Friday, September 23, 2011

Time Can Be Rewritten 12 (Interference, BBC Books, 1996)



It's August, 1999. Doctor Who is as dead as dead can be. These are the heady early days of New Labor, two years after Tony Blair managed to end an 18-year stretch of Conservative rule. In the main stretch of the blog, we are a few years from the dawn of the Long 1980s. Here we are a few years past that, in a murky transition into an era that it's not quite clear we've seen the end of yet - something alarmingly resembling the present. The clock ticks closer towards a millennial change stained deep with eschatology. Musically we are in a wasteland of Ricky Martin, Westlife, and Geri Halliwell doing Latin-inspired numbers. These are not days that anyone claims as the glory days of anything, least of all Doctor Who, which is off the air and seemingly never coming back.

In these transitional moments it is sometimes helpful to mine the past for ideas and directions. The shift between historical eras is a vague phenomenon existing more in the realm of ideas than in the realm of material objects after all - one reason that it is easier to track through psychochronography, which allows us the ability to walk and tour the realm of ideas. These dead spaces between eras mark the periods where old ideologies begin to stagger under their weight and break down, and where new ideologies find themselves pushed in from the fringes. In these moments, one turns to the past, looking at approaches that have run aground and sizing up the repair job needed to get them running again.

Enter Interference. On one level, as we'll talk about when we come back around to it in 1999, this is a desperate (and failed) throw of the dice - a last attempt to get the unmitigated catastrophe that was the Paul McGann era to act like a functional era of Doctor Who instead of a graveyard. And it's a clever one. The Past Doctor Adventures line took August off, and instead the Eighth Doctor Adventures line released a two-volume novel featuring interconnected Eighth and Third Doctor stories.

For my part, and I apologize for intruding into the narrative before my time, I know little about it. Interference was the last Doctor Who book I actively remember coming out, but I was by then jaded on the 8th Doctor era and was never big enough on the Third to want to read it, so I never did. Actually, prior to this I'd never read a Lawrence Miles novel, though I'd read plenty about them. I suppose, strictly speaking, I still haven't, since, given both that this post was so requested (though planned practically from day one - this is one of the books the Time Can Be Rewritten entries were created for) and that it seemed like an entertaining choice to make, I read only the Third Doctor and frame novel sections of the book. Again, I don't pretend that I'm some uncorrupted Miles virgin. I know the basic ideas of the Faction Paradox plot, I read a summary of the other half to make sure I knew who the major shared characters were, and I know well the extremely complex and contested role Miles has in fandom. But those looking for an entry in which I talk broadly about Miles's innovations and approaches to Doctor Who are going to have to wait for the seven other entries on Miles-penned material (including, obviously, another pass at this book) that are planned.

All of which disclaimed, the other thing Miles seems to be doing here is, at a moment when the future of Doctor Who is profoundly insecure, mining its past and asking whether, in the dying days of the Pertwee era - an equally uncertain and transitional moment in both history and Doctor Who - there is some stray spark that provides the way forward.

He begins with a technique we have talked about previously, and talked specifically about the relative rarity of: allowing a future era of Doctor Who to invade a past one. In this case, he opens literally - an unfortunate accident involving temporal equations from the Eighth Doctor portion of the story causes an apparition of the Eighth Doctor to travel backwards along Sarah Jane's timeline and appear in the TARDIS to the Third Doctor. Or, rather, the Eighth Doctor, in prison, beaten and abused, appears to him. Shortly thereafter, the TARDIS begins bleeding, and the Third Doctor is derailed from the adventure he should be having - which we'll talk about Monday - and taken to a very different one on a backwater planet called Dust.

It's worth stressing, because this is key to any understanding of what the blazes is going on in this book, exactly why the adventure he ends up having is so off-base. Miles admits openly that the basic idea of a bleeding TARDIS is not conceptually out of line with the Pertwee era - it's an idea that firmly belongs in the same conceptual tradition as, for instance, Exxilon. Rather its issue is an aesthetic one - the fact that a bleeding TARDIS is the wrong flavor of science fantasy for Pertwee's Doctor.

