Monday, April 23, 2012

Time Can Be Rewritten 21 (Warmonger)

Given that none of the BBC Books novels featuring Davison’s Doctor are particularly beloved, the pick of a novel was always going to be one of the two golden turkeys - this or Gary Russell’s Divided Loyalties. I picked this for two reasons. First, Divided Loyalties was a Season 19 book and having just come off of a host of non-televised entries at the end of the Tom Baker era I didn’t want to do two novels in Season 19. And I was pretty firmly committed to Cold Fusion. But the second is that Divided Loyalties received mostly scathing and truly outraged reviews on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, whereas nearly every review of Warmonger consists of several paragraphs of admitting that the novel is unfathomably awful before the author sheepishly confesses that they loved it. (Of course, several of those exist for Divided Loyalties, and more than a few outright pans of Warmonger exist as well)

For those who have never heard of this... interesting book, allow me to provide a basic plot summary. Peri inadvertently gets her arm ripped off by a pterodactyl, so the Doctor rushes her to a pre-Brain of Morbius Karn in the hopes that Dr. Solon will reattach it. He does, but unfortunately the Doctor and Peri get caught up in galactic politics and the rise of Morbius such that Peri is stranded on an alien world as a fierce guerilla warrior against Morbius’s galactic army and the Doctor is rechristened the Supremo and leading an army of Draconians, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ogrons, and Ice Warriors against Morbius in what is, we are repeatedly assured, a terribly dire, ugly war. Eventually he rescues Peri and she makes a drunken pass at him, then they defeat Morbius, the end.

If this sounds like a hot mess, you are underestimating things. But let’s pause for a moment and note two things. First, Terrance Dicks’s gloriously readable prose continues to rescue him. As preposterous as this book is, Dicks is able to make each fresh absurdity another step in a standard plucky adventure, marching cheerily through the action with a horribly compelling glee. Second, Terrance Dicks is surely way too smart a writer to pen a book this bad by accident. In fact, it is my firm conviction that this book consists of Terrance Dicks, elder statesmen of the Doctor Who world, in his 34th year of working professionally with Doctor Who, just unrepentantly screwing with the audience.

Let us boil this question down to its barest essentials. There is a moment, fairly early in the book, in which guerrilla warrior Peri, the Scourge of Sylvana, is captured along with some other guerillas. One begins to shudder as their captor, Lieutenant Hakon, ogles her. The following bit of prose then happens:

Puzzled and repelled, Hakon released her. “What’s the matter with her?”
“She can’t stand to be touched,” said Peri.
“Why not?”
“She was gang-raped by some of your troops when the first wave landed.”
“Some girls have all the luck,” said Hakon.

At this point we are forced into one of two possibilities. The first is that Terrance Dicks, Uncle Terrance himself, writer of the Target novelizations we adored as children, has, in fact, just written a character who jokes about how he likes to gang rape people. The second is that the dedication to Robert Holmes was serious.

If we’re being honest, this does seem probable. Terrence Dicks commissioned Holmes’s first script, and script edited four more after, novelized all but three of Holmes’s stories, and wrote three scripts under Holmes. When Dicks says, as he does in the dedication, that Holmes was the best Doctor Who writer, he’s not saying that from a position that doesn’t understand exactly what Robert Holmes was good at. And one thing that Robert Holmes was very, very good at was bitter and cynical satires. My contention, then, is that Warmonger is Terrance Dicks offering a bitter and cynical satire of Eric Saward.

Doing this in the name of Robert Holmes is, of course, a complex proposition, doubly so when you set the book immediately prior to Robert Holmes’s debut in the Saward era. But Holmes, as we’ll see, tried to make the Saward era’s approach work, at least in his first story. (Subsequently things got more complex.) So Dicks steps in and writes the other thing Holmes could have written for the Saward era.

This explains one of the things that people bring up when talking about this book, which is that it’s far easier to imagine the book working with Colin Baker than it is with Peter Davison. And of course it is. That’s the point. What Dicks is doing, in effect, is taking the Saward approach to its most horrific conclusions while remaining totally faithful to the basics of the approach. So since Saward covered both Davison and Baker, Dicks picks Davison, since that’s by far the more extreme and absurd angle.

