It’s March of 1997. Depending on the week, either No Doubt is at number one with “Don’t Speak,” or the Spice Girls are with “Mama.” Other options in the top ten include the Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, R Kelly, Ant and Dec, Bush, and the Bee Gees. If you think one of those things is not like the others, I certainly don’t disagree.
You’re hopefully, by this point, getting enough of a sense of the general shape of the 1989-2005 period of Doctor Who that “March of 1997” already gives you some clues. If not, what we’ve got here is the second to last month of Virgin Books before they lost the license to BBC Books. In this period, Virgin, facing their own end and with little to gain or lose, basically proceeded to cut loose with some of the best and most challenging books of their line, but all of this was frankly dampened by the kind of funereal atmosphere. Not everyone had loved the Virgin line, but it had some strong admirers who were crushed to see it go. The prospect of the BBC starting up an in-house line based on the TV Movie was hardly inspiring, especially given the murmurs that the line was to be the anti-Virgin – an explicit reaction against the Virgin era’s excesses and a return to simpler, less challenging prose. In practice the BBC Books line would be weirder and more interesting than that, but it looked bad from the outset.
Meanwhile, Virgin was releasing its last books in a sort of maudlin celebration of the line’s potential. In the second to last month, they released two books. One, Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow, was an ambitious retconning of the history of Gallifrey and the apparent culmination of the last plot strands left lingering from when the series was on television. The other – The Dark Path – was a long awaited attempt to tackle a massive continuity point and deliver what is one of the most wanted untold tales in Doctor Who.
As a result, there’s something almost actively insane about reviewing it within the Troughton era. The supposed conceit of the Missing and Past Doctor Adventures is that the stories they tell could be inserted into their assumed eras. As we’ve seen that’s always been a bit of a myth – even the most faithful recreation we’ve looked at, Gareth Roberts’s The Plotters, takes liberties that could not have been taken in the era whose television the book imitates the tone of. Other times it’s nearly shattered – The Man in the Velvet Mask is flagrantly and deliberately a vision of the Hartnell era distinct from what we see on the screen. But both of those were still fundamentally comments on the Hartnell era. One attempts to work within the format of the Hartnell era to tell a story that wouldn’t have made it to screen with the actors in question or in the year it would have aired. The other attempts to show a counter-narrative to the Hartnell era.
But this? I mean, let’s just try to pretend this is a Troughton era story, just to see how badly it goes. So the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria land on a remote human colony. There they meet a man named Koschei, who is an old friend of the Doctor’s and a member of his species. The Doctor and Koschei work separately on the problem that this colony has something they call the Darkheart, which is apparently an ancient tool of a species called the Chronivores that, among other things, can destroy planets and rewrite species DNA so that they are and always were human. Ultimately Koschei, tempted by the prospect of bringing his dead lover back, goes mad and abuses the power of the Darkheart, and the Doctor ends up trapping his old friend in a black hole as his friend taunts him that his name “no longer has any meaning for me, Doctor. In time you too will call me Master.” Oh, and Koschei hypnotizes Victoria, but the novel cleverly keeps from revealing exactly where Victoria’s natural sympathies for Koschei leave off and the hypnosis picks up.
And apparently, if the cover of the book is any indication, Koschei looks like the actor Roger Delgado, a character actor from the 1950s-70s who worked extensively in live television with roles in things like Quatermass II. So apparently McIntee had in mind who should play him.
Is this out of line with the Troughton era? Not entirely, certainly. True, we haven’t seen any members of the Doctor’s own species at this point in the show for about two years – the last one we saw was the Monk in The Daleks’ Master Plan. But so what? We have seen them before. The plot has an obvious hard SF edge from the 1990s, but that’s no more of a reach than we’re used to in the Missing Adventures – putting Troughton in an adventure based on a 1990s conception of science fiction is firmly within the point of what the Missing Adventures line should be for.
Perhaps most interestingly, the book walks a very meticulous line. The back of the book may talk about Time Lords and temptation, but within the text of the book the words “Time Lord” never appear. This is a subtle thing, but oddly remarkable because seemingly every author of spin-off fiction adheres to it. I’ve not done an exhaustive search, and there probably is an exception somewhere that one of my more dedicated readers can and will inform me about, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve never read a novel set in the Hartnell or Troughton eras that actually calls the Time Lords by name, despite having read several in which other Time Lords appear. And there’s no inherent reason for this. Yes, in The War Games both Zoe and Jamie are going to not know what Time Lord is, but there’s no reason why Koschei can’t identify himself as one to Victoria in this book. Or why, to use a book I’m reading for the expanded book edition of the Hartnell posts (still in progress, but targeted for some time this summer), Irving Braxatiel can’t mention the word to Vicki in The Empire of Glass.
