You Were Expecting Someone Else
Blood Harvest, by Terrance Dicks, is the other portion of the two book cycle that kicks off the Missing Adventures line, the other being the already-talked-about Goth Opera by Paul Cornell. It’s a sequel to State of Decay and practically every story ever on Gallifrey, with Al Capone thrown in to boot. At the time Craig Hinton wasn’t thrilled with the ending, but claimed his “overall impression was of an exciting, compelling book.” Lars Pearson says almost the exact same thing, but says that “Blood Harvest succeeds despite these flaws.” The overall consensus is average – twenty-eighth on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
It’s July of 1994. Wet Wet Wet remain at number one with “Love is All Around,” and remain there all month. Both Reel 2 Real and All-4-One also chart, as do the BC-52s, and, less numerically, Take That and Erasure. Andres Escobar is shot and killed in Medellin, an incident widely believed to be revenge for his scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, which Brazil wins later in the month. Fourteen firefighters die in a wildefire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Fragments of Shoemaker-Levy begin hitting Jupiter. Israel and Jordan sign a peace treaty, and a bomb explodes outside the Israeli Embassy in London. And Tony Blair wins the leadership election for the Labour Party, so he gets to start being a character in these things I suppose.
While on bookshelves, Blood Harvest. I realized, as I thought about this post, that I am fairly sure this is the third-to-last time we’re actually going to cover a Terrance Dicks story. We’ve got The Eight Doctors, we’ll do one of his two New Series “Quickreads” books, but those are actually the last of the Terrance Dicks material we’re going to look at. And so it’s perhaps time to knuckle down and deal with one of those oft-punted topics that I’ve gestured at broadly, namely Terrane Dicks’s politics.
Let’s first set this up in terms of All-Consuming Fire, a book witch which Blood Harvest shares more than a passing resemblance. Both are Doctor Who stories in the classic “mash up some genres” mode, with Blood Harvest combining Doctor Who, vampires, and gangster noir. Both take their relatively mental premises and have a great deal of fun with them. All-Consuming Fire is in several ways better put together – the seams between the Chicago gangster bits with the Doctor and Ace and the E-Space vampire bits with Romana and Benny are weak, and the two settings barely manage to converge at the end. Still, the book is firmly in the range of “great fun,” and is yet another Doctor Who book that clearly has a sense of glee at the fact that it’s Doctor Who, and thus can casually do vampire gangster noir.
Dicks also does a better job than anyone gives him credit for in writing McCoy’s Doctor. This is still McCoy the chessmaster, with an elaborate plan he’s not telling anyone, and Dicks captures that while keeping it comfortably on the same spectrum as other versions of the Doctor. He manages a Doctor who is elaborately pulling the strings, but who also is charming and fun. The bits with Benny and Romana are also consistently entertaining, and Dicks does well with multiple characters capable of anchoring a narrative. (Not for the first time, splitting Bernice into her own plotline works well) He doesn’t do quite as well hiding his disdain for Ace in her current incarnation, and he gets his first real opportunity to flirt with the threat of rape as an all-purpose “adult” danger by having Ace stripped to her underwear in preparation for being raped, then bursts into tears and kisses her hard-boiled PI rescuer. It is difficult not to be completely repulsed by this.
And so we get to the problem that’s long lurked around Dicks, which is that for all that he’s a fantastic storyteller, he’s got some really problematic moments. He’s prone to casual sexism. Worse than that, he has an intolerable “boy’s club” attitude towards it. He casually talks in interviews about how he replaced Liz Shaw with Jo Grant because the real role of the companion is to get in trouble and ask for the plot to be explained. He’ll put in references to women’s liberation and women’s rights, but they’re inevitably condescending in the way that The Monster of Peladon (which he did a near-full rewrite on) was. And he’s also the sort of person who says, seemingly not entirely jokingly, that he’s not entirely opposed to colonialism and thinks that lots of places in the world would be better if only the British came and sorted them out. (On the documentary about making The Mutants, for those wondering.) And at some point we have to ask whether or not we should just give up on Dicks, declaring him to be a good storyteller with ethics so botched that they simply cannot be taken seriously anymore. And yet despite all of this, given the choice between the “empire is horrible, let’s celebrate its popular fiction” approach of All-Consuming Fire and the quagmire of Terrance Dicks and, oddly enough, I would find myself picking the latter.
