Monday, February 14, 2011

Time Can Be Rewritten 2: The Time Travellers (Simon Guerrier, BBC Books, 2005)

I like traffic lights...
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 we look at Simon Guerrier's 2005 novel from BBC Books, The Time Travellers.


It is November of 2005. The number one singles for the month are Westlife's "You Raise Me Up" and Madonna's "Hung Up." If 2000 was the absolute low point of Doctor Who, this is more or less the high point. On television, Christopher Eccleston regenerated into David Tennant five months ago, and in this month's mini-episode for Children in Need, the world saw him for the first time.

This book, then, is a holdover - the second to last book to emerge from BBC Books, which had been carrying the Doctor Who torch since 1997. The problem is that in April of 2005, Russell T. Davies's Doctor Who established the Last Great Time War as a major plot thread. For a variety of reasons that we'll deal with when we get to this era, this was a phenomenally massive diss to the BBC Books line, a diss that the series has basically made no effort whatsoever to apologize or make up for. So this book is, in many ways, a ghost - the last breath of an already dead strand of Doctor Who history.

Which is perhaps why, unshackled from any actual responsibilities to be good or carry on the tradition of the series or break new ground and ensure the series long term survival, Simon Guerrier was able to do something that had frankly been lacking in the bulk of the BBC Books output - write a really interesting story that filled a meaningful gap in the series history.

See, not to get too spoiler heavy, but in the televised story after Planet of Giants, Susan becomes the first regular character to depart Doctor Who. If, at the end of the third episode of Planet of Giants, you suspected this, you are, frankly, psychic, as the story gives no setup whatsoever for that development. So it makes sense to put something in the gap between the two stories - a decent gap, given that the only teaser at the end of Planet of Giants is that the Doctor has no idea where they are. Admittedly the next episode also begins with the Doctor having no idea where they are, but let's be fair, that's true of almost every episode of Doctor Who. (Oddly, Time Travellers is the only story in Doctor Who set in this gap, with other stories preferring the Reign of Terror-Planet of Giants gap despite the fact that, as pointed out by a commenter two entries ago, that gap is actually a bit dodgy, whereas this gap is pretty solid. Indeed, given that Ian and Barbara are visibly surprised that they might be in London at the start of the next story, moving a few more stories into this gap would not be an unreasonable decision on the part of those who are obsessive enough about Doctor Who chronology to care about this sort of thing.)

But The Time Travellers is more than a novel explaining why Susan departs in the next story. It is also a novel that seeks to resolve the unresolved plot threads of The Aztecs and explain coherently every single continuity error in the whole of Doctor Who. Which is normally the sort of hubristic overreach that dooms a novel, except to his real credit, Guerrier manages to pull it off.

The novel is set in 2006 - less than one year after its publication. But this is not a 2006 that extends in any way from the experience of 2005. Rather, this is a dystopian 2006 that is designed to feel like it extends from 1964. The UK is locked in a long-term war with South Africa, which appears to be winning, and, more broadly, the novel is set after a disastrous incident in 1968 where a computer nearly destroyed the world. In other words, it is a novel that is clearly not set in the right universe.

What is most interesting about this decision is that the novel works in two registers. To the sort of obsessive Doctor Who fan who would be reading a First Doctor novel published in the same month that the Tenth Doctor has his first major appearance, the novel makes perfect sense. Those fans immediately recognize that the alluded to computer is WOTAN, the villain of the third season finale The War Machines. But, just as importantly, the novel also feels like a plausible future of 1964, allowing Ian and Barbara to believe completely not that this is a possible future but the future, immutable, as the Doctor told Barbara in The Aztecs.

In terms of the Doctor's chronology, there are no televised adventures prior to this in which the Doctor involves himself in the plot completely willingly - as opposed to last episode where he enjoys involving himself, but seems to do so in part out of fealty to Barbara. Here, however, upon realizing that the British government is experimenting with time travel, the Doctor involves himself completely willingly, actively refusing to run. This is a moment of character development for the Doctor, and is worth looking at. Why does the Doctor suddenly decide to remain?

