Time Can Be Rewritten 3: The Plotters (Gareth Roberts, Virgin Books, 1996)
Time Can Be Rewritten is a recurring feature in which stories written in later years that were intended to be retconned into previous eras are analyzed in the context of their presumptive eras. Today we look at Gareth Roberts 1996 novel The Plotters.
So here’s the thing about Doctor Who that we may not have talked about quite enough yet. It has fans. Exactly when it acquired this potential affliction is hard to pin down, but the answer probably has something to do with 1980. And it’s been a solidly mixed blessing. If it weren’t for fandom we wouldn’t have, well, Doctor Who from 2005 on. But, on the other hand, if it weren’t for fandom, we wouldn’t have had Doctor Who from 1985 to early 1987. Which might have been nice.
But Doctor Who has fans. It has fandom. And it’s had it for a really long time – indeed, at this point for a majority of its existence. In fact, given that Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are two of the biggest anoraks on the planet, as is David Tennant. Seriously, track down the old Podcast commentary for Forest of the Dead with Davies, Moffat, and Tennant just geeking out over Doctor Who in general and basically ignoring the actual episode. Aside from the fact that it is in no way a commentary track, it’s the best commentary track ever.
So the fact of the matter is that we’re now at 21 years in which fans have been running the asylum, versus at most 26 where they weren’t. We’re nearing the point where fans have run Doctor Who more than normal people have. (In fact, due to events we’ll cover when we get to season 20, arguably we’ve already crossed that point.) And one consequence of an extreme and chronic case of fandom is that tastes have changed.
Which is why things like the Missing Adventures are so interesting. Because this is a book written in 1996 that is about the pleasures of a TV show from 31 years earlier. By a writer who was 28 at the time. So the one thing we can safely conclude about Gareth Roberts’ take on late second season Doctor Who is that it is not in any way based on the experience of actually watching late second season Doctor Who in 1965. Further making this interesting is that Gareth Roberts is one of the writers of the new series, having contributed four episodes thus far with a fifth on the way. So this novel is actually, ignoring some stray comics and short stories, the earliest-set piece of Doctor Who by a writer to have written for the new series. Giving Gareth Roberts the interesting distinction of having the widest span of Doctor Who writing – 195 televised stories take place between this novel and his season five episode The Lodger.
This poses an interesting question, because it means that we are forced to reconcile a single view of what Doctor Who is that encompasses a jaw-dropping span of the series. Which is fine. Because there are countless eras of fandom overlapping on any given era of Doctor Who, and countless reconceptualizations of eras to be had. Ask people what the second season of Doctor Who is like and you’ll get multiple answers. Thus far we’ve been treating the William Hartnell era as an era of boundless wonder and creation, in which this amazing show is forged. And it was.
But here’s another truth about it. William Hartnell was a cranky old man who was suffering from the early stages of arteriosclerosis that would eventually leave him unable to work and kill him. He couldn’t remember his lines at all, which is why he fluffs them every damn episode. And it’s really tough to watch it in 2011 sometimes knowing that. In particular something like The Crusade, where you know the reason the Doctor and the black people don’t get any scenes together is that Hartnell was an unrepentant racist who probably would have gotten along swimmingly with Mel Gibson. And so they kept him away from the black people.
Here’s another truth about Doctor Who. You remember how the last few entries have stressed repeatedly that Doctor Who is theatrical? And how that was used to explain how to understand the men in butterfly costumes talking in a singsongy voice? OK. Let’s phrase that in another way – one we alluded to last entry. Doctor Who is massively beloved by gay men. Of which, so far as I can tell with some Google-slinging, Gareth Roberts is.
There are a lot of complex reasons for this. Homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain until 1967. But within art and theater circles, it was accepted as a sort of open secret. (This is why the generation of actors like Derek Jacobi, Simon Callow, and Ian McKellen exist. And hey, look how 2/3 of that list have appeared in the new series.) Even William Hartnell, hardly a paragon of progressiveness, was apparently fairly accepting of gay people he actually knew – tolerating, for instance, Waris Hussein as the director of the first episode. So any TV drama had some significant advantages within the gay community.
