Monday, September 10, 2012

Are You Making All The Right Moves (Deceit)

I'll Explain Later

We’ve skipped The Pit, labeled as the absolute worst New Adventure ever published. Despite its general awfulness, it’s relatively on target in concepts. It’s tough to call it influential, given how wretched it was, but it does start to move the New Adventures down the road of treating Ancient Gallifrey in part as a source of almost Lovecraftian horror.

Deceit, by Peter Darvill-Evans, is one of the big turning points in the New Adventures line, reintroducing Ace some six months after her departure. This version of Ace, popularly dubbed “New Ace,” has spent three years fighting the Dalek Wars and is a much angrier and harder-edged character than the one that left in Love and War. The novel also includes Abslom Daak, the comics character created by Steve Moore in Doctor Who Magazine. Gary Russell, in his final reviews column for Doctor Who Magazine, declared said that “it is coherent, entertaining, pleasantly easy to follow, and, above all it has a darned good story to tell,” but then, he also praised it for “stabilizing the Whoniverse,” so let’s just stop there. I, Who is more in line with most reactions, saying it’s “hardly worth reading.” Shannon Sullivan’s rankings have it as the fifth worst New Adventure, giving it a 53.7% rating. DWRG summary. Whonivese Discontinuity Guide entry.

——
It’s April of 1993. The Bluebells are at number one with “Young at Heart,” a rerelease of a song they previously recorded in 1984, itself a cover of a Bananarama song. It remains at number one all week. Shaggy, Madonna, David Bowie, and New Order also chart. Albums doing well around now include David Bowie’s Black Tie, White Noise (which means I’ve finally passed Pushing Ahead of the Dame in history!), R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, which meanders off to number one again, and Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion.

While in the news, March actually proved fairly uneventful, with the highlights being a brutal blizzard in the eastern United States, the release of Intel’s Pentium processors (the “can’t do math” variety, specifically), and South Africa’s official abandonment of its nuclear program. April is somewhat more exciting: the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas ends disastrously, with a fire that kills virtually all of the people inside. While in London a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence is murdered by five teenagers in a racist attack that takes until 2012 to result in a conviction.

While in television tie-in novels we have Deceit. As I explained later, this is not one of the most beloved of New Adventures. Indeed, it’s largely hated, and not without some reason. I said on Friday that as of The Highest Science the line had never put out something that could be described as a “generic” New Adventure. That record arguably broke last novel with The Pit, but that novel at least had some cool new ideas. This, on the other hand, has very little that doesn’t just feel like a standard recitation of Virgin tropes.

While in many ways aesthetically unsatisfying, this sort of “default” story is in many ways useful from a critical or historical standpoint, as it’s the stories like this that unambitiously repeat past glories that create tropes. Yes, many of the ideas here: the Doctor as an arch-manipulator, the obsession with virtual reality and cyberspace, big scary psychic consciousnesses as the major antagonist - are ones familiar from past New Adventures. But for the most part they were, in past New Adventures, trotted out as original and fresh ideas in their own right. Here, however, they appear without any real reveling in the ideas, as though they’re simply things one expects to see in Doctor Who these days.

This has an interesting implication, in that it establishes these things as part of a zeitgeist of Doctor Who instead of as ideas suited to specific purposes. Computers, manipulation, and vast cosmic forces are, it seems, simply part of what Doctor Who seems like it should be doing in 1993. And so it’s worth asking why that might be.

Actually, the fundamentals of this are things we’ve seen over the past few weeks. The influence of computers is straightforward: these were the early days of the Internet as something that was a part of semi-popular consciousness. The idea that computers were a big deal that were going to change everything about the world was becoming completely mainstream, and so of course they were popping up all over in Doctor Who. Just like rocket ships and space colonies were all the rage in the late 1960s, and energy projects were the obsession of the 1970s. (The Internet had a similarly large impact on Doctor Who fandom, but that’s another post.)

The focus on manipulation and vast “intelligences” as enemies is somewhat subtler. There’s an observation that I’m failing to quite place where I heard that interest in UFOs and alien abductions spikes when, basically, there’s nothing else to be afraid of in the world. So there was a big rash of it in the 1950s when the second World War wrapped up and before the Cold War hit full scary imagination. And then there was another rash of it in the 1990s after the Cold War ended and before 9/11 took us into the paranoia of terrorism. Basically, aliens are what we worry about when we don’t have anything else to worry about. And with aliens inevitably comes a spike in conspiracy theories.

We’ll deal with the specific iconography of aliens and conspiracy theories in a Pop Between Realities post that you get no points whatsoever for correctly guessing. It’s not the only version of this anyway - the uptick in interest in Lovecraft that came in the 1990s (and was also reflected in the New Adventures) is a similar switch towards there being uncanny things that threatened us instead of concrete fears. For our purposes right now, what’s more interesting is the basic fact that the default cultural concern is a diffuse and non-specific. So a manipulative Doctor (a concept that ties in with conspiracy theories well) and a bunch of malevolent psychic constructs (a concept adjacent to diffuse and hazily defined aliens) are very much reflective of the times.

