|Perhaps the image of Patrick|
Troughton as Napoleon is actually
all that needs to be said about this
It’s October of 2005. This means, in practice, that we’re between the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years. We’ve already talked about this time period a bit with The Time Travelers, so I’ll just refer you there for the general time, but suffice it to say that these are the dying embers of the BBC Books line, coming out after the series has conclusively moved on to other things.
What are we doing here? I don’t just mean reading BBC Books from a zombie phase when the line had ceased to have any possible relevance – after all, The Time Travelers firmly established that there was gold in the dying days of BBC Books. I mean doing a Second Doctor story written nearly 20 years after Troughton’s death and set after The War Games.
Well, see, it turns out that for plot related reasons, some 1980s reunion stories that featured Patrick Troughton (and to a lesser extent a 1973 one) opened up some seemingly massive continuity errors, mostly in the form of having Troughton’s Doctor interacting with the Time Lords and knowing about the outcome of his trial. This bothered people for a while, until the fine folks of The Discontinuity Guide proposed something called “Season 6B,” the consequence of which make up this novel.
I’d explain the idea of Season 6B, but it’s one of those absolutely ludicrous moments of Doctor Who that is probably best approached experientially instead of from a distance. And anyway, the point of doing this as a Time Can Be Rewritten entry is that we’re approaching Season 6B in part as if it were actually meant to slot into 1960s Doctor Who. Never mind what it explains and why from 1980s Doctor Who. After all, why should the 1980s get to come and unambiguously muck up our 1960s when the 1960s don’t get the right to sneak into the 1980s and wreck havoc with them?
Of course, this approach acquires an interesting relationship with the rails that is not entirely based on contact more or less at the first page. Dicks’s novel begins with “the genuine and original summary record of the trial of the Doctor,” noting that the version “with which we were, until now, familiar was substantially re-edited for the public record.” We then get a differing version of the trial from the one we saw on television in 1969. One in which the Doctor’s plea about fighting evil is not, as in the original, “accepted,” but is merely said to be “not without merit,” after which the Doctor is sentenced to death.
There’s a couple of things to note here, but let’s start with the fact that this fails spectacularly to fit with what we saw on screen. Dicks is making a very bizarre claim here – one that is not merely a retcon, but something with far wider-reaching implications. It’s not just that what we saw on television is here said to be wrong (which is already a bit of a strange claim for the novels to make, given that in almost every fan’s assessment they are given a less privileged place in Doctor Who than the televised stories), it’s that it’s said to be wrong because the Time Lords have been censoring material that could be viewed as damaging to them. In other words, this doesn’t just make a huge change to the television show, it tells us that the television show has been vetted by its own fictional characters and reshaped into a piece of propaganda to serve their needs. This is bewildering in its implications, in no small part because, if we’re being honest, it renders the show massively less interesting. I mean, I don’t want to watch the adventures of the Doctor as censored by a bunch of fictional characters. That doesn’t sound fun at all.
Stranger is that the overall goal of Season 6B doesn’t require this at all. Basically, where Dicks is going with this is that the CIA (that’s the Celestial Intervention Agency – a facet of Time Lord society devised by Robert Holmes in the mid-70s) use the Doctor’s imminent execution to get him to act as a CIA agent doing their dirty work, and that he goes from that into the exile depicted at the end of The War Games/start of Spearhead from Space.
But if that’s all Dicks wants, he’s gone for spectacular overkill in achieving it. All of Season 6B could be accomplished by having the Doctor fade off the monitor and end up somewhere different where he’s told that, actually, he’ll be working for the Time Lords now. You don’t need to overtly contradict anything seen on screen to get to the desired goal of a late-career Second Doctor as a Time Lord agent. Which makes the scale of Dicks’s retcon stick out oddly. Why retcon, essentially, the entirety of Doctor Who by rendering it all unreliable narration?
