Friday, April 8, 2011

Time Can Be Rewritten 4: The Man in the Velvet Mask (Daniel O'Mahoney, Virgin Books, 1996)

Dodo stares dubiously at the plot
of this novel. Or maybe that's
just her "come hither" look.
So this one ought to be fun. Daniel O'Mahony's The Man in the Velvet Mask is pure Marmite. Ostensibly one of the most hated Doctor Who books, it apparently came in dead last in Doctor Who Magazine's poll about the novels. But that claim carries a metric ton of assumptions with it. I don't want to do a whole post like The Gunfighters about the various factions of fandom during the interregnum, mostly because I intend to do a whole series of posts when we actually get to that time period. So suffice it to say that this book also has passionate defenders. (I suppose I should, as part of my continued commitment to helping Americans work through their stages of grief at discovering that there are actually entire facets of foreign cultures that have nothing to do with them, mention that Marmite is a savory, salty, yeast-based spread used in the UK on sandwiches, toast, crackers, and other such things. Its use is somewhere between that of peanut butter and mayonnaise, neither of which it tastes remotely like. Among those for whom it is part of their culture there are exactly two opinions available - passionate love or utter hatred. Thus "Marmite" is, in the vernacular, an adjective describing something that produces extremely polarized views with minimal middle ground.)

Most of the dispute centers on whether or not the book simply goes too far to be a Doctor Who story, and, secondarily, whether it goes too far to be a Hartnell story. Which is to say, the objection is over the fact that Dodo spends an awful lot of this book naked, then also has sex and gets infected with an alien virus that slowly corrupts you. (There is some dispute over this, with some people claiming Dodo gets a fatal venereal disease or syphilis. She doesn't. The description of the virus is that "Once infected, you cannot be sure whether your actions are of your own free will or directed by him." By the end of the book the him in question is dead, But given that in the next story televised Dodo succumbs to mind control, the implication is that it leaves one susceptible to mental domination in general, and the virus is later described as "eating through her nervous system and her brain.")

Back in The Celestial Toymaker, I called into question the idea that every story was a Doctor Who story. And as a friend of mine pointed out after that entry, there are more obvious problems with the claim - as she put it, "What about that story where the Doctor is a serial rapist." Which captures at least one crux of the issue - that the notion of "Doctor Who story" is bounded on one side by the fact that the Doctor needs to act Doctor-like. But is there more than that? The problem with The Ark is not even that the Doctor does the wrong thing - the Monoids are, after all, portrayed as moustache-twirlers. The Doctor isn't wrong to overthrow the Monoids, the show is wrong to show us the Monoids the way it does. Likewise, it's not like the Doctor does anything wrong when confronted with a raging stereotype of yellow peril. He just never should have been confronted in the first place. The problems with those two stories is their premises.

Continuing on this thread, Paul Cornell once observed (In an interview I can't find) that the reason Sylvester McCoy was his favorite Doctor was that McCoy was the first Doctor Cornell could imagine encountering a concentration camp and still having the story work, whereas earlier Doctors would just not work, morally, in that setting. And it's a fair point - imagining William Hartnell "hmmming" his way through systematic extermination while insisting on upholding history would be sickening. Which makes the fact that Brian Hayles was actively working on a story called The Nazis at this point in the show's history a bit of a jarring fact.

But frankly, saying the production team had any real confidence of what Doctor Who was at this point is a bit of a stretch. Once the show experienced the 13 episodes from The Time Meddler through The Myth Makers - a series of episodes as long as the show's initially commissioned run - over which every single creative figure save for William Hartnell changed over - the show has been casting about and trying to find a clear sense of what it is. In many ways there's more dramatic shifts in tone at this point than there ever were under Verity Lambert. That's going to settle down over the next few televised stories, but if you asked someone in the week before the last episode of The Savages and the first episode of The War Machines what sort of show Doctor Who was, you'd surely get some pretty interesting answers.

