It’s August of 2002. Gareth Gates is at number one with “Anyone Of Us (Stupid Mistake).” That lasts a week before Darius’s “Colourblind” unseats it for two weeks followed by Sugababes’s “Round Round,” and, on the last day of the month, Blazin Squad’s “Crossroads.” Shakira, Vanessa Carlton, Nelly, Ashanti, Linkin Park, P. Diddy, Will Smith, and Coldplay also chart.
In the month between Neverland and this, the International Criminal Court was established, and WorldCom went belly up. While this month Central Europe was hit by bad floods. This is the extent of what Wikipedia says about August of 2002. The page for 2002 in the UK has day-by-day updates on the murder of two ten-year-old girls, but really that’s just not the direction I like to go in with these.
While in books, Camera Obscura. We have, of late, been keeping one eye on the future in the blog. There are reasons for that, most notably that we’re inches away from arriving into it. But it has obscured one of the original modes of analysis of this blog, which is the analysis of Doctor Who within the context that it’s made. Again, I am mostly at peace with that, if only because the context in which the wilderness years can be examined is so misleading. But let’s take one final opportunity to draw a curtain over the future and take a piece of the wilderness years on their own terms. And what better choice than the best Eighth Doctor Adventure we’re going to look at – the consensus second best Eighth Doctor Adventure by the consensus best writer. This is the best the wilderness years got. So let’s take the book entirely on the terms of its time.
We have largely obscured the degree to which this Sabbath plotline did not work, mainly by looking mostly at the two books where it does work. In The Adventuress of Henrietta Street Sabbath is a credible alternative to the Doctor. But it’s more important to realize how that book contrasts Sabbath with the Master. Sabbath is not the Doctor’s opposite but his tentative replacement: the post-Time Lord universe’s version of what the Doctor was to the pre-Ancestor Cell continuity. He pointedly exists outside the Doctor/Master opposition, which is the entire reason Miles brought the Master into The Adventuress of Henrietta Street in the first place. Unfortunately, as with every other idea Miles contributed to the Eighth Doctor Adventures, hardly anyone picked up on it meaningfully. Sabbath appeared in subsequent books, but as exactly the sort of cut-rate Master clone that he was designed not to be.
And then there’s Camera Obscura, one of two books to break the rule that nobody ever picks up meaningfully on Miles’s stuff. (The other is The Taking of Planet Five, one of several front-runners for the book version.) This is not surprising. Lloyd Rose rapidly established herself as the find of the latter half of the Eighth Doctor Adventures with The City of the Dead, and so was inevitably going to be rewarded with a big plot book if she wanted one. And so she got the book where the whole “Sabbath stole the Doctor’s heart” plot is resolved, and thus a second chance at setting up the whole Sabbath thing in a functional way. And she nails it, and in doing so reveals just how completely and utterly broken the entire institutional structure of Doctor Who was in mid-2002.
How? Well, let’s look at how she fixes Sabbath first. In terms of plot, large portions of the book are, to say the least, gently used. If Lloyd Rose hadn’t read Christopher Priest’s The Prestige (yes, it’s what the Nolan movie was based on) prior to writing this I’d be shocked. But why would we start criticizing Doctor Who for nicking ideas from outside of Doctor Who now? On the whole it’s a brilliant bit of appropriation. The novel is a book about doubles and deceit, but all Rose takes from it are its central images. These set up many of the same themes as The Prestige, but Rose uses those themes for the examination of an entirely different relationship in, for instance, the same way that Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks made The Brain of Morbius into something other than a Frankenstein remake.
But Rose pinches from far more sources than just Priest – she’s nicking past Doctor Who left, right, and center as well. The mirrors-based time machine is an obvious callback to Evil of the Daleks, and the plot of flawed time travel fragmenting a soul across many bodies is a straight lift from City of Death. There are, of course, far worse stories to plunder than these. But what’s interesting about these bits of plundering is the odd way in which they make use of the series’ history without referencing it. In this regard Camera Obscura is the rare book that actually makes something out of the entire amnesia plot. Prior to The Ancestor Cell writing this book would all but require the Doctor to muse out loud that he’s seen something like this before, centuries ago when he encounters the time machine, or to name drop the Jageroth when the whole “splitting people into multiple bodies” plot comes up.
But here we get none of that. Instead we get something that it’s not actually possible to do in any context prior to this: the appropriation of Doctor Who’s past in a manner similar to how Doctor Who has always appropriated other material. Doctor Who itself gets used in the same way The Prestige is – as source material that doesn’t have to be name-checked as such. Doctor Who serves itself here in the same way that the Hammer films served the Hinchcliffe era.
The result is profoundly alienating within the context of Doctor Who. This is not at all what Doctor Who fans expect, and no matter how often one remembers that this is set in the amnesia plot and that there’s no way we can get an overt City of Death reference it’s unsettling. The reader, if they are a committed Doctor Who fan (and who else was buying these books in 2002), is constantly kept off balance, their expectations almost being fulfilled and then deferred. It’s not even the catharsis offered by actually defying expectations, which at least provides a determinate ending for them. Rather the expectations simply get left behind, the book failing to ever really consider them.