If we’re being honest, part of it seems to be that World Game represents a massive unshackling of fandom’s id with regards to the 1960s. We talked in the last Time Can Be Rewritten entry about how writers of books set in 1960s-era Doctor Who are oddly reluctant to import too many major concepts from later in the series. The big one is that the words “Time Lord” seemingly never appear in a pre-War Games story. (I’ve not done an exhaustive search, but I have read nine of the buggers at this point and I’m 0-9)
But here, suddenly, there’s no real restrictions on it. This is the one place you can put the Second Doctor in frame with the full continuity of the Time Lords. And so Dicks runs with it, working in the CIA, the 1985 story The Two Doctors, psychic paper from the 2005 series, the High Council (who become the people trying the Doctor, as opposed to “just some guys”), etc.
But the problem with this is something we already hit on in the entry on The War Games – the Time Lords of The War Games are not the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin and other stories from the 70s and beyond. As tempting as it is to treat The War Games as if it established the series’ entire mythos, it didn’t. In fact, it established relatively little – basically just the name of the Doctor’s people and a glimpse of what their planet was like. For all the talk of the story spoiling the mystery of the Doctor, it’s actually a vanishingly slender revelation.
And yet Dicks, from that, begins to spin far bigger implications, dropping in lines like “The deviousness and corruption of Gallifreyan politics had been one of the Doctor’s primary motives for leaving the Time Lords in the first place” that go far beyond the relatively modest exposition of The War Games and into something far more wide-ranging in its implications – something that really does start to render the Doctor less interesting. I mean, really? His reasons for running came down to not liking backstabbing politics? How pedestrian.
But beyond that, Dicks seems to misunderstand bits of the Gallifrey that followed The War Games. The CIA, for instance, was clearly never meant to be taken entirely seriously. The clue, and this should go without saying, is in the name. To anyone outside of the US, there is a certain comedy value to the actual CIA. They are, after all, the organization that cooked up, apparently in all seriousness, absurd plans like trying to assassinate Castro with an exploding cigar. But more broadly than that, the CIA has a reputation as almost pantomime villains – selfish spymasters obsessed with their own power and willing to work with all manner of dictators, war criminals, common criminals, thugs, and murderers if it advanced their goals, which seemed to not quite be equivalent to advancing their country’s goals. The CIA, in other words, is that great combination – vaguely malevolent, hugely corrupt, and massively incompetent.
So for Holmes – a master of bleak humor, after all – created a CIA for Gallifrey, the implication is clear. And when he suggests that the Doctor’s past missions were on behalf of the CIA, the implication is not that the Doctor is a super-cool secret agent. It’s that the Doctor has, thus far, been clowning around with the dunce Time Lords. The CIA isn’t supposed to be a powerful, feared organization. They’re supposed to be a bit rubbish. They’re Americans, for crying out loud.
But even if Dicks weren’t misunderstanding the central joke of Robert Holmes declaring that every time the Doctor has done anything for the Time Lords it’s really been for the CIA, he’d still run into the problem that, taken seriously, the CIA idea is bafflingly stupid. Let’s face it: “Oh, get the Doctor to do it” is actually a worse plan for a covert ops agency than trying to make Castro go bald, and only an organization as byzantinely stupid as the CIA would even attempt it. The Doctor as a CIA agent, whether it be the American CIA or the imagined Time Lord CIA (and if we’re being honest, not equating the two is probably just sloppy criticism), is an awful idea.
What’s strange is that despite that, there’s a pretty good story under here. Well, OK, perhaps that’s not that strange. This is Terrance Dicks. Aside from the fact that any Doctor Who fan who grew up with the Target novelizations (that’d be me, for one) has an almost pavlovian response to Dicks’s prose, the fact of the matter is, and I’ve alluded to this before, the man is an extremely good writer. It’s just that he’s also an extremely limited writer. He’s good at one type of prose: crisp, clear, functional, and exciting. As a result, he’s also good at one type of book: children’s literature.