The answer, in essence, is that he's a Time Lord. This is never said in as many words - but both the Doctor and Susan, as they separately realize what is going on, immediately realize that they have to deal with this. We've seen this once before with the Doctor - with his vicious insistence to Barbara in The Aztecs that she not change history. Here the phrase Time Lord makes sense. The Doctor, even on the run from his people, sees himself as having a feudal duty to time. He must defend it. Suffering humans, dying planets, these are things the Doctor can walk away from. But the threat of time travel in the wrong hands? That appalls him. That is simply something that, as a Time Lord, he has to deal with. To do otherwise would be an abdication of the Doctor's duty as a nobleman with dominion over time. Even a renegade Time Lord must display some fealty to his vassal.

This requires, then, a revision to The Aztecs - sensible enough, given that the Doctor has, in every other story, clearly altered history with some abandon. And so The Time Travellers undertakes its most radical conceit - one so blindingly obvious in hindsight that it's a marvel 27 seasons of Doctor Who had to air before anyone thought of it.

In fact, the Doctor finally admits, every time he opens the TARDIS doors, he changes history. After all, the TARDIS was designed to observe history. That's why it has a scanner and chameleon circuit - so it can disguise itself in a given time period and simply watch in silence. The biggest aspect of the Doctor's renegade nature is not that he runs around the Universe willy nilly - it's that he ever leaves the TARDIS. The reasons he lied to Barbara in The Aztecs are that he felt this explanation was overly complex and put too much responsibility on her, and that he really doesn't want to muck with time because it would attract the attention of his people.

Furthermore, all changing history does is split the timeline. If you travel back from the future and change the past, what happens is that you're stuck in a past that can never resolve into your own future. In other words, every Doctor Who story is, to some extent, a retcon of previous stories. If a later adventure of the Doctor's invalidates a previous adventure, that is resolved simply by deciding that, yes, the Doctor changed history and is no longer in a universe where his own past adventures happened. Which is, cleverly, a key conceit of the novel. The readers know that in two seasons the Doctor will defeat WOTAN and invalidate the entire setting of this novel. But set before the Doctor has met WOTAN, the novel can also be set in a universe where WOTAN won. When the War Machines airs, it simply moves this story into an abandoned timeline.

This may seem like an obvious conceit ripped off from, say, Primer. But in the context of Doctor Who, it's actually tremendously significant in that it changes the series from being about a wide universe that the Doctor wanders - a concept that makes it mostly the educational program it repeatedly tried to be in the first season - to a series about the Doctor. If the entire universe changes at the start of every episode when the TARDIS doors open then it is the Doctor, who remains consistent as he freely alters the timeline in both big and small ways, that becomes the central character of the show. Furthermore, the "lonely wanderer" aspect of the show that is cemented by Russell T. Davies in 2005 becomes completely explicable - because the Doctor is, even at the start of An Unearthly Child, more profoundly cut off from his home than he lets on. The Doctor has, in fact, already destroyed the timeline he hailed from. In fact, since it's clear that he engaged in mildly disruptive tourism prior to Totters Lane, he has done so several times over. No wonder later in the series he never goes back for a companion. After all, as soon as he's had one adventure without a given companion, that companion is immediately not "his" version of the companion but rather one from an alternate universe.

Interestingly, The Time Travellers refers to a future episode in two other key ways. First, there is an off-handed allusion to Rose in the novel. Second, and more significantly, the end reveal of how the British attained time travel technology is a reference to 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks. This is actually a bit odd - the story seems to simultaneously hinge on the fact that The War Machines has not yet happened, but that the 22-year-later story Remembrance of the Daleks has. The Doctor in the novel seems utterly unaware of how the Daleks might have made it into 1963, or why they're capable of time travel - both things that will make the next story specifically unusual. But notably, a review of the relevant scenes in the novel shows that the POV distances itself considerably from the Doctor and Susan. We don't know what the Doctor is thinking here.

