But equally, now they were back to being aimed at the same fan audience of virtually everything else from Big Finish. And in the big conclusion to the Lucie Miller run, the two-part Lucie Miller/To the Death (another convention absorbed from the new series) we can see very clearly what the implications of this are. We’ve got Susan, her son Alex, Daleks, the plot of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Meddling Monk, and, for good measure, a plot thread picked up from one of the Sixth Doctor/Charley audios. This is as hardcore as continuity porn gets without namechecking the Borad.
But what’s interesting is that Big Finish have, by this point, figured out how to do both at once. They’ve got a character-based story – this is the old standard “the companion has to function without the Doctor” story that every Davies companion got at least one of. (The Christmas Invasion, Last of the Time Lords, Turn Left) It’s They’ve got payoff to things set up in previous stories. They’ve got a big tragedy for the Doctor that sends him off sulking. It’s all very successful season finale stuff of the sort nobody once got to work in the wilderness years. And it’s also absolutely swimming in Doctor Who continuity.
And as this is the last thing we’re going to look at that Paul McGann was actually involved with in some fashion, this is worth pausing and celebrating actively. I’ve argued previously that there’s a reasonable lens by which Doctor Who steadily improves in a technical sense. But one of the biggest holes in that is the Paul McGann era, which, if we’re being honest, never really managed the consistent quality of the New Adventures or the Cartmel iterations of the Sylvester McCoy era. And with this he finally gets something that feels like a precursor to the new series. It’s not, of course – it’s a post-new series attempt to do McGann adventures in that style. But it is the most successful fusion of the McGann era as it existed – dense continuity references for fans – and what the McGann era in practice led into.
And this does matter. It’s strange that it does, but it does. The standard configuration of Doctor Who eras is, after all, based on the lead actor. But this is frequently misleading: Robot has far more in common with the stories starring Jon Pertwee than it does with anything else Tom Baker appeared in. Logopolis and Castrovalva have far more in common with each other than with any other stories in Doctor Who. And the division between The Horns of Nimon and The Leisure Hive is as stark as any regeneration sequence in terms of its significance in the series’ history. All of which is to say that the creative teams behind the camera are generally the bigger arbiters of the direction and tone of the program than the lead actor.
But lead actor is the default division. About Time made a bit of a heroic tilt at changing this, using strict season divisions and breaking the Tom Baker era into two books so as to create two John Nathan-Turner volumes. But season breaks are imperfect as well. Really, any attempt at dividing Doctor Who strictly into eras is flawed save perhaps the classic series/new series divide, with the TV Movie suspended strangely in the middle of it. Which is, of course, the status of the McGann era. The era that’s not part of either of the two segments that really do meaningfully divide Doctor Who in the popular consciousness. In reality, of course, there is no McGann era. There’s a deeply flawed TV Movie, a novel series with its own whacking big divide in the middle of it, the Big Finish audios, and let’s not forget, the comics, which we’ll deal with on Monday. There was never any sort of unified vision of the era.
And yet the popular consciousness is such that there is a McGann era. And there’s no real fighting against it. I can complain all I like about the foolishness of Doctor-defined eras, and I may even be right about it, but I still divide my books by Doctor because that’s how the public sees it. And so given this, it’s nice to see McGann get some good material. It really is. Because he is the person his era is referred to in terms of, despite having nothing to do with the bulk of it. And his era is so problematic that it’s welcome to see him prove that he could have done it. Not that anyone really doubted it, given how good an actor he is, but simply as something that allowed McGann to be rescued from his own era. It’s a small thing – nobody ever really suggested that the failures of his era were his fault. But much like Big Finish in general quietly redeemed Colin Baker from his own era, the audio adventures quietly redeemed McGann, albeit, in this case, in part from Big Finish itself. So, you know. Bravo to the only actor to give Peter Davison a run for his money in the “most tragically wasted on Doctor Who” sweepstakes.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the use of Doctor Who’s past to build a story like this. Because as we transition out of the wilderness years and their fundamental commitment to the past of Doctor Who it’s worth talking about the nature of that past. And, in particular, about the Problem of Susan.
The Problem of Susan is one of the longest-standing and most ill-defined concepts on this blog. That is, for the most part, because the problem itself is hazily defined. On the one hand, Susan clearly constitutes an active wound in the history of Doctor Who. She is at once irreducible from the history of Doctor Who and impossible to reconcile with it, being as she’s an artifact from a period before Doctor Who’s mythology and continuity actually formed. So the Problem of Susan, in that regard, describes an odd haunting of the narrative that occurs – the sort of thing that Avengers fandom would have to grapple with if it had a fandom obsessed enough to care about David Keel.
