Time Can Be Rewritten 5: The Roundheads (Mark Gatiss, BBC Books, 1997)
It’s tough, in 2011, to express quite how depressing it was to be a Doctor Who fan in 1997. I gather it was bleak for most of the 90s, and for a fair share of the 80s, but I lack much to compare it to. But 1997 was a stunningly bad year. By then it was quite clear that the Paul McGann TV Movie was as big a bust commercially as it had been aesthetically. But worse than that, the TV Movie had been used as the excuse for bringing Virgin Books’s license to produce original Doctor Who fiction to an end, and to move the license in house to BBC Books. Financially this was a perfectly sound decision – the BBC understandably was not thrilled with another company making money doing something they could do perfectly well themselves.
Aesthetically, unfortunately, it was a train wreck, as we’ll see when we get to The Eight Doctors. Never mind that the second BBC Book – Vampire Science – was quite good. By then the Paul McGann years had suffered the same problem the Colin Baker years did – two staggeringly bad opening stories that eviscerated the possibility of long-term success. Then, five months in, the coup de grace. The one advantage the BBC Books plan maybe had over the Virgin plan was that BBC Books proudly said they had the rights to the Daleks. And so the fifth book of the BBC Books range – John Peel’s War of the Daleks – was a big deal. And it was an abomination – one of the most legendarily hated Doctor Who books ever, which, if you’re keeping track, means that in five months the BBC Books range had managed to release two epic turkeys. Add to that the fact that the series now had seemingly no feasible way back to television, and that nobody could actually tell you what the Eighth Doctor was like in a meaningful sense, and you have yourself some bleak times. It’s not that these times were any bleaker, objectively, than, say, 1991, when Virgin churned out three flat and fairly predictable novels to kick off their New Adventures series (or, really, two flat novels and one quite nice Terrance Dicks effort). It’s that they’re such an obvious consequence of a false dawn. It’s that it was impossible, in 1997, not to have the sense that Doctor Who had actually been in much better shape before it made a try at coming back – that it had done cancellation better the first time.
Which makes the events of November of 1997 all the more intriguing. In the main line of Eighth Doctor novels, something called Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles happened. For those of you who are going to learn a huge amount about the world of Doctor Who novels when the blog actually gets to 1997 proper, Alien Bodies is a landmark book. There are a couple moments in the novels where everything changes – landmark novels that are as important as the landmark stories like The Tenth Planet in terms of the development of the series. And if you’re listing those moments, the first two you write down are basically Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation, and Lawrence Miles’s Alien Bodies.
The Roundheads is the other book that came out that month. And rather than making it an uninteresting footnote, that’s oddly the most appropriate time for a book like The Roundheads.
One of the things about those landmark moments – and we’ve just finished seeing the impact of one of them – is that we tend to think of change from the perspective of what’s created, not what’s destroyed. In truth, it is equal parts each. A regeneration story is the perfect example. You don’t just get the start of a new era. You get, as I said in the entry for The Tenth Planet, to see the show you loved get cancelled. Every time someone’s favorite era of Doctor Who begins – and every era is someone’s favorite – the show someone loved dies to make it happen. Intrinsic to being a Doctor Who fan is accepting this. And more to the point, intrinsic to being a Doctor Who fan is learning to love this, and learning to see why it is necessary for a great show to end. The answer is that, over time, every great show becomes a merely good show. Doctor Who doesn’t have to. Never mind that it sometimes does become merely good, and occasionally strays into not-actually-very-good. Doctor Who has a license that no other show has – the right, and indeed the obligation, to throw everything out while the show is still great and start over to try again.
But none of this minimizes the importance of the elegy to Doctor Who. And that’s why it’s strangely nice to see The Roundheads come out right when Doctor Who is busily getting itself cancelled again. Because The Roundheads, at its heart, is an elegy for William Hartnell set in the Patrick Troughton era.
The most obvious reason to describe it as such is that it is one of three major pure historicals set after The Highlanders in Doctor Who history. The other two were done in then-current Doctor Who – Black Orchid in 1982, and Sanctuary, a Virgin New Adventure. Thus The Roundheads is a massive curiosity – a historical adventure set after the historical had ended, but not so far after that it is inconceivable that a historical could have been shown. It is, in other words, an attempt to do a new “last historical.” Which is reasonable, given how far The Highlanders was from the main of the genre.
But it’s important to be very precise about what’s happening here. This is not a defense of the historical as a genre. A defense would be a Third Doctor/Jo historical, or, if you really want to challenge yourself, finding a way to make a Fourth Doctor/Romana II historical work. That would show that the historicals never needed to end. The closest thing to that comes with The Marian Conspiracy, a Big Finish audio that offered a pure historical 6th Doctor story. But given that it introduces a new companion, it’s kind of clearly not acting like a lost television story in the way that such a defense would require.
No, The Roundheads is written well aware that its own genre is doomed. It is written to say goodbye to the historical at the last point in which a historical could remotely plausibly have appeared on the schedule of the actual television show. It is an elegy – consciously and deliberately a celebration of a mode of Doctor Who that evaporated just one story later.
