’s the only “proper” companion to die (Katarina and Sara both being marginal examples).
The thing is, Adric’s death couldn’t have happened in the Baker era. I mean, they thought about things like that – Leela, Sarah Jane, and the Brigadier were all, at various points, slated for demolition. But they never did, and there’s an obvious reason for that – Baker, like Pertwee, is leading man. The leading man role is defined by a certain invulnerability. All of the Doctors since Hartnell have been played as highly charismatic figures, but Baker and Pertwee take it further in a particular direction than anyone else. Their Doctors are not only charismatic but particularly unchanging and imperious – to the point where getting the Doctor dirty and having him shot at a bit was a big, transgressive moment. They are, in other words, safe.
This is violated occasionally, most particularly with Sarah’s manic reaction to going blind in The Brain of Morbius, but for the most part there’s not a frequent sense that real harm might come to the characters. Even when Sarah complains about her circumstances, she never quite complains about the danger, instead saying “I’m sick of being cold and wet, and hypnotised left right and centre. I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been.” She’s annoyed, not scared.
In other words, what you have here is a Doctor who genuinely doesn’t believe that any harm can come to his companions and a companion who knows better. Or, to put it another way, a companion who desperately wants to find somewhere safe and a Doctor who has no understanding of how bad he is at providing it. This, in turn, is laid against an interesting plot for the novel as a whole. The novel consists of two prologues, seven chapters, and an epilogue. All of the overtly science fiction content takes place in the prologues and epilogues. The middle section could, for all practical purposes, be a historical in the classic Hartnell tradition.
In the prologues and epilogue, however, we get a story about alien refugees who, in a desperate bid to survive, send one of their number back in time to try to get Roger Bacon, the nearest thing to a scientist they can find, to whip up a decent elixir of life for them. The events of the middle section are caused by this, but the actual causes don’t ever infiltrate the Doctor’s consciousness. For all the Doctor knows, he’s having a historical adventure, albeit one caused by something futzing with history.
The result is a rarity in Doctor Who stories – a story where the reader knows far more than the Doctor does throughout the story. The Doctor never encounters the aliens. Which means he never saves them either. They fail – not because of the Doctor as such (their plan would never have worked), but in a way related to him. He drops into their world, stops their scheme, and leaves without realizing they’re there or helping them. He misses this material suffering, and the worst part is, he doesn’t even look for it, instead treating all suffering that happens in the past as necessary and thus not worth looking at or thinking seriously about.
Taken in parallel with the book’s dismissal of Bacon this begins to look like an attack on the “great man” theory of history. This theory is itself something of an unexploded bomb – discredited among scholars and seemingly immortal among the laity. Its main point is pretty much what it says on the tin – that historical progress comes from the intervention of “great men” – called “heroes” in the original formulation – at key moments. Attached to this is a sense of an objective history that is described externally – as a narrative with convenient main characters, as opposed to as a subjective, messy narrative comprised of memories and conflicts. “Great man” history, in practice, is usually nothing more than a tool to erase marginal perspectives from history in favor of a perspective that is not even that of the dominant culture, but a perspective specifically of those with power within that culture. And I’ll go one further and suggest that the view of the Time Lords as all-powerful technocrats overseeing history embraced by fandom is inexorably linked to the flaws of “great man” history.
To be fair, in 1976, Doctor Who cannot help endorsing great man theory for a simple reason – it’s a show abut a hero who goes around intervening in key moments of history all the time. This is, philosophically, a real problem. And the solution, such as it is, is eventually to raise larger ethical questions about the Doctor – to ask if, in fact, he is a great man driving forward the engine of history or whether he’s a figure of destruction and calamity. The split of Nyssa and the Doctor being from opposite ends of Adric’s death is, ultimately, about this. We have a Doctor who is unambiguously a Great Man, and a companion who knows unambiguously that he’s not, at least in the capital-letter sense of that phrase.
But what Darvill-Evans misses the opportunity to do by misunderstanding Bacon is to argue for an alternative model to this formulation. He misses the opportunity to show that even if the great man model is flawed, there’s still a sense of historical development that comes out of the everyday messiness of human behavior. The result is a book that delivers an effective critique, but that doesn’t have anything left in the tank when its done beyond a variation on Terry Nation’s appallingly cliche “the only alternative to living is dying” sentiment from Death to the Daleks. Whereas a book that had taken Bacon’s transitional role in the development of science seriously while still showing the failures of treating him as the forefather of science, and in which the Doctor’s didactic monologue had reflected this complexity instead of essentially bullying Nyssa with an “I’m a better interpreter of history than you” monologue would have, in every regard, been better than this.
But the problem is ultimately one of insufficient theory. Darvill-Evans is playing with the right set of ideas, but ultimately doesn’t quite know them enough to build them into the story he wants to tell. The result is a story that shows us a lot of problems with how the show was handling history and heroism in 1976, but that doesn’t quite manage to move beyond them. But in the end, there’s only so much one can criticize a Doctor Who book with a past Doctor for failing to transcend the limitations of the show that existed in the era it was set in. Yes, Darvill doesn’t quite show how to get from Doctor Who’s frustrating reliance on great man history to a suitably messy and materialist view of the world. But then again, we’re not going to solve that problem completely any time on the show soon either.