The bulk of Dicks’s ethical quagmire comes from his equation of the status quo with political neutrality. This is a problem in a lot of cases – closely related, for instance, to the way in which support for the two-party system in American politics is considered a universal consensus position, thus completely marginalizing dissent regarding any of the myriad of issues on which the two parties agree (for instance, the absolute and unquestioning dominion of a surveillance-based security state – not that the UK manages to do much better with that given an extra political party). But Dicks elevates it to an art form simply because he’s so repeatedly drawn to tackle political issues such that his “neutrality” becomes readily apparent. Which leads to bizarre moments such as the one in Blood Harvest in which Benny solves the political squabbles between the upper class lords and working class peasants of the vampire planet by suggesting they form a House of Lords and House of Commons, because, of course, the British government is the best possible government that can ever be created under any circumstances.
This is, of course, the logic of intrinsic superiority that underlies imperialism. It’s not that British government is a bad system. It’s not even that the House of Lords is bad – I mean, it’s obviously undemocratic in appalling ways, but, you know, the system basically works. And anyway, given that most of the theories on how to reform it involve making it more like the Unite States Senate, it’s difficult not to burst out laughing at them. It’s the sort of blithe nationalism implicit in setting up the British Government as the solution to all the universe’s woes. (Actually, wait, we’re in E-Space, so it’s even more hubristic.) That this is mixed in with a deeply offensive bit in which the idea of the peasants ruling on their own is rubbished because of how they’ve, in the past, formed themselves into “revolutionary councils” that end up being despotic. So basically, the real value of the House of Lords is apparently to stave off Marxism. Oh, and the only reason it’s important to let the peasants have any power is that they’ve had a taste of it and won’t go back, and you can’t roll back history. So yes, this is all horrifying. And yet.
Here we get to part of why I’ve swerved around this topic a bit so far – because there’s no good way to tackle this without it turning into the post where I psychoanalyze British politics a bit. Which, as a non-Brit, I have some reluctance about. But since we have here a book where Terrance Dicks unapologetically analyzes and judges Prohibition-era America, it seems wrong not to return the favor. One of the defining differences between British and American political identity is that the United Kingdom has had the experience of declining in power. The consequences of this are most easily seen in American politics, where any position other than the belief that America is the greatest nation in the world and can do no wrong is treated as absolutely toxic (case in point, Obama’s being slammed for even acknowledging that other countries have their own forms of exceptionalism). Whereas in the UK it would frankly be stranger to see a politician unambiguously declaring that the country was the greatest on the planet.
Instead the UK is characterized by a measure of ambivalence. On a good day it might consider itself one of the greatest countries in the world. More often it trends towards a somewhat more ambiguous position. A reasonable case in point is the Olympic Opening Ceremony, which seemed to have a message roughly of “we’re a bit of a weird island, but we have a lot of history, have made some good music, and our health care system is fantastic, so it all works out.” Compare that to the last opening ceremony in the US, the 2002 Winter Games, which was a jingoistic mess of post-9/11 chest-thumping. (Lowlights included hoisting an American flag recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center and NBC cutting frequently to US troops in from Afghanistan chanting “USA! USA!”) This is not to say that the London opening ceremony was anything other than nationalistic, but a nationalism based not so much on “we’re the best in the world” as “we have a motley and idiosyncratic collection of cool stuff, and here’s Mary Poppins fighting Voldemort in defense of universal health care” is an altogether more pleasant form of the phenomenon.