It’s telling that Doctor Who started with a historical. Because fundamentally, in its original conception, Doctor Who was about taking Ian and Barbara – two ordinary people – and putting them in extraordinary circumstances. And just to stave off having the show appear to be “Ian the schoolteacher goes and has fantastic adventures with his friends Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor,” we start by putting them all in a prehistoric setting and having the concern not be “saving the galaxy” or anything like that, but the delightfully prosaic “try not to get your skull bashed in.”
Obviously the show has moved away from that. But the degree to which it has moved away is nothing compared to what happens when Ben and Polly leave next story. Because from that point, other than the transitional period at the start of season 3, the show will for the first time have no representatives of contemporary Earth on the show. This, more than anything, is what kills the historical. If you imagine the next companion team having a historical adventure, there seems very little point. Why have a 16th century Scotsman and a Victorian woman appear in history? That’s where they belong. It would be like shoving Ian and Barbara into a contemporary London adventure.
Gatiss takes full advantage of this, splitting the TARDIS crew into three plots. Polly gets a political intrigue plot in which she’s used as a pawn by the Cavaliers, Ben gets a big naval plot, and the Doctor and Jamie share a plot that, if you look closely, actually basically amounts to them marking time waiting for Ben and Polly to get back with their plot resolutions. The bulk of this book is about shoving Ben and Polly into historical danger. And it’s a striking departure from the stories on either side of it television-wise, where Ben is increasingly marginalized in favor of Jamie.
But none of this is enough to paper over the other reason the historical died. Back in The Highlanders entry, I talked about two basic flavors of historical – Lucarotti-style and Spooner-style. The Lucarotti style – Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Massacre – are basically survival stories about the cultural differences between the past and the present. Their central tension is getting the TARDIS crew back to the TARDIS given that history is both unchangeable and dangerous. The Spooner style – basically every other historical save for 100,000 BC itself – is what we apparently have started calling a “romp” where the story is just a tour of major tropes of a genre.
Here’s the problem, then. Spooner killed his own style of historical off with The Time Meddler. Yes, there were four historicals in his style after that, but he still basically killed it by showing that the romps are even more fun when you give the Doctor an antagonist who’s in on the joke. The reason The Time Meddler is such a delight is that the Monk and the Doctor both get the fact that the middle ages are a strange and backward place. And so begins a train of thought that ends up, actually, right around The Curse of the Black Spot (which was part of a swap designed to move Mark Gatiss’s episode for this season to the fall, just in case you forgot why we cared about this book).
See, The Curse of the Black Spot is actually basically a remake of The Smugglers – it even sets itself up subtly as a prequel to it. But where The Smugglers was a tour of major tropes of the pirate genre, Curse of the Black Spot was a tour of even more major tropes of the pirate genre. It has all the stock characters The Smugglers has, all the iconic piratey bits, plus a ghost ship and a siren – two bonus bits of piratey goodness that The Smugglers, being a pure historical, had to pass up. Similarly, look at how The Fires of Pompeii hits almost all the same jokes as The Romans (including a nod to the ants in honey joke) and then adds a bunch more because it can have giant fire monsters in it. Heck, look at Gatiss’s own televised Doctor Who – all three of them to date are Spooner-style historicals with monsters. If you want to do a tour of genre tropes, there’s no compelling reason to limit yourself to “realist” ones.
That leaves the Lucarotti-style historicals, which, let’s face it, are the ones that tend to be the picks of would-be “sophisticated” fans. Here the problem is more subtle, and relates to the overall shift in Doctor Who. It’s worth noting that two of the three Lucarotti-style historicals come before The Sensorites, and the third requires the Doctor to be marginalized heavily. Why is this important? Because The Sensorites, as Miles and Wood point out in About Time (and I missed on my first pass at the story, to my irritation), is the first story in which the Doctor agrees to help because it’s the right thing to do. Previous stories relied on the TARDIS being disabled for their plot. The Sensorites starts with that, but midway through there is a point where the Doctor could leave if he wanted to… but opts to stick around to see if he can help more.
This is the first step towards the tendency that we’re seeing explode now with things like The Macra Terror. It’s the first time the show starts to turn towards social justice. The Doctor, between The Aztecs and The Roundheads, has become a character who does not travel the universe just because he’s an exile, but rather one who travels the universe to make it a better place. That’s what the entire Troughton regeneration was about, and why I went to such lengths to stress the bizarre nature of the Cybermen in The Tenth Planet.
But it’s a death knell to the historical. If the Doctor is a sympathetic and likable character in part because of his commitment to fighting evil then we run into a huge problem when we put him in a historical setting. The Massacre is, for all its genius, the story where we can see this problem actually killing the genre before our eyes. The heart of the problem is one I said in that entry – Steven is right and the Doctor is wrong. It is clearly and unambiguously the case that slaughtering the Huguenots is wrong. Having the Doctor simply walk away from it saying that it happened so there’s nothing he can do about it is only possible in that story because the Doctor has been so spectacularly diminished by the stories immediately preceding it. Under normal circumstances, watching the Doctor shrug his shoulders and walk away from vicious wrongdoing is… well… wrong.
