Sorry this is late – not sure why it didn’t post when it was supposed to. Speaking of books, if you’ve bought mine from Amazon or elsewhere, please consider leaving a review. Even if you hated it. Though, I mean, I’d rather you do it if you liked it.
But not, we should stress, too clever for anyone to enjoy. It’s not accurate either to treat the Williams era as some failed experiment before its time. As we saw before, its ratings were solid even without ITV just collapsing. The AI figures show that people genuinely enjoyed it. And perhaps most importantly, Gareth Roberts exists.
Gareth Roberts has, if we are being honest, done more than anyone to rehabilitate the Williams era. I do not merely refer to his quite lovely “Tom the Second” essay discussed back in the Horns of Nimon entry (and before that in the Armageddon Factor entry), although it is a masterpiece of fan writing and its thesis, which can roughly be summarized as “shut up, it’s really fun” ought be, I think, the thesis of far more arguments both scholarly and popular. But his real contribution to Williams-era rehabilitation are his three novels for the Missing Adventures range, all of them set within Season Seventeen.
There are two ways of looking at these novels. On the one hand, Gareth Roberts, who had already put out The Highest Science and Tragedy Day when the Missing Adventures line started and had firmly nailed down his role as “the funny one.” Given that the New Adventures as a whole were pretty strikingly far from the “funny” brief when the Missing Adventures started up Gareth Roberts, who clearly was a great writer in the wrong era with the New Adventures, was a searingly obvious choice to write for them. And this era was a searingly obvious choice for him to write in. In this regard his first Missing Adventure, The Romance of Crime, was almost inevitable – the sort of thing that just followed instinctively from the premise that the Missing Adventures existed. (Less expected was that one of other things that everyone would naturally assume would exist in the Missing Adventures – a Hartnell historical – also came from Roberts and took until The Plotters)
The other perspective, and the one I prefer just because it involves casting Roberts as a sort of Robert Holmes villain cackling away in a cellar and shrieking about how he’ll show them all and how SOON they will RECOGNIZE the POWER of GRAHAM! WILL! IAMS!, is, well, about what I just described. These novels are unabashedly and gloriously Gareth Roberts with a chip on his shoulder hell-bent on showing the world that they’re wrong about his favorite era of Doctor Who. In this regard The Romance of Crime, which was written with such a sense of traditionalism as to adhere to what could plausibly have been made in 1979, is the most obvious. It is unabashedly an attempt to show not what the Williams era could have been but rather to show what it was, in point of fact, when written competently.
It was also a massive success, leading to Roberts doing two more, including this one, The Well-Mannered War, which doubled as the final book in the Missing Adventures line. And so, in a deft bit of continuity positioning, Roberts jumps forward from the gap between Creature From the Pit and Nightmare of Eden that he put his first two books in an positions this one in the gap between the Williams era and the Nathan-Turner era. A new capstone for the Williams era, in other words, and a commentary on the transition from one era of the show to another.
But that commentary is the last few pages of the book, so let’s leave it for a bit. Let’s first do the traditional “clearing up popular misconceptions” moment where we discuss the received wisdom about this book. A lot of people seem to think there’s a shift in tone halfway through. This claim is… puzzling. It is true that the comedic set piece of the first half – a pointless war that is a war in name only, in which the two sides get along perfectly well, and in which there’s even a tea trolley serving the trenches – goes out the window and a war in earnest starts. But this is not so much a darkening of the book as an obvious moment of ratcheting up tension. Of course if you have a wholly defused friendly war in the first act you need to have it turn into a proper war eventually. That’s just how tension goes. Anyone saying that the second half of the book isn’t funny must have stopped reading it midway through.
For one thing, the second half introduces the funniest character in the entire book: Fritchoff the lone Marxist revolutionary. (In fact he’s just the lone member of the rebel militants. There are also three militant rebels, but they’re apparently inherently counter-revolutionary and have also all been murdered by evil flies.) Fritchoff is a marvelous character. He is, of course, mocked ruthlessly by the entire book. But that’s fine. This is meant to be the Williams era. Everyone is mocked ruthlessly by the entire production. Heck, the final shot of the Williams era is Romana making faces at the Doctor for being annoying. (Actually, the only character to evade mockery is Romana, who under Lalla Ward is seemingly above all reproach. Which is fair, let’s face it.)
