Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Time Can Be Rewritten 19 (Goth Opera)
In practice it rapidly became clear that the Missing Adventures, at least to start, were Virgin’s attempt to better appeal to the so-called “trad” audience who were left cold by their more adventurous New Adventures line. (Or, as Paul Cornell put it in an interview from his “hilariously bitchy” days, to write for the line “you had to abandon any thoughts of originality.”) But the launch of the line was interesting in this regard. July of 1994 had two releases - the debut Missing Adventure Goth Opera by Paul Cornell and a New Adventure called Blood Harvest by Terrence Dicks, with Goth Opera serving as an ostensible sequel to Blood Harvest.
What’s interesting about this is that Terrence Dicks is, for obvious reasons, the very definition of the “traditional” Doctor Who writer, whereas Paul Cornell was one of the leading lights of the New Adventures range. And, of course, they were flipped. Terrence Dicks - who had actually written the Fifth Doctor on television - wrote for the ostensibly weirder line while Cornell wrote for the ostensibly traditional line.
Superficially, at least, the result of this was that both books were fairly traditional, with the Terrence Dicks aesthetic winning out over the weirder one. Certainly Goth Opera has its share of traditional moments, including a chapter that serves mostly to do some of the connective work between the two books. The chapter a beautifully fast-moving bit involving Romana that manages to, in rapid succession, heavily reference The Five Doctors, Carnival of Monsters, and then insert a cameo from Sabalom. It so perfectly nails Dicks’s style that I actually momentarily found myself composing a bit of this post in my head before having to abandon the line of argument I was imagining due to my remembering that it was actually Cornell who’d written this book.
But this is unfair to what Cornell does here. Cornell’s reputation in 1994 may have been for formal experimentation and “difficult” books, but this reputation was, if not misleading, at least only part of the picture. Cornell was, we can safely say at this point, one of the best writers to make their debut in the Virgin line. And more to the point, he was the earliest of them. His first novel was the fourth book in the line, he was the first writer to do a second book, and then he made it to three before any other writers had made it to two solo books.
But the formal experimentation isn’t what set him apart from the other writers around him. Not really. It was there, and he used it well, but in hindsight, looking at his work past the New Adventures, it’s relatively clear that his real talent lay in his character work all along. It’s just that that wasn’t nearly as flashy as his more experimental aspects. And it meant he was better suited to an assignment like this than he looked at first glance.
It’s also the case that the assignment isn’t quite as straightforward as it appears. The idea that this could “fit seamlessly” between Snakedance and Mawdryn Undead is nonsensical in practice. First of all, it’s set in 1993 and relies on the culture of the time. There are references to Morrissey, for instance. The Smiths, on the other hand, had yet to release an album in 1983, nor, at the time of this story’s pseudo-transmission, a single. More broadly, the entire book depends on the existence of goth subculture. It’s a mashup of Doctor Who and Anne Rice, and though Interview with a Vampire had been published by 1983, it wasn’t the big deal it would later be. By 1994, the film version was on its way and Anne Rice was nearing the height of her popularity.
In other words, the book is unmistakably a product of its time. As, of course, all the Missing Adventures are. Similarly, proleptic references to The Five Doctors, Sabalom Glitz, and, oh yes, Blood Harvest make it inevitable that this couldn’t “really” be a 1983 story. But it’s the content that is most significant, and it’s here that it’s worth thinking a bit about what the point of “missing adventures” actually is. I talked about this a little in the Cold Fusion entry, but that was more about why I care about missing adventures and do the Time Can Be Rewritten entries. From an artistic standpoint, what’s the point of a missing adventure?
The answer, to some extent, has to be reparative. Gareth Roberts - probably the best writer to spend a lot of time on the task of missing adventures - is a useful illustration here. His pseudo-Graham Williams novels are overtly reparative. They’re attempts to show how the Graham Williams era could have done. Similarly, his Hartnell-era novel The Plotters is, in part, a deliberate queering of the Hartnell era - a historical that does the things that, thematically speaking, Hartnell-era historicals were perfectly suited to but that, for cultural and personal reasons, could never have been done at the time.
It’s important to be clear about what this does and doesn’t mean. Yes, missing adventures are inevitably about “fixing” past eras of Doctor Who. But this is a critique of the past, not a rejection of it. You don’t write a novel queering the Hartnell-era historical on its own terms out of anything other than a genuine love for those terms. And indeed, in the same interview in which he snarked about the lack of originality in the Missing Adventures he also noted that the Davison and McCoy eras were the only two that he could really write for because they were the eras he loved.
Another way to look at the Missing Adventures, then, is as attempts to complete the era they ostensibly belong to. As attempts, in other words, to take what the eras do and go further with it, capturing the sense of an era that can only be clear in hindsight. In this regard the claim that they fit “seamlessly” into the gaps of their eras is almost the exact wrong phrase to use. They fit into the era precisely because the past of Doctor Who isn’t seamless to begin with. Any era of Doctor Who that progresses from Arc of Infinity to Snakedance necessarily forgoes seamlessness. Adding these anachronistic texts that understand the era better than it can understand itself does not, obviously remove the seaminess of the era. But it fits. At their best, the Missing Adventures are faithful to the era they are set in precisely by betraying those parts of the era that were already betraying the era.