And then he goes to town. Saward likes militaristic sci-fi? Fine, Dicks gives him the most militaristic book imaginable - one where the Doctor doesn’t just work with a bunch of space marines, but where he’s the leader of an entire galactic army. Saward favors continuity fetishism? Fine, we’ll make a needless sequel to a story that makes a complete hash out of dozens of other stories in the name of referencing them. Since Peri gets ogled by the camera repeatedly in both Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani, Dicks takes every opportunity to have characters leer at her and ogle her.

It’s sublime in its willful wrongness, and not just in the scene I’ve already quoted. Thrill as the Doctor rescues Peri from the pterodactyl: “Leaning forwards, the Doctor fastened his teeth into the creature’s neck, jaw muscles bulging as he clamped down hard.” Laugh uproariously as Peri attempts to explain the Gaztaks (that would be the space mercenaries from Meglos, by the way) as having the look “you see in American cities - in the dangerous parts. Places where everyone who looks at you seems to be thinking, ‘Do I mug this one or that one?’” Clearly some American conventions have not been taking Mr. Dicks to the right parts of town. Or go with my personal favorite moment, in which the Doctor, after getting his uniform as the Supremo, is sadly informed that his jackboots aren’t quite ready yet.

All of these moments are not merely utterly wrong, they’re almost meticulously crafted to be wrong. It would be difficult to actively shape bits of prose that feel more wrong in a Doctor Who book. And yet every reason these moments feel wrong is a description that’s routinely laid at the feet of the Saward era. There’s an impeccable sort of precision here - a sense that the book is too perfectly wrong to be anything short of deliberately so. And, I mean, if nothing else, the choice to have the Doctor’s nickname be the Supremo, as in “The Lair of the Zarbi,” seems to tag this book as not entirely serious.

And, of course, this willful wrongness is paired with Terrance Dicks’s usual sense of straightforward action-adventure. Which is to say that it’s consistently good fun and moves along. There are no obvious structural or storytelling flaws here. So in this regard Dicks is outdoing the Saward era on two fronts - he’s taking the era’s tendencies to their logical extremes and then telling a better crafted story than most of the writers could manage. That it feels so wrong and yet so fun is, in many ways, exactly what Resurrection of the Daleks tried for and missed.

I mean, this is the thing that nobody reviewing the book really admits. No, this could never be made in Season 21, but the reasons aren’t the perversity of the Doctor as a military leader or that it’s fanwanky. The problems are that it would explode the budget, that it’s not a four-parter, perhaps even that there’s a bit too much sex and that the nonlinear storytelling wouldn’t wash. But anybody who says that the violence of the Doctor or the absurd continuity are a problem while saying this novel doesn’t fit between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani is ignoring the reality of the era. In an era that brought us Earthshock, Warriors of the Deep, Resurrection of the Daleks, and the Doctor’s killing of Kamelion, the idea that the content of this book would have posed a problem is dubious at best. This is exactly what the Saward era on an unlimited budget would be. It fits its era perfectly. That’s the cruel joke of it. It fits its era too perfectly. For all that this isn't Davison as we like to think of him, it's alarmingly close to the sorts of things that routinely made it on screen in Season 21.

The problem, though, is that Terrance Dicks is just too nice for this. He’s the sort of person who genuinely believes that war is a noble tragedy, and whose main view of war and the military remains the Napoleonic Wars with a side of Hitler. And so he spends heartfelt chapters on the brutal tragedy of the war and the “Butcher’s Bill.” One gets the sense that they’re sincere - that they really are Dicks setting aside the jokes and trying to deliver sobering messages about how serious all of this really has been, but it doesn’t work at all. The earnest nobility of it - a tone Dicks is actually quite good at - just cuts awkwardly against the perverse horror that precedes it.

The second point where Dicks really just seems too nice for his won book, and the one I imagine everyone is going to disagree with me on in the comments, comes with Peri’s drunken pass at the Doctor. The Doctor turns her down, comparing it to incest. The problem, frankly, is that this is just kind of an oddly prudish line for Dicks to draw in the sand - and it very much comes off as the one thing that he’s just not willing to do. I mean, I’m not arguing for the Doctor to be shagging companions in the general case by any measure, but if you’re writing a story that’s deliberately kicking sand in the faces of taboos, raising the issue of Doctor/Companion sex just to have that be the thing you shoot down as beyond the pale is a bit much. Just go for it and make sure you piss everyone off, really.

