Last time we dealt with Gary Russell we found ourselves reflecting heavily on the notion of fanwank. Broadly speaking, at least, I’m hard-pressed to complain too heavily about fanwank in the novel lines, particularly the Missing Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures, both of which by their nature appeal virtually entirely to dedicated Doctor Who fans. When you’re dealing with an audience of dedicated fans the extent to which you can rely on existing work increases dramatically. There is a fundamental difference between writing novels for a fan audience and writing television for BBC1.
But having navigated the Saward era and its continuity fetishism there become some new issues around this. Or, put another way, the mere fact that there’s nothing wrong with fanwank is not equivalent to fanwank being inherently worthwhile. There are things that you can do when working in the margins of existing work that you can’t do any other way – a fact that is responsible for no small part of my interest in things like Doctor Who and superhero comics. But the margins aren’t interesting in and of themselves – a problem that plagues Gary Russell’s work, and that, in a few paragraphs, is going to prove the undoing of Business Unusual.
But let’s back up and look at the larger situation, since this is our outro to the Colin Baker era. At the heart of the problem is still the Seasonish and the way in which both Season 23s – the transmitted one and the erased one – create a tangible gap in the history of Doctor Who. Colin Baker is the first Doctor to lack a regeneration story, a fact that coincides with Mel being the first companion since Susan to lack an origin story, combined with the deeply unsatisfying nature of the Valeyard, an idea with far more and deeper implications than the series was willing to actually explore, with all of this slotting into the already confused gap introduced by the hiatus.
The result is a period that is the subject of a massive amount of fan theories. And so, having at least determined that the flaw is not inherently Colin Baker, let’s tie off the last issue – was there ever anything interesting to do here? Are the gaps of this era – gaps that we cannot, given the absurd turmoil behind the scenes, chalk up to any deliberate ambiguity – ones that can be interestingly filled? In other words, is the era we’ve just been witness to fatally and irrevocably flawed, or is there actual quality to be had here?
So that’s what this final triptych of entries is going to focus on – three books that fill the holes in and around the gap between Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani. And first up we have Gary Russell with Business Unusual, a novel that proposes to introduce Mel. And give Colin Baker his “missing” Brigadier story. And serve as a sequel to The Scales of Injustice. And bring back the Autons.
I almost wrote “so no shortage of ambition” after that list, but no, that’s wrong. The problem here is that there is a profound shortage of ambition. The goals of this book are to check off some supposedly needed boxes in Doctor Who and to advance a couple of pet projects from the writer. In many ways it’s the inclusion of the Brigadier that’s the dead giveaway. Like the obsession with the idea that Pertwee should have a Cybermen story, it sets the defining characteristics of an era as being nothing more than attaining a pre-existing set of goals. And what’s key about these obsessions is that they comprise a list that can never be added to. Only things old enough to have been in the Hartnell era can be one of these era bucket list items. Their nature is to constrain the show, limiting what it can be to what it already has been. It’s the Whoniverse logic at play once again. (It’s perhaps thankful that the list has dwindled in size, with Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith all not getting Brigadier stories and Eccleston not getting a Cybermen story, leaving the Daleks as the only plausible necessary element for an era, which is just about right.)
But this checklist approach shows particularly in terms of Mel. We’ve already discussed how Mel is oddly torn between her description in John Nathan-Turner’s The Companions volume and what appears on screen. The Companions makes much of the fact that Mel is a computer programmer. This information plays into what we see on screen exactly three times, though – twice in Time and the Rani it’s mentioned that Mel is good with computers, and then once in The Ultimate Foe she identifies something as a “megabyte modem.” But there’s a larger problem, which is that Bonnie Langford comes nowhere close to playing a tech-savvy career woman of the mid-1980s. ?
I don’t mean this as a criticism of Bonnie Langford at all. It’s just that if “1980s crack computer programmer” was what the show was actually going for then having Bonnie Langford written by Pip and Jane Baker was an absurd idea. Bonnie Langford played the role she was obviously hired for – Bonnie Langford as a Doctor Who companion – quite well. But there’s a massive disjunct between that and the character described in The Companions.
But Gary Russell has clearly decided that he’s going to try to write a Mel story that builds off of The Companions. And so despite the fact that the Mel that appeared on screen could easily have had any origin she’s, dutifully, a computer programmer. Even the detail of her being involved in an attempt to stop the Master from taking over the world’s banks is preserved, with Russell going out of his way to make sure that can be reconciled with the fact that Mel doesn’t recognize the Master in The Ultimate Foe. The trouble is that we’re left instead trying to imagine Bonnie Langford delivering the line “Be thankful I don’t play loud Gothic music, try to sell Socialist Worker to your WI friends or have a drawerful of thirty-five different-flavoured condoms in my bedroom.”
