It’s December of 2005, and Doctor Who fans are eagerly awaiting the proper debut of David Tennant’s Doctor. Meanwhile, the Past Doctor Adventures line stutters to a stop, some nine months after it was officially relegated to being a historical footnote to a now resurgent series. These final books are an interesting spur road of the series’ history – a last legacy of what is now thought of as the classic series that persisted past the point where it was surpassed.
It’s oddly appropriate, then, that the final book of the series tacks back to the final days of the television show, filling in the space between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys and tucking the wilderness years into a loop, if not a neat one. Andrew Cartmel, who oversaw the program’s last days, now returns to them nearly a decade after his last writing for that era (though he did a Fifth Doctor story for Big Finish and a Second Doctor one for Telos in the intervening years).
The result is strange. The novel is great fun, but arguing that it’s a successful piece of Doctor Who when you have to slot it in between Parting of the Ways and The Christmas Invasion is a stretch. It’s clearly a step backwards. But, odd as this may sound, I don’t mean that as a criticism. The very act of publishing the novel in this position, as the finale to the Past Doctor Adventures, is a conscious step backwards – a rolling back of the clock. To complain that a book that is self-consciously striving for 1989 doesn’t fit well with 2005 is an odd complaint, although, to be fair, it’s an odd problem as well.
Of all things, reading Atom Bomb Blues felt most evocative of reading a Terrence Dicks novel. This is odd, as Cartmel’s prose is hardly the well-defined quantity that Dicks’s is. He’s only done three other Doctor Who novels, and the only bit of those I remember with any vividness is a description of violence in Warlock that, for some reason or another, stood out to me. (I’ll say more when I cover the novel, as I don’t even remember its context or trust my memories of the description) So it’s not like I’m reacting to the sort of linguistic warm blanket that Dicks prose by default invokes in anyone who grew up with Target novelizations. And yet there’s a sense of deep familiarity to this book.
Certainly many of the concerns of the Cartmel era are well reflected here, with or without a big degree of appropriateness. His anti-nuclear weapons program is firmly in place some sixteen years since the end of the Cold War took some of the bite out of his final season on the program. His enduring infatuation with Ace remains clear and oddly charming, a crush frozen in time. (Cartmel’s love of the character, historically, walks an odd line between a crush on Sophie Aldred, which not nearly as inappropriate as one might think given her character [he’s only four years older than her], and a clear love of the character herself, which is actually somewhat stranger given the level of artifice involved in her.) Perhaps most idiosyncratically, he retains a compulsion to exposit at somewhat tedious length on points of history. While some of these are surely appropriate for a book set in the US and aimed at a UK audience, it is difficult to imagine many audiences for whom it is necessary to provide a lengthy exposition on the basic fact that many Jews fled Nazi Germany. (Not, to be clear, a detailed explanation of what this was like, but a few sentences of infodump that this happened in the first place.)
But what’s more interesting, in many ways, are the subtle ways in which this does push against some of the conventions of the McCoy era. Cartmel’s stories tended to walk a tightrope between the mundane and material and the epic, and at his best they found ways to put a foot firmly in each camp. One thing we’ll track as we go over the sprawl of the wilderness years is an inexorable pull of the epic on Doctor Who, to both good and bad effect. On the one hand, many of the epics we’ll be covering over the next few months are properly fantastic things. On the other, it’s contributed tremendously to what we might call a sense of epic creep, in which the epic increasingly becomes the default register for Doctor Who, and it increasingly makes the focus on material reality difficult.
This is sufficiently true that, by the end of the wilderness years, the idea of a “small” story became kind of antithetical. If you released a book without some sort of high concept or epic sweep it would get pans for being dull or not about anything or not being exciting or substantive or some other thinly veiled synonym for “epic.” And towards the end of the run this started to get a bit desperate. That’s not to say that there weren’t phenomenal books coming out in the latter years – we discussed the book before this, Simon Guerrier’s sublime The Time Travellers – back in the Hartnell era. But equally, there were several that felt a bit desperate.
Arom Bomb Blues, to its credit, largely avoids that trap, managing to be a “small” book. There are a few moments that play at epicness – it’s suggested, for instance, that the villains’ scheme might lead to the Japanese winning World War II in every universe in existence – but for the most part this book keeps events on a very human scale. It’s an oddly charming decision, especially given that this is the final book in its line. Having the Past Doctor Adventures line go out on a quieter, more human note is delightful. But equally, it’s the Cartmel era, with stories like The Curse of Fenric and Remembrance of the Daleks, that moved Doctor Who towards this epic scale. It’s not that the move towards a non-epic approach cuts against that as such; stories like Survival and The Happiness Patrol were, after all, doing actively small scale work in the McCoy era. But of the two approaches of the McCoy era, this is the softer and less recognized one.
More visibly absent, if we’re being honest, is much of the theoretical complexity of the Cartmel era proper. Survival may have been a relatively low key story in terms of its scope, but it was still juggling evolution, the Cold War, adolescence, feminism, and youth alienation. Atom Bomb Blues isn’t nearly so ambitious, at times seeming to have few insights beyond “nuclear war is bad” and “jazz is good,” along with its end synthesis, “nuclear war is more bad than jazz is good,” a point that, while in no way untrue, seems to fall somewhere short of being terribly helpful. But equally, there are some distinctly neat concepts here. The novel involves a curious and alluring intermingling of magic and science, and offers the brilliant notion of a universe in which Edward Teller is right and the atomic bomb really will destroy the world.
