While Paul Cornell is not the most popular writer to come out of the Virgin era, of the major and acclaimed writers of the Virgin era it is perhaps Cornell who is most indelibly associated with it. Kate Orman penned nearly as many novels for BBC Books as she did for Virgin. Gareth Roberts didn’t write for BBC Books, but was always open about the fact that his real home was the Graham Williams era. And nobody was ever going to mistake Mark “any old fucker with an Equity card” Gatiss for a Sylvester McCoy fan. But Paul Cornell was unambiguously a Sylvester McCoy fan above all other Doctors, and given how many of the iconic New Adventures he wrote it is that era, more than any other, that he’s associated with.
And so it was not in the least bit surprising that when Big Finish decided to do an audio set in the New Adventures era they called on Paul Cornell to write it. But Cornell’s association with the New Adventures was in many ways misleading, in that for all his influence on the line he was, in many ways, diametrically opposed to what the New Adventures were most often taken to be like. The New Adventures are, by reputation, the Doctor Who of the dark, grim, and gritty nineties, with the Doctor as a ruthless chessmaster who manipulates the entire universe. It should already be clear that this reputation is only part of the story, but equally, it’s a real part of it. But if the New Adventures are like that and Paul Cornell is the definitive New Adventure writer than it seems like it should follow that Cornell’s work is like that.
And here we get the rub. Back in the entry on The Highest Science we talked about the rad/trad distinction between books, and why it doesn’t quite work. But there’s a second major distinction between types of Doctor Who, which is the “gun vs frock” debate. We should perhaps start by pointing out that this is a spectacularly loaded framing of a debate. In one corner you have the gun, an implement which the Doctor is typically defined in part by his tendency not to carry. In the other you have the frock coat, which the Doctor habitually wears. So it’s pretty clear which side of the debate whoever framed it falls on, and that is in turn something that influences the tone of the debate. Scads of people identify as frocks, but guns are all “those people.”
The rough contours of the debate are that “gun” writers want Doctor Who to be terribly serious and straightforward, full of violence and properly bad bad guys who are scary and terrifying and must be stopped at great cost. Earthshock, if you want a classic series episode, is probably the gunniest of gun stories. Or Inferno. Terry Nation is a reliably “gun” writer. Frock stories, on the other hand, are camp and fun, and tend to feature the Doctor getting villains to bring themselves down through the consequences of their own schemes. The Happiness Patrol would be the easiest example here, or most of the Graham Williams era. The New Adventures, at least in their reputation, are thoroughly gun. And yet Paul Cornell is thoroughly, deeply, and astonishingly frock.
The Shadow of the Scourge is, in many regards, a book concerned with working through the implications of that. It’s not quite fair to say that Cornell is playing against expectations with it – after all, for all the epic heft of his novels his frockish sympathies are blatant throughout them. No Future may have been a big book of anger, punk, and militarism, but it was, in the end, a book about how much everyone on the TARDIS likes each other. Love and War featured a scarring betrayal on the part of the Doctor, but was mostly about his role as a fairytale hero. And after existential horror of Timewyrm: Revelation, the novel’s resolution consists of the Fifth Doctor picking a flower. Paul Cornell, simply put, is a romantic sop.
And yet the period of Doctor Who he’s most associated with is defined in part by its sheer gloominess. Yes, this is an oversimplification. But equally, there’s no way around the fact that a ruthless and manipulative Doctor is naturally a gloomier and darker position. The New Adventures have invested themselves in making the Doctor scarier. That’s inherently a bit gun. And more to the point, Paul Cornell is as responsible as anybody for pushing the Doctor in this direction. Indeed, he’s perhaps the most responsible. His Doctor is the most explicitly manipulative and Odinic of the New Adventures writers. He’s the one who introduced ideas like the Doctor spending his nights setting up elaborate schemes, declaring that he liked to direct the world, not merely act in it, or work in part based on notes from his future self. The basic link we intuited at the start holds: Paul Cornell is the definitive New Adventures writer, and the New Adventures are darker than most of Doctor Who, ergo Paul Cornell is darker than most of Doctor Who.
But we just came off of a story where we quickly and throughly had our memories refreshed about the fact that one of the things Doctor Who is about is taking established stories and structures and subverting them. And there’s no reason that can’t be accomplished with the moody darkness of the New Adventures. This is essentially what No Future did – it built up a big, clanking epic of a story, and then, at the last moment, burst out laughing and reminded us that if you’re failing to have fun with the idea of the Meddling Monk and the Vardans running a set of black block punk terrorists then you’re simply doing it wrong. Yes, the book had numerous dark moments and played at being gun, but at the last moment it dropped the gun, ripped open its military unit, and displayed a swanky new frock coat.
