Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Time Can Be Rewritten 11 (Verdigris, BBC Books, 2000)

The year 2000, for a generation of Britain, marked the end of the future. A fluke of naming committed in 1977 inadvertently left the most important comics magazine in the UK with a name demarcating a clear and unavoidable sell-by date. It's tough to blame anyone - nobody starting a grubby comics rag ostensibly edited by a fictional galactic conquerer and featuring a barely coherent revamp of 50s icon Dan Dare would have taken seriously the question "but what are we going to do in 23 years." The answer was clear - be working on something else, this magazine having gone under 20 years earlier. But come 2000, there we were, staring awkwardly at one of the most iconic mastheads in science fiction and going "well, that's underwhelming, isn't it?"

2000, then, is the perfect date to revisit early 70s science fiction. In 1972, nobody believed there would be a year 2000. And come the year 2000, it turned out they'd been right all along. There really was no future. Enter Verdigris and Paul Magrs. I've already, in previous posts, hinted that the rise of the BBC Books line to replace the Virgin books line in Doctor Who was a mixed blessing at best, and that the seven years since the series came back have by and large validated that by favoring writers and innovations from the Virgin line while ignoring most of the new blood brought in at BBC Books. Part of that, though, is that there are actually only two real pieces of new blood brought in at BBC Books. The first is Lawrence Miles, who, while he wrote a Virgin book, is most associated with the BBC line having written four key books for them and spun off his own Faction Paradox series from them. The second is Paul Magrs.

Magrs - who I actually, in one of my handful of brushes with Z-List status in he world of Doctor Who, saw give a talk in early 2001 when I was studying abroad at the University of East Anglia where he taught - is an interesting writer. More than almost any other Doctor Who writer, Magrs visibly has a preferred approach to writing Doctor Who and little desire to deviate from it. Admittedly he has branched out considerably over the years, having now written numerous stories without his signature character Iris Wildthyme, but Verdigris isn't one of them, so she's probably as good a place to start as any.

Central to any assessment of Magrs's work, after all, is the initial decision of whether or not an utterly barmy and frequently inebriated middle aged woman who travels around space and time in a double decker bus that is slightly smaller on the inside than it is on the outside is a brilliant idea or the worst thing ever. Many perfectly intelligent and sensible commentators have committed themselves firmly to the latter answer, which, unsurprisingly, presents a somewhat insurmountable barrier to enjoying Magrs's work.

The real problem, though, is that Iris is just the tip of the iceberg. No shortage of commentators have accused Magrs of actually hating Doctor Who based on his books. It's almost, but not quite, completely understandable how they might have arrived at this conclusion. Certainly Verdigris contains no shortage of things that, on the surface, appear to be jokes at Doctor Who's expense. The literal transformation of Mike Yates into a two-dimensional cardboard cutout, for instance, is admittedly hard to read as anything other than a comment on the fact that Yates is... well... a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of a character. Likewise, when a character suggests that Jo "think about every alien artifact or creature you have ever seen. Weren't they always surrounded by a crackling nimbus of blue light? ... Didn't they sometimes look a little... unconvincing?" it is only an act of willful blindness not to read this as an explicit commentary on the visual artifacts left by the green-screen technology of the 1970s (aka Color Separation Overlay, or CSO as I've been casually referring to it for a month and a half now without defining it). Though for my money, the funniest swipe at the series comes at the end of chapter fourteen, when the main villain reveals himself and the chapter ends "'I am Verdigris,' the figure said, and didn't elaborate."

The thing is, arguing that someone who has written, at present, twenty-nine full length Doctor Who stories hates Doctor Who, or even has "contempt" for it, as the more mild phrasing seems to go, is patently ridiculous. Obviously Paul Magrs doesn't hate Doctor Who, and saying he does is, frankly, stupid even by the deeply marginal standards of fandom. That said, the observation that whatever Magrs is doing here, it's not hating Doctor Who doesn't actually tell us what he is doing.

What does tell us what he's doing, however, is David Bowie. The two main and relevant things are first the focus on incongruent spectacle, and second the linking of this to gay culture. We'll set the latter aside for a moment, and deal with the former. Broadly speaking - and really, broadly is the only way to speak about the topic - what we're talking about when we talk about the incongruent spectacle of glam rock is postmodernism. Attempts to define postmodernism are usually comically doomed, but generally speaking a pretty good definition of postmodernism is "taking signifiers out of their context but trusting them to function anyway." So, for instance, David Bowie takes the signifiers of 50s rock and roll and of space aliens, puts them together when they don't actually go together, and then creates something new because two incongruent images are cut off from their normal contexts and forced to do something new. See? Actually fairly simple. (Just don't ask me what the point of postmodernism is. That I can't do in brief and easy form.)

