Books like this always pose something of a problem for the project. On the one hand, a book like this, in which Peter Capaldi’s Doctor goes on an adventure with Bernice Summerfield, is irresistible to a project like this. Once I discovered it existed there was literally never a point where I considered not covering it. The new series intersecting with the Wilderness Years at the point where it’s about to come as close to niche interest as it has been allowed to. The possibilities are vast. Except, of course, for the other hand, which is that it’s by Gary Russell. I ranted a bit in the Blood Cell entry about the inexplicable failure of spinoff media to move beyond the same handful of names who have been around since the Wilderness Years, many of them firmly among the B-list of that era. But Gary Russell takes this to another level, or rather several of them. For one thing, he’s been around far longer than the Wilderness Years, having been a prominent figure in Doctor Who at least since his 1984 Doctor Who Magazine review that described Warriors of the Deep as, and I quote, “a flawless story.” While this can probably be chalked up to the magazine’s official editorial policy of “please Mr. Nathan-Turner can we have some more,” it also proves a distressing augury of his own talents. His novels tend to ostentatiously fill high profile gaps—he’s written Liz Shaw’s departure, Mel’s first appearance, and Colin Baker’s regeneration—but to have little ambition for doing so beyond ticking the relevant boxes, and generally a few more to boot.
And so it’s helpful to begin with what could be interesting about Big Bang Generation, figuring that we’ll move on to what it actually does afterwards. One possibility, of course, is to contrast her with the character she almost certainly partially inspired, River Song. This option, admittedly, was not available to Russell and its foreclosure is in fact why this book exists—he’d pitched a Twelve/River novel but been shot down by Moffat, who had his own plans in this regard and suggested Benny as an alternative. The book still alludes to the similarities between the characters, but detailed exploration is left to Big Finish, who will surely get there some day.
Another plan would be what I alluded to above, exploring the Wilderness Years’ liminal status and generally celebrating the weird gap in Doctor Who. This has merit, in that the Wilderness Years had room to do things that the popularity and legitimacy of the new series denies it, but the new series is, as mentioned, about to go into a kind of weird niche moment. And it would just be nice to have a nice little monument to the trappings of the Wilderness Years. Russell even comes close to this at one point, with a flashback montage of companions that consists of Benny, Clara, Amy, Rory, River, Wilf, Donna, Martha, Captain Jack, Mickey, Rose, Cinder, Molly O’Sullivan, tamsin drew, Lucie Miller, Cr’izz, Charley, Samson and Gemma Griffin, Mary Shelley, Grace Holloway, Ace, Hex, Mel, and Evelyn Smythe. But this list also serves to remind us that this is Gary Russell, co-author of the gobsmacking pettiness of Zagreus and its explicit attempt to de-canonize the Eighth Doctor Adventures. And so you have a full complement of Big Finish companions listed at the expense of, for instance, Roz and Cwej, companions who are immediately proximate to what this book is actually engaging with. So instead of celebrating the Wilderness Years we’re still waging the petty feuds between competing lines within it. It’s an honest homage, I suppose, but beyond pathetic.
Another thing the book could do, and it’s related to the Wilderness Years homage idea, is to engage with the difference between Capaldi’s Doctor and the version of the Doctor that Benny was most familiar with. There’s considerable conceptual mileage to be had in contrasting Capaldi’s cranky Doctor (this still being the characterization at the time) with Time’s Champion, exploring two very different ideas of callousness and ruthlessness through the eyes of Benny, a character who’s really neither of those things. Indeed, this would allow for the exploration of one of the few issues of the Wilderness Years to really not be explored, which is the conjunction of the Time War with McCoy’s Doctor, who has always seemed, at first glance, as though he’d have been distressingly well-suited to it.
But of course this is a Gary Russell book, and he can’t even handle successfully characterizing Capaldi’s Doctor, little yet unpacking a thematic contrast with an era he clearly doesn’t give a shit about. His only interest in Benny is her Big Finish era, hence resurrecting the guest cast of the era of Benny that he directed audios for. And while it’s tough to begrudge Russell for going back to his own era of Bernice Summerfield stories for the nostalgia piece, it’s a missed opportunity to say the least. The only substantial references to the New Adventures that are allowed are some fleeting acknowledgments of Love and War and a brief discussion of Guy de Carnac, Benny’s deceased lover from Sanctuary, of whom the Doctor rather improbably claims, “every time I visit France, I think of Guy de Carnac and what he sacrificed, Benny. No, I never forget the ones that truly matter,” which is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Sanctuary, a novel so forgettable had to check whether I’d actually covered it. (I did, and spent the whole entry trying to be more or less pleasant about it because some things about this project never change.) Although the mention of Guy de Carnac does mean that there’s an allusion to how the Doctor “went to extraordinary lengths to understand [Benny’s] grief and to empathise,” which is of course a reference to the book version of Human Nature and the closest we’ve gotten to actually acknowledging the weirdness of the Doctor potentially having the same adventure twice in different contexts. Russell does exactly nothing with this, to the point of writing the description so broadly as to not actually remind readers that Cornell was hired to redo the story in 2007, but it’s still interesting.