That’s not an insult at all. Writing quality children’s literature is hard. The ruthless clarity of prose Dicks cultivates is something a vanishingly small number of writers are actually good at. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Dicks’s writing is that there is virtually nothing he has ever written that is confusing. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but given the fact that Dicks is usually writing Doctor Who, a series with plots that actually make no sense if you look at them for too long, this should be admitted as the accomplishment that it is. Dicks can structure a traditional and entertaining adventure story, stock it with quality set-pieces, and drop in some engaging descriptions, characters, and dialogue with the best of them. Frankly, JK Rowling made her career off of writing Terrance Dicks style novels – it wasn’t until Order of the Phoenix that the Harry Potter books stopped sounding like his work.
So yes, the actual ideas here are completely rubbish, but the book itself is surprisingly fun. The Doctor and his one-off companion Serena run about French and British history of the 18th century trying to keep the timeline on track while bored immortals try to mess with history. It’s perfect – Dicks gets to write a greatest hits collection of 18th century European history and the Napoleonic wars, dropping in action setpieces to keep it moving. This is exactly what Terrance Dicks is good at, and the mere fact that the premise he’s working from is cataclysmically flawed is in no way capable of keeping Dicks from making good with a plot that was made for him. Dicks effortlessly writes clear and engaging prose. It’s tough to overstate how much of an advantage that is.
But it doesn’t change the fact that, as a Second Doctor novel, this is profoundly misconceived. Its most grotesque feature may be the decision to equate the Second Doctor explicitly with Talleyrand, a French diplomat who notably changed sides at least six separate times over the course of his career becoming more or less the only person to successfully serve in every single regime that came to power from Louis XVI to his death in 1838. This comparison is made repeatedly – Serena makes it explicitly, and the Doctor describes himself by saying “I do what I can, and what seems best to me at the time,” and, earlier, explicitly is willing to throw some ethical qualms out the window for the sole reason that his life is on the line.
There’s versions of the Doctor this might describe, of course. The most obvious, of course, is the one you probably expected to be reading about today: the Third Doctor, who willingly and happily got in line as a military employee. The Third Doctor is also the Doctor Dicks is most associated with, having script edited his entire tenure. (Although to be fair, Dicks wrote multiple Fourth Doctor stories, script-edited the tail end of Troughton’s tenure, and, perhaps most importantly, has written for the first nine Doctors in book form) And, of course, one of the things that virtually everybody points out about the transition from The War Games to Spearhead From Space is that it’s just about the sharpest stylistic change in the history of the series. And it’s probably also worth pointing out that the Pertwee era had been in something of a critical freefall for the last fifteen years when World Game came out.
What I’m getting at is that part of why Dicks seems to be writing this book is to write a transitional Second Doctor – one who is himself becoming more like the Third Doctor, and thus makes the controversial decision of the Third Doctor to just join up with UNIT more understandable. Of course, it’s tough to see this as much of a defense… after all, as much as Doctor-as-Talleyrand is an absurd description of Troughton’s Doctor, it’s not exactly flattering any Doctor. If this is Troughton on his way to becoming Pertwee, then what he appears to be becoming is an amoral opportunist of the worst sort.
But even if we were to take the novel’s eventual rehabilitation of Talleyrand as being meant to apply to the Doctor as well, there’s a larger problem here. At best World Game can be said to soften the transition to Spearhead From Space (although as we’ll see when we finally do get there, that transition is less abrupt than its reputation would suggest). But this isn’t a Third Doctor novel. It’s a Second Doctor novel, and one that contradicts televised episodes starring Troughton, and, more to the point, erases the entire point of The War Games, which, as I said on Friday, concludes with the Time Lords issuing a blistering critique of the Doctor’s own methods that Dicks’s retcon completely undoes. And replaces it with the Doctor adopting even more morally bankrupt methods, turning the psychedelic anarchist of Troughton’s Doctor into a company man.
Whatever issues with 1980s Doctor Who this idea resolves, the fact of the matter is that this book, at least, has no place in the Troughton era. It is not that it is a bad book. It’s actually a quite good book. It’s just a lousy Second Doctor story.