Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Time Can Be Rewritten 27 (Millennial Rites)

More than anyone - even Gary Russell or Lance Parkin - the late Craig Hinton has a reputation for fanwank. But the fact that we're dealing with that list in the first place is interesting. On one extreme we have Russell, who I confess to having relatively little regard for as a fiction writer. (Although there's reason to rate him fairly highly as an editor or a writer of non-fiction material) On the other we have Parkin, one of the consensus best novel writers. So once again there's clearly not a direct correlation between fanwank and quality.

It's tempting to try to chart out some sort of principle based on the fact that Jubilee works and Business Unusual doesn't. Jubilee deals with the past of the program in broad strokes, Business Unusual gets bogged down in tedious and pointless details. But I'm hard-pressed to buy that as a logic - there's something desperately unsatisfying about the idea that the details not only don't matter but necessarily cannot matter and are fundamentally opposed to good storytelling. (For one thing, it would pose an uncomfortable existential challenge to the logic of this blog.)

We're at a point of transition in the arc of the blog, moving from the decade-long deflation of the series that stretched from The Horror of Fang Rock to Revelation of the Daleks to the invisible reinvention of the series once it moved out of the public eye. One of the things that's going to happen over that period is, both within Doctor Who and outside of it, an evolution in how storytelling works in what we can broadly describe as genre fiction. We'll watch this unfold over the next lengthy chunk of the blog, but one of the basic principles of the new way of doing things is that the high concept genre ideas are parallel structures to character-based storytelling. (When we get to the inevitable Buffy post in January or February we'll deal with the details of this.)

And that's the difference between Lance Parkin and Gary Russell - Parkin writes in a form that recognizably behaves like that while Russell writes more in the style of the Saward-era continuity writers. And the thing is, even though Craig Hinton's level of fanwank exceeds both of them, at the heart of things he is a Parkin-style writer. And so we have Millenial Rites, a story that is on the one hand a massive celebration of minutiae and on the other is actually a reasonably functional piece of storytelling in its own right that has an actual point to it.

On its most basic level, Millennial Rites is a story about the Doctor's fear of the Valeyard and what that does to him. All of its big dramatic beats come out of that - from the Doctor's realization that his treatment of Mel is putting him on the road to that future to his temporary transformation into the Valeyard late in the novel. Even the smaller details work towards that, with Ashley Chapel and Anne Travers both serving as figures that in their own way grapple with obsessions, paranoias, and temptations, thus backing up the theme.

It's difficult to overstate how big an improvement this is over Business Unusual. Put bluntly, there's actually a point to this book. Indeed, it does relatively little of the stuff that was so frustrating about Business Unusual. It's not a book that sets out to answer lingering questions about continuity. It has some hints about how the Valeyard fits in with the larger mythology that the Virgin line was spinning in this period, but most of the hints are exactly what everybody had been assuming anyway. But mostly it's serving either as a straightforward sequel to stories - not necessarily a great idea, but not an inherently doomed one - or it's grabbing concepts either for a passing joke (a la the chronic hysteresis drinking song in Cold Fusion) or because they contribute usefully to the ideas it's playing with.

Let's take Anne Travers as an example. In terms of her, Millennial Rites is just serving as a sequel. It's picking up the character at the most recent point anyone has seen her (actually, even more recent - the book makes heavy allusion to the then-unreleased Downtime, teasing its contents as a sequel) and telling the next story in her life. The most obvious thing to point out here is that this isn't a gap. There's a difference between sequels, which, while potentially ill-advised, at least pick something up and go forward, and prequels, which are very rarely good things unless they were actively planned for from the start. (Do we want to go with Prometheus as the example here? Or Before Watchmen? Or perhaps Star Wars, where, contrary to popular belief, the first movie was not originally targeted as "Episode IV?" You're spoiled for choice here. But contrast with The Hobbit, which was always planned for.) And more to the point, she has a story about the way in which her past experiences have left her jaded and bitter, and about her eventual redemption from that.

Of course, Mel and the Doctor are not the most recent versions. But this isn't a story about Mel, in the end, and inasmuch as it is one about her it's structured like a sequel to a story we've never seen. Mel returns to Earth and checks in with her old friends from college. Since Mel's return to Earth is a blank slate this works. Unlike in Business Unusual, which is about setting up a status quo prior to where we know Mel and moving Mel from that to the character we know, Millennial Rites is about setting Mel up with a previously unknown status quo and moving her to one we know nothing about. We don't know what her relationship with Julia or Barry turns into. (Admittedly we didn't know about Mel's relationship with her family either, but Business Unusual, inasmuch as it was about Mel, wasn't about that relationship. Whereas here the bulk of Mel's plot is about her old classmates, not about how she met the Doctor.)