In other words, Mel’s origin story is, to a fault, exactly what the readership would expect. But when the answer to “what goes in this gap” is “exactly what you’d expect to go in that gap” then, narratively speaking, there’s not much of a reason to fill it. Mel’s origin story is, it seems, a completely generic piece of Doctor Who that tells us nothing new about Mel and makes little effort to reconcile or resolve any of the existing mysteries surrounding her.
Indeed, the story is bizarrely dislocated from any actual impact. I’m not one to nitpick bad writing about computers, in no small part because I have a not-terribly-secret love for it, but on the other hand, if you’re writing in 1997 and setting your book about computer technology in 1989 then there’s not really a lot of excuses for glaring anachronism. And yet the book has the idea that Sony and Sega are preparing “a 32-bit CD-based system for release early next decade” that the fictional Maxx 64-bit CD system is going to be miles ahead of, a claim that both flubs the release date for the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation (both were, by any reasonable definition, mid-decade) and dramatically overestimates the impact that the 64-bit Atari Jaguar, which actually did come out in the early 1990s, would have. Yes, this is a nitpick, but equally, if you’re going to write a story about computers and corporate culture in the late 1980s there’s something to be said for not screwing up the details on the setting. It’s not like 1989 is a particularly difficult time period to research in 1997, after all.
But really, I harp on this issue because it’s so indicative of what this book is about, or, more accurately, what it isn’t about, which is telling its own story. Heck, even the underlying premise – corporate machinations and the Autons – is just a ripoff of an Alan Moore comic that Russell could barely be bothered to change the name of. There are interesting Doctor Who stories to be done about computer technology – something we’ll see when we get to the New Adventures. There are interesting Doctor Who stories to be done about corporate culture – something we saw in the Baker era itself. But this isn’t trying to be either. It’s just interested in being The One That Introduces Mel, The One Where Colin Baker Meets The Brigadier, and The One Alan Moore Already Wrote.
What’s interesting is that this effort to just fill in blanks and correct Doctor Who leads to some bewildering tonal lapses. Ostensibly Russell’s goal is to, as he says in his introduction, “write a sixth Doctor story that I thought Colin Baker would have liked to be in,” a vision that, based on the book, he sees as a character full of bombastic charm. Certainly this is plausible based on Baker’s acting. But this more charming, fun version of the Doctor who gives plastic toys to children in restaurants jars grotesquely with later scenes in the book such as the alarmingly gruesome description of a twelve-year-old boy being murdered by his toys.
Like the murderous policemen of Resurrection of the Daleks or the lifting of the deleted “Kill me Vera” sequence from The Ark in Space for Revelation of the Daleks, this seems largely to be a case of doing something that the show couldn’t have gotten away with, in this case riffing on the alarm at the killer toys in Terror of the Autons. It is, in other words, the exact sort of thing that the Saward era so regularly got wrong. It’s almost as though the empty recitations of continuity points and the sort of blithe nastiness go hand in hand.
In a way, this even makes sense – when drama abandons being about people in favor of being about obscure points of sci-fi continuity it becomes ugly like this. Certainly it’s an argument that works well with the overall themes of this blog – when Doctor Who becomes nothing more than a commodity and a brand it loses all of its power. Because this is market-tested Doctor Who – a case of writing a story not because there’s anything dramatically interesting about the story but because it’s something fans are known to want and will thus buy. (Ironically, of course, this is exactly what the Autons were designed by Holmes to critique. They’re the ultimate capitalist Doctor Who monster.)
But all of this paints me into an interesting corner as a blogger. I’ll confess that in picking books to cover in the Time Can Be Rewritten entries I have tended towards ones that have continuity ramifications. Part of that is simply the premise of the entries – the point of these little side jaunts is to look at later conceptions of the era, so the ones that have metafictional implications are naturally more interesting to me. But the implications are somewhat questionable. It’s fair to ask whether, instead of spending three Colin Baker books on the mess surrounding Trial of a Time Lord I shouldn’t have done the oft-recommended Killing Ground and Synthespians™, a story that would actually give me an 80s Auton story that attempts what this story should have (and has what is surely the most logical extension of the Auton concept, killer breast implants).
Because this is a bad book pointlessly filling a continuity gap in a bad era of Doctor Who. It’s a book that comes perilously close to indicting the entire concept of the Time Can Be Rewritten entries and that suggests, unnervingly, that perhaps it shouldn’t be and that the gaps and margins left in the past of Doctor Who are best left alone on the grounds that they are, by definition, not going to be functional pieces of drama.
Finally, as we enter this last jag of Time Can Be Rewrittens for the Colin Baker era, the standard information packet for the McCoy era. I’ll be doing four Big Finish adventures: The Fires of Vulcan on July 4th, Thin Ice on August 1st, The Shadow of the Scourge on October 10th, and A Death in the Family on December 19th. (So that’s future planning for you.) I’ll also be doing Death Comes to Time on August 13th. All of those are in print and available, for those who want to play along at home. There will be two Past Doctor Adventures.