What’s key about the mockery of Fritchoff is that he’s at once parodic and detailed. For one thing, he’s visibly written by someone who knows his Marxism at least decently well. Roberts nails every single one of the myriad of intellectual and linguistic sins committed by incompetent Marxists. It would be far too easy to give Fritchoff Marxobabble dialogue that just blithely signifies “stupid Marxist,” but instead Fritchoff gets to say things that make sense but are stupid and irrelevant to the matters at hand such as “not getting killed by evil flies.” This goes a tremendous way towards making the parody less mean-spirited. If you’re actually familiar with Marxist literature Fritchoff is even funnier than he is if you’re not. He’s a parody that’s best appreciated by the very people he’s parodying.
Second of all, Roberts is careful to make the jokes at the expense of Fritchoff as a character, not at the expense of what he believes. The Doctor clearly has little patience or interest in Fritchoff’s politics, but all the same expresses respect for his dedication and buys a copy of his newspaper (though he clearly isn’t fond of it). Fritchoff isn’t depicted as bad because he’s a weirdo Marxist living in a hole, but because he’s opportunistic, blinkered, and hypocritical, clearly rationalizing what he wants to do with Marxist rhetoric instead of using Marxism as a set of principles. In other words, it’s not that Marxism or Marxists are bad or silly, but that people like Fritchoff are. None of this is to say that Roberts appears fond of Marxism – he doesn’t and probably isn’t. But there’s a sense of love underlying his mockery. There is no malice or anger behind the jokes, here or anywhere else, and there’s a tangible ethos that as long as you’re also willing to laugh at your own side you’re free to join in on the joke.
This sense of genuine love permeates the book. Roberts clearly grew up on Douglas Adams and his ilk, and has a delicious knack for the comic turn of phrase. But more to the point, the book revels in these phrases. Dialogue like “We are prepared to enter into full negotiations on Barclow, without preconditions. As soon as they accept our terms” is a highlight, as is the phrase “many a cheese-and-wine evening in the trenches” and the moment in which the Doctor pulls a cup of tea from his pockets. These little gems are sprinkled throughout the book and rarely done with any flamboyance or showboating. There’s a sense of understatement to it all. Even the most high concept aspects of the book – most obviously the idea of K-9 running for political office – aren’t wallowed in.
It’s tempting to treat this as a correction to the Williams era – an attempt to reign in the overacting and showboating that plagued several of its stories. But that would be unfair. It’s not as though Roberts doesn’t take opportunities for that kind of broad and hammier comedy as well, most obviously in the character of Menlo Stokes, a fantastically irritating artist. But this is visibly tempered with a willingness to go for humor without also going for wringing every laugh out of the audience. This is writerly humor, not performer’s humor. It’s seeking to make people laugh, but not to wring every laugh possible out of the audience. If anything, the book seems to enjoy knowing that the audience is unlikely to spot every joke on the first pass. The jokes are there because they’re worth making, not just for the reaction.
Certainly this is true of the Williams era as well. Although written before the age of the VCR and permanent copies of thing, the Williams era was made at a point when the attitude towards archiving television was rapidly changing. It was during the Williams era that the attitude of the BBC really changed away from treating its old recordings as irritating clutter and towards treating it as a national treasure to be preserved and archived. And there’s notably a tendency for the writers to do scripts with subtleties and nuances that simply wouldn’t have made sense in an earlier single-use model of television. This, in a real sense, explains the sudden focus on characterization and motivation in the Williams era. The writers were making the earliest steps towards writing for an audience that would revisit the stories.
But for Doctor Who there’s an even more obvious reason why writers might do this, which is that by this point it was clear that anything they wrote would be novelized. Even though key highlights of the Williams era weren’t novelized, this was due to Douglas Adams wanting to do them himself but wanting more money than Target would give him, not due to him not wanting them novelized. Indeed, it speaks volumes that nearly a decade later, long after he had any rational reason to be revisiting his jobbing TV writer days, Douglas Adams eventually did basically novelize City of Death and Shada into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
But this also marks out a curious influence Terrance Dicks had on the program. If we credit the fact that writers in this era for the first time had reason to believe that their stories would be revisited for the change towards a more nuanced and character-based style of storytelling and a love of smaller and more understated jokes then we are led to conclude that in a real sense the intended audience for large swaths of Doctor Who in this era was, in fact, Terrance Dicks himself. He was, after all, the one doing the novelizations. If you wanted a good line to be preserved he was the one who had to like it enough to keep it in the book. In practice, of course, video technology has swallowed that up and meant that what is and isn’t remembered comes from rewatching, but it’s worth pointing out that in an era where posterity seems to first be being thought of it was Terrance Dicks who was the near-sole arbiter of that.
