Time Can Be Rewritten is a recurring feature in which stories written in later years that were intended to be retconned into previous eras are analyzed in the context of their presumptive eras. Today, Jim Mortimore’s self-published novel Campaign.
The thing about the past of Doctor Who is that the show very quickly – two televised episodes from here, actually – started actively engaging with questions of its own mythology and past. And so 1964 is never left entirely behind. Even today, stories are actively produced on CD, under official BBC licenses, set in the William Hartnell era. And even beyond that, Doctor Who has, clearly, a long and distinguished history of fandom, which has produced stories, often of dubious value, in the Doctor Who format.
I am not going to do every Doctor Who audio and novel that has ever been written. But I am going to do some of them – ones of particular note or significance. I plan on doing a total of four novels in the Hartnell era, of which this is the first.
Jim Mortimore, when he wrote Campaign, was as accomplished a Doctor Who writer as one could find during the fifteen year interregnum of Doctor Who. He’d written or co-written seven previous novels, most of them extremely acclaimed. His reputation was for dense, complex, and ambitious novels. Campaign proved to be the climax of that career, however – a novel so strange and ambitious that BBC Books declined to publish it after commissioning it, leading Mortimore to self-publish.
It’s important to stress the context of this novel. 2000 was as close to the darkest days of Doctor Who fandom as there were. The show had been off the air for 11 years save the 1996 TV movie, and that TV movie was largely looking like a disaster that had killed the show for good. As we’ll eventually discuss, it was not very good at all, and schismed fandom on its canonicity. Its sole major consequence had been the transition from the Virgin Books New Adventures novels to the BBC Books Eighth Doctor Adventures novels, which was controversial to say the least. With no serious prospects of the show coming back, Doctor Who gave every appearance of being a dying fandom.
Which makes Campaign, a novel that is, in effect, about going back to the earliest days of the show and killing every character over and over again in a spectacular fashion, an interesting choice for the era, to say the least.
Actually, I’m being cheeky there. Defining Campaign is a dicey proposition. It may help to reveal its “twist” first, especially since it is easily the lamest part of the exercise. All of the events of the book are in fact part of a virtual reality game being played by the TARDIS crew called the Game of Me. In it, the players, who are not aware that they are playing a game while they play it, are successively reincarnated until they sort out their identity according to Aristotelean principles.
In practice, this plays out with each chapter being set in a visibly different world than the one before it. Character names shift rapidly – Susan goes from being Susan Foreman to Susan English, Ian and Barbara drop out to be replaced with Cliff and Lola, and the TARDIS is likely to become the T.A.R.D.I.S. at any moment.
There is absolutely no way that this could ever have been a William Hartnell story. First of all, it actively uses its medium – font changes, page layout, and, at one point, several pages of comic strip are all part of how the novel works, tricks that do not translate well to the television screen. Second of all, its narrative techniques are obviously from the year 2000 – the story is violent, sexualized, and metafictional. Third of all, the story treats Doctor Who’s first season as a historical phenomenon. This is where the reality shifts mentioned above come from. For instance, in the novelization of The Daleks, Susan is given the surname English instead of the canonical Foreman. Cliff and Lola were the original names of Ian and Barbara in production documents.
In fact, just about every rejected, abandoned, or false path of Doctor Who in its first year is referenced here. Unproduced stories such as The Masters of Luxor get extensive coverage, with one of the first major plot twists hinging, in effect, on whether the second adventure experienced by the TARDIS crew was The Daleks or, as was originally planned, The Masters of Luxor. Ian remembers it one way, Barbara the other, with each of them also remembering the other’s death.
Which I suppose I should return to. The characters die. A lot. Barbara is the first to die, and her death largely sets the tone – first of all, she is established as being alive prior to her death. Which I don’t mean in the normal sense by which most people are alive prior to death. No, I mean that we learn about Barbara’s death when Ian is gobsmacked to see that she is alive.
Her first death is notable also because it is a further interrogation of the premises of Doctor Who – specifically the farce that the show was to, in its futuristic adventures, be about hard science in some fashion. Barbara dies, in fact, because the Thal anti-radiation drugs from The Daleks don’t work on humans. Which, once you say it, is actually blindingly obvious. Why would they work on the completely different physiologies of humans and, for that matter, Time Lords? Its a ridiculous pseudo-science plot hack that flies in the face of the supposed scientific realism of the show.
Campaign, at its heart, is a book about what Doctor Who could have been. The novel’s postscript comes, in fact, from the introduction to the publication of the scripts for Masters of Luxor, with John McElroy, the writer of the introduction, musing on whether Doctor Who would still be running in a world where Masters of Luxor had been the second story instead of The Daleks. Which is a stunning question – would Doctor Who have survived better if the Daleks, as iconic a concept of the show as the TARDIS, had never been a part of it?
Posed in 1992, as it was by McElroy, or in 2000, as it was by Mortimore, this question was fundamentally different than in 2011 for one very simple reason – Doctor Who is not dead right now. In 1992 or 2000, the question is a post-mortem. What is it about Doctor Who that finally gave in after 26 seasons and died? Why wasn’t this story continuable forever? Why did it have to end?
We know now, of course, that the answer is that it didn’t. It can run forever. But in 2000, Mortimore was by definition writing a different novel. One that is about why the show died.
But it’s a mistake to say that Mortimore is saying the show would have survived if any of these alternate paths had been taken. Campaign is not an argument for the superiority of a Doctor Who where The Masters of Luxor replaced Campaign, or where Farewell Great Macedon got made.
Rather, it is an argument that Doctor Who was immortal here, at the end of its first season, in the first narrative gap to really exist, between The Reign of Terror and Planet of Giants. Already enough concepts, filmed and unfilmed, exist to do anything. Perhaps not properly, under the auspices of the BBC. But for all practical purposes, it is immortal. As long as it has people who want to play with its sandbox. As long as it has… well… fans.
On television, Doctor Who does not yet know what it is. But here, in the Game of Me, it doesn’t need to know what it is. It just needs to be something.
And the fact of the matter is, it’s damn near everything.