None of which is to say that The Man in the Velvet Mask could ever have been made in 1966. Of course it couldn't. It's comical to imagine Hartnell agreeing to be in this story. There is no way whatsoever to read this as a "missing adventure" in the sense that it's some lost story that you can imagine being made. But we've already seen that the far more traditional The Plotters wouldn't really have fit into its gap even as it goes out of its way to feel like its era. Hartnell accepting a story about King James I's homosexual lust for his companions is just as improbable as him agreeing to do a pseudo-historical guest-starring the Marquis de Sade.

But the thing is, The Plotters does go out of its way to feel like its era. Whereas this seems not to. Rather, this fits into a particular fan theory of the Hartnell era that is unmistakably a product of 1996. I mean, this is the entire point of the title of this entry - that what we're looking at here is the Hartnell era reflected through later eras. Or, to put it another way, we've got retcons going on here. Yes, there's no way that this is what the Hartnell era was doing at the time. I mean, a central premise of the book is that the Doctor knows he's about to regenerate and is constantly struggling against his own failing body. Whereas if you watch the stories from the period, the idea floated by O'Mahoney - that the Doctor has known his regeneration is coming since The Celestial Toymaker - is clearly wrong. The story after The Celestial Toymaker, after all, is the one in which we saw the Doctor more animated than he had been in years.

Though this does give some idea of the weird way in which that story's reputation is distorted compared to what it actually did. Why pick The Celestial Toymaker as the point at which the Doctor's life begins to run out instead of the trauma he experiences at the hands of the Time Destructor or the draining of his life force by the Elders? Because The Celestial Toymaker is the "classic," and because it's got a weird and superficially avant-garde premise, writers who like deconstructing past eras of Doctor Who like it. And perhaps equally significant, because the fanlore that Hartnell was almost replaced after that story is well known, so it symbolically provides the beginning of the end of Hartnell's tenure. But again, this is totally unsupported by the actual episodes. Especially because, as we'll see over time, even if the decision had been made to replace Hartnell by this point - and while it was clearly Innes Lloyd's desire, Hartnell hadn't agreed to it yet, so it clearly wasn't made - the idea of regeneration as we think of it today wasn't invented until the mid-70s at the earliest.

So what do we make of a passage like this:
The first Change was coming. He'd felt the storm brewing months ago. He'd fought against it, but his efforts only seemed to strengthen it and darken its edges. The tide would pass across him, scouring his landscape, leaving scattered devastation in its wake. The clouds swirled, darting round him ready to swallow and consume his self. He felt the tears bulging on his eyelids, dribbling down a distant, detached face. The Change was more frightening than death. The Change would destroy part of his self forever. He'd know that for the rest of his lives, and the knowledge would torment him.
One heart, he thought blissfully. One heart, soon to meet its twin. 
Besides, perhaps, that it's gothically overwritten, I mean.

Several things are introduced here that aren't really a part of Doctor Who at this stage - the idea that regeneration is the death of part of his self, that he has lives, that regeneration exists, and, of course, most significantly the whole two hearts business. The heart bit is probably the most quoted line of the novel, actually, and is probably worth talking about. What's going on here is an attempt to reconcile some continuity. You may remember way back in The Sensorites that the Doctor explicitly refers to his heart, singular. You may also know that way forward in Spearhead from Space, the Doctor clearly has two hearts. This led to the fan theory that the Doctor acquired his second heart in his first regeneration.

The trouble is, as Miles and Wood point out, there's some strong evidence that the Troughton Doctor only has one heart as well. They come up with a bold new fanwank explanation, but this all dances around the larger problem. As a matter of actual reading of episodes, there's just no way to argue that when we start up The War Machines on Wednesday we'll be watching William Hartnell play a character who knows he's dying and thinks he's about to get a second heart.

There are, of course, defenses to mount here, most obviously that authorial intent doesn't matter and that later developments force our hand into reinterpreting the Hartnell stories in light of later information. In this theory, Spearhead From Space forced us to retcon the Hartnell era, and that's just that. Or, in one interpretation, the bits of The Sensorites and The Wheel in Space that suggest a single-hearted Doctor are just "goofs." Except, well, yuck. Surely the goof is in Spearhead From Space when the writers forget the bits that established the Doctor as having one heart, and a proper Doctor Who fan with loyalty to the continuity should insist on a one-hearted Doctor.