But when Miles and Wood talk about the Williams era as being a “literary” era of Doctor Who, this is a lot of what they mean. The move towards more literate science fiction was in many ways a move towards a science fiction of books, as that was the essential difference between books and television. Books were reviewed. And so in this sense even though the sort of love of language Roberts demonstrates and the love of slipping in little asides is a fundamentally linguistic pleasure as opposed to a televisual one, it’s one the era still shared.
Ah, yes. The era. Because in the end, that is what this novel is about. And there’s a clear change in the way that Doctor Who is being thought about in the first place here. The parceling of Doctor Who into eras is one that slowly but inexorably increases from its debut on. And I do not use “inexorable” here in a merely casual sense. Having written up seventeen seasons of the show in the last year, I can vouch for the fact that there really is an unavoidable gravity of this sense of “era” – the division of the show, in essence, into discrete segments that form mini-shows. To some extent this is just common sense. When you’re dealing with a show of normal length the notion of eras just isn’t helpful. When you’re dealing with a show on year 49 of its existence, on the other hand, eras are fundamentally helpful. They break the show into segments that are much closer to the sorts of things that the vocabulary of television criticism is already meant for.
On top of that, they make for lovely book dividers, whether you use the traditional and most superficially obvious structure of breaking a series up by Doctor (as I’ve favored) or favor different approaches. One of the things I most respect About Time for is its decision to break its volumes up on season lines that approximate producer shifts. It’s still not perfect – a proper treatment by producer would mean, for instance, that the Letts era is offset from the Pertwee era by one story. But nobody in their right mind would run a book from The Silurians to Robot instead of from Spearhead From Space to Planet of the Spiders. But for the most part, if you want to look at creative shifts, producers are the best yardstick to use.
But even still there’s an odd way in which the logic of eras asserts itself more and more strongly as the show goes on. Part of that may simply be down to some idiosyncracies of the 1960s. The fact that the John Wiles era happens within Season 3 and lasts only four stories is a bit of a problem, as is the fact that the Lloyd-Bryant-Sherwin years bleed heavily into each other. But there’s a more obvious culprit here, and that’s fandom. By the late 1970s Doctor Who fandom was undeniably a thing, and with it came a consensus vocabulary and a lot of chatter using it. As a result, there’s a much larger body of received critical wisdom about the changes between The Horns of Nimon and The Leisure Hive than there is about the changes between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock.
We’ll deal with the question of exactly how dramatic the gap between those two stories actually is over the next two entries. But suffice it to say that we are now firmly in a period in which there are piles of critical dogma and fan politics that stand behind every single judgment that can be made. If Planet of the Spiders marked the entry where my own personal history with Doctor Who became an ever-present part of the series (with an odd gap for the Williams era in which the era is, for me, mostly defined by how much I wanted to see it and couldn’t), here is where the fan debates become omnipresent. Actually, to some extent that was the Williams era, hence the frequent nipping off to check the Mighty 200 poll and all.
But what happens next is John Nathan-Turner. The first seventeen years of Doctor Who have eight producers. The next ten have one. John Nathan-Turner, who takes over with the next story, oversees four different Doctors, three regenerations, and the cancellation of the series. And thus, fittingly and ironically, it is over him that one of the biggest critical question marks in the series hangs.
So, just to kill any mystery, since I don’t particularly see “what is Phil going to think about the quality of a given era” as a source of suspense or drama in this blog, I happen to like the majority of it. I like Tom Baker’s last season, Davison is a strong contender for my second favorite classic Doctor (Troughton is the only one who really gives him a run for it), and Sylvester McCoy is my outright favorite era of the classic series. I do pretty much loathe the entire Colin Baker run, though as the standard follow-up to that sentence goes, he’s quite good on the audios. So for the most part, I quite like the Nathan-Turner era, though with a very, very big asterisk on that claim. Certainly I hold him in higher regard than both John Wiles and Barry Letts.
All of which said, Nathan-Turner himself is a deeply problematic figure, and given the extent to which he thrust himself forward as one of the stars of the show it is impossible to spare him from careful judgment. There’s too much debate over him to ignore. Unsurprisingly, given that he was a human being and all, the end result of that analysis is going to be muddier. He made some incompetently stupid creative decisions in his tenure and some deeply questionable personal ones. He also got the show cancelled. Then again, he made some brilliant creative decisions and probably saved it from being cancelled in 1981. More on this over the next several months, of course.
