Good morning everyone. Some orders of business before the post. First of all, the Kickstarter continues to be blowing me away. As I mentioned over the weekend, I was needing more stretch goal ideas. T. Hartwell had the winning idea: an art book version of the Logopolis entry formatted to look like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Read about it here, and consider contributing. The costs for ebook and print editions are the same there as they will be on Amazon, so if you’re even going to buy the Hartnell second edition when it comes out, go ahead. There’s also some new rewards to check out.
Second, if you missed it, I got invited to join Mac Rogers as a panelist on Slate’s Doctor Who recaps for this season, and got to discuss Hide with him this week. Given that the episode had what some are immodestly calling a shout-out to this blog (I remain silent but terribly amused), this was perhaps an auspicious omen. Certainly I had fun, and if you want a preview of some of my thoughts on the Moffat era it’s probably a good read. That’s up over here.
Let’s talk nightmare briefs, shall we? Here’s a corker: you need to wrap up the Eighth Doctor Adventures because the Eighth Doctor is no longer the incumbent. Accordingly we need to fix this whole mess we’ve made of destroying Gallifrey because, well, everyone knew that had to be cleaned up before it got handed off lest there be some massive disjunct between the Gallifreyless Eighth Doctor era and the Gallifreyful Ninth Doctor era. Of course, it’s possible the television series is going to go down as one of the most epic failures of modern television and the series is going to go crawling back to the novels, so however you wrap it up, it should probably not foreclose anything. Oh, and your book is actually going to come out a few months after the new series starts.
The list of people you can call to get this nightmare brief settled is, historically, very short. Peter Grimwade was good at this sort of stuff. Ben Aaronovitch had his moments, and also, for that matter, had Battlefield. Pip and Jane Baker, for all their faults, really only wrote as many stories as they did because they could handle assignments from hell. In books, of course, Kate Orman and Jon Blum lived for this sort of stuff. And then there was Lance Parkin. Lance Parkin, who so loves nightmare briefs that he tends to create them for himself. And who had closed out the previous book line, thus making for a neat piece of symmetry.
Another piece of symmetry appears on the cover. This is the third Eighth Doctor Adventure to feature the Seal of Rassilon on the cover, the previous two having been The Eight Doctors and Interference Book One. This is an odd trilogy, to say the least, but one that manages to capture the overall arc of the Eighth Doctor Adventures surprisingly well, from their beginnings as crushing disappointments to their flare of promise in the middle through to their awkward but not entirely lacking in quality latter days. All of the influences that weigh upon them are on display somewhere in here, whether the intense traditionalism of Dicks, the aggressive drive for new concepts of Miles, and Lance Parkin’s middle road of finding the limits to which relatively traditional Doctor Who can be pushed.
Of course the problems Parkin is left to solve here aren’t Miles’s problems. But they are problems that stem out of his legacy – the residual scars of his influence on Doctor Who. And implicit in this remains what we might call the real divide of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. The rad/trad distinction, after all, proved both largely illusory and, perhaps more to the point, settled: the new series has drawn far more from the rads than the trads, and thus adjudicated that nicely. The gun/frock debate might be taken as slightly more promising, but still misses something. As the endlessly clever Teatime Brutality points out, the real aesthetic divide in the Eighth Doctor Adventures came between Paul Magrs and Lawrence Miles, with the best available summary being that in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street Lawrence Miles gave the Doctor a beard, and in Mad Dogs and Englishmen Paul Magrs made it a magic fortune-telling beard. Which just about sums it up. If anything the divide is the one we tracked way back with First Frontier: paranoia and hedonism. Miles is the paranoid model, and Magrs is the hedonistic one.
Given that, at least, it’s fairly clear that Parkin is ultimately more on the hedonistic side. There’s not a lot of other ways to read a line like “one of the things you’ll learn is that it’s all real. Every word of every novel is real, every frame of every movie, every panel of every comic strip.” The Gallifrey Chronicles embraces the vast overload of Doctor Who. This is mirrored fairly explicitly in the novel’s structure, which keeps offering half-told fragments of adventures, pointedly picking up and leaving off mid-story so as to stress the way in which Doctor Who remains a continually told story.
This is by and large the most interesting part about the book. It’s certainly not Parkin’s resolution of the Gallifrey plot itself, which is firmly one of the straightforward exit strategies just about anyone would have guessed: the Doctor’s amnesia is actually because he deleted his memories to make room for the contents of the entire Matrix, such that he could bring the Time Lords back if he, you know, could ever think of it. (Which he couldn’t, because he accidentally deleted his plan.) It does the job, even though it’s a bit cheeky of Parkin to merely leave the book off with the means by which the Doctor can restore Gallifrey as opposed to actually resolving the plot. But the fact of the matter was that restoring Gallifrey was about as complex or interesting a question as “how will they solve the regeneration limit.” Which, of course, they will, but the particulars of the magic wand aren’t the interesting part of that magic trick. How Gallifrey comes back isn’t interesting – what sorts of stories are implied by it is.
And so the actual business of bringing Gallifrey back is ultimately a sideshow – one that’s eventually driven off to the sides of the book when we get a random alien invasion to deal with instead. The book pointedly isn’t about restoring Gallifrey. It’s about the way in which Doctor Who pointedly does not end. To actually resolve a plot element would defeat the purpose of the book. This does not quite remove the jarring problem underlying the book – that it brings Gallifrey back so that it can be promptly destroyed in a different fashion. It remains a profoundly weird interaction in which the Eighth Doctor Adventures are simultaneously embraced and rejected. But it helps. The Gallifrey Chronicles end up working a lot better in terms of the new series than it would have if they’d attempted some Sometime Never…esque attempt at broad continuity.