This ambivalence – a tendency to shy away from the definitive – is in some cases Dicks’s biggest weakness. It’s what leads to the “everybody is right and everybody is wrong” mealy-mouthed crap of The Monster of Peladon or Benny settling the dispute between the lords and peasants. But it’s equally one of his greatest strengths. Given Dicks’s intense suspicion of definitive and unyielding positions, when it comes time for Dicks to craft an idealized hero he ends up with one who is perpetually flexible, hedging, and ambivalent. The Doctor’s open disdain for prohibition and explicit admission that as long as it lasts “there will always be bootleggers. The appetite of the people for drink and gambling and – other diversions has to be satisfied… but it must be satisfied discreetly in quiet, well-run establishments.” Yes, this comes in the context of the Doctor manipulating and conning someone, but given that the Doctor spends the story running a speakeasy of his own it seems sincere enough. And yes, there is something more than a little unsettling about the Doctor seeming to be sympathetic to Al Capone. But the nature of the approach is more interesting here than the particulars – the Doctor is displaying a pragmatism that reacts to changing circumstances, and this is what Dicks finds heroic.
And this pragmatism seems inexorably linked to the British identity that Dicks so clearly invests in. (It’s also part and parcel of what Cornell has the Brigadier describe the Doctor as embodying in No Future: “eccentricity, the creative amateur, and civilization.”) It’s one full of ambivalence and irony. Dicks’s troubling statement that he thinks much of the world would be better off if British people came by to sort them out must, at the end of the day, be taken in context with moments like his joke in Robot about how only Great Britain could be trusted with the world’s nuclear codes, as the rest of the world were all foreigners. Or the moment in The Horror of Fang Rock where the Doctor, asked if he’s in charge, grins and says “No, but I’m full of ideas.” Which is, in Dicks’s world, perhaps the more important qualification: the ability to keep coming up with new stuff. It is also the view that underlies the modest and unassuming heroism of the Brigadier, who may or may not be humanity’s great defender, but who is nevertheless doing the best he can.
And so, oddly, I find it easier to be redemptive towards Dicks than I do towards Lane. Take the most cringeworthy moment of Blood Harvest, the section in which Dicks has Ace encounter “a tall bald-headed old negro scrubbing at the sidewalk,” who makes folksy and dialect-laden comments like “blood don’t shift easy, missy.” He is, of course, a horrible stereotype, and it is difficult to figure out how the hell “negro” got past an editor in 1994. And yet this is still a better job of representing the oppressed and marginalized within a period setting than Andy Lane managed in all of his blood and thunder about imperialism. Yes, it’s grotesquely paternalistic. Yes, the kind-hearted and honest black man in a menial job is just another flavor of the noble savage. But in the end I still prefer it to Lane’s dangerous mix of self-righteous anger and complete erasure for the basic reason that a viewpoint based on ambivalence, even a patronizing, colonialist, and at times outright racist and sexist one, is more capable of changing. The pragmatic ambivalence of Dicks may blind him to genuinely ethically righteous points at times, but it also lets him change his mind and move forward.
And if we’re being honest this is reflected in Dicks’s career. When I finish the book versions, Dicks is going to get at least one entry focusing on his work in every book from Hartnell on up through Tennant. For all his conservative tendencies, Dicks is a writer who did adapt with the times – and his take on McCoy’s Doctor in this book shows that he could keep adapting. But more broadly, his politics are ones that seem more likely to adapt. Lane may have accurately prefigured the Moffat-era entanglement of Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes, but it remains Dicks’s take on the Doctor that is more fundamental to who the character is and what the show is. You cannot remove Terrance Dicks from what Doctor Who is. And in the end this makes sense. Is he frustratingly conservative, imperialistic, and paternalistic? Yes. But at the end of the day it is easier to have faith in the future of his viewpoints than in the troubling practice of burying large numbers of problems in the past while uncritically mining that past as if a layer of detachment and self-criticism is sufficient inoculation against its poisons.
And if Terrance Dicks’s ideology is a bit too slanted towards a British nationalism that led in the past to empire, well, fine. If I’m to be honest, I must admit to having more faith in the British attitude than in most others, my own culture included, precisely because it has the decency to temper its faith in itself. Dicks, like any other writer, is not the teleological endpoint of Doctor Who. As I am endlessly fond of pointing out, more is required. But unlike some writers, including some whose politics I favor far more, Dicks doesn’t want to be the final word on the subject. Whatever his flaws, Dicks is a master at getting the audience to keep reading. And as long as that’s true, there’s always space for redemption.