But there’s a larger problem implicit in Susan, which is the nature of the tension she introduces. She isn’t just a character that’s difficult to reconcile with the series’ later mythology, she’s a character that it would never have made any sense to introduce in a series not designed to run for, in William Hartnell’s overly optimistic estimate, five years. In a series about running forever she’s the character who was always designed to anchor the Doctor. In To the Death this gets rendered explicitly: she admits that she never really believed the Doctor would come back for her, which is all well and good, except that this admission makes the Doctor look bad in a way that his eventual permanent abandonment of Sarah Jane, Peri, or Amy never does. It’s one thing that the Doctor doesn’t nip off to New Jersey to pick Amy and Rory up. It’s quite another that he just casually abandons his own granddaughter on Earth without her consent and never returns for her ever. She is, in other words, a fundamental part of the show’s mythology that undermines the entire premise of the show.
But this still isn’t the entire Problem of Susan. There’s also the way in which she is a character who cannot be actualized. She’s a teenage girl whose role is that she can never become an adult woman. The is the eternally unearthly child. Again, this is an artifact of the series’ initial premise, which did not factor in the idea that Carole Ann Ford might still be playing the part at the age of seventy. (It is also, arguably, a factor of the series’ initial casting, which did not factor in the idea that the actress playing Susan should be good at something beyond shouting “grandfather!” in a particularly panicky voice.) And this is the problem all companions have. The Doctor is the series’ indispensable character, allowed to eternally change. But if companions change it is to be written out of the show. And so they are all, like Susan, stuck, unable to mature or develop. Which has added problems given that the companion is typically a gendered role.
All of these problems apply to Lucie Miller/To the Death. On the one hand, as noted, it tries to tackle the Problem of Susan. But on the other hand it can’t. And the extent to which it can’t is painfully obvious. Nowhere in the entire story are the Doctor and Susan able to reminisce. They can’t talk about Susan’s mother. They can’t talk about Gallifrey. The past that Susan represents has to remain a closed book save for Susan, making her a strange and arbitrary constraint on the present of the series. Susan is still stuck being Susan – plaintively yelping “grandfather” and being wetter than a Sea Devil. She has a son now, but that mostly consists of giving her another name to yelp occasionally.
All of this means that the final resolution of the story rings with weird hollowness. Lucie heroically sacrifices herself to stop the Daleks, pushing the Doctor dangerously over the edge. But Alex, his great-grandson, also ends up sacrificing himself. This, however, doesn’t seem to affect the Doctor at all. It barely seems to affect Susan, who, in the final scene in which the Doctor rants and contemplates going back to save Lucie, doesn’t really bring him up. It’s an incidental death, oddly muted. As it has to be, because to unmute it would be to allow Susan to function as her actual concept instead of as an odd artifact of the series’ history. And that’s unspeakable within the series. It’s not just that Lucie Miller has four seasons of audios and so her death has to be a spectacular moment of trauma. It’s that the entire structure in which Alex exists is one that is foreclosed on within Doctor Who.
But this gets at a larger and more fundamental problem with the classic series: it’s really kind of crap at doing any sort of character-based storytelling. It always has been. There’s no classic series era where character arcs worked. The closest is Ace, and the fact that nobody can agree on what the right order for Ace’s storyline is reveals how tentative the steps towards characterization were there. After a quarter-century the series took its first tentative steps towards characterization. And this presents anyone trying to mine the series’ past these days with real problems, because that past simply isn’t meant for that sort of mining. Doctor Who’s legacy is profoundly hostile to characterization. It doesn’t work. It can’t work.
In many ways this is visible in the way in which Lucie Miller/To the Death creates drama, which is through the wholesale slaughter of its supporting cast. Lucie, Alex, and Tamsin Drew, a brief companion of the Doctor’s in the fourth season of Eighth Doctor Adventures, all get killed. It’s a staggeringly high body count of major characters, and one that really does suggest a certain lack of imagination. And it’s notable that, despite flirting with it constantly, the new series has yet to kill a companion. (Even River Song survives, in her way) But here in the past of the series that’s not an option. The past is too simple for that. All it can do to ratchet up drama is kill people.
That’s not a condemnation of the past, or a suggestion that Doctor Who’s historical legacy has no value. It obviously does, or I wouldn’t have spent the past twenty-eight months chronicling it. But it’s limited. There are things it can’t do. And some of those things are essential to modern conceptions of serious drama. Lucie Miller/To the Death is lovely. It has some fantastic moments. But there’s only so much you can do with Doctor Who’s past. And in the end all the modern storytelling in the world can’t quite paper over the fact that, more than anything, at the end of the wilderness years, what Doctor Who needed was a present.