The question, then, is why. What, exactly, is wrong with the adventure the Doctor ends up having on Dust? Again, Miles - who has mastered the technique of late 80s and early 90s genre writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman in the UK whereby thematic judgments and comments are slipped into the exposition and narration - makes this relatively explicit. The central difference between the sort of adventure that the Third Doctor expects romantic adventures among the machinations of history. Whereas the adventure he's cast into is one of "pure brutality."

There is a broader significance to this point - one that crops up in a wealth of Magrsian postmodern side comments about things like how space food makes things too easy, or comments about how there might be unusual narrative devices in play within the story. And it's one that I am led to understand features massively in the Eighth Doctor portions of the narrative as well - the way in which politics and aesthetics are inevitably intertwined. The essential problem the Doctor has on Dust - that the world is brutal and unpleasant and unromantic in a way he is ill-equipped to handle.

But it's also worth looking at one of the most interesting scenes in the novel, where the Doctor interacts with Magdelena - basically the only native of Dust we ever see much of - and where, after he attempts to cheerily diagnose and explain her nature to her, she calmly throws a cup of scalding hot coffee in his face. Implicit in this scene is the point I made on Wednesday - that the Pertwee era did an excruciatingly bad job of dealing with the human dimension of issues.

Many commenters, however, in a thoroughly wrong-headed manner, have accused the book of being a hit job on the Pertwee era. First of all, this assumes that the critique of the politics of Doctor Who is limited to the Third Doctor segments, which is clearly not the case. But second of all, there is, fundamental to the Third Doctor segments of the book, an embrace of something else that we haven't had cause to talk about really at all since The Green Death: magic.

The concept of magic is central to what Miles is doing. The entire idea of the villains, Faction Paradox, a rogue bunch of Gallifreyans who freely alter history, even their own, and make their home in the Eleven Day Empire, the period of time skipped by the realignment of the English calendar in 1752. As Miles says of Faction Paradox, in one of those sentences that reminds you just why his reputation is so good, "what would have been a metaphor to anybody else was solid reality to them." The entire concept of Faction Paradox, in short, is that they are just like the Time Lords, except they explicitly work according to the logic of fantasy, whereas the Time Lords ostensibly work under the logic of science fiction.

And so if the Third Doctor is fundamentally unsuited to the sort of brutal and harsh encounters involved in portraying society in a more socially realist manner, the flip side is that the Eighth Doctor's era lacks some sense of wonder. It is thus in the Third Doctor's section of the book that Miles introduces the concept of IM Foreman's traveling circus, in which all thirteen regenerations of a single Time Lord travel together out from Gallifey. Foreman, in each incarnation, becomes progressively more of a bizarre extremity of the concept of life, until in his eleventh incarnation he is the If, a creature that breathes raw time energy, and in his thirteenth he is simply a raw and all-consuming force of nature.

It is also the Third Doctor who manages to, through a clever bit of jiggery-pokery, successfully persuade the thirteenth incarnation of IM Foreman to terraform Dust and make it a lush and beautiful planet instead of a decaying wasteland. This is, by any measure, an act of magic. The entire idea of Foreman's circus - a traveling show of human extremity - is magical, as is the basic idea of reversing death into life (an invocation of the putrefaction concept from The Green Death in many regards). And this is fitting as well. For all that I've been savage to Letts for the past few entries - and I stand by those critiques - he deserves some real credit that he rarely gets for making some truly interesting contributions to an aspect of the series that gets less overt attention than it should - the ways in which the series is primarily a fantasy series about magic.

