Friday, June 22, 2012
Time Can Be Rewritten 28 (Time's Champion)
Let's get one thing out of the way- this is not a good book. McKeon, who is by far the more involved writer, is a weak prosesmith at best. On top of that, the plot elevates fanwank to a profound art, relying heavily not only on Hinton's previous novels Millennial Rites and The Quantum Archangel but with heavy references to scads of other stuff. This is not in and of itself a problem, except that it seems to be the entire point of this book - to try to fit absolutely as many existing pieces of Doctor Who together as is possible.
I'll attempt something resembling a summary of the plot. The Doctor visits Sergeant Benton's 70th birthday party, which is also visited by some characters from The Quantum Archangel including the human component of Kronos from the Time Monster and his pregnant wife. Meanwhile, in 1908 a writer is attempting to write a book called Time's Champion that turns out to be written in quantum mnemonics, the magical language from Millennial Rites. And in 9908 another man with the same name as the 1908 writer is writing a computer virus called Abbadon. Eventually it turns out that both are being manipulated by Morbius's children to launch an attack on Gallifrey, which coincides with the birth of Kronos's child.
So all hell predictably breaks loose, the Doctor runs to Gallifrey where he meets up with President Romana, a character from another Hinton book, and several other named Time Lords, then goes into the Matrix where the Keeper turns out to be the Valeyard, who is later revealed to be the Doctor's stolen regeneration energy caught in a time loop, created by the gods, Pain, Hope, Time, Life, Death, and Fate, as a substitute Doctor because Time wanted the Doctor as her champion but was denied by the other transcendent beings, thus creating the Valeyard as a compromise. Then there's a bunch more stuff, but it ends with the Doctor taking complete control of the Matrix by temporarily becoming Lord President of Gallifrey, then letting the TARDIS get eaten by a sentient computer virus and using quantum mnemonics to blow up the computer virus outside of the universe, but only after unregenerating in order to trick the Valeyard and destroy him, and then has to become Death's Champion to save Mel, but cheats and sacrifice himself using the powers of Time's Champion to force a regeneration, and what is this I don't even.
Despite this, underneath the hood - deep, deep underneath it at times, but underneath it nevertheless - there is a glimmer of the thing that distinguished Millennial Rites from Business Unusual. For all the book's flaws, this is striving to be a story about characters. It's the final and definitive redemption of Colin Baker's Doctor, the story where he and he alone defeats his own dark side (and let's be honest, the nature of Trial means that the Valeyard has always specifically been the dark mirror of Baker's Doctor, "twelfth and final regeneration" business or not), and earns a meaningful, real place in the arc of who the Doctor is. It's an absolute mess, but it's an absolute mess that's trying to be something interesting.
But let's look at this mess again. Let's set aside McKeon's clunky prose and look at the plot. It's absurdly over the top, yes. But nevertheless there is something irritatingly, compellingly... cool about it. I mean, look, I'd be lying if I didn't say that there was something kind of intriguingly awesome about the entire basic idea of this story. How could I possibly say otherwise? I must be at least a half million words into a massive exegesis of everything involved in Doctor Who. Like I'm going to pretend taking Doctor Who apart and putting it back together stops being interesting or valid just because it has a plot.
One can't even easily mount the main distinction I've sought to make over the past in terms of continuity about the difference between a unitary "Whoniverse" explanation and playing around with possibilities. But this is a fan-published novel that goes out of its way to leave other stories, even Spiral Scratch, in place. This isn't some horrific land grab to collapse the possibilities of Doctor Who. It's the exact sort of thing that one opposes those land grabs in order to allow - sone fans expounding their pet theories. So is there any basis to object to this book beyond poor execution?
One possibility, at least, is based on the contested nature of the epic. Epics, especially within sci-fi/fantasy, are a common trope that's been plaguing Doctor Who since The Key to Time. I'm certainly not going to criticize epics in the general case, but there is something troubling about the idea that they're the pinnacle of the genre. The epic, by definition, is defined by its scope and scale - by the fact that it is a big, definitive story. Indeed, within a serialized narrative an "epic" is the biggest story around - one that asserts gravity on everything around it.
Epics, in other words, impose a master narrative on everything around them. By their very nature they imply unity and singular vision. Even a hypothetical epic like this has those implications - that nagging insistence that this story ought be the one you look at every other story through. That infuriating belief in absolute, fixed truth.
To some extent this is a conflict embedded in the very fabric of Doctor Who. Doctor Who's debut came in a period where Britain was coming to terms with the fact that post-World War II it was a supporting player in global affairs instead of a superpower. In 1963 that was a difficult proposition, not least because Britain still had an awful lot of empire. But fundamentally, Doctor Who was science fiction coming from the perspective of a country that was giving up the idea that it had a singular vision of the world.