The Doctor, on the other hand, actually is in a position to have sequels - something he shared only with McCoy in 1995. Baker's Doctor never got a regeneration story - he got a lame excuse at the start of Time and the Rani instead. Unlike Mel, who is 70% a McCoy companion, we never see Baker's Doctor on screen again after Trial of a Time Lord. His story is open-ended here, which allows for something that the Missing Adventures can rarely do - tell a story about a past Doctor that fundamentally changes that past Doctor. Which is what a story about the Doctor's relationship with the Valeyard - another concept that is not a gap but an outright dropped thread - allows.

So Millennial Rites has an actual idea underpinning it, and one that is distinctly a story. The Doctor is forced to confront the apparent fact of the Valeyard and to come to terms with the idea that he might go bad. It's not something we've seen before, and it's a story in which characters have things happen to them that readers can empathize with. This is closer to drama than almost anything we've seen in several seasons, in fact.

On top of that, Millennial Rites manages to do something that the continuity-minded era of the program was able to do relatively rarely, which is to simultaneously call on Doctor Who's history and Doctor Who's ability to do anything. It trucks along for half a book seeming like a fairly straightforward continuity-heavy technothriller (an unfortunately existent subgenre of Doctor Who) before suddenly and with minimal warning turning into a cyberpunk sword and sorcery epic, and then, to boot, finishing its story in a sensible fashion given this turn.

Let's consider for a moment the virtues of this. For one thing, it's a case of playing to both of Doctor Who's strengths - the fact that it can do anything and the fact that it has a titanic history of doing just that. It's easy to treat the debate over fanwank as a debate over creativity and doing new things, and Hinton, in one gonzo move, demonstrates that no, in fact, there's not a distinction there and that you can easily do both. As with much of what we've talked about here, this is a train of thought picked up straightforwardly by the new series. "Let's bring back the Emperor of the Daleks. In a story that also features a Big Brother parody."

For another thing, it demonstrates a solid sense of how good the idea actually is. The truth of the matter is that cyberpunk sword and sorcery is an idea that sounds cooler than it is. I mean, it has some precedents, most obviously Nemesis the Warlock in 2000 AD, but for the most part it sounds like the sort of thing someone excitedly describes before never getting around to actually writing it. And no surprise, really - this is true for the exact same reasons that its true that this is a better book than Business Unusual, which is that an idea that's cool to vaguely imagine and a good story are two distinct things.

But in the scope Hinton uses the idea - about half of a book - it's perfect. This is one of the oldest tricks Doctor Who has, really. It establishes a cool-sounding premise, pokes at it for a while, hits the highlights, and then beats a retreat before it wears out its welcome. Here Hinton comes up with an outlandish conceit, plays with it for about the amount of time the idea remains cool on its own merits, and then gets out. It's proper, vintage Doctor Who.

This is not to say that the book is unambiguously and straightforwardly belonging to the future of Doctor Who storytelling. It's awkward in several ways, most of them related to its consciously limited audience of hardcore Doctor Who fans. There's an odd bum note in the book I want to look at, not because it's a big moment, but because it's a revealing one. Mel is told by two characters about a birth defect their child suffers from. The mother, it is mentioned, smokes. Mel, in response to being told about this, says "I hope you gave that up while you were pregnant." This is not the key moment, though. The moment is what comes after: "The looks that shot between Barry and Louise indicated that she hadn't just touched on a nerve, she had wired it into the mains."

This is very strange. It's not that the book doesn't realize that what Mel says here is inappropriate, but it seems to have no real sense of how inappropriate or why it's inappropriate. The book seems completely blind to the idea that shaming a mother to her face about her responsibility for her child's disabilities is not inappropriate merely because it touches a nerve but because it's a completely appalling thing to do. Which, not to plunge headlong into gender politics, but... there's something painfully confirmatory about every stereotype that Doctor Who fandom is overwhelmingly male here. The scene reads like it was written and edited by people who just have no awareness whatsoever of conversations surrounding motherhood, pregnancy, birth defects, or any related issues. There's just something... painfully limited and blinkered here.