Still, the book is terribly clever, and shows a vicious sort of humor that many would have thought beyond Terrance Dicks. And if it is a golden turkey, well, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do.

Finally, then, some business, as we’re nearing the Colin Baker era. First, the traditional novel clues: there will be four novels covered in the Colin Baker era. The first is from Target Books. The other three will be covered on three consecutive posts, in the order BBC Books, Virgin, Other. Furthermore, someone sensibly requested more precise lists of Big Finish audios, which I’m more than happy to provide since those are in print and buyable and people want the chance to listen to them before I cover them.

I’ll be doing three. The dates are approximate and assume I don’t fiddle the schedule and didn’t accidentally count wrong, but right now it looks like The Song of Megaptera will be done on the 28th of May, ...Ish on the 4th of June, and Jubilee on the 15th of June. A final fun fact, there will be eight posts between Revelation of the Daleks and the start of Trial of a Time Lord, and five between the end of Trial and Time and the Rani. There are no posts not on standard issue television episodes that will interrupt either of Colin Baker’s two full seasons.

25 comments:

  1. I've never read a spin-off novel, but this sounds hilarious. From an outsider's point of view, it sounds as much a spoof of spin-off or fan fiction as it does Saward or Holmes: taking something as beloved as Doctor Who, and darkening and mythologising it into unrecognisibility. This compulsion to make the Doctor a mighty leader, leading armies in conquest, or some kind of dark godlike creature from the dawn of time, that sort of thing. Tearing a companion's arm off, having her gang-raped. It sounds nuts.

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    1. Yeah, the stuff it's doing is as much a part of the books (at least the bad ones) as it is the Saward era. I tend to agree with Philip's reading, though, simply because Dicks *really* hated that period of the show, though mostly because of personal dislike for the people making it (one of the lines he trots out at conventions these days is to say casually "people like Hitler or Himmler or Nathan-Turner or...").

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  2. Wow! Now you've made me WANT to read it, Phil.

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  3. This may be the most glorious example of a redemptive reading in the history of text, Phil -- kudos. And I mean that entirely sincerely. Seriously, I can't WAIT to read this one now.

    "Second, Terrance Dicks is surely way too smart a writer to pen a book this bad by accident. In fact, it is my firm conviction that this book consists of Terrance Dicks, elder statesmen of the Doctor Who world, in his 34th year of working professionally with Doctor Who, just unrepentantly fucking with the audience."

    I'd add in Uncle Terry more-or-less writing for the paycheck by this point knowing he can get away with any old rubbish if he wants and the fanboys would shell out for it -- I haven't read this one, but to be honest, there's no way some of the stuff he managed to get published for BBC Books would have gotten anywhere near a printing press if it hadn't had 'Terrance Dicks' on the front cover.

    "The first is that Terrance Dicks, Uncle Terrance himself, writer of the Target novelizations we adored as children, has, in fact, just written a character who jokes about how he likes to gang rape people. The second is that the dedication to Robert Holmes was serious."

    I'm actually not so sure the first can be discounted so quickly, considering that practically EVERY book Uncle Terry wrote for BBC Books (even the ones that can't be read as a glorious satire on the era they're lampooning), and I'm fairly certain a few of the Virgin ones (although I haven't read all of them) had at least one scene where the Doctor's companion or another female character was threatened with being raped at some point. To the point where, frankly, it started to get more than a little creepy.

    I usually put it down to Uncle Terry trying to adapt to writing "Doctor Who" for an older audience after writing for kids so long but mucking it up; the other alternatives it suggests make me quite uncomfortable, to be honest.

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  4. I'm not quite sure what Terrance Dicks's motivation would be for satirising the Eric Saward era so long after the fact, though if it's a choice between that and him just writing the worst Doctor Who novel ever by accident then I'll plump for the former.

    Incidentally, are you going to cover one of the 5th Doctor, Peri and Erimem audios?

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    1. For a moment there, I thought Peter and Nicola had collaborated with Eminem.