The Shadow of the Scourge is similar. At first it seems to be a big, epic fight against yet another flavor of the “evil since the dawn of time.” The Doctor has a plan, there’s a standard issue “oh no, the Doctor has gone bad” cliffhanger in which the Doctor sets himself up for a solid triple cross. And, inevitably, it all goes terribly wrong, which sets up yet another sequence inside the Doctor’s mind as he faces all of his doubts and failures. As for the supporting characters, Ace gets some properly hard-edged New Ace moment, most boldly when she voluntarily deafens herself to protect her from the Scourge’s mind control. And Bernice gets some fantastic moments of snark. All of this is familiar from the New Adventures. It’s also shamelessly Cornell self-plagiarizing, but given that Shadow of the Scourge came out over three years after the end of the New Adventures line and in a higher profile medium, this is not entirely unreasonable. Big Finish, in the eyes of many, always had a bit more legitimacy simply because it had actual actors in it. Recasting your work for a new audience is fair.
But more to the point, this isn’t just a rote execution of New Adventures tropes. After building quite an edifice of the epically dark, Cornell takes a hard swerve to the story being about friendship and the pleasures of the little things in life. The end of the story hinges on the Scourge being defeated by a bunch of people’s passion for cross-stitching, with a side of how much the Doctor and Benny like tea. The explicit point of The Shadow of the Scourge is that small pleasures of ordinary lives are more important than the big cosmic stuff. This is a point Cornell has talked about in interviews as well, and there’s a charm to it.
It’s also, of course, the thinking behind one of the dumbest things Eric Saward ever wrote, namely the “for some people, small, beautiful events is what life is all about” exchange in Earthshock. So why does it work when Cornell does it? Well, first of all, Cornell seems to actually believe it. Saward may give the Doctor some lines about the little things in life, but his entire story is about how, in fact, it’s people with guns who matter. The Doctor gets the line, but it’s immediately undercut by the Cybermen showing the Doctor up by threatening Tegan. So it comes across as a glib moment by a typically weak and marginalized Saward version of the Doctor. Whereas Cornell, and this is key, actually has the cross-stitchers uniting to drive off the horrifying monsters. He has the little things in life wipe the floor with the giant insect fear monsters.
Second, Cornell actually has a knack for characters. Earthshock required Beryl Reid camping up one of the stock roles to have anything resembling humanity in the story. Cornell, on the other hand, packs The Shadow of the Scourge with memorable secondary characters who feel like familiar bits of humanity. You’ve got a man organizing a cross-stitching convention who skimmed money off the gate. An odd couple affair between a fraudulent psychic and a physicist. You’ve got Ace being confronted with the fact that her life is a violent and kind of nasty, and shrugging that she knows that, but she’s still going to blow up some aliens. Which is probably the best moment a post-Deceit Ace has had up to this point in the continuity. And when you have a story that’s actually about people in a meaningful and vivid sense, a resolution that says “the lives of ordinary people matter” actually works.
None of this, of course, constitutes Cornell turning away from the darkness of the New Adventures. Quite the contrary – Cornell’s story here depends on that darkness. The point of Cornell’s story isn’t “the little things matter,” but the more radical and substantive claim that the little things and the epic are not on contrasting scales. It’s not just that the little things are important, but that the little things and the multi-dimensional universe-spanning insectoid fear monsters can go toe-to-toe and have the little things triumph. And to accomplish that you need to make the fear monsters big too. The fact that McCoy’s Doctor has, by this point in time, been made into the most fearsome of the Doctors helps with this. It increases the size of things, which in turn makes the switch towards the little things matter.
But there’s a second part of this, and it’s something Cornell has always kept a somewhat better sense of than some of his fellow Virgin writers. McCoy’s Doctor was, on television, defined not just by the fact that he did things like destroy Skaro, but by the fact that he was grounded in the material and everyday world. He was a Doctor who listened to jazz, chatted with cafe owners, and remembered people’s families. Yes, his era had The Curse of Fenric, Battlefield, and Remembrance of the Daleks. But it also had The Happiness Patrol, Paradise Towers, and Delta and the Bannermen. And Cornell’s take on the Doctor, unlike many of the New Adventures writers, includes those stories instead of limiting the McCoy era to the stories with more gun tendencies. McCoy’s Doctor is, and this is too often forgotten, very, very good at the human level of things. Yes, he’s also glorious at the epic, but that’s the appeal: the Doctor can move back and forth between them.
And so, of course, we have the frock conclusion. The Doctor moves back and forth, but the level he loves isn’t the one with scary monsters, it’s the one with cross-stitching. Yes, the Doctor defeats monsters. He loves defeating monsters. But he loves it so that people can cross-stitch and drink tea in peace. Is this the consistent viewpoint of the New Adventures? No, sadly. There’s plenty of gunnish novels and darkness ahead, even if the novels have turned a corner on their own angst. But it’s the consistent viewpoint of what Paul Cornell did with them. And if he’s going to be read as the exemplary vision of the New Adventures, he really ought get the credit for that as much as he does for the phrase “Time’s Champion” and all of that.