The Last War in Albion Kickstarter ends tomorrow.
In November of 2009, it was announced that Michael Moorcock would be writing a Doctor Who novel. This was something of a big deal. Moorcock, after all, is a proper writer, as opposed to one who came up through Doctor Who itself. He was a contemporary of J.G. Ballard, one of the most influential figures in the British side of the 60s new wave of science fiction, and the writer of countless series in various flavors of fantasy, most famously Elric of Melniboné, his angst-ridden answer to Conan the Barbarian, and most acclaimedly Jerry Cornelius, his polymorphously perverse secret agent. He’s one of those sci-fi/fantasy authors to have successfully gained a non-trivial measure of respect from the literary establishment, due largely to the sheer number of writers he was a major influence on – a venerable old man of the genre, and a celebrity writer of the sort that the Doctor Who novels had simply never seen anything like before.
In other words, he potential audience for a Michael Moorcock-penned Doctor Who novel is by any measure quite large, incorporating as it does both Doctor Who fans and Michael Moorcock fans, both of which exist in significant quantities, and, more to the point, with non-trivial overlap. And yet the question of exactly what one would want from such a cultural intersection is, at the very least, complex. Michael Moorcock and Doctor Who are both massive cultural touchstones, not just in popularity but in sheer size. Fans being fans, there’s a certain desire for nods and in-jokes, something Moorcock and Who have both courted over time, Moorcock by regularly crossing over his own series, Doctor Who through several periods where it was kept afloat by die-hard fans alone. But balancing this is tricky – what expectations do you fulfill? What ones do you let down gently?
Still, a poll of the potential audience for The Coming of the Terraphiles would almost certainly not have settled on a book based heavily on Moorcock’s Multiverse, with very little Doctor Who lore, that’s substantially a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche full of clueless socialites. This is, however, what Moorcock delivered, to mixed reviews.
It is clearly a Moorcock book, for better or for worse – indeed, it’s on the whole more Moorcock than Doctor Who. It is, as mentioned, a book about the multiverse, with Moorcock’s standard themes of law and chaos in full view. The entire premise – fans of Earth (the eponymous Terraphiles) playing a poorly reconstructed set of Earth games – is visibly a few doors down from Dancers at the End of Time. There’s a Jerry Cornelius analogue – an interstellar pirate named Captain Cornelius – who is presumably yet another incarnation of the Eternal Champion and who flits intriguingly at the edges of the narrative. Various other things appear that certainly seem like they belong to Moorcock’s mythos and are suggested as such in various reviews also appear, but to be honest, I’m not enough of a Moorcock buff to catch them all, so they are left as an exercise for the reader.
It’s not that the Doctor Who material is off. There’s a very nice explanation of why the Doctor is unique in the multiverse that stems neatly out of Doctor Who lore. And Moorcock makes some good use of the question of how the Doctor fits into the much-vaunted balance between law and chaos. Perhaps more to the point, Moorcock’s characterization of Smith’s Doctor is impeccable, especially given that he must have based it on some preview DVDs, given the timing of the novel. His Amy is a little more “generic companion,” but certainly not unrecognizable. The book is a clear and sincere love letter to Doctor Who. But the book is a Michael Moorcock book first and foremost.
It is worth noting that this is, in many ways, a product of its specific time. It’s difficult to imagine Moorcock writing a Doctor Who book in any other era. Indeed, this is the first time that we’ve really had a celebrity writer doing a Doctor Who book, though not for lack of trying at some points in history. It’s not until the series came back and was massively popular that such a thing was possible. Even then, it’s fitting that this comes under Moffat’s watch, both because it neatly parallels the Moffat era’s move towards hiring celebrity writers for scripting duties.
More broadly, however, the Moffat era is one of the most writerly eras of the show’s history. The fact that Moffat is more inclined to give notes than rewrite scripts means that there’s considerably more variation of tone in his Doctor Who than in, say, the Davies era, where there was a pretty clear default style. Under Moffat, the extent to which different writers present different sorts of stories is emphasized more, simply because writers are allowed to go off in their own directions a bit more. And so the question of “what will this particular writer bring to Doctor Who” becomes more present, such that the idea of a Michael Moorcock Doctor Who novel makes sense and feels like the sort of thing that might emerge organically from the era, instead of being an outlier. In this regard, the P.G. Wodehouse inspiration is also fitting, given Moffat’s own debt to Douglas Adams and his love of farce. A Doctor Who story that pays its debts to the long and venerable tradition of British comedy feels right in this era, and like something that should exist as a part of it.
And yet for all of this, the weight of the book’s existence seems to drown out the book itself. It’s not that the book is bad by any measure. It’s perfectly pleasant, if perhaps a little long in the middle, and has some fantastic gags and laugh lines. Moorcock is, shocker of shockers, an accomplished prose-smith. He can and does turn out a solid and enjoyable adventure yarn. But for all that the book is not quite what anybody expected from the combination of Moorcock and Doctor Who, it is nevertheless primarily about being exactly that: the cultural intersection of Michael Moorcock and Doctor Who.
But equally, it’s not clear that anything could have been louder than that basic fact. That’s the nature of the crossover – often the pleasure is not so much in what you do with the elements as it is the basic existence of their juxtaposition. This is, after all, the logic that animated things like The Five Doctors, or even, frankly, swaths of Day of the Doctor. They’re fun because they exist, and their existence is ultimately the entire point. Moorcock was surely an influence on scads of Doctor Who writers. And if you go to two generations… well, Moorcock was a major influence on Alan Moore, and Moore was the single largest influence on the Sylvester McCoy era, along with, again, scads of writers. And that’s just one of Moorcock’s major literary descendants. Neil Gaiman’s another… the list really could go on for quite a while.
And now you have Moorcock writing Doctor Who. A monument erected on the site of a cultural intersection. In this case, it’s not the design of the monument that matters so much as that it is there to visit and look at. And so a book that feels, in many ways, like a slightly odd curiosity is almost exactly what this should be. A footnote, yes, but let’s face it – the footnotes are usually the most interesting bits anyway.