Monday, April 23, 2012
Time Can Be Rewritten 21 (Warmonger)
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.
“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.