What's particularly interesting about all of this is that Remembrance of the Daleks, as a story, hinges on the assumption that the Doctor had a reason for being in 1963 in An Unearthly Child. The information given to the Doctor about the Daleks' appearance on Earth is sufficient for him to figure out exactly where the Dalek equipment was found and to put two and two together and realize that it's connected to what he did in 1963. Which is another significant addition in this scene - this story is where the Doctor quietly realizes that the Daleks are an arch-nemesis - something that crucially sets up the next story. But more to the point, it ties the monsters in with the Doctor.

In other words, what The Time Travellers does is fills in a key gap in the series by making it self-reflexive. The book serves to actually make more sense of how the series got from Planet of Giants to Parting of the Ways over the course of forty plus years by finding a way to make future developments a subtext of past ones. We've already seen this with Campaign, but the elaborate meta-fiction of that via the Game of Me mostly makes Campaign a meta-commentary on the show. The Time Travellers is still meta-commentary - indeed, as of around this point in the series, every episode becomes meta-commentary to some extent. But unlike Campaign, The Time Travellers is not pure meta-commentary, but rather meta-commentary wedded to an actual story.

Alongside this mild apotheosis of the Doctor, see, is a story about Ian and Barbara being scared of the future. The novel opens with Ian reporting Barbara's death. The reader knows this is a feint. And if this were to be televised, the viewer would know it's almost certainly a feint. But as soon as alternate timelines are introduced, an interesting variation of this feint kicks up. We know that Ian and Barbara will both be alive at the end of the story. But we don't actually know which Ian and Barbara. Indeed, early in the novel Ian watches an alternate universe version of himself - one who is, apparently, married to Barbara - get shot.

This further adds to the supposed romantic tension between Ian and Barbara. Something we haven't seen much of in the series, in no small part because, as I've alluded, William Russell is kind of a crap actor who is incapable of any emotion other than stunned fascination/terror and is clearly a bit annoyed that he's not the lead actor. When the character is freed from his ball and chain of an actor by being in a novel, he's actually halfway decent - an unwilling action hero with endless misgivings about his life. And so the book can sell the Barbara/Ian romance. This is heightened by a clever nod at the problems of doing this - Ian's romantic interest in Barbara seems produced primarily by finding out that an alternate universe version of him was married to Barbara. In other words, this novel is presented as being a sort of clear starting point in the relationship.

But as in the series itself, it is Barbara who carries the story off. The emotional heart of the novel - a pair of scenes that one reads wishing that Hartnell and Hill had gotten the chance to perform it - are the sequences where the Doctor explains that he lied to her in The Aztecs, and where he confides in her that Susan is going to have to leave the TARDIS soon. I want to actually quote the novel here for these two sequences, because they really are fantastic.

'But Susan,' said the Doctor in his softest voice, 'we change history every time we step out of the doors of the Ship.'
'You said that -' began Barbara.
The Doctor whirled on her. 'Do you really want to know, Miss Wright?' he said. 'Do you really want to know? The TARDIS is built specifically not to change history. We can visit, we can observe, and the Ship can disguise itself so no one need ever know we were there. But only so long as we never step outside. We watch it all on the scanner. My people, you see...' He paused, searching for the words.
'Doctor?' Barbara prompted.
'I couldn't do that, could you?' he said. 'It's not travel, it wouldn't be real. We've seen the most incredible things, but without stepping out of those doors, I might as well have stayed in your time, content with your television sets.'
Ian took Barbara's hand, stopping her from responding. He knew what she wanted to say: that the Doctor had lied to them, that time in Mexico.
This sequence - actually the second of the two - is remarkable. For me, it is Barbara's prompting the Doctor to go on as he trails off, unable to continue his explanation. Barbara is clearly furious at the Doctor. She must be. She's a history teacher. Her entire life has been devoted to understanding what the past is. Now she's been given the opportunity to see it and travel through it, and she has found out that the Doctor has been lying to her about what time is. She's furious and betrayed. But on the other hand, that, in this scene, exists side by side with her genuine affection for the Doctor - the fact that when he is clearly having trouble explaining, when he is feeling guilty for having hurt her, she, in the midst of her rage, still steps in to comfort him, prompting him to continue. It's an absolutely note-perfect scene.