At the end of the day, after all, what The Gallifrey Chronicles is about is the marginal spin-off material. Hence the “it’s all real” bit, which is fairly blatantly about the legitimacy of the spin-off material in the wilderness years. Notably, the book begins with a chapter called “New and Missing Adventures,” and finds a way to work in a bit of Timewyrm: Genesys and a crucial assist from the Seventh Doctor, thus making it into a conclusion not just to the Eighth Doctor Adventures but to the wilderness years as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, The Gallifrey Chronicles is not entirely credulous as to the history of Doctor Who that they tacitly restore. Marnal, the character through whom Gallifrey is remembered, is described as “a rich, colourful mind that had become overgrown, tangled as it grew old. An author of popular adventure fiction who had succumbed to senility without realizing it, whose books had become an impenetrable jungle, alienating even his most loyal fans.” As exorcism goes, this is worthy of the Colin Baker era.
What should we say of the wilderness years, then? An era of interminable creative frustration, with interesting idea after interesting idea squandered, it is in many ways difficult to wrap them up with anything good to say. The Virgin era was largely quite good? This is true, though even there it seems more accurate to say that the Virgin era had several very good writers and was better able to keep everyone marching in the same direction. But they were not good enough. This has, I will not lie, been an extremely hard nine months of blogging, and not just because of the amount of material that had to be chewed through. Nowhere in the classic series did getting through all of the material the blog required feel like such an arduous process. The wilderness years material simply isn’t that good. It has moments that are as good as anything Doctor Who has ever done, yes. But even while being terribly selective in what I covered I had a lot of sloggy bits. Had I actually tried to do everything, well, for one thing we’d still be nine months from Rose, and for another, I’d have long since given up the blog in despair.
But for all their faults they are important. Not just in a historical sense of being influential and thus worth documenting, but in the sense of forming a real era of Doctor Who. The wilderness years were the demonstration that Doctor Who would not die. It might fragment, become marginal, become culter than cult, but the one thing it very clearly was not going to do any time soon was stop existing or stop telling stories. And while we’ve, over the past few entries, been stressing the fact that “proper” Doctor Who is plugged into British culture in a fundamental way, we should also remember that when Doctor Who falls out of sync with that culture there is a body of fans there to take care of it.
Did the wilderness years at times mistake taking care of Doctor Who for ownership of it? Yes. Did they mishandle it, often as a direct result? Yes. But where else were you going to find Doctor Who in the first place from 1990 to 2004? No, Doctor Who isn’t inherently worthwhile; if we have to put up with The Celestial Toymaker, The Dominators, The Monster of Peladon, The Android Invasion, The Arc of Infinity, The Twin Dilemma, Silver Nemesis, Timewyrm Genesys, War of the Daleks, and Minuet in Hell as Doctor Who than it’s not worth doing in the first place. But just because crap gets produced doesn’t mean that there’s not worthwhile things as well. And if Doctor Who remains a thing that can produce things like The Rescue, The Mind Robber, Carnival of Monsters, City of Death, Enlightenment, Vengeance on Varos, The Happiness Patrol, Love and War, Interference, and The Chimes of Midnight then it is worth doing.
And in this regard The Gallifrey Chronicles is the perfect ending to the wilderness years: a story about the ongoing nature of Doctor Who. Which is, after all, what the wilderness years secured. That even if the BBC turned its back on the program there would be people who would keep it going, both in a creative sense and in a cultural sense. What matters about the wilderness years is not just that people like Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts wrote Doctor Who, but that people read and listened to the Doctor Who that was written. And when the next wilderness years come – and they will some day, because nothing lasts forever – the same process will repeat itself.
And so even as the new series ramps up and definitively becomes Doctor Who, relegating the wilderness years into the wilderness, Lance Parkin spins an account of why the wilderness years have value in the first place: because they keep going. Because spin-off books and audios are still a thing, even after the new series starts. And many of the same suspects remain attached to them. Lance Parkin has written for Tennant with The Eyeless. Justin Richards wrote The Angel’s Kiss and Devil in the Smoke. The wilderness years never ended any more than the series did.
And in many ways this is the key thing about Doctor Who. It not only inspires mass cultural appeal of the sort that is going to be central to tracking and understanding the new series, it inspires weird, fannish appeal. And the weird fannish appeal is a huge part of why the series is important. The DVD sets and action figures that make the series a reliable cash cow for the BBC are for us. This is the overt model of Doctor Who: something that is popular enough to be an absolutely massive cultural touchstone but that inspires a small section of its audience to die-hard fandom. And while the former is by almost any reasonable measure the more important aspect of Doctor Who, the latter is why it survives and endures.
And so this is, perhaps, the way to look at the wilderness years. A period where fandom nurtured and cared for the show, out in the wilderness and the margins of the culture. And eventually the show was ready to leave us and go back into the culture. Was there perhaps some separation anxiety and empty nest syndrome in pockets of the wilderness? Of course. But that’s not our decision. The show isn’t ours anymore. It never really was. We just took care of it for a while. And on the whole, we did OK.