It's not that Pertwee is the most magical Doctor - nothing can really pry that title away from Troughton. Rather, it's that he's the last Doctor to really follow primarily from Hartnell's patrician wizard model. He and Hartnell have a unique status as the old men Doctors - they're the last two to seem elderly. And that gives him a particular function. There is an iconic and mythic moment in which the wizened and powerful old man makes his sacrificial last stand. Gandalf facing down the Balrog, or Obi-Wan Kenobi getting cut down by Darth Vader are probably the two most obvious pop culture examples, though if you want to be particular about it you probably want to go back to Odin and Ragnarok as the most fundamental form of this myth. (Actually, Odin is quite a good analogue for the Doctor at several points.)

And Pertwee can give that. In fact, he does, which we'll talk about on Monday. And Miles appropriates that for the final twist of the story. He steals Pertwee's regeneration. This story effectively retcons Planet of the Spiders out of existence by having the Doctor gunned down by Magdalena for endangering Dust in the first place, leaving him to die in a grim parody of his actual regeneration scene and, for good measure, be infected by a Faction Paradox virus that will eventually cause him problems in the EDA line.

This, unsurprisingly, was largely the most controversial part of the book when it came out. In a way this is unfortunate. One is reminded of Alan Moore's observation when asked how he felt about Hollywood ruining his comics - the comics are fine, they're right there on my bookshelf. Certainly this book does no damage to the Pertwee era itself. One can watch the standard regeneration and standard sequence of episodes, and nothing Miles is capable of alters that. Complaining about the story on those grounds is, in other words, profoundly stupid, and anathema to the sort of values we hold here. Fans who do that are the exact sort of fans Miles is mocking when he talks about the original sense of the word geek (one who bites the heads off of live chickens).

But there is still a sense of shock and wrongness to it - one Miles is clearly aware of and relishes in. To some extent this is the point - the ugly consequence of throwing Pertwee's Doctor into a situation that his character was never well-suited for or designed for. Of course the situation kills him. How could it not? That's what it means to be in a brutal and ugly world.

But there's a larger point to it as well - a magical invocation if you will. Because Planet of the Spiders is its own form of the powerful wizard's last stand. The EDA era has in effect taken that story and that sacrifice and used it for its own purposes. But this is not theft. Rather, it is a trade, and the Eighth Doctor era has given something of equal value to the Pertwee era here. Because it's not like the Pertwee era is in good shape at this moment in time. I just got finished saying that the shabbiness of its politics were such that this Doctor's era deserved to die for them. And here it does, and for that exact reason - because Pertwee's Doctor is rubbish at a situation like this where there is real human suffering.

And in a way it is cathartic. A needed addition. Pertwee still has his other departure, and we'll get to it Monday, as I said. And that departure clears up its own issues, including many related to this. But still, the cruelty and directness of this is, in a real sense, exactly what the era needs - one story that properly calls it out for its most upsetting failings. It, in a real sense, resolves many of the issues I had with the Pertwee era. It's a story that, if taken seriously and added as a real thing that is part of the Pertwee era, is needed and fill sthe most glaring hole in the era. It makes it so we can move on from the concerns that have dogged the entire Pertwee era, and when we get to the other Pertwee regeneration story, makes it so that we can look at it with fresh eyes.

But perhaps most importantly, at least for our purposes, it opens a gap. A tiny fissure in the Pertwee era into which the future intrudes, and intrudes in a real sense that reshapes and alters the entire thing. Let us see what we might insert in that gap.

11 comments:

  1. In reading Inteference,did anyone else find themselves reminded of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao?

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  2. Fantastic summary. I would say that the regeneration is shocking also because in 1999, the readership were mostly fans who cared to some extent with continuity. By rewriting the Doctor's past, Miles makes Faction Paradox a major threat not just to the Doctor, but to fannish obsessions.

    As for what we might insert in the gap, Miles incidentally provides those fans who care about continuity issues a way to include both versions of the third Doctor comic strips that were later republished as fourth Doctor strips.


    And now I have to work out which fourth Doctor books/audios you'll be including.

