Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Time Can Be Rewritten 27 (Millennial Rites)
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…