Friday, July 22, 2011
Time Can Be Rewritten 9: The Scales of Injustice (Gary Russell, Virgin Books, 1996)
Gary Russell has something of a reputation for what is generally referred to as "fanwank." That is to say, he's known for writing books that are packed to the gills with continuity references for the sake of continuity references. Now, a sane person could and perhaps even should ask what the difference is between fanwank and, for instance, having the Macra pop up forty years after their last appearance for a cameo. And plenty of people have asked that. If nothing else, then, The Scales of Injustice serves to explore that line.
Because this book is not so much continuity heavy as it is capable of producing continuity gravity. Direct references exist not only to the four Pertwee stories preceding it but also to Time Flight, Remembrance of the Daleks, The War Machines, The Invasion, The Web of Fear, The Sea Devils, Warriors of the Deep, and probably a fair swath more that I didn't even notice. One thing you may notice about that list is that not all of the stories are links. That is because many of them are stories that haven't actually aired by the point in the series this novel takes place in.
Which means we're in the wild and wonderful world of future continuity, a topic we've picked up in a couple of these Time Can Be Rewritten columns. (Incidentally, a reader found a counter-example to my claim that no stories set pre-The War Games ever mention the Time Lords. Apparently John Lucarotti's novelization of The Massacre does.) But more even than The Dark Path, this is a book about reconciling Doctor Who stories and squaring away continuity errors. It tackles not only the nature of the Brigadier's love life (glimpsed in Planet of Spiders and Battlefield), Mike Yates's assignment to UNIT and promotion to Captain (complete with a gratuitous scene to explain why Benton didn't get the promotion), Liz Shaw's departure (more later), but also, for the horde of people who were concerned about it, the question of why the Doctor claimed to have twice negotiated with the Silurians for peace in Warriors of the Deep when in fact he only did so once.
Let's pause here for a moment and look at that. I don't want to get too far into Warriors of the Deep some thirteen seasons too early, but accounting for this supposed continuity error is trivial. First, a bit of context for anyone who is actually trying to use this blog to learn about early Doctor Who. Warriors of the Deep is a 1984 story in which the Fifth Doctor faces both the Silurians and the Sea Devils, the latter being cousins of the Silurians introduced in season nine. It's fairly obvious that writer Johnny Byrne was intending the line to refer to the events of The Silurians and The Sea Devils. The mistake is not in the number, but in treating the Sea Devils as being the same race as The Silurians.
In other words, there's not even a mistake here of any significance, and yet Gary Russell writes an entire book to try to make the two pieces fit together. Which is, roughly speaking, the difference between fanwank and loving continuity references. Fanwank describes mucking about with the series continuity for the purposes of resolving and explaining arcane points within said continuity. (Of course, given the theory that the Macra reappeared just to clean up the inadvertent implication of genocide in Ian Stuart Black's original, we may not have actually distinguished between the two specific examples given.)
I'm not going to say that fanwank is a bad thing. Far from it, I enjoy a meticulous bit of continuity wrangling as much as the next mildly antisocial anorak. But there's something necessarily odd about these attempts to stitch continuity together. The results by necessity do not quite fit with the the stories they're assembling, reading as a strange awkward midpoint between being a story about the familiar characters from Doctor Who and an intellectual exercise.
In this case, Department C19, a concept invented in Timeflight, is revealed as a secretive organization that controls UNIT's funding, setting off a somewhat messy bit of conspiracy wrangling involving "The Glasshouse," a mental institution basically for people who snapped seeing top secret alien stuff, and "The Vault," a massive collection of alien memorabilia salvaged from the various Earth-based stories. These are cool ideas, undoubtedly, but it's tough to see how they fit in around the UNIT era as we've seen it thus far. It's not that it contradicts anything. It doesn't quite (although the book does contain a massive retcon to The Silurians in which the Doctor's accusation of murder turns out to be totally false). But equally important, it doesn't quite fit either. It doesn't mess anything up, but it doesn't exactly clarify it either.
But the real problem with reading the novel in 2011 should be obvious from the description of C19 and the Vault, namely that it's inconceivable that such a novel would be written today without a friendly visit from Torchwood.