Then the other one:

'That's why you don't change history,' she said. 'It's not that
you can't, you just won't. It breaks everything up.' And it's easy to get carried away,' he said carefully. She felt like he understood, like he'd wanted all along to spare her this pain and confusion. 'We can't afford to be ostentatious in our travels.'
'But why, Doctor? Who can ever know what you've done, 'what you've changed?'
He smiled sadly 'There are those who can,' he said. 'And they will find us more easily if we draw attention to ourselves.'
Barbara considered this. 'The experiment here,' she said. 'It's bad news for us, isn't it? I mean for you and me, Ian and Susan.' The Doctor said nothing.
'How bad is it going to be, Doctor?'
His eyes twinkled mischievously at her. 'I haven't any idea at all,' he said. In an instant his mood had changed again. 'But it will be noticed, it will catch up with us, sooner or later. At least, it will catch up with me. I shall have to find a home for Susan. Somewhere safe for her.'
Barbara recoiled from him. 'You're going to abandon her?' She couldn't believe it.
The Doctor rested his chin on his hands. 'If ever I get you and Ian back to your own time, perhaps you would take her with you? Yes, I can see she'd be happy with you.'
Barbara took his hands. 'Of course we'd do anything you asked us,' she told him. 'But you must understand: Susan won't ever leave you. Not voluntarily.'
'No,' said the Doctor, shaking his head. He looked broken. 'I don't believe she would.'
I don't even know what to say here. That's just a phenomenal scene there. One that I wish Hartnell and Hill had gotten to act. Or, heck, gotten to read.

It's Jacqueline Hill, in all of this, that I really feel bad for. Her career started in 1953. She was over halfway to her death when she started on Doctor Who. And after Doctor Who, she basically retired, waiting thirteen years to take on her next acting role, instead raising children. From there she had a brief eight year career in which she made only a handful of appearances. She then retired again, and died of cancer in 1993 at the appallingly young age of 63. And reading what seems to be the one main interview with her on Doctor Who, I'm not sure she was, during her life, entirely aware of how brilliant she was as Barbara. Working on the show, she got grotesquely uneven material - as she points out in the aforementioned interview, she was often reduced to looking scared at the ends of corridors.

But unlike William Russell, she could sell fear and fascination as separate reactions. And more to the point, as I've said, when she is on screen with William Hartnell, the series just sings. Those are the scenes that really, firmly establish what the Doctor/Companion relationship is. But more to the point, Barbara is, as a character, uniquely capable of pushing the Doctor into emotionally uncomfortable moments. There really is no other character that the Doctor could have the scene quoted above with - nobody else in whom he would ever be able to confide that he needs to push Susan out of the TARDIS. Barbara, more than any other character, is the one that pushes the Doctor to become the Doctor. And all of that comes down to the fact that Hill and Hartnell are just jaw-dropping on screen together. Jacqueline Hill, to be frank, deserves as much credit as anyone on the planet for inventing Doctor Who. And I really hope she knew that.

5 comments:

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  2. I just finished this novel and loved reading your take on it. I look forward to exploring more of your insightful write-ups.
    I'm wondering what you made of the line in this book about the rumours of 'machine men' or something similar in the Antarctic. It seems like an obvious reference to The Tenth Planet, but the author doesn't do anything with it, and it comes off as superfluous name-dropping of a sort.
    Also- I missed it... what was the offhand reference to Rose?
    (Thanks!)

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