It’s just that these ideas never add up to be greater than the sum of their parts. In some ways the book leaves one with a newfound appreciation for John Nathan-Turner’s contributions to the program in the Cartmel era. It’s odd, in some ways, that Nathan-Turner, in most accounts of the program, drops out of view in the Cartmel era, usually only coming up substantively when people need someone to blame Silver Nemesis on. I say odd because Cartmel himself, who is not at all shy about singing his own praises, repeatedly goes out of his way in his memoir of the show, Script Doctor, to stress how Nathan-Turner, despite being at times difficult to work with, had solid instincts that dramatically improved the show.
But here we can see the sorts of things that Nathan-Turner did for the program that nobody is doing for Cartmel now. In amidst the good ideas are several relatively silly ones that an editor should probably have suggested Cartmel dial back. The elaborate and ultimately purposeless plot about alien fish oil to make Ace better at math, for instance, is clever, but does nothing for the book. The insertion of generic space aliens is similarly undeveloped. These are the sorts of things that the Cartmel era itself mostly avoided, and the fact that Cartmel indulges in them suggests that it was his main collaborator who was responsible for dialing these things back.
If it is harder to imagine Nathan-Turner cracking down in order to maintain a thematic density and richness then one ought think back to Season Eighteen, where Nathan-Turner’s focus on the visual elements of the show made a wonderful compliment to Bidmead’s conceptual depth. Yes, Bidmead provided the raw materials for that depth, as Cartmel did. But it’s still not difficult to believe that Nathan-Turner honed the stories, helping focus on the concepts in a way that brought their depth to the forefront. Certainly it’s the easiest explanation to hand as to why this story doesn’t quite have the tightness associated with the rest of its ostensible era.
I’ve focused largely on the negatives here, and I could continue to do so – pointing out, for instance, that Cosmic Ray goes a bit too far as a character, or that his motivations, while clever, are faintly absurd. But all of this starts to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I quite loved the book, and tore through it far more voraciously than I usually do Doctor Who novels. It has its flaws, but it really is great fun. And more to the point, its quality derives from the same sources that most of the Cartmel era’s quality comes from: building sci-fi out of human interactions.
Again, though, we run into a problem of obsolescence. Not to prefigure the Buffy the Vampire Slayer post in January or February too blatantly, but one of the things that genre television figures out – in fact, a key moment in its transition from “cult” television to “genre” television – is that you can do sci-fi/fantasy/horror very well by just taking a shop-worn story and swapping in a genre concept for a key element. In Buffy the canonical element of this is the Angelus arc, in which the standard teen angst plot “I slept with this guy and then he turned mean” gets turned into an epic melodrama for the ages. And so, yes, the Cartmel era does this too, and to a much greater extent than past eras of Doctor Who. (As I noted in comments once, what’s interesting about Ace is that she’s the first companion since Steven to be given any sense of interiority.) But by 2005 this was something other things – most obviously Doctor Who – were doing better than Cartmel had, and Cartmel’s approach seems limited in that context in a way it didn’t on television.
But equally, there’s something compelling about a return to the hazy days before something became a standard approach. Cartmel’s Doctor Who may prefigure the post-Buffy approach, but its roots are still closer to pulp and golden age science fiction than they are to post-Buffy television. Which is to say that while the goings-on of Atom Bomb Blues extend out of human experience and frailties it’s still, at its heart, a bit of an old-fashioned science fiction piece. Its approach is as retro as its subject matter, and this is what gives it that Terrence Dicks-esque sense of nostalgic familiarity.
Which brings us back to Cosmic Ray. Who is annoyingly written and sillily motivated, as I said. But on the other hand, I confess, dear reader, that I just can’t bring myself to criticize a character who gets suckered into nearly destroying the world because he really wants to hear some Duke Ellington music from a period when Ellington legally couldn’t record. It’s a triumph of Holmesian sci-fi – vast cosmic consequences that stem from the utterly mundane. And yes, it’s Cartmel’s usual obsession with jazz, but when that obsession gets given to the slightly annoying stoner scientist who nearly destroys the world it feels just self-aware enough to fall on the charming side of the ledger.
All of which said, there’s something odd about bringing the novel years back to this point, simply because so much of what is interesting about the Virgin and BBC Books territory that we’re delving into imminently is that it did so much to expand upon and develop this sort of character-based storytelling. To, at the end of that period, go back to almost exactly where the program started is a strange experience. There’s something slightly awkward about its old-fashionedness.
And that is, ultimately, what the charm of Atom Bomb Blues is: it’s a love letter to an old-fashioned way of making Doctor Who. There are two Sylvester McCoy eras, and in a lot of ways the tropes of the second one, which we’ll start to explore in just over a week, have overwritten the first. We spoke previously about the way in which the Cartmel era was, by its end, nearing readiness for replacement. But the fact that its genius was coming to an end wasn’t a flaw – it was an opportunity to go further. The program wasn’t running out of steam – it was just ready for a new burst of energy. The Cartmel era had tread its ground well enough to be ready to be surpassed, yes. But it was still a triumph.
And given that, it’s genuinely nice to see a retro McCoy story done in the same spirit as, for instance, Mark Gatiss’s self-consciously retro Pertwee romp Last of the Gaderine or Gareth Roberts’s The Well-Mannered War – both of which also harken back to eras that the show rightly moved past. Even if it’s not as good as the era itself, there’s something to be said for the simple fact that the Cartmel era was worthy of nostalgia. And really, what better way to wrap up the Past Doctor Adventures, once the future of the show had been properly secured, than with a novel whose main thrust is a nostalgia for the show when it was cancelled? Doctor Who came back, it was an absolute triumph, and thank God for it. But even still, after we know it all worked out in the end… it never should have been cancelled, dammit. It was really, really good. Even if, as I said last Wednesday, the Cartmel era doesn’t seem to have been on track to keep improving, as this book demonstrates, not quite as good as Season Twenty-Six is still worth doing.