And I highlight it not to stamp my feet about gender in Doctor Who but because it's indicative of a larger problem with the book, which is that it has the basic shape and approach of a good story but doesn't quite stick the landing. The Doctor confronts the possibility of becoming the Valeyard, but he never quite does anything with the confrontation. There's not a resolution.

Part of the problem is that Hinton is trying to weld together two concepts that don't quite go together. He's trying to link the Valeyard to the later image of McCoy's Doctor as the master manipulator and as "Time's Champion," with the idea that this darker figure McCoy embodies is a step on the road to the Valeyard. But these are two different concepts, and they don't actually go together that well. The idea of McCoy confronting the Valeyard really doesn't work that well (even if you do try to take Perry and Tucker's Matrix into account - note that it hinges on the idea that the Seventh Doctor isn't part of the Valeyard). The Valeyard is, in the end, a concern of the Sixth Doctor, and the seams between the two ideas in this story never quite work.

But the larger issue is that, frankly, the Valeyard is just damaged goods as a concept. Because Trial of a Time Lord is so incoherent in introducing him there's no way out for him - his character doesn't make sense. Like cyberpunk sword and sorcery, he's a cool idea in search of an actual story. And so he proves to be the weak link in the chain for Hinton. There's really not a satisfying solution to the Valeyard problem. The general consensus solution - ignore it - is probably the best one. And yet people, Hinton included, can't bring themselves to. Which brings us to the last part of this little triptych…

33 comments:

  1. The thing was that Virgin had rejected any story centered around the Valeyard, specifically in their later guidelines. Some NA writers (Andy Lane) were quite cross about this, but it stayed

    IIRC Craig Hinton only got the Valeyard in there at all by being quite crafty and describing it in the synopsis only as the Doctor's darker side, hinting at things rather than being outright. But this does mean that there can be no complete solution.

    Glad you liked Hinton's work though. Wonderful very underrated Who author. Love him

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    1. "IIRC Craig Hinton only got the Valeyard in there at all by being quite crafty and describing it in the synopsis only as the Doctor's darker side, hinting at things rather than being outright."

      In fact, he originally pitched the idea with a different Doctor (IIRC, the Second). He was asked to change which Doctor it featured, and got editor Rebecca Levene to agree to make it the Sixth before she realised that meant she'd been conned into making a Valeyard story.


      On another note, it's interesting that Phil left Lawrence Miles out of the list of fanwanky authors. Alien Bodies features almost as many continuity references as The Quantum Archangel. It's just that nobody seems to notice them. It makes me wonder about a theory I've had for a while - that non-fans generally don't notice continuity references. One day I'll actually do the experiment of lending The Quantum Archangel to a not-we and seeing if they notice that it's continuity-heavy.

      Finally, it's nice to have all my guesses at the sixth Doctor novels you'll cover confirmed (that hint can only possibly mean you're covering Time's Champion on Friday).

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    2. No guesses on my two 7th Doctor PDAs though? :)

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    3. There's not enough clues to narrow it down that much. You pretty much have to do a Perry/Tucker. And the most likely of those is either Illegal Alien or Loving the Alien.

      Of the others, I could imagine you doing Relative Dimensions, Heritage, Bullet Time, or The Algebra of Ice. The first is an interesting story in its own right, but with very little continuity fetish. The second brings you back to talking about Mel. The third and fourth both serve as a Time can be Rewritten entries on the NA era.

      In short, I'm not confident enough to narrow it down to two.

      And what's with the site giving me identical CAPTCHAs for comments within a few minutes of each other?

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    4. "Mission: Impractical" also features the Valeyard, under the alias of 'Zimmerman' - facing off the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher. I'm not sure I actually remember picking up that Zimmerman was supposed to be anyone special at the time, although it was a long time ago.

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  2. Craig wasn't just the master of the Fanwanky tale, he was also (as far as anyone can tell) the person who actually coined the term Fanwank in the first place.

    I got to know him very slightly and he was a great guy and is much missed.

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    1. I went to university with him, attending all the Doctor Who/Blake's 7 video evenings he ran while there (and thereby also getting to know Justin Richards slightly). He was indeed a great guy, full of life in the best sense of the word. Not really being a Doctor Who fan I lost touch with him after we graduated. I'm glad he got books published, even more so that they were good, and I was so sad to learn that he had died.

      And thank you, Phil, for this blog, as it has confirmed that I should hunt out his work, albeit too late for me to congratulate him in person, with maximum power.

      Tommy: as the copy editor of Mission to Magnus, I'm rather glad it won't be covered...