The real problem we're running into is that there's no unified Doctor Who. Yes, the Hartnell era contradicts the Pertwee era. Given the multiple turnovers in production teams between them, this should hardly be a surprise. And as we've already discussed, the notion of continuity is ludicrous in an era where there was no chance of past stories ever being repeated. The past, at this point in Doctor Who, is simply assumed to be gone. Maybe a fleeting mention of it here and there - the throwaway reference to Ian and Barbara at the end of The Massacre, for instance - but let's face it, the notion of coherent continuity exploded within a few stories. Arguably the first major continuity error comes in The Edge of Destruction, where the Doctor strongly suggests having had an adventure on the planet Quinnis, despite acting in 100,00 BC as if he'd never been captured before.

So the problem we have is that the Hartnell era wasn't assumed to be revisitable except in a hat-tip sort of way until much later in the show. But, ironically, doesn't that ultimately help O'Mahoney's case? If the Hartnell era was made with the idea that it wouldn't be visitable except via memory and reconstruction, what's so bad about a story that obviously doesn't fit in at the time? The Hartnell era's assumption, if it even vaguely imagined that anyone would care at all about it in 1996, would be that it would be a dimly remembered aspect of the show. So a novel that takes strands of dim memory and folds them into something strange and new is... not actually entirely unfair.

In which case perhaps the biggest problem this novel has is that it exposes just how much strain we put the Hartnell era under. I mean, at the end of the day, this is three seasons of hastily made television with a cranky leading man who was going senile and multiple production teams. And we rely on it to provide the design document for 45 subsequent years of Doctor Who. Every subsequent era is assumed to have to justify itself in terms of the Hartnell era, and has be able to read the Hartnell era as a logical antecedent to itself. Which is rather a stretch, to say the least.

And in the end, one is left between a rock and a hard place. Ultimately, you can either depict the Hartnell era faithfully, or you can fix continuity. And ultimately, this book is an example of the latter. It goes back and tries to add context from the future into the past. And it's an interesting choice and an interesting experiment. Is it a Hartnell-era book? No. Of course not. But it's a fascinating commentary on the relationship between the Hartnell era and the aesthetic of Doctor Who in 1996, and a comment on the implicit gaps of the Hartnell era, which, particularly in this part of the era, there were a lot of.

The biggest gap this book tackles, however, is not the question of the Doctor's impending regeneration. It's Dodo, who is going to leave two episodes into the next story with basically no meaningful sendoff in what is easily the second worst companion departure ever. (The worst, of course, being Liz Shaw) This book aims to fix that and explain her departure.

Dodo, as we've seen, was not a huge success as a companion. The part was not written well, in no small part because there seemed to be no overall direction as to what the character was supposed to be. More than any other companion we've seen, Dodo has spent virtually all of her time being stupid and getting into trouble, or being stupid and failing to get out of trouble. It's as if they took Susan from The Reign of Terror freaking out about rats and deciding the guillotine is preferable, and built an entire character out of it. I don't even want to criticize Jackie Lane's acting, because I see no meaningful evidence she had a role to play in the first place.

Yes, it's a bit shocking given the era of the show in question for her to be having sex, although it's not like the book has any explicit sex scenes. But then again, if we stop to think about it, the idea that a teenage runaway from London is going to travel through space and time without a moment or two of experimentation is a stretch too. And Dodo is portrayed as being conflicted about sex. She's talked about as an innocent, and her sexual awakening is described as corrupting her (by the man she sleeps with, no less). In this context, the setting of the book seems particularly apropos, and we should perhaps look primarily to the major historical personage featured in the book, the Marquis de Sade.