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    2. I'm now imagining an even stranger version of 'Doctor in Distress'.

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  5. If you're going to parody the Saward era, then Nathan-Turner's awkward prudery about the Doctor and female companions is one of the things that's there to parody? And given the clash between that and Nathan-Turner's sexualised presentation of Peri for the dads, Peri's certainly the companion a parodist should use to address that.

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  6. Really enjoying your blog. Can't wait for you to cover 'the Caves of Androzani' and the Seventh Doctor era.

    Disappointed you're not covering 'The Holy Terror' though :(

    Also be good to hear your opinions on the Sixth Doctor and Jamie audios even if it's just a few words in response to this comment :)

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    1. "Disappointed you're not covering 'The Holy Terror' though :("

      I'm hoping that we'll at least get introduced to Frobisher in a reading of Grant Morrison's The World Shapers, if not a wider overview of the Whifferdill / Ridgway Era of DWM.

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  7. This is, indeed, one of the most glorious redemptive readings I've ever seen. It's better than the one I'd assumed, that it was a conscious parody of bad fanfiction (the only element missing is shipping, and Who fandom didn't get into that in a big way until 2005).

    Incidentally, I've managed to miss the reviews you've seen that treat it as a guilty pleasure, rather than simply a train-crash of a novel, a classic example of bad fanfic, and/or horribly offensive because of the rape references.

    "The first is that Terrance Dicks, Uncle Terrance himself, writer of the Target novelizations we adored as children, has, in fact, just written a character who jokes about how he likes to gang rape people. The second is that the dedication to Robert Holmes was serious."

    I'm surprised you've forgotten what you said about Mr Dicks' attitude to rape when you covered Moonbase 3. The first explanation is entirely in keeping with what you said then, the second isn't. Though, having said that, the two possibilities aren't mutually exclusive.


    And, as for guessing the books you're going to cover:
    The first is clearly a missing season one. I'm going to guess The Nightmare Fair, though I consider Mission to Magnus to also be a possibility.
    The next probably has to be Business Unusual, because I can't see you skipping Mel's debut.
    That means the virgin has to be Millennial Rites
    And the only other book I can think of featuring Mel is Time's Champion.

    Sadly, the order stated means you won't be doing Killing Ground (best use of the Cybermen that you haven't yet "reviewed"), and only doing one BBC book means you can't do Shadows in the Glass (which has an awful lot you could write well about), and you won't be doing The Quantum Archangel, a novel which I am one of the few people who absolutely loves (if you choose to do it for the paper version, I'll direct you a copy of the review I wrote for a fanzine a while back singing its praises).

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    1. I don't think its quite comparable. I almost discussed it, but I worried that excessive references to past posts would be tempting fate this close to Attack of the Cybermen. :)

      Moonbase 3, for all its egregious faults, does two things very different from Warmonger. First, it sanitizes rape. It doesn't mention it by name, and instead acts as though what it's depicting isn't blatantly rape. That's markedly different from the casual discussion of gang rape here. Second, it treats rape as something that happens in extraordinary circumstances. It's using rape to depict the extremity of what's going on, whereas this is banality-of-evil rape. So I don't think that the existence of one poor treatment of rape necessarily implies the other.

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    2. Well, here was a bit from my review, from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide:

      "Ultimately, I have to recommend this novel, although you should read it with the understanding that it's a "good bad" book. However, I do wish he'd chosen a different Doctor/companion combo for it. Sixth Doctor/Peri would have worked a bit better... but in a perfect parallel universe, it was Warmonger and not The Eight Doctors that kicked off the EDAs."

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  8. "Or go with my personal favorite moment, in which the Doctor, after getting his uniform as the Supremo, is sadly informed that his jackboots aren’t quite ready yet."

    Never heard of this book, but that line alone is enough to sell it to me, no matter how mental the story is.

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  9. "The second point where Dicks really just seems too nice for his won book, and the one I imagine everyone is going to disagree with me on in the comments, comes with Peri’s drunken pass at the Doctor. The Doctor turns her down, comparing it to incest. The problem, frankly, is that this is just kind of an oddly prudish line for Dicks to draw in the sand - and it very much comes off as the one thing that he’s just not willing to do. I mean, I’m not arguing for the Doctor to be shagging companions in the general case by any measure, but if you’re writing a story that’s deliberately kicking sand in the faces of taboos, raising the issue of Doctor/Companion sex just to have that be the thing you shoot down as beyond the pale is a bit much. Just go for it and make sure you piss everyone off, really."