Then add to that the fact that the show is, as we’ve seen, extremely theatrical. I’d say bordering on camp, but no. It blazes past that line in to open camp. Not just in its wobbly sets and rubber monsters, but in its celebration of them. The brilliant central twist of The Rescue or the full insanity that is The Web Planet work because the show is well aware that it is absurd. And when you get to the color era, well, let’s just say the show gets even more colorful.
But let’s be fair here. As flagrantly suggestive as the start of The Space Museum is, and as much fun as we know children’s entertainment makers have slipping things in, most of the double entendres in early Doctor Who are probably as deliberate as the text on that link, which I swear I didn’t notice until just now. (Later Doctor Who is a different matter. Love and Monsters is as pervy as you think it is.) So the gay Doctor Who fandom has always been a bit revisionist, finding hidden meanings in old stories.
Which is, of course, exactly what Gareth Roberts is doing in writing a story set in a era he knows only from VHS tapes, most of which, in 1996, would have been personal recordings or things traded at conventions – The Space Museum didn’t see an official VHS release until three years after Roberts wrote this book, which ostensibly takes place immediately after it.
This would never have been – and could never have been – televised in 1965. The reason for this is simple – the book openly portrays King James I as homosexual. Which there’s plenty of historical evidence for, but obviously was never going to be on television. Compare this book to the also-probably-gay Richard I, who appeared two stories ago in glorious straightness, and you can immediately see that the sense of how we’re going to treat British monarchs is completely different. And the theatrical cross-dressing of Vicki from The Crusade? Makes an appearance again here, but this time to instigate an extended subplot about King James wanting to sleep with “Victor.” The book even has the Doctor grumping about King James calling him a “winter apple” in comparison to Victor/Vicki, saying that “In my day, I was considered quite a looker.” Now try to imagine our grumpy racist of a leading man delivering that line.
And yet despite that, it’s clear that this novel is written out of real love for the era it’s set in. The novel, more than any of the books we’ve looked at thus far (and, as someone who has seen a lot of these books, more than most in general) holds to an episodic structure. It’s broken into four parts, titled individually like Hartnell-era episodes, with clear cliffhangers between parts. And the basic format – as the frontispiece of the book notes – is a straight-up homage to a sort of story that only existed in this era of the show – the willfully inaccurate historical in the vein of, say, The Reign of Terror or The Romans. The purely historical story of which this is an example in fact does not survive much longer. So in this regard, the book is clearly a William Hartnell story.
There’s also real effort made to capture the characters that were on TV – Vicki’s strange obsession with naming pets (Sandy from The Rescue and, of course, good old Zombo the Zarbi) comes up again when she names the horse she and the Doctor acquire Charger. Then there is the aspect of it that has proven (somewhat puzzlingly) to be substantially controversial. The novel is unusual for a Hartnell novel in that it includes the so-called Billy Fluffs that are, in practice, a mainstay of the Hartnell era. That is to say, the Doctor several times in the novel becomes tongue-tied and offers malapropisms of various sorts – as anyone familiar with the show itself will know Hartnell, historically speaking, did. (For instance, “Do you imagine I purchased Char-this mangy creature for no good reason?”) In practice, these flubs came from the pressure cooker filming environment (where unless a take was completely ruined beyond all usability, it was used because doing a second take was a real pain) combined with the fact that, as mentioned, Hartnell’s health was steadily failing.
Roberts uses these flubs for storytelling and meta-commentary – most notably when the Doctor says “I thought this episode – I mean to say this episode of my life – was going in a different direction” when it briefly appears that there might be something supernatural going on. Some reviewers, notably Jill Sherwin, accuse The Plotters of being insulting to its era for including the Billy Fluffs, accusing the novel of mocking Hartnell by including the scenes. Which is baffling mostly because it seems as though doing things like having him regret that King James doesn’t find him attractive is considerably more insulting to the man than making his dialogue sound like it would have once he delivered it.