Nowhere is this clearer than the mercifully aborted Brian Hayles script “The Nazis,” which would have featured the Doctor meeting up with the Nazis. Try to wrap your head around that one. Try to figure out a way to put the Doctor face to face with people who slaughtered six million people in a mechanized and industrialized way that is the closest humanity has ever come to Dalekdom, and then remember that he’s not allowed to stop them. It’s horrifyingly crass. Sufficiently so that Paul Cornell observed that the reason Sylvester McCoy is his favorite Doctor is that he was the first Doctor you could imagine walking through a concentration camp without it ending up as a moral travesty, because finally the Doctor had ethics complex enough to handle it. The problem, in other words, is that there’s something desperately unsatisfying about a crusader for good who will stop any travesty unless it happened on Earth prior to the year 1967.
And so once the show actually settled on the Doctor being a hero, the historical rapidly withered. And this is the problem Gatiss can’t quite get around. He tries, giving the Doctor a good speech about needing to maintain history. But his explanation is… well, let’s look at it:
Have I seen them? Yes, I’ve seen them. Or heard of them. Englands with a third, fourth, or fifth Civil War. A resurgent monarch who ruthlessly oppresses all democracy. Or a triumphalist, hereditary Puritan Protectorate that rules the country until the twentieth century. Or an invading Catholic army which takes advantage of England’s crisis to take over most of the known world. Oh yes, they’re all out there. All kinds of futures. Some great, some truly terrible.
What’s wrong here, of course, is that the same could be said of overthrowing the Macra, or stopping humanity from being converted to Cybermen, or any other time the Doctor has intervened to save people. The Doctor – Troughton’s Doctor in particular – is infamous for sneaking out instead of sticking around to help clean up his own mess. The Doctor has never cared how civilization will rebuild itself when he’s thrown a spanner in the works.
Gatiss manages to get away with it mostly because the appeal of putting Charles I back on the throne and avoiding Oliver Cromwell is limited. As much of a git as Cromwell is, it’s not like Charles I was winning “Monarch of the Month” awards or anything. It’s pretty easy to write around the moral problems with this setting.
But none of that erases the fact that, generally speaking, Gatiss is working in the increasingly shrinking margins of the transition from Hartnell to Troughton. Here, in the last days of Hartnell’s last companions, it is still just possible to reach across that gap and tell a story like they used to be told. But from here on out, looking back is going to be much harder.
May 12, 2011 @ 6:16 am
As you touched on in one paragraph, according to wikipedia's entry of The Curse of the Black Spot, 'The historical pirate Henry Avery was previously referenced in the 1966 serial The Smugglers, which deals with the search for "Avery's gold"'.
Another tip of the hat to the early years of Doctor Who! Thumbs up for continuity.
June 4, 2011 @ 6:19 am
I'm not sure why you think there are only three "major" pure historicals set after The Highlanders. I get why you're discounting short stories, but why don't stories like The Church and the Crown, The Fires of Vulcan, or Doctor Who and the Pirates count?
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
June 6, 2011 @ 9:22 pm
Doctor Who and the Pirates is everything Curse of The Black Pear- Spot should have been. Black Spot is my least favourite episode of Doctor Who ever, which I can sum up by saying that I fast forwarded through the ending because I was so bored (yes, I was watching it taped). I've never had to do that before- not with Tooth and Claw, not with The Voyage of the Damned, not even with anything that wasn't Forrest of the Dead/Silence in the Library in the otherwise excruciatingly bad Series 4 (Turn Left was alright, come to think of it. My issue with Series 4 isn't Donna, it's that the Doctor goes too far into become Jesus and all narrative tension just goes away. It's almost Pauline- The Doctor love us, and since through faith alone we are saved, then there's no need for action of any kind- the Doctor WILL save us. What I found so refreshing into something like The BEast Below is that, for the first time in ages, the Doctor is allowed to be complete wrong. it was incredible).
All of which is a round-about way of saying that I love Doctor Who and the Pirates, and feel that historical can become very good stories. Especially with the incredible Evelyn Smythe, who just breaks my heart.
March 11, 2013 @ 4:16 am
Or The Wages of Sin. Since Philip mentions the possibility of a Third and Jo historical.
December 10, 2013 @ 12:38 pm
Philip: Interesting reading your remarks about how the Doctor would confront the Nazis now that we've seen Let's Kill Hitler. Can't wait to see your thoughts on that episode.
Lord of Abrocen Landmearca: I have to take issue with this: "What I found so refreshing into something like The BEast Below is that, for the first time in ages, the Doctor is allowed to be complete wrong. it was incredible)."
Of course I can't contradict you if you didn't like series 4 of the new show – to each his own – but really, the Doctor wasn't allowed to be wrong before that? From where I'm sitting, Midnight, Journey's End, The Waters of Mars, and The End of Time are all explorations of the Doctor's failures.
I do agree with you, however, about the boringness of Curse of the Black Spot. It's maybe the only episode which has that for its major fault, and in a lot of ways its a more damning fault than any other. Give me over-the-top grotesqueness any day.