Which brings us to the second issue - gay culture. This is a somewhat trickier issue, in no small part because, as with most issues regarding minority groups, I'm not a member of the group in question and always wary of speaking for them. All of which said... imagine, if you will, that you were part of a group of people who were largely and systematically oppressed, to the point where the very fact that you belonged to that group meant you were a criminal. Now imagine that you had a pressing desire to identify other members of your group and identify yourself to other members of this group while keeping your membership a secret from the larger world. What you are looking for, in other words, is a way of hiding in plain sight - a set of traits that look innocuous to anyone who doesn't know what to look for, but that identifies you to those that do.

Understanding that process is central to understanding virtually all of gay culture as it exists. I talked in the Bowie entry about the way in which ostentatious performance is a marker of gay culture - this is why. Because gay culture is designed to work around the closet. But the issue goes far deeper. The entire link between the arts and gay culture comes down to the fact that the arts, particularly in the UK, were somewhere homosexuals could work semi-openly. (This is why there's a significant generation of great gay English actors - Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow, etc. Because at a key moment, acting was the field gay men could safely work in.) Likewise, the knowing embrace of the over the top performativity that we usually describe as "camp" worked very effectively as a shibboleth in gay culture, because the act of embracing the obviously ludicrous is in a fundamental sense similar to the act of creating a public persona that acts normal but flags you as gay to the right people. (Likewise, the embrace of over the top hedonism within gay spaces amounts to little more than casting off the bits of the performance that are "normal")

So there are two things to note here. One is fairly obvious - postmodernism and gay culture are natural allies, because the act of making a symbol work in the wrong context is exactly how what I just described works. The second is less obvious to anyone without a passing familiarity with gay culture. So, OK - one aspect of how the closet works is a careful relationship with the effeminate. I don't want to digress into a massive tangent about drag within a post that's not actually about drag in any direct or meaningful way, but it shouldn't be a terribly controversial observation that within gay culture, women who look like drag queens have obvious social utility. Being a fan of Cher or Bette Midler or, more old-fashionedly, Carmen Miranda is yet another way of covertly signaling who you are. So there's a band of women who serve as gay icons. One result of that is the social institution of (and for anyone who has never heard this term before, I promise it is not considered inherently offensive) fag hags - women who largely hang around with gay men and are accepted as part of gay male culture. (Oh, right, in case it isn't clear, while lesbian culture is not a completely different kettle of fish, the last few paragraphs have referred to gay male culture, and cannot just be applied blindly to lesbian culture.)

So, tracking back to Verdigris, there are two things we should say. The first is that the willingness to remove standard tropes of Pertwee-era Doctor Who from their narrative context and comment on them directly is straight-up postmodernism. The second is that the key to understanding Iris Wildthyme and why anyone thinks she's funny is that she is an archetypal fag hag. And the entire book works because of these two facts.

The many moments in the book in which it pokes fun at Doctor Who have one basic thing in common - all of them are jokes in which the fact that Doctor Who is just a TV show is acknowledged. And the book does this even when it's having fun in ways that don't involve poking fun at the show. For instance, Iris at one point comments that "without me here, [the Doctor] might perhaps be having a quiet week; a restful, forgettable week of holiday." In other words, Iris explicitly remarks on the fact that the book is "giving him extra interesting times" by filling in the week gap between two episodes.

Other jokes are more subtle. At another point, the Master (or, rather, Verdigris pretending to be the Master, though we don't know this yet as readers and the book even in its narration maintains the illusion) is described as having "stood by the gleaming chrome mirror beside the teleporation tubes and gazed into his own eyes, telling himself that he was the Master, he was the Master and he must bow down before his own magnificent will." But even this isn't just a joke about how rubbish the Master is. Rather, it's a joke about the basic absurdity of showing the Master's morning ritual given that the Master is built only to leer, hypnotize people, and create absurd schemes - not to be in such a mundane and real-world setting as getting out of bed in the morning.

So the central concept of the book is that none of the characters (save, partially, for Iris) understands that they're actually just characters in a television program as opposed to real people. Indeed, at one point, in what seems to be the most misunderstood bit in the book, the alien invaders admit that they made a mistake and confused fictional characters for real ones, and further admit that they invented postmodernism in the first place to try to cover up their mistake and successfully infiltrate the planet anyway. And both the Doctor and Iris proceed to criticize postmodernism, the Doctor describing it as "an epistemological quandary that will leave them stymied and perplexed for a century or more," while Iris accuses them of having "turned Earth into a vapid, smugly self-referential abortion of a world."

First of all, the people who take this scene as Magrs attacking postmodernism miss the fact that the Doctor calls Iris out for hypocrisy and notes that she's postmodern herself in the very next line. ("I'd rather have a culture with integrity... one that had nice, unreconstructed grand narratives," she says. "No you wouldn't," the Doctor replies. "You like everything to be as fickle and trivial as you are.") Second of all, this means that the joke is that the Doctor doesn't like postmodernism even though he's stuck in a postmodern novel at the moment. The Doctor, in other words, doesn't understand his own situation. But equally crucially, Iris - being a character who is intimately familiar with postmodernism by definition - does understand. She gets that she's in a postmodern novel and that all of the other characters don't realize that.