But in any case, this is The Big One when it comes to era shifts. Despite the fact that only the producer and script editor change between The Horns of Nimon and The Leisure Hive, this shift is, for all critical purposes, as tectonic as the shift from The War Games to Spearhead From Space (which, ironically, had a considerably smaller actual creative shift) or from The End of TIme to The Eleventh Hour. The only shift that’s definitively larger is the shift from cancelled to 2005.
Except that there’s one other shift that’s just as big as those, and it’s one that is hardly ever mentioned (though one that this blog is going to cover thoroughly when the time comes). And that’s the shift from the Virgin Books era to the BBC Books era. This is a shift I’ve alluded to before, and it’s massive in two ways. The first is a very broad way. There were three sustained continuations of Doctor Who between 1989 and 2005: The Virgin New Adventures, the BBC Books Eighth Doctor Adventures, and the Big Finish Audios. Two of these proved to be major influences on the new series that might as well be considered de facto canon. The third of these was BBC Books. It is genuinely striking just how influential both Big Finish and Virgin were on the development of the series. But even more striking is how completely irrelevant the BBC Books line has proven to be to the future direction of the show.
This is not a judgment on its quality – a thumbing through of my comments on the BBC Books novels here will show that I’ve found much to love there. Rather, it’s a simple judgment of influence. BBC Books writers were not tapped to write for the new series, ideas from the BBC books line were not imported into the new series, and the aesthetic of the new series has very, very little to do with the ideas that came out of BBC Books.
But this gets at a second issue, which is that a lot of the mainstay writers of the Virgin line did not follow to the BBC Books line. Among those who didn’t was Gareth Roberts, who wrote seven books for Virgin, two audio plays for Big Finish, and not a word for BBC Books. And he’s far from the only one to drop out, so to speak. There’s a clear split that happens between the lines, and the shift is not without potshots on both sides about the other line.
And there’s no way to read the ending of this book as anything but a comment on both the Virgin/BBC era split and the Williams/Nathan-Turner era split. At the end of the book it turns out that the entire plot of the novel has been a trap laid by the Black Guardian for the Doctor, and that the Doctor has thoroughly fallen for it. Faced with a choice between causing the deaths of billions or abandoning travel and staying in the TARDIS forever, the Doctor and Romana proceed to cheat the Black Guardian and activate the emergency unit last used at the end of The Dominators, throwing themselves out of the universe. He remarks to Romana that last time this happened they ended up in the Land of Fiction.
“Then we’d just be characters, not real people,” Romana frets. But there is no other option, and so the Doctor and Romana press the button and simply depart the universe entirely.
It’s hilariously and delightfully petulant. The Doctor would rather give up on his “reality” than be sucked into the John Nathan-Turner era. (Clarification: Gareth Roberts has stated that it was not his intention to take a swipe at 80s Doctor Who with this scene. Apply your own level of belief in the intentional fallacy to this fact.) Taken as an ending to the Virgin line it’s a bit nicer, but there’s still a tangible anger to it – a declaration that whatever happens next doesn’t get to impact or erase what Roberts and his friends have built. (And they really did build something extraordinary.) But first and foremost, it is a commentary on the Williams era, and an illustration of one final point in its defense – a rejoinder to those who object to its supposed lack of seriousness. It is a reminder that comedy, even good-natured comedy, can readily be weaponized.
To some extent this is the thrust of the whole book. It is a book about war in which quite a lot of people die. The subject matter portrayed in the book is funny, but, notably, it’s funny only because it’s not real. But this is an important function of fiction. Absurdist humor is only funny in fiction. In reality it’s just totalitarianism. There’s nothing actually funny about Margaret Thatcher because she was unfortunately and frustratingly real. But in fiction, where the dead don’t count, it is possible to make a point that is difficult to make in reality. Pointing out that the emperor has no clothes is much easier when it doesn’t actually involve seeing Margaret Thatcher naked.
So Roberts ends on a cutting joke. But one with some real truth underlying it. His defense of the Williams era, after all, has always been that it’s very fun. And here we see that elevated to a moral point. The possibility of humor is, in a real sense, a powerful stopgap against a number of problems. There is only so bad that things can be as long as it’s possible to laugh about them. There’s only so bad Doctor Who can be as long as it’s still funny.
And this is, in the end, the key point of the Williams era. Yes, it was funny and silly. But it was about being funny and silly. The distinction may be subtle, but it’s very much real. It’s not just a series of jokes, but a series of jokes about how bad people without a sense of humor are. There’s a real moral purpose to it, and it’s one that it’s very hard to object to.
It’s just a pity that its creative staff wasn’t all as good as Gareth Roberts.