And yet every author seems to demure here. And they do it for what is, from the perspective of anyone approaching the show through any means other than the one I am – that is, anyone who read The Dark Path in 1997 instead of pretending to read it in 1968 – a completely bizarre reason. Namely, they do it because everybody knows that The War Games is the story that introduces the Time Lords. And even if they impose Time Lords at an earlier point in the narrative (and it’s also interesting that there are, to my knowledge, no stories with Time Lords prior to The Time Meddler, again despite the fact that a story in which Ian, Barbara, and Susan meet one is completely plausible and would not wreck any continuity as such), they don’t do so in a way that “spoils” the reveal of The War Games, even though their entire audience knows the reveal by heart.
I mean, I really want to stress how weird this is. Seemingly by popular convention among writers, and with no editorial edict (since the back of the book blabs freely about Time Lords), the writers of Doctor Who books have universally and without any explicit comment opted not to spoil a plot point in a classic Doctor Who story in any material set prior to that story, even though the entire readership of that material knows full well what that plot point is. There is no more reason not to mention Time Lords in The Dark Path than there is in the book starring the Fourth Doctor that follows it, The Well-Mannered War. Both are, in reality, released into a world that knows that the Doctor is a Time Lord and has for nearly thirty years. And yet one, because it is ostensibly set prior to where that reveal happened in the series, dances around the term.
What’s really strange, though, is that the exclusion of the words “Time Lord” is just about the only concession to the continuity of the series in 1968 that the book makes. See, the thing I’ve avoided quite coming out and saying is that Koschei isn’t just some member of the Doctor’s species that shows up. He’s very clearly the Master – a character who doesn’t make his television debut until about three years after where this story is set. In that regard, it’s one of the only Doctor Who stories I am aware of in which the plot revolves around the Doctor encountering something belonging to a future era of the show.
There are a few exceptions. Obviously every multi-Doctor story is forward-looking. Cameos are also not uncommon in books – for instance, The Dark Path also features some remnants of Pertwee-era future history (it appears to exist during the transition from the Earth Empire seen in The Mutants to the Galactic Federation seen in The Curse of Peladon). And there are a number of instances like The Empire of Glass and Interference in which a past Doctor encounters a plot point from the concurrently running current Doctor novel series. Past that, the number of instances of this is vanishingly small given that there are as many past-set books and audios as there are. I can, off hand, think of one book in which the Fourth Doctor encounters Nyssa achronologically, a trilogy of Dalek audios where the Dalek timeline runs backwards along the Doctors so that the 5th Doctor ends up resolving a plot that began with the 7th, Simon Guerrier’s astonishingly good The Time Travelers, in which the Doctor encounters a future London ruined because he hasn’t fought WOTAN yet (and stumbles upon a consequence of Remembrance of the Daleks), and arguably the appearance of River Song in the Russell T. Davies era.
There are no doubt a few others, but the point remains – despite the fact that the Doctor travels in time and routinely knows a lot about situations he seems to encounter for the first time, people break this rule almost as rarely as they break the “no mentioning the Time Lords” rule. Yes, some of this is rights issues – you can’t have the Fourth Doctor facing down the Weeping Angels, even though they’d fit smoothly into the Hinchcliffe era, just because Tom Baker records few audios and the Big Finish audios don’t get to use new series concepts. But on the other hand, the number of seemingly obvious combinations that have never gotten employed is bizarre. No encounters between the First Doctor and the Cybermen prior to The Tenth Planet, despite the fact that he knows who they are there? Nobody has thought to give Troughton a base under siege by the Wirrin? Pertwee never gets to face off with the Rani? I mean, come on – you know you want to see Pertwee, the Delgado Master, and the Rani in a three-way showdown. It’s about the only good idea for the Rani there is, and mysteriously, it’s the one that’s never actually been tried.
The common idea here is that, strangely, the developmental history of the show cannot be fully decoupled from its continuity. That there is something about the idea of Time Lords or the Master that cannot be separated, even for the purposes of continuity games, from their history. There is, in other words, something about Doctor Who that requires an approach like this one, in which continuity and real world history are accepted to be fundamentally intertwined.