In the end, though, that’s the essential tension of this book. On the one hand, it is an extremely faithful recreation of the tone of its era. On the other, it’s an unabashed revision of it – fitting given that it has adopted the inaccurate historical subgenre of Doctor Who story, i.e. a genre that is already about revision of history. And Roberts uses that to craft a story that could never have been made for television, but is consistent with what we see on television instead of what we know was going on behind the scenes. Roberts writes a book in a world where William Hartnell was nothing more (or less) than a kind old man who loved children and loved the possibilities that Doctor Who offered. Where Roberts and people like him weren’t criminals.
And there’s something oddly wonderful about this. Because it is hard to watch 1960s Doctor Who sometimes. It’s hard to get past the visible racism of, say, The Aztecs and get to the fact that the story, while behind our time, was still ahead of its time. It’s hard to see the character I love in William Hartnell. The experience is, actually, well-summed up with one of the (quite meta-textual) monologues Steven Moffat gives to River Song:
You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them. It’s like they’re not quite finished—they’re not done yet. Well… yes, The Doctor’s here. He came when I called just like he always does. But not “my” Doctor. Now my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away. And he’d just swagger off, back to his TARDIS. And open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor. In the TARDIS. Next stop: Everywhere.
And that’s the real magic of what Roberts does here – the thing that makes you see why the writer of this novel still gets to write for River Song’s Doctor. Because he is, perhaps, the only writer to have been able to see her Doctor in William Hartnell. (Even Steven Moffat has trouble with this, being kind of legendarily sour on the Hartnell era)
Far from being disrespectful to Hartnell and the era of Doctor Who he represents, this revision is, I think, the ultimate kindness. Here is a man who has every reason to hate the conservativism of William Hartnell’s Doctor. A gay man who is old enough to vividly remember the horrific fight over Section 28 – who was 20, which is almost the perfect age for that fight and things like AARGH. And yet he doesn’t mock. Even in a novel that takes seriously the ugliness of the past (the novel has a substantial and kind of upsetting description of a bear baiting), the ugliness of the past of Doctor Who is, in the end, forgiven.
And in an odd way, this is perhaps the most compelling refutation of Hartnell’s many flaws that can be offered. That the man we grew up to recognize as The Doctor, the most wonderful man in the universe, was still, in the end, a part developed by a senile old racist. That a man who embodied many of the worst qualities of his times could still help build the character of a man who embodies the best qualities of any time.
July 15, 2011 @ 8:27 pm
Re Hartnell's flubs — eventually the writers started putting some in deliberately (there's a famous example on the Sensorites, i think), so Roberts wasn't really departing at all.
August 9, 2011 @ 4:11 am
If racism is the tendency to reduce people to their stock attributes & dismiss them thus, is it really fair to slag off on poor old dead William Hartnell as nothing but "a senile old racist"?
February 19, 2015 @ 11:22 am
Racism is not "the tendency to reduce people to their stock attributes & dismiss them thus"; it's the tendency to reduce a group of people to a set of stock attributes that are not necessarily possessed by all or even any of those people, and dismiss any that do not fit. William Hartnell is being assessed as an a individual, not as a group, which makes the assessment of "a senile old racist" a non-racist assertion. Attempting to equate the two is disingenuous at best.
August 14, 2016 @ 9:58 pm
Ok, you got me forever with this one essay right here. (Actually, you got me forever -as a fan who will buy anything you write say, when’s that book on those dark enlightenment fuckers gonna be generally available? – from the moment I received my copy of Recursive Occlusion, but I digress). So I get to the next but last sentence in the essay, and the line “the man we grew up to recognize as The Doctor, the most wonderful man in the universe” just floored me. It triggered something (something good! Yesyes!) and for the next ten minutes I’m walking around my house, book held slack in my hand with great fat tears running down my cheeks. Honestly, I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was a truly beautiful moment and I’m still getting chills from it. That’s some powerful cultural criticism!