Once this is understood, we can finally turn to the actual plot of Verdigris, in which, in a bid to end the Doctor's exile (i.e. change the format of the show), Verdigris attacks the Doctor with thinly veiled parodies of Star Trek and The Tomorrow People. (The Tomorrow People has not, as of late 1972, actually premiered, so doesn't have a Pop Between Realities entry, but it will get one some time between now and when we cover 1979) So the Doctor is overtly under attack from Doctor Who's nearest television rivals. The central tension, then, is establishing why Doctor Who is better than its rivals.

The answer, which is tacitly given by Iris, amounts to the fact that even when you treat Doctor Who as just a cheap sci-fi series with unconvincing monsters, cardboard cutout characters, and a really silly set of villains, there is still some essential genius in the premise that cannot quite be reduced out. The show, in other words, is still fun, just as the book is. The book demonstrates that you can still have fun with the tropes of the Pertwee era even while systematically acknowledging how silly it all is. And that's enormously compelling on its own merits. To go back and celebrate the Pertwee era not despite but because of its faults in 2000, a year that posed a fundamental challenge to the entire idea of science fiction, is a big deal.

But on top of that, we have the implications of Iris - the fact that the specific way in which the Pertwee era is enjoyed is explicitly one that comes from gay culture. Something we've talked about in passing a few times is that, in the UK, Doctor Who has a very significant gay following. And that following has had some real impact on the series, most obviously the fact the it was brought back by someone whose prior resume had Queer as Folk as its highlight. And I've alluded to this a few times, but in a lot of ways the Pertwee era is the point where that really begins, because the glam aesthetic that is so influential on the show under Barry Letts is also fundamentally intertwined with gay culture. And so as much as Verdigris is a celebration of the show's quality, it is also unmistakably a book about laying claim to the show. The show is a great show, but it's great in part because it's so compatible with the aesthetics of gay culture. This obviously doesn't mean the show is just for gay people, but it is a claim that it is for gay people in a real, unique, and special way. And there's really no point in the show's history from Season Ten, which we'll kick off Friday, to Season Six Part Two, which will kick itself off Saturday, where the show's specific and unique intersections with gay culture stop being relevant.

Also, and as a piddly point of correction, apparently the consensus on this book is that it takes place between The Time Monster and The Three Doctors. And while I agree that the ending does lead into The Three Doctors, that point comes after some considerable time jumps. And anyway, every effort to place it after The Time Monster comes with an excuse about why the book acknowledges The Sea Devils as having happened, but says The Curse of Peladon hasn't.

The obvious answer, given the book's overt metatextuality, is that the tangle there is a reference to the fact that The Sea Devils and The Curse of Peladon were the first instance in Doctor Who of stories being transmitted out of production order, and that in fact it takes place in the production gap between the two stories, i.e. after The Sea Devils and prior to The Curse of Peladon. Which also explains why Iris is filling a week with adventures instead of six months.

You're welcome.

12 comments:

  1. The other thing about the year 2000, for those of us who were children in the UK in the early 70s, was the Blue Peter Time Capsule, when I calculated that I would be at least Impossibly Old when it was opened.

    I realised in 2001 that I'd completely missed the opening (apparently the contents had rotted away), somehow betraying my childhood.

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  2. In the 70s there was a science fiction magazine called _1984_.

    When the 80s arrived, they changed the name to _1994_.

    When the 90s arrived, it had ceased to be.

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  3. Well, yes, the book is all very clever, and certainly head-and-shoulders above the sheer dullardry of most of the BBC line, but...

    isn't it just a load of smug, self-congratulatory, pomo, postgrad showing off? Even from your description, the overall impression given is of Magrs patting himself on the back, saying "I'm awfully clever, you know*". It's like Douglas Adams' slightly knowing, self-satisfied air, massively magnified.

    Magrs uses postmodernism, but never seems to do much with it. Except to say that the programme is silly and camp, and isn't it fun to be silly and camp? Well, yes, I imagine for some it is, but so what?

    And I suppose that sort of sums up my feeling about Magrs, Verdigris, and this sort of postmodern introsphinctery: so what?

    *This is probably unfair - the man has a fairly universal reputation as very nice.

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  4. Sure. And if you are clever, you can generally get away with this. Magrs is clever, and does have tremendously funny bits. And yes, he has some cheap swipes to make, but even those are well done - pointing out the CSO artifacts, for instance, as evidence to Jo that there aren't really aliens is delightful, since the CSO artifacts would be just as unintelligible to Jo. The book is a clever celebration of a particular aspect of Doctor Who. It succeeds in entertainment, and has something nice to say. This seems to me a perfectly valid thing for Doctor Who to be.