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  3. When I think about the Valeyard situation, it becomes rather ironic. I think the only thing that's ever really made sense of the Valeyard — or at least as much sense as can be made of him — is your series on Trial of a Time Lord. So it seems that in 2012, Doctor Who might finally have the conceptual tools to do something coherent with the Valeyard.

    Of course, Doctor Who as an institution has moved so far beyond those characters and scenarios in the past 24 years that no one would probably bother with it. But the general ideas can still work.

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  4. I'm actually really curious what book is going to be covered on friday. If we're going chronologically, then there are only four choices: The Quantum Archangel, Instruments of Darkness, Spiral Scratch, and (if you count it) Time's Champion. Now, I haven't read any of these but Time's Champion, but my understanding is that everything you could say about Quantum Archangel was already said about this, and everything said about Gary Russell on monday probably covers Instruments of Darkness and Spiral Scratch. Plus, Phil seems to be hinting we're going to have another Valeyard themed book. Which hints at Time's Champion, but is Phil really going to deal with a (pretty poor) fanwank fanfiction piece? Or is there a fifth possibility out there?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. With respect, Matthew, I think that's rather out of line. For one, Aaron has the measure of that book fairly well, though I don't think Hinton is responsible for the bulk of its failings. For another, dying does not magically make one's books better. Time's Champion is what it is, and ever shall be.

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    3. From what has been said about the book, it is clear that the book has very little to do with Craig Hinton. He apparently wrote most of the first chapter, but the rest of the book is entirely Chris McKeon, based off of some conversations with Hinton. As a result, I find it slightly disrespectful to Hinton that his name appears so prominently on the book, but that's neither here nor there.

      To be fair, I think it shows a lot of promise as a book of a first time author, but there are a lot of things in it that stick out as indulgent, such as Benton being in it for no good reason, everyone calling him Sergeant still because that's what they're used to, the Doctor's really creepy gallery of companions, and the Valeyard's pointless wardrobe scene that allows him to pick a Doctorly outfit. However, I do think there are good ideas and good starts in it, just, it reads as fanwanky fanfiction from a first time author.

      As for Hinton, I'm sure he was a lovely man, and the world is a less bright place without him. I found Millenial Rites enjoyable and Godengine okay but not great. As far as I can tell, he's the type of Who author that is not my cup of tea, but both books I read by him were fine if unexceptional.

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    4. Very well, Phil; I'll retract the comment.

      Aaron, now that you've explained a bit further, sorry about accusing you of any disrespect. :-)

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  5. No disrespect intended toward the late Craig Hinton but this book and Quantum Archangel owe a considerable debt to Chris Claremont's X-Men.

    Rites is very similar to the Romita Jr/ Hyborian Age two-parter (which began life as a Ms. Marvel plot)in issues 190-191.
    The Quantum Archangel is blatantly the Phoenix,confirmed by the appropriation of a line of dialogue from X-Men 101.

    The mutant talents in Instruments of Darkness by Gary Russell are fairly reminiscent of the X-men too.

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    1. Craig also credited the X-Book crossover Inferno as an inspiration for Millennial Rites

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    2. I once read (but cannot now source) that Holmes once said 'We only ever use original stories on Doctor Who, although they're not always original to us.'

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    3. In the foreward to The Discontinuity Guide, Terrance Dicks quoted Malcolm Hulke as saying "All you need for television is an original idea - it doesn't necessarily have to be your original idea."

      And, of course, Ben Aaronovitch once commented that "I'd like to remind everyone that while talent borrows and genius steals, New Adventure writers get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked."

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  6. I guess it's a bit late for He Jest At Scars to be in the cards. Not that it was particularly good, but it did seem like an example of taking the 'narrative collapse' of the Saward era to its logical conclusion (if by convoluted and completely illogical means).

    Well since the Sixth Doctor era is coming to an end, I must say its a shame we didn't cover the Sixth Doctor/Davros audios. In particular I think Curse of Davros is a great example of using the 'Doctor gone evil' angle of Mindwarp to its best.

    I also would have loved a coverage of Mission to Magnus. But I'm probably in a sad minority there

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  7. But contrast with The Hobbit, which was always planned for

    Well, it was written first, if that's what you mean by "always planned for." (Unless you mean the movie.) But at the time Tolkien wrote it he wasn't yet thinking of his Silmarillion material, already in progress, as a prequel to it; he dropped in a reference to Gondolin, yes, but more as an injoke than as serious continuity. It wasn't until LOTR that he decided to merge those two very different works into backstory for the new one.