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  3. Currently five Time Can Be Rewritten entries are planned for the Tom Baker era - two Virgin books, and two BBC ones. The order will be Virgin, BBC, BBC, Virgin. The fifth will be something involving Shada, though I haven't entirely decided what yet. As I've said elsewhere, I feel as though the nature of Big Finish is that one really has to introduce the contemporary audios with one of the main series audios, so that'll be held for the Fifth Doctor. No points for guessing which audio I'm going to pick there.

    There are also fully three "You Were Expecting Someone Else" entries for the era. Those will span two different media.

    Enjoy guessing. :)

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  4. "It's not that Pertwee is the most magical Doctor - nothing can really pry that title away from Troughton."

    While I basically agree with you here, I have to part company with you in one specific, very important regard: What about Sylvester McCoy? The only Doctor who is explicitly called " far more than just another Time Lord", whose companion has been described as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, who talks down the magical alien butterfly collector in the odd parallel realm of "Ghost Light" and who stars in the overtly magical "Battlefield" where he is referred to as Merlin all throughout?

    While I will certainly not dispute Troughton's claim to originating, or at least codifying, the concept and I firmly believe he internalizes and embodies the role better than almost anyone else, I also believe that McCoy, under writers like Andrew Cartmel, Mark Platt and Ben Aaronovitch at the very least makes a compelling claim to be the proper successor to that title in a way none of the Doctors between him and Troughton (or after him, to be perfectly blunt) were able to do.

    Other than that a fantastic bit of writing on "Interference": You've done a marvelous job eulogizing the Pertwee era and I look forward to hearing what you have to say about what's to come!

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  5. I love McCoy - he's my favorite era of the classic series, actually - and will of course be talking lots about magic in his era. But I still feel like Troughton is the most magical Doctor because he was the one who most integrated the Doctor's magical powers into his performance - slipping around the edges of the narrative, peering out of television screens, etc. McCoy's Doctor, at his best, could be as magical as Troughton was by default. And Troughton's era still, ultimately, had David Whitaker as one of its primary architects. I love Aaronovich, but the man is no David Whitaker when it comes to bewildering mysticism. :)

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  6. "Actually, Odin is quite a good analogue for the Doctor at several points."

    You have a gift for understatement.

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  7. @Phil

    You of course make excellent points. It's difficult to argue with David Whitaker, despite how good Cartmel, Platt and Aaronovitch could be. The only thing I'd add is that in my opinion the biggest problem with the McCoy era is rocky management and the changeable relationship it had with the production team and the larger BBC. The fact it didn't always live up to is potential is I feel likely more the fault of the executives and managers who had long since abandoned Doctor Who than it is McCoy's actual performance, as seen in things like the drastic and crippling rewrites to stories like "Ghost Light". Give them the space to and I'm confident McCoy and Aldred can make it happen (dare I say "bring the magic") and they've proven as such many times since their tragically short-lived stint on TV. Anyway, McCoy gets at least one "peering out of the TV" moment in "Remembrance of the Daleks"!

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  8. Dougie asked, "In reading Inteference,did anyone else find themselves reminded of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao?"

    I've not even read the book(s), and I was still thinking of it! Hm, I'd like to see the film again, find out if it's as good as I remember and how much a greater awareness of racism might affect my reading of the central performance...

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  9. Seven entries on Lawrence Miles stuff? Excellent! Looking forward to that.

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  10. Well, with those hints, I'm guessing the first Time Will Be Rewritten will be Managra, the BBC ones will be two of Asylum, a Chris Boucher Leela novel (not sure which), and Tomb of Valdemar, and the final one will be a Gareth Roberts Season 17 (most likely The Well-Mannered War).

    For the "You Were Expecting Someone Else, if it only covers two media, it's difficult to guess, because, with three entries, I'd expect Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, one of the World Distributors' Annuals, and Doctor Who and the Pescatons. But that covers three different media.


    And I really hope that the Davison Big Finish is Spare Parts.

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  11. What do you mean when you say the McGann era lacked a sense of wonder? Are you talking about the movie, the novels, Big Finish, or some combination of the above?

    I only ask because I rather like his Big Finish stuff and wonder what you think.

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