But that anti-imperialism, in Doctor Who, always contrasted interestingly with the fact that Doctor Who's central character was an obvious heir to the same Victorian tradition that oversaw the height of the British Empire. The Doctor, as we've said before, is ultimately the Victorian inventor. But he's the Victorian inventor recast and reimagined for a post-empire era. He is at once of the imperial past and rebelling against it, an attempt to salvage a secret history of the Victorian era that provided a way forward from its apparent dead end.
This is a tradition that still exists in Doctor Who. The whole "the little people are the most important people" ethos that runs through the Davies and Moffat eras comes directly from this aspect of the show's history. The Doctor, to start at least, was interesting not because he was a prime mover of history but because he was a cranky old man who couldn't fly his spaceship. He was consciously designed as the opposite of the traditional "great man" of history - indeed, under Troughton he became a figure who had clearly chosen to rebel against greatness in favor of the mercurial.
Unfortunately, he was in a genre that the Americans, drunk on their newfound status as the world's superpower, had recrafted to suit a new sort of cultural imperialism. A genre that was rapidly obsessed with hero's journeys and interstellar manifest destinies. A genre, in other words, that fell in love with epics. And to some extent we can just set this up as a tension that plagues Doctor Who. It constantly gets pulled towards epics when what it does best is something else. No, more than that - when its soul, its original concept, is a reaction against epics.
But dammit, they're fun! Epics are fun! They're big, ostentatious fun. And more to the point, there are things you can do in epics that you can't do otherwise. Epics allow for circumstances where the normal rules of business are suspended, which allow for stories that throw out the rules. In this regard epics are why Doctor Who is still around - because they had the idea of doing a big story where the Doctor died at the end and then casually carrying on. Whatever hostility to epics might be built into Doctor Who, there's also a dependence on them.
It's worth looking, though, at the sort of epic a regeneration story is. Its epic nature hinges on the fact that the Doctor dies. It's a narrative collapse - a story that appears to threaten the end of Doctor Who and then doesn't, albeit at a substantial cost. This is the first type of epic Doctor Who ever did. I mean, it faked and blustered its way to an epic with The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but its first real epic was The Chase. Where the whole point turned out to be that taking Doctor Who and adding an epic flight from the Daleks to it was absolutely horrible.
Put another way, Doctor Who epics can and do work, but when they work it's because the absolute, orienting power of the epic is undercut by the fact that such an ordering power is antithetical to the structure of Doctor Who. They work by threatening a narrative collapse. Or, as with The Key to Time, they work by wedding the epic structure to something profoundly non-epic and relishing in the tension this creates. These are the two main structures for Doctor Who epics. We can, if we want - and I certainly do - even label them. The narrative collapse is the Whittakerian epic, the epic of minutia the Holmesian epic. Or we can describe them as alchemical principles. The Whittakerian epic is "solve et coagula," the Holmesian "as above, so below."
And this, in the end, is the problem with Time's Champion. It's neither of those things. The Valeyard isn't' a narrative collapse. He's an evil twin. That's still an epic trope - there's not that glorious focus on the minute that characterizes the Holmesian epic. But it's not one that tears apart the principles of Doctor Who, especially since the Doctor already had an evil twin and had for some time in the Master. And so Time's Champion isn't falling into either epic shape. It's just being a big epic that tries to explain everything. Even if it goes out of its way not to erase any other stories, it still tacitly demands that it be allowed to serve as the key that interprets them. It's exactly the sort of sci-fi epic that Doctor Who resists.
It's not that it's fanwanky. There are great stories to be told out of the minutiae of Doctor Who history. It's that it's a bad story - one that goes against the aesthetics of Doctor Who and, in doing so, goes against the ethics of Doctor Who as well. The problem isn't that it tries to present a grand unified theory of Doctor Who. It's that the theory Time's Champion advances is more boring and more limited than Doctor Who. The show Time's Champion is a story about just isn't as good a show as the one I love.
As for me, my favorite epic theory about Doctor Who remains that Graeme Harper and Robert Holmes are both, as The Brain of Morbius suggests, pre-Hartnell Doctors, and that the making of The Caves of Androzani is itself a multi-Doctor story that explains how the Doctor got around the twelve regeneration limit, namely by sneaking out of the narrative and cheating the rules. A Whittakerian epic starring Robert Holmes that actually took place over the 20th Anniversary (which fell in the midst of shooting Androzani). What more do you want out of Doctor Who?