Sade is an easily misunderstood figure whose writing blended reveling in explicit and fetishistic sex and philosophical discussions of liberty and art. The book is, in many ways, a Sadean story about Dodo, the innocent cipher of a companion. And so we return, once again, to the Problem of Susan, this time in its most explicit formulation. The central problem of the book - the entire issue that divides people on it, frankly - is whether or not the audience will accept the sexualization of an otherwise unsexualized character who, in any realistic portrayal, would have been sexually awakened. The book confronts the show's decision to take what was ostensibly supposed to be a working class London girl from the swinging sixties and make her a sexless cipher with no clear character traits. And it makes the argument, a not entirely uncompelling argument, that the desexualizing of her was what made her not work as a character.

Certainly, sexualized or not, it's difficult to argue that the Dodo Chaplet created by O'Mahoney is not a far more interesting character than the one we ever see on screen. Yes, it's one that we never could have seen in 1966. But that's not the point. The point is to show us a version of the Hartnell era that is a strange, dark mirror of the version that was on television. Sure, it features a character would never have flown on 60s television. But let's face it, Dodo didn't really go to well either. Sure, the world and tone of this book isn't as good as that of Hartnell-era Doctor Who. But Hartnell-era Doctor Who is enriched by having this to contrast with, and by having this to bring to light some of the loose threads and ignored aspects of the world of that series.

Or, to pick up on an earlier analogy, yeah, it'd be shocking and garish to see the First Doctor walking through a concentration camp. But sometimes seeing the shocking extremes of what a Doctor Who story can be is necessary. You don't really know the shape of something until you probe its edges.

(For the handful of people for whom this information would be relevant, I want to point out that the plot of this is very clearly inspired by the early issues of Grant Morrison's comic book series The Invisibles, which had as its second storyline a time travel plot about the Marquis de Sade and about extra-dimensional alien incursions into Revolutionary France. Given The Invisibles' notion of narrative, it becomes fairly easy to read this novel in the context of The Invsibles and as a Morrison-esque attempt to create a conscious revision of 1960s Doctor Who to be more compatible with the avant garde traditions of the time. We'll talk more about the avant garde and revolutionary traditions of the 1960s over the next two weeks, and more about The Invisibles when we cover the 90s, but if you're familiar with the comic the connections should be obvious, and if you're not, the link above is a friendly Amazon Affiliates link that you can use to buy it, which I highly recommend if you happen to like head-explodingly weird comics.)

5 comments:

  1. Intriguing essay on a book I haven't read.

    I'm trying to remember how we "know" that William Hartnell was homophobic. He very sensitively played a gay character in This Sporting Life, the movie that got him cast as The Doctor in the first place.

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  2. The usual citation is to the making of The Myth Makers, although there are some major flaws with that claim, mot notably that Hartnell had worked with Max Adrian before. In practice, Hartnell's homophobia is complex - as I say in the entry for The Plotters, Hartnell was, from what I can tell, a "some of my best friends are gay" sort of homophobe.

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  3. Ah, thanks for the info. So yes, complex as you say, and for the mid-60s, even "some of my best friends are" was better than the average attitude.

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  4. Yes and no. I mean, it's clearly better than the average attitude. But in 1966, homosexuality was one year away from legalization in the UK and the arts/theater community were the main bastion of open acceptance. It would have been hard to work in television without working with gay actors. Given Hartnell's far less nuanced opinions on race, my strong sense has been that Hartnell's "some of my best friends are" attitude was as progressive as it was basically out of pure luck of his career path.

    Still, the idea of Hartnell not pitching a fit at a script that had him grousing that King James I wasn't interested in him seems to me far-fetched. :)

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  5. The real trouble is that O'Mahoney's story is, as usual, much too short for the mountains of overwritten prose he piles on it. "Falls the Shadow" is worse. This reinterpretation might have been readable as a short story, but it was embedded in a genuinely bad book which seems to want to talk about de Sade's rather stupid theories rather than write a Doctor Who story.

    It's interesting to note that O'Mahoney's treatment of Dodo often gets condemned... whereas the treatment of Dodo in _Who Killed Kennedy_, which is in some ways far nastier, but also very interesting, generally doesn't come in for the same criticism. I think the only conclusion I can draw is "If you're going to do something questionable, you have to do it WELL" (in a technical sense) and I don't think O'Mahoney does.

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