And of course there’s the “Clara meets Benny” angle, in which two delightful female characters with strong personalities and developed skillsets get to have an adventure. Russell, of course, leaves Clara out of the book entirely. I don’t even have any snarky jokes for this except to note that Clara is the only new series companion to simply be dropped for a book and was significantly marginalized in The Blood Cell as well. These are my only two datapoints on the line, but one does scowl a bit.
But no, for the most part this is a kinda flaccid caper story. It’s actually better than I generally remember Gary Russell’s books being, though that’s as low a bar as can be imagined. It’s Wilderness Years fanwank pitched to the new series audience, a confluence that mostly leaves you wondering who on Earth is even supposed to be the market for these books and what aesthetic need they might be filling. It’s not that there’s no audience for “new series meets the cast of a defunct set of spinoff audios,” but it’s strange to see BBC Books tackling an Obverse-sized niche.
Right. Eight hundred words to go on a book that I’m only covering as a puzzling curiosity. So let’s go off on a tangent. Russell finds time for a lone moment of significant emotional connection between Benny and the Doctor (it’s the setup to the Guy de Carnac line), in which he has the Doctor confess the current Gallifrey situation. Most of this is frustrating in its refusal to deal with things—telling the person who watched as Ace and the Doctor fought over the destruction of the alternate universe in Blood Heat about how “I watched stars burn, and galaxies implode. I faced terrible decisions” should probably result in a more interesting reaction than “as always, you did the right thing in the end.”
But the more interesting issue is his subsequent explanation of Gallifrey being lost. Because that’s nominally the series’ metaplot/mythology over the first two Capaldi series, but we haven’t really talked about it. Let’s start with Russell’s account of it, which is the Doctor describing how “Beforehand, I knew. I could move on, deal with things. Now it’s just an endless jump from one planet to the next, hoping I might accidentally find a clue, stumbling in the dark… It’s like I don’t feel complete, for the first time ever. Once I had roots, then they were taken away. Now, I probably have those roots again, but they are out of reach.”
*takes some deep calming breaths so she doesn’t just explode at the idea that the Doctor has always felt complete* So that’s an underwhelming account of the Doctor’s motivation and relationship to Gallifrey being lost. But notably, it’s still more of an account than we’ve actually gotten in the series, where Gallifey’s absence appears to be an afterthought except for the occasional moments an immediate lead shows up. The Doctor’s console-breaking tantrum at the end of Death in Heaven is amazing in its performance and in the shock of it, but any emotional heft it has comes from the sense of anguish at Missy pulling one last trick on him as opposed to because it pays off a lengthy arc about the Doctor’s desire for his lost home. We never see the Doctor looking for Gallifrey. It doesn’t even come up outside of a handful of Moffat episodes. (There was to be a mention of it in In the Forest of the Night, but the scene was cut, which is probably for the best as it involved the rather misweighted revelation that the Forest was what the Doctor saw in the Untempered Schism, and frankly that episode was oversignified enough anyway.)
This speaks mostly to the fact that the Quest for Gallifrey was in truth kind of misjudged in the first place. Much like the “on the run from his people in a rackety old TARDIS” ending in The Five Doctors, it works nicely as a Janus-faced wrap-up to an anniversary story, but there’s not much to do with it. The basic brilliance of Davies’s “Last of the Time Lords” conceit was that it entirely removed a concept that had last actually worked in 1976 and otherwise mostly got in the way. Basically nobody has cracked how to do a Gallifrey story more sensibly than “avoid doing Time Lord stuff as much as possible,” and even Davies and Moffat’s efforts aren’t exactly their most universally beloved stories. So keeping it off the table where it can’t exert any narrative gravity is a wise move. Moffat, on the other hand, stumbles into the worst of both worlds, which is that it’s off the table but still exerting a narrative gravity, which leads to him simply ignoring the gravity for two seasons before putting it back on the table with little more than a shrug and an “oh that’s where it was.”
In terms of the series, this is only a problem if you stare at it for too long, which Moffat is wise enough not to. Indeed, he cleans up his mess, taking care of it in what could well have turned out to be his penultimate episode and making sure his successor isn’t saddled with a potentially unwanted Gallifrey metaplot. It’s not that it never does anything interesting; we’ll talk about its most compelling use next week. But it’s a curiously slender status quo—enough so that Russell’s crappy monologue is actually still the most thorough explanation of its effects on the Doctor.
But the primary focus here really has to be on the book line. This is twice we’ve looked in on it and been underwhelmed, and while we can’t exactly pretend to be surprised by a crappy Gary Russell book, the problems we identified in The Blood Cell entry are only looking more severe here. This is a line without direction or purpose, coasting on because the release of three Doctor Who books a year is an apparently inviolate fact. Something has to change.