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  5. I'm really not all that bothered by swipes at the show, cheap or otherwise, TBH. My problem ith it is that... I suppose I view its major function as one that should have been spotted at the outset of the books ranges in general and moved past in a few books, or simply skipped straight over altogether onto doing something more interesting.

    Like I said, my issue with the book isn't that it's some sort of "outrage"; it's more... yes, and what of it?

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  6. Now we just need to have the current Doctor brag about how much better he's gotten: "Situations that it used to take me weeks to resolve, I can now usually get sorted in 45 minutes!" Or say: "Ah, the Yeti ... things seemed so much more black and white in those days."

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  7. 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194, I think you're forgetting (not without reason) the completely unmemorable Series 3 episode "42", which seems to have been written purely to prove that "real time" episodes can be deathly dull.

    (And is it "postmodern" that every single aspect of "The Age of Steel/Rise of The Cybermen is sourced from earlier Doctor Who stories? It's certainly not lazy writing - it must have taken a lot of effort to be so unoriginal.)

    I hope I'm in a better mood the next time I post something.

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  8. Every now and then, I wonder if I should re-read Verdigris, but with so many Doctor Who books these days I don’t have time to keep up with the new ones and re-read the old ones I liked, let alone have another go at one I disliked intensely back in 2000.

    I wonder why, a little, and wish I’d written a review. I can remember the feel of it, rather than a specific critique – though I do remember arguing a specific critique rather vehemently one night with several other gay Who friends, at least one of whom loved it. I’d liked The Scarlet Empress, which was a great relief from much of the dismal early BBC line; I’d laughed at theoretically similar taking the piss with the yellow-fringed dinosaurs in Head Games; I enjoy Iris and her bus; and I’m not the biggest fan of Jon Pertwee. But I really took against Verdigris.

    I could see the point of those commentators on the book giving the impression of hating Who, and probably The Tomorrow People, too. And given the number of fans who loudly hate Russell T Davies, say, or John Nathan-Turner, arguing that ‘He can’t hate Who because he’s written 29 other stories’ falls rather flat as a defence; I don’t know him, but if he hates Pertwee, or has contempt for that period, it certainly wouldn’t rule him out from being a fan of the rest. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but your failing to see the possibility that fans may strongly object to parts of the show they think let other parts down… Well, I don’t want to fling the OTT abuse you threw at other critics above back at you, but at the least it seems a bit of an oversight, considering the tone of much of your own critique on here.

    I can’t say I’m a massive expert on “gay culture,” though I’m familiar enough by living in bits of it (your “great gay English actors” seems a tad reductive), but I remember enough of that argument about the book with a bunch of gay Who fans, and it wasn’t over the postmodernism per se but the tone. And, as I said, I’ve not read the book for 11 years and I may be being unfair to Paul Magrs, but the argument was about which gay stereotype the tone smacked of: bitchy queen, or self-loathing queer? And to me at the time it felt like an analogue of the latter, taking something you love and kicking it to say to all your ‘straight/non-fan’ associates, ‘Don’t worry, I’m like you, I think it’s rubbish too!’ And… It didn’t seem clever about it. Going back to Head Games again, same joke, five years earlier, shorter, funnier. Dragging it out and beating it to death… Not so much.

    I knew the jokes were there. I just didn’t think they were funny, though lots of people I know thought they were. I’m not saying they’re wrong, or you are – that’s the thing about comedy. It can be funnier the meaner it gets. For me, though, this felt like the most mean-spirited Doctor Who had ever been. Far more so than – don’t explode – The Dominators (and I’ve just written a belated review of The Dominators myself, quoting you; after arguing with you on yours, feel free to pop by and take pot-shots at mine in turn).

    I’m looking forward to your article about Barry Letts and gay culture, though (just try never to listen to his horrible The Tao Connection), even if the glammed-up Pertwee era seems nothing like as gay-friendly to me as the Second Doctor and Jamie.

    Oh, and Tharg is not a fictional galactic conqueror. If anything, he’s as smug and up himself a paternalist as the Time Lords, but definitely no conquests. Still, at least 2000AD is still going as strongly as ever, and no-one seems to mind that it’s the past ;)

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  9. Shoehorning his Iris Wildthyme into everything he possibly can seems to be the author's chief claim to what he probably considered fame. Mary Sue to the Nth degree and unreadable into the bargain.

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  10. Given that a Mary Sue is by definition a proxy for the author, I think there are a larger set of assumptions in solved in accusing Paul Magrs of having a middle aged woman as his proxy than is really appropriate to make about someone.

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  11. Waaait ... where is there a Star Trek parody in this book? I didn't see one.

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