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  8. If nothing else, Colin Baker looks surprisingly good in the Valeyard collar... ;-)

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    1. But what's the crazy zig-zags in Mel's hair? I don't remember any Bride Of Frankenstein plot elements!

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    2. Having finished reading Millenial Rites last night, Mel is described as having bizarro hair in the sword-and-sorcery world, and the Doctor specifically calls it "Bride of Frankenstein hair!"

      I surprised myself by enjoying this book. As lovely a guy as Craig Hinton was (and I chatted to him quite a few times), I've never been overly keen on his books, perhaps because a number of them are very sciency and have a lot of technobabble which just goes over my head. Millenial Rites has some very nice characters and there are enough twists to make it a good page turner.

      But I've never understood why the Valeyard is meant to be the apex of all the Doctor's evil. We're told that he is by the Master in Trial, but going on evidence all the Valeyard does is sit in a courtroom and jibe the Doctor a bit, and then run around the Matrix unleashing silly traps or dressing up as an office clerk. And, in any case, why does the Doctor think that meeting Mel will put him onto the line that leads to the Valeyard?

      In fact, one question that I wonder if Phil can answer - why does the sixth Doctor think the Valeyard is his problem at all? Why doesn't he go "Mmm, well, that's the twelfth Doctor's issue, not mine," and saunter off to continue without worry?

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    3. "And, in any case, why does the Doctor think that meeting Mel will put him onto the line that leads to the Valeyard?"

      Because he thinks that Terror of the Vervoids happens in the timeline that leads to the Valeyard. Meeting Mel is obviously part of that timeline. So if he somehow avoids it, then he'll presumably be on a different timeline to the one the Valeyard comes from.

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    4. "The Valeyard is meant to be the apex of all the Doctor's evil" because he's the Doctor transformed from a mercurial anarchist to a creature devoted to law. The 'Doctor of Laws,' if you will. Of course, this was incredibly unclear from what was transmitted in the Trial, and only became explicit thanks to Phil's entries on it this month. So if the transmitted Trial and the books and audios that dealt with it are confused, it's for good reason, because they came out in June 2012 when someone finally managed to make some sense out of all this.

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    5. Whoops: That should be "before June 2012."

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  9. Commenting on the point about prequels, I think an exception to the rule would be the Ender's Shadow series, which work incredibly well as prequels to the original Ender series (and to my knowledge, weren't at all planned from the start).

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    1. The Magician's Nephew is pretty good too.

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    2. Sometimes my avatar shows up, sometimes not. I'm mysterious like that.

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  10. Here's a few prequels that were not planned at the time of writing whatever they're a prequel to, but nonetheless quite good:

    Film:
    The Muppet Movie
    Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the most recent one)

    Books:
    When the Tripods Came (going on memory from when I was 12, I could be very wrong about this being good)

    Video Games:
    Every Legend of Zelda game after The Adventure of Link (except the Philips CD-i games, which were... not good)

    Comics:
    Order of the Stick #0: On the Origin of PCs
    Order of the Stick #-1: Start of Darkness
    All-Star Superman

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    1. I disagree with a couple of these - not on quality so much as on the basis of whether they're prequels. All-Star Superman, for instance, is fantastic, but isn't so much a prequel as a parallel telling. The Zelda games, likewise... I have trouble taking the official Zelda timeline seriously. I find the games are much more satisfying if I treat them like I do the relationship between All-Star Superman and the mainline Superman comics, whereby they're different versions of essentially the same story. I'll accept the necessity of treating some of them as direct sequels/prequels to one another: Wind Waker obviously has to come after some other Zelda game. But I find the modern chronology where the Zelda universe is anchored by Ocarina of Time dreadful.

      The Muppet Movie, on the other hand, is indeed absolutely brilliant and a prequel. Though even there I find myself thinking about whether or not a variety show is a meaningful thing to have a prequel to.

      I've not seen/read the others.

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    2. Hmm. Even rejecting the possibility of a timeline for the Zelda series as a whole (which is a more valid reading than the nonsensical official timeline, I'll grant you), I can't read Skyward Sword as anything other than a prequel to Ocarina of Time, so I'd at least put forward that as an example.

      Also I was thinking of All-Star Superman not in terms of Superman as a whole, but specifically as a prequel to DC One Million. Not sure if that's what you're referring to as a parallel telling, since I can definitely see that argument, but the next sentence implies you regard the parallel as being Superman as a whole.

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