    Isn't that part of the joke, though? I mean, if his whole point is to satirize the era, the Doctor's complete lack of physical affection for his companions in the JNT/Saward eras makes sense to throw in there. I mean, the era itself draws that line - all the violence in the world, but the Doctor can't even touch his companions for fear the fans will think he slept with them. There can't be even the slightest sexual tension between them. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, per se, but the unrestrained approach to violence is in pretty stark contract. So bluntly throwing that out at the end of the book as where you draw the line is a perfect counterpoint to the era's own line in the sand.

    Otherwise, this is yet again a fantastic essay, digging deep into a largely dismissed story and finding some real gold. Now I'm wanting to read it.

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    1. "Now I'm wanting to read it."

      This could be the most incredibly dangerous essay in the blog so far.

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    2. The problem I have with that reading is that the book already goes further with sexuality than the era would have allowed in that Peri does make a pass at the Doctor. Once you've gone too far there's not really a good reason not to keep going.

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  10. By the description of the story, I can just picture The Doctor (take your pick for which one) walking into a book store, finding a whole line of books supposedly based on his real-life adventures, and on reading the plot sypnopsis of this one, being shocked, and saying, "THAT never happened!!!"

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    1. That sounds suspiciously close to the plot of much "Trial of a Time Lord," actually....

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  11. Just realised I'd forgotten to comment on this bit:

    "This explains one of the things that people bring up when talking about this book, which is that it’s far easier to imagine the book working with Colin Baker than it is with Peter Davison. And of course it is. That’s the point. What Dicks is doing, in effect, is taking the Saward approach to its most horrific conclusions while remaining totally faithful to the basics of the approach. So since Saward covered both Davison and Baker, Dicks picks Davison, since that’s by far the more extreme and absurd angle."

    My understanding is that this was originally pitched as a sixth Doctor novel, but - as often happened with both the MAs and PDAs - got changed to a fifth Doctor one at some point before the manuscript was finalised. It's usually been assumed that the reason it sounds so much like Colin is because large chunks of the Doctor's dialogue were written as him.

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    1. I don't think so. I remember an interview with Dicks when he said he was asked by Justin Richards to write a Fifth Doctor book, who added "You remember him, the pleasant open-faced one". This caused Dicks to wonder if he was to predictable, and made him want to write something differently. He asked himself 'What if the Fifth Doctor didn't have a pleasant face?' What if the Doctor had to behave differently?
      So the book is a reaction against some of the (perceived) cliches of the Fifth Doctor.

      Interesting because, as Saward and JNT found out 15 earlier, when Dicks reacts against the Fifth Doctor he gets...the Sixth Doctor. For me this book is Dicks unconsciously repeating the same impulse and getting a similar result: Many feel that this is a Sixth Doctor book

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    2. So why did I, Who 3 claim it began life as a sixth Doctor story called Prelude?

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    3. Dunno. Here's the Dicks interview
      http://web.archive.org/web/20060314193942/http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/news/cult/news/drwho/2004/01/01/13706.shtml

      (Highlight the text)

      "So I was thinking about this and I thought 'Suppose he had a closed face, suppose he had a harsh, closed face. That might be another way into it.' Put him into a situation in which he was forced to act against his nature."

      Maybe Terence is misremembering, maybe I,Who is wrong. Maybe he used a Sixth Doctor synopsis he already had (although Terence doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would write or plan a word without a commission). It was about the Fifth Doctor when it was commissioned in 2000 (2 years earlier), according to Craig Hinton. Interestingly it was called "Prelude" Prelude to what?

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    4. Just realised-Spoiler: It's a prelude to Brain of Morbius. How could I forget

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  12. Also Phil, maybe for the ebook, have you considered the two Doctor Who computer games? 'Doctor Who and the Warlord' is quite interesting as it was written by Graham Williams. Like parts of Nightmare Fair, it gives us a much more whimsical version of mid 80s Doctor Who

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