My Google Analytics indicate that despite my being American a narrow majority of my readers these days are British, and so I’d like to wish you all a happy anniversary of the day you got rid of us idiots and got on with your lives.
That said, on to the meat of things. Of the several genres of Time Can Be Rewritten posts, this is, unfortunately, a member of my least favorite. It’s one of those posts where I take a much praised piece of Doctor Who that I put on the schedule largely on the recommendations of fandom at large, then sigh and ask fandom at large why it hates me and wants me to suffer. In this case it was some Gallifrey Base thread or another in which this was praised as a latter day classic of the pure historical and as being far better than Fires of Pompeii. Then, listening to it in the car on a long drive a week or so back, I paused it and asked my girlfriend if she wouldn’t mind looking on her phone to see who wrote it, as I’d not bothered to look closely at that when putting it on my iPod.
“Steve Lyons,” came the reply, and I sighed dejectedly.
Those who bought the Hartnell volume (and by the time this goes up the Troughton book should be in the hands of my copyeditor) may remember a rather scathing account of Lyons’s The Witch Hunters in that book. There my objection was largely to the book’s appalling tone deafness, particularly the final sequence in which the Doctor essentially defends the Salem Witch Trials on the grounds that it all worked out and is thus in some sense worth the price.
To some extent, then, The Fires of Vulcan marks an improvement in this. McCoy’s Doctor, at least, is one who is consistently portrayed with a ruthless detachment such that seeing him calmly accept that some unknown number of the people he and Mel have been interacting to died in the eruption of Pompeii. For all the famous weight of “you can’t rewrite history, not one line,” Hartnell’s Doctor only comes near this in The Massacre, and that seems to be framed with the Doctor as the unsympathetic one. But McCoy offers a Doctor capable of remaining sympathetic even as he’s chillingly alien in his morality. As a result, he can carry the emotional and moral heft of this story in a way that Hartnell’s Doctor can’t carry a similar one.
But wait a moment. What have we seen in McCoy so far that supports any of this? I mean, it’s one thing to apply these notions to McCoy’s Doctor down the road, but in a story ostensibly set immediately after Delta and the Bannermen there’s something more jarring about it. This isn’t the Doctor as he existed in Season 24. Obviously it’s an extension of him – McCoy’s Doctor does develop in this direction. But he’s not there in Season 24.
This is something that bubbles around throughout the McCoy era. There’s a big piece of fanon – admittedly advanced largely by Lyons – that suggests that the arrival of Ace at the end of Season 24 marks an actual turning point for the Doctor, with Season 24 being explicitly bracketed as him larking around before knuckling down and getting serious. This is, obviously, another front in the larger critical attack on Season 24. And while it is, again, certainly true that starting with Remembrance of the Daleks McCoy’s Doctor takes a darker turn, and that Seasons 25 and 26 are better than Season 24, the idea that there’s a disjunct between them is simply wrongheaded. Season 25 refines and adds to the innovations of Season 24.
And yet oddly what this story tries to do – go be a Season 25/26 story in the midst of Season 24 – is jarring as well. Part of it is simply the fact that authorial intent bleeds through. Given that Season 24 is so criticized the idea of doing a story set within it that acts like what the McCoy era developed into is difficult not to read this as another form of the “Season 24 isn’t proper McCoy era” critique.
All of this is heightened by the fact that, if we’re being honest, the biggest shift between Season 24 and Season 25 is the move from Mel to Ace. We’ll talk more about Ace next entry, but let’s look at Mel, who we haven’t really talked about outside the context of Trial of a Time Lord. Mel is a throwback to the programmatic characters of the UNIT era – ones like the Brigadier, Jo, and, in the original conception, the Master. Programmatic characters are fine. But Mel is a bizarre choice of a programmatic character – she’s a children’s television trope of “the girl one” – the lone female character in an otherwise male cast who is stuck being the moral conscience all of the time and fretting that if the boys are naughty they might get into trouble or something.
This is not actually a terrible character to give Colin Baker, who was, as Trial showed, deeply weakened on the matter of actually having any moral authority. Baker’s Doctor could use Mel to keep him honest, so to speak. But McCoy’s Doctor doesn’t need that. It’s revisionist to suggest that he needed to be unshackled by Mel in order to become less honest, but it remains the case that Mel is by definition poorly suited to stories long on moral complexity.
But that’s not to say that she’s bad in Season 24. She turns out, as both Delta and the Bannermen and Paradise Towers show, to be quite good at the job of being dropped into a bizarre world and making sense of things for the viewer. She doesn’t quite serve as a viewer surrogate – she’s self-consciously too morally simplistic and superficial for that – but she’s very good at asking the questions the viewer needs to have asked. Think about how, in Paradise Towers, the job of investigating the Towers is split between the Doctor and Mel, with the Doctor solving the mystery and Mel exploring the weirdness of the towers. Or, similarly, how in Delta and the Bannermen, Mel’s easy embrace of the Holiday Camp (really the perfect setting for her) serves such useful function in explaining the story’s concepts.