All of this leads to Lloyd Rose outdoing Lawrence Miles at his own game. Miles wrote a novel in which we were told, in thorough detail, that the universe had moved on from the Doctor and the Time Lords. But Rose gives us one that feels as though it’s moved on from the familiar structures. Without any substantial philosophical monologues about the nature of post-Time Lord – sorry, post-Elemental – existence, Rose has a book that communicates the way in which Sabbath has potentially supplanted the Doctor. And by doing that Rose manages to free the novel up to be philosophical about something else.
One of the complaints we raised about Miles back with The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is that he has the outlines of big ideas without the substance. He comes up with bold ideas, but is often incapable of fleshing them out. Lloyd Rose shows a compelling ability to do just that here. By figuring out how to render one of Miles’s big ideas on the level of tone and image she’s able to move beyond it, and thus to have the philosophical level be “what is the difference between Sabbath’s universe and the Doctor’s” as opposed to “isn’t it cool that we have a whole new universe here,” a philosophical question with an unpleasantly high chance of having the answer “no, it isn’t.”
So instead Rose focuses the Doctor/Sabbath debate on, at the end of the day, order and chaos. Sabbath believes that the Doctor’s interventions fragment the universe into endless alternate timelines, while the Doctor believes they work more like putting stones in a river, producing one of an infinite set of possible timelines. Sabbath favors order – a coherent structure – where the Doctor favors possibility and potential. It’s a solid philosophical divide, and one that works within the series.
But even as Rose is making the amnesia plot work she’s rebuking it. The post-Time Lord universe is defined in contrast to the Doctor and thus to the series’ values. There’s really not a way to take this as anything other than a slight against the current status quo. As depicted, the continuity of the books is explicitly pitted against the usual values of Doctor Who. And more to the point, it is in many way Sabbath’s perspective, or views like it, that caused the current state of affairs. Various people with visions of the one true Doctor Who who tried to write definitive accounts. There’s no one person to blame here – there’s easily a dozen culprits, across multiple ranges. The problem isn’t someone’s bad ideas, but a general cultural tendency within Doctor Who to pursue the broad and totalizing epic.
For some time this blog has been skeptical of the epic when applied to Doctor Who. But here we see a new dimension of the problem. The epic is the uber-story: the definitive one that captures all there is to say on the topic. But Doctor Who’s central logic is that there is no such thing as “all there is to say.” Instead there’s always more to say – an endless potentiality. And so it turns out that when Doctor Who gets into a period where everybody assumes it’s supposed to do definitive epics what you get is a profusion of mutually incompatible stories. Except, and this is the crux of the problem, nobody writing the stories gets that that’s what they’re doing. Everybody thinks they’re writing the proper, definitive version of Doctor Who. Even when the lines start accepting the existence of each other, as we’ll see Friday, it’s done with a clear vein of competition. So you have the perverse spectacle of a boundless profusion of stories all of which are trying to stem the boundless profusion of stories.
And it doesn’t work at all. That’s the end damnation of the wilderness years. They cannot possibly work, because they’re arguing over the nature of a dead series. Implicit in every argument about the definitive Doctor Who is “Doctor Who could totally succeed again if people just did it my way.” The fact that the series is cancelled and has no meaningful cultural capital or impact is still hanging over every single one of these wild reinventions. So we have a classic battle to the death for no stakes at all packed with people who lack the self-awareness to realize the sheer foolishness of what they’re doing.
And yet Rose is not entirely solid in her rebuking of the order of things. After all, she also has the Doctor deeply troubled by the possibility that the laws of probability bend around the Doctor – in other words, that the Doctor is an absolute force of nature in the universe. Which, in point of fact, he is. The laws of probability really do favor the Doctor in a necessary sense. And this, in its own way, is just as much a point of fixity as what Sabbath demands. It’s a subtle point, but a significant one: Doctor Who cannot embrace endless possibility. There has to be some order to things.
Tellingly Rose, for all that she clearly grasps the problems of all of these fan debates over the “proper” nature of Doctor Who, and for all that Camera Obscura is about their flaws, Rose doesn’t escape them. Camera Obscura is clearly partisan in its leanings. It’s just that its party isn’t one that’s had much of a voice lately. Camera Obscura is trying to roll back to the Virgin era. Sabbath is referred to as Time’s Champion in it, and Death makes an appearance. And all of this follows City of the Dead and its cameo from the Seventh Doctor. Rose clearly would prefer to be writing for the Virgin line – and indeed, her next book is a Seventh Doctor novel.
And this is one of the good books. One of the best, in fact, and the outright best author of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. And yet it’s still running the same fan debates. The same ones it condemns. Because there is no escape from the radtrad frockguns. There’s no way out of this debate, and Doctor Who is caught in a death spiral from which it cannot possibly emerge. It’s dead, and it’s clearly not coming back any time soon, and so all that’s left is to debate over the nature of its corpse until the point where, inevitably, that finally decomposes.