Ah, yes, Torchwood. The hot new pet game for Pertwee-era watchers - how the hell does any of this reconcile with Torchwood. God forbid anyone take up the obvious answer - it doesn't, and no serious effort to make it reconcile has ever or will ever be made. But that's not the point. Torchwood is no harder to work into the Pertwee era than Department C19 or Remembrance of the Daleks are, and the book does that. So why doesn't it deal with Torchwood? The obvious retort - that Torchwood didn't exist in 1996 - holds historical water, certainly, but given that the book is already imposing ideas that didn't apply to 1970, something about this defense fails to quite hold. Once the door is opened to this sort of ludicrous retconning, it's tough to draw the line. Especially because the book as it stands feels... obsolete. Certainly it's nearly impossible to imagine that Russell would approach it the same way today as he did in 1996.
Which is something that the fanwank genre, love it as I do, can never quite account for. All attempts to cobble together pet theories out of existing evidence are as much a product of their own eras as the "errors" that they attempt to correct. The idea of seamlessly fitting a big continuity fix into the era whose errors were never realized at the time (and often couldn't be realized at the time) is inherently off.
All of which said, we should look at the gaps this story attempts to fill - or at least, the gaps that existed in 1970/71. The big three are the introduction of Mike Yates, the departure of Liz, and the question of the Brigadier's personal life. The first of these is easy - Yates appears settled in by Terror of the Autons, despite that being his debut. This story (and apparently Christopher Bulis's The Eye of the Giant, though I've not read it) deal with Yates as a Sergeant and attempt to justify his promotion to Captain. It's unobjectionable.
The second borders on the welcome. The fact that Liz was abruptly written out between seasons without significant explanation is really comparable only to the writing out of Dodo, Ben, and Polly in its sheer callousness. Much like having a major character commit genocide with no consequences, dropping a major character abruptly and without expectations does damage to the show, making it harder to invest in new characters. When characters are treated as disposable by the show itself, why should we invest in them?
Finally there's the Brigadier's personal life, in which we discover that his wife, Fiona, and he have a fractious marriage because of the Brigadier's having to be called off to work constantly. Over the course of the book, his marriage dissolves utterly. This is the most bizarre portion of the book, tying in barely at all with anything we see over the course of the actual UNIT era. In fact, it's actively dissonant with the UNIT era, in which the Brigadier is defined precisely by his slightly over the top detachment and calm. The fact that the Doctor has the ludicrous line "I am truly sorry about Fiona and Kate. I hope you find some amicable way to get on with your respective lives without too much pain" doesn't help. (Go ahead. Try to imagine Pertwee delivering that line.)
But this gets to something about the era. As we saw with Inferno, the show is getting to a point where it's a character drama. It's starting to rely on audience investment in characters as part of what makes the show work. (Which is why crap like Liz's non-sendoff is so grating.) With Jo, the Master, and Yates coming in in the next story, we have a fixed recurring cast that's going to stick around for three seasons in its entirety, and, for many of the characters, for four seasons. (This also suggests that Letts was very much aware of the problems caused by writing Liz out the way they do.) And even if Russell overshoots the mark with the Brigadier, there is a sense in which this dimension of the book is a case of making the UNIT era - both up to this point and beyond - live up to what it tries to be better than the show does.
In the end, of course, it's all a bit of a mess. The depth of retcons and the degree to which they jar with the actual era on television muddy the waters to the point where it feels like you're reading about Doctor Who impersonators rather than the characters. It feels, in effect, like fanfiction instead of like Doctor Who. But on the other hand, there's something intriguing here. It may be fanfiction, but it's got some interesting ideas. It doesn't fit seamlessly into its gap, but no Time Can Be Rewritten story has fit seamlessly into its gap. The dissonance is the point - the reason to revisit the past. This is 1970 avec 1996. Now that it too is a historical object, it has become, in an odd way, more interesting for it. In a topic as vast as Doctor Who, the opportunity to see vividly a 1996 take on what Doctor Who is in 1970 is an oddly compelling signpost in the show's evolution. That nobody but a die-hard fan would care seems beside the point. After all, it's not like The Scales of Injustice wasn't assuming an obsessive reader back in 1996.