Unfortunately, Lyons makes a hash of it, drawing on exactly the wrong aspect of Mel for this story. He has her running about Pompeii making strong moral speeches about its cultural errors. Which means that we spend most of the story with nothing to do with the setting save to go “oh, yes, those Romans sure were terribly wrongheaded.”
And here we get to the meat of the problem. It’s one thing to do a Seventh Doctor/Mel story that tries to repair the perceived mistakes of Season 24. But if you’re going to go for that you have to actually beat Season 24 in basic quality. This doesn’t. Listening to it in actual proximity to Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen it is painfully obvious that this is a less ambitious and less intelligent story clothing itself in the trappings of drama in the same way that Earthshock did.
At the heart of this problem is the same thing that broke The Witch Hunters, which is a deplorably unjustifiable conception of history. Except here that conception is brought into sharper relief such that we can really nail it down and see its problems. In a nutshell, Lyons treats the past largely as a series of morally suspect or outright appalling cultures whose sole value is that they lead to the present.
This is bad in a vast number of ways. First, it leads to a warped sense of ethics that requires either a Panglossian fetishization of the present or, worse, the outright excusing of contemporary moral obscenities in the name of a pre-existent narrative of historical progress leading to some eventual utopia. That is to say, either we have to simply decide that the present is completely dandy and thus the travesties of the past are justifiable because they lead to such a wonderful present or, if we want to be slightly less delusional about the present, adopt a blind faith that everything will work out in the end and so our own travesties are as excusable as those of the past.
This is, admittedly, a viewpoint more jarring when applied to the Salem Witch Trials than to Pompeii. Except for two things. One, the Doctor is ultimately indifferent to the question of saving people in Pompeii. Yes, he has to be due to the whole “no changing history” bit (about which more in a few paragraphs), but here it’s striking just how much better Fires of Pompeii’s solution of decoupling the larger social question (“does one have a responsibility to stop Pompeii”) from the smaller personal one (“does one have a responsibility to save the people right in front of you”) is than what we get here. But more to the point, the story gets itself into a fairly deep hole simply because of how much it treats the deaths of people in Pompeii as being down to their adherence to the Roman pantheon instead of to geology.
Which is the other problem with Lyons’s approach – he’s so bound up in the sort of intense rationalism that attempted to characterize Masque of Mandragora that he can’t think of much of anything to do with the past other than complain that it has different beliefs. Which is one thing in Masque of Mandragora, where at least the story is taking place at a moment of history that this debate is relevant to. It’s another in The Witch Hunters, where it gives a very distorted view of the underlying causes. But in The Fires of Vulcan it’s appallingly off base.
The problem is that it’s utterly reductionist. It’s the imperialist/tourist conception of history writ large, where anything that differs from a secular western late 20th century perspective is at best suspect, and more likely simply a piece of harmful delusion. For one thing there’s no real ways to hold this viewpoint about history and avoid holding it about present day cultures other than western secularism. Especially because, if we’re being honest, that’s the whole reason to write a story about how the people deluded by religion in ancient Rome caused their own destruction – to suggest the same about large swaths of the modern world.
To be clear, I don’t mean this as a defense of religion, mysticism-prone as I may be. I’ve no problem with the ethics underlying something like Meglos that puts a critique of fanaticism in space. It’s doing it in history that’s problematic. It’s linking the ideological critique of religion to a narrative of historical inevitability and progress whereby it necessarily and teleologically leads to massive devastation. That’s where the ethics go off the rail.
Implicit in all of this is an irritatingly facile view of what history is. Multiple writers have played with “you can’t rewrite history,” but there are few with as flat a vision of it as Lyons. In this case Lyons holds to that dull cheat where as long as you keep the details you know in place you can change the rest. The problem is that this makes the entire set of incidents in the story nothing more than the product of the Doctor not having a clever idea until episode four that there’s no reason he couldn’t have had in episode one. It’s a straight up idiot plot in which everything happens because a character made a dumb decision instead of a smart one for reasons having nothing to do with their characterization.
But more to the point, it reduces history to little more than a series of facts. On the one hand this seems an ironic complaint, given that I’ve just spent several paragraphs complaining about the ugly image of the arc of history that is implicit here. But in practice these are two sides of the same problem. Lyons removes the material progress of history in favor of Panglossian fidelity to a particular vision of western classical liberalism. There is no arc of history – there is merely the rational observer who uses pure empiricism to judge the past and escape predestination paradoxes. But only after spending three episodes being thick.
In the end, this is drab and facile. There’s far more depth in either Paradise Towers or Delta and the Bannermen compared to this. There’s far more character drama in either, given that neither Wyatt nor Kohll are invested in treating all of their supporting characters as idiotic heathens. And Wyatt and Kohll’s scripts are both very funny to boot. Leaving The Fires of Vulcan to be a supposed repair job that misunderstands the nature of what it’s repairing and fails to improve it to boot.