The most obvious glue to hold these things together is the audience. Which, for a majority of the history of the show, has meant fandom, and for a significant portion of time basically means nothing but fandom. Doctor Who fandom is staggeringly well developed, as posts like Wednesday’s have hopefully indicated. To the point where there are a large number of fairly well trod fan debates that various novels have, essentially, attempted to stake territory out for. And more to the point, where various eras of the show and elements of those eras are signifiers of whole aspects of fan debates. One of the biggest of these is the entirety of the Pertwee era, which forms the earliest chronological major fault line. (A small number of fans like to create a Hartnell/Troughton fault line, but they’re just being difficult.)
You can hopefully see where this is all going. What this means is that it is next to impossible to read The Dark Path as anything other than an overt and explicit effort to throw Troughton up against aspects of the Pertwee era in a more deliberate manner than The Web of Fear and The Invasion managed.
The heart of this is the confrontation between Koschei and the Doctor at the end, in which Koschei attempts to argue that he is morally superior to the Doctor, asking him “Don’t you ever get tired of always reacting to what has happened? Only picking up the pieces, but never being able to prevent the breakage in the first place,” and calling for “order” to the universe. To which the Doctor responds in absolute horror. But notably, the Master is calling the Doctor out on the grounds that the Doctor is inefficient in fighting the anarchy of the universe. This is certainly true, especially in the Troughton era, but it’s true in no small part because Troughton’s Doctor seems very much like an anarchist. And so phrasing it as a criticism makes no sense.
Unless, of course, we remember that Koschei is a Pertwee villain, using Chronovore technology – another Pertwee-era concept. In which case what Koschei is declaring makes more sense – Pertwee’s Doctor is, after all, much more closely allied with establishment authority than Troughton’s ever was.
Of course, the most overt commentary on another Doctor Who story comes in the form of the Master tempting Victoria to his side by offering to destroy Skaro and save her father. This confronts Victoria with a decision we will see the Doctor face twice in the future of the series – in both Genesis of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks. And, notably, Victoria’s succumbing to this temptation (and taking the decision the Doctor took in the latter of those stories) is presented as the wrong decision, since it’s later revealed that this was part of the Master’s hypnosis of her.
But the subtler issue comes surrounding this hypnosis. At one point, the Doctor is warned of the potency of Koschei’s hypnosis and warned that Victoria might not still be trustworthy, to which the Doctor grumbles “He used to do that at school, and anyone he can hypnotize, I can de-hypnotize.” This is interesting on several levels. First of all, it’s one of only a few insights into the Doctor and Koschei’s interactions at school. Second, it’s utterly bizarre. The Doctor grumbles irritatedly as if he’s used to Koschei hypnotizing his friends. This is a standard part of their friendship? Koschei hypnotizing the Doctor’s female friends? I mean, not to belabor the point here, but as sentences designed to launch an unceasing torrent of slash fiction go, that one is a doozy. (As is the Master’s droll observation as to how he managed to entrance Victoria so utterly – her classical education. As if Victoria is a fundamentally flawed companion and human being because of her upbringing. Not that I’m praising Victorian morality here, but that seems a bit harsh.)
All of which points at the larger problem with The Dark Path. It’s a book about the conflict between a Pertwee villain and Pertwee’s Doctor, only it’s set in the Troughton era and its only seeming insight on that era is that Victoria is a bit rubbish. Which isn’t even true. On top of that, its big secret revelation about the Master is… that he went mad when his human companion turned out to be a Time Lord and was cranky at him for committing genocide in a mad attempt to save her? That’s why he’s a villain? Because his girlfriend turned out to be a Time Lord?
I mean, can anyone seriously argue that this book improves anything about Doctor Who’s history? That we’re better for knowing that the Master and the Doctor had a weirdly kinky friendship based on hypnotizing ladies in college and that the Master went mad because his girlfriend kind of mildly betrayed him? Does this actually in any way deepen anyone’s enjoyment of any Doctor Who episodes?
I am frequently suspicious of Missing and Past Doctor Adventures, I will admit, for exactly this reason – that too often they seem to solve problems they themselves invent. On the other hand, we’re on number six of these, and I’ve basically liked five of the books. But those books were all ones that offered commentaries on the eras they were set in and on the show itself. Not only does The Dark Path not offer any real commentary on the Troughton era, it doesn’t try. It’s just some continuity points and snide commentary on companions strung togeth
Perhaps that’s why the “future villain appears in the past” story is done so rarely – because it’s hard to do it in a way that’s actually a working commentary on the past as opposed to a celebration of arcane trivia. But even still, for all this book’s flaws, we should look at it, perhaps, in comparison with something like, well Fury From the Deep…