And so the Davison era, in its high soap days, is the perfect place for Paul Cornell, eventual writer of Casualty, to be plying his craft. Here we have a writer who actually knows how to do soaps inserting a story into a soap era. We have a writer who gets that drama is defined by intensity, not by mimicry of the superficial form of drama, and who puts Nyssa through a properly epic emotional wringer. The idea of having Nyssa turned into a vampire is absolutely phenomenal. Nyssa lends herself to this sort of thing, which is an odd thing for me to say in some ways since I’m usually not the type to go “rah rah let’s put female characters through excessive torture so we can watch them suffer.”
But in Nyssa’s case it makes sense. Her first storyline was about a man wearing her father like a skin-suit and exterminating her entire race, and her reaction was the single biggest keeping of a stiff upper lip in Doctor Who history. Yes, as I’ve said, there needed to be some sort of later reaction in a subsequent Master story, but Nyssa’s character arc is, basically, that absolutely terrible things happen to her and she nobly endures them and then kicks ass. Nyssa is Doctor Who’s version of Chuck Norris. In a velvet dress.
So the idea of making Nyssa into a vampire is perfect. It’s exactly the sort of plotline the character deserves. She spends virtually the entire book simultaneously as an active character who does things and having absolutely terrible things happen to her. Other than a somewhat unfortunate bit in which she apparently loses her cognitive function and decides trusting vampiric lords is a good idea because they’re noble so they must be good (I’d ask if she was asleep during Arc of Infinity, except frankly, who could blame her), she’s absolutely on fire in this book largely because the book is willing to actually push her character instead of blandly pretend to push it.
The Doctor does similarly well. The main antagonist in the story, Ruath, is a perfect sort of villain for Davison’s Doctor - someone he left behind who, in their own view at least, has suffered for it. In the aftermath of Adric this cuts nicely, and it sets up a solid ending in which the Doctor’s desire to try to let everyone save themselves and give everyone a chance is undercut by Nyssa spacing Ruath and the Doctor grimly admitting she was right.
As for Tegan... well, if nothing else, the image of Tegan having true faith in the words of Primo Levi is very possibly the most unintentionally hilarious thing I’ve read in some time.
But all of this works in no small part because it’s wholly consistent with how the Davison era is anyway. This was an era that was trying to create soap opera like storylines for characters and built a TARDIS cast that was suited to emotional storytelling. Davison serves as the flawed patriarch, Tegan is Doctor Who’s attempt at Hilda Ogden (this being Doctor Who, a middle class Hilda Ogden), and Nyssa is a phenomenal soap character, as discussed. The era really does set the pieces out for the sort of thing that Paul Cornell does well. It just has an unsettling tendency to abandon them in favor of faffing about with Omega or something equally dumb.
There’s a second aspect to Goth Opera that needs to be commented on, which is that Cornell goes to some length to work in an overt attack over the issue of satanic ritual abuse. This is an upsettingly dark period in the history of moral panics and psychology. In the mid-80s there was a fervor about the possibility that satanic cults were sexually abusing children as part of their rituals. They weren’t, in no small part because satanic cults barely exist as a phenomenon in the first place, but this didn’t stop the ensuing moral panic.
This is also not something that could have been commented on in 1983, in no small part because 1983 was roughly ground zero in the issues. Whereas by 1993 the tide of public opinion had mostly shifted and the consensus, not universally held, was that satanic ritual abuse didn’t happen. But in this case the shift is subtler. Whereas doing story steeped in goth culture set in 1983 is winkingly proleptic - goth culture existed in 1983 but was largely invisible to the mainstream - doing one about ritual satanic abuse is a different sort of commentary.
The reason is that even if the ritual satanic abuse scandal had been shifted a decade in the past so that by 1983 it was widely known to be a hoax, the John Nathan-Turner of 1983 would never have touched it. It’s not fair to say that John Nathan-Turner was opposed to political Doctor Who - he did, after all, oversee Saward’s fumbling efforts at it in Season Twenty-Two and the Cartmel era. But it’s equally true that Doctor Who in his first three and really four seasons in charge was maddeningly apolitical. And as I’ve said before, to be apolitical is to be in support of those in power.
Cornell, on the other hand, is firmly a post-Cartmel Doctor Who writer who is thoroughly invested in the overtly political work that characterizes the classic series’ last and greatest days. And so to write a Davison story that is ahead of its time on a Davison-era political issue is, in this regard, a particularly pointed reparation of the era.
With Spare Parts we talked about the way in which it seemed to suggest an era that almost happened. (Indeed, I can find at least some references to Platt having a script co-authored with Jeremy Bentham rejected for Season 20, showing just how narrow the gap between Spare Parts and reality was.) Here, however, we have a slightly different issue. Goth Opera could never have worked in 1983. It doesn’t even pretend to. Instead, it demonstrates the way in which even in this period in which Doctor Who is ostensibly a terminal decline that it won’t pull out of in time things are being done that are unmistakably progress for the future.
For all its faults, the Davison era lays crucial groundwork for what Doctor Who eventually becomes. It is difficult to imagine this book working in any era of Doctor Who prior to 1983. That, in and of itself, is an important statement of faith in the Davison era. Whatever its faults - and let’s be honest, even the much-vaunted Hinchcliffe era had tangible faults and face-palmingly bad stories - it is manifestly the case that it developed the show in ways that were crucial to its survival. Yes, we all know what goes wrong at the end of Season 21. And we’re all capable of seeing the antecedents of that all the way back into Season 18. But none of that means that the Davison era didn’t, on the whole, work. It made Paul Cornell’s work possible within the context of Doctor Who. That, by any reasonable measure, is working.