This doesn’t, of course, rule out their relevance when handled skillfully, as they have been by past writers. But Darvill-Evans ends up simply throwing them in with the same untroubled “this is what Doctor Who does” attitude that brought monsters in Season Five or Hammer Horror pastiches featuring ancient foes returning from the dead in Season Thirteen. They’re not deployed with any sort of content, but as part of a simple conviction that this is what Doctor Who is these days. And it’s not really until that happens that you can take a step back and see the standard operating procedure.

A couple of things jump out about this status quo. First, it is definitely not the same approach as the Cartmel era. And this is important to note. The Cartmel era had a Doctor who knew a lot about situations going in and cheated gods on a regular basis, but the Doctor as the great conspirator for whom manipulation of everybody, not just bad guys, was standard operating procedure is largely an invention of the New Adventures. Of the actual televised McCoy stories only The Curse of Fenric really began to approach this sort of broad manipulation. Yes, he’s been manipulative since Remembrance of the Daleks, but there he just manipulated Daleks. Manipulating innocent people isn’t a big part of the McCoy stories. The televised version of the Seventh Doctor was a force of nature, not a scheming chessmaster.

The villains are markedly different as well. Yes, McCoy’s Doctor fought godlike beings fairly regularly, but they were, again excepting Fenric, metaphors for authority of some sort. They were godlike because that’s a good metaphor for powerful authority structures. But that’s very different from Pool, the villain of Deceit, who is more a sort of unexploded bomb - a powerful intelligence that existed because of previously unknown schemes surrounding a war. He’s closer to what Warren Ellis has called the unexploded bombs of the twentieth century - a version of the post-Cold War anxiety to the effect of “what are all of these dangerous Cold Warriors going to do now that they don’t have a war to fight?” The McCoy era’s villains weren’t unfathomable and horrific others, they were distorted authority figures.

And that, in many ways, is at the heart of the difference between the Virgin approach and the Cartmel approach. At the end of the day Cartmel was animated by the anti-Thatcher counterculture that had been so neglected by Doctor Who over much of the 1980s. McCoy’s Doctor was built to be the sort of figure who could stand against the vast, systemic, and institutionalized horror of Thatcher’s Britain. He was an attempt to evolve the Doctor beyond the individual plucky anarchist who could bring down the system and into a force of massive, historical change. But by 1993 Thatcher had herself been brought down in a stunning anticlimax, the Iron Lady all but rusting out. Her successor was a dead man walking, marking time until a now-inevitable defeat in 1997. The Cold War was over, and we seemed to be settling into a period of relative calm. There was no vast and systemic terror to face, and McCoy’s Doctor had been built to face systemic and institutionalized evil.

And so the Doctor shifted into a morally ambiguous antihero type. We’ll talk about the prevalence of those in the 1990s on Wednesday, but for now let’s simply note that this is a significant change in the scope of Doctor Who, and one that only really becomes clear once these changes to approach become “default” instead of “new ideas about Doctor Who.” But this observation about the Doctor becoming less of a clear-cut hero is also important because Deceit is the book that brings us New Ace.

The particulars of New Ace as a character are better left for Friday and Lucifer Rising, a book in which Ace gets several surprising moments that do a lot to define the new version of her character. For now let’s talk about the basic idea. First of all, as is going to become relatively clear on Wednesday, the antihero approach implicit in making Ace a violent and battle-scarred veteran of the Dalek wars is fairly standard for the era. And it’s clearly what’s going on, hence the use of Abslom Daak, who is an over the top parody of that sort of character who thus serves to clarify Ace as a more reasonable version of the same thing. One can quibble with the aesthetic choice - certainly there’s a very sensible argument to be made against the basic nature of antiheroes.

But equally, they were, as we’ll see, part of the game for the 90s. They weren’t invented in the 90s, and they don’t end there, but they’re part of the game. Of course Doctor Who was going to do them, because the only time Doctor Who fell out of step with the zeitgeist of its era was in the depths of the Saward era, and we saw how that went. So taking Ace and moving her in an antihero direction is, if not my top choice for what to do with the character, at least a move that it’s easy to understand the thought behind, and in the broad sense a reasonable decision for 1993.

And while some of the objections to New Ace are a blanket aesthetic dislike of antiheroes, which, fair enough, others, I suspect, come down more to the ineptness of her introduction. Because Deceit is not, at the end of the day, a very good book, and many of its problems center on its reintroduction of Ace. The biggest problem is that there’s no inherent reason why Ace’s reintroduction has to go in the same book as the story about Pool. Ace’s reintroduction wraps up the “infected TARDIS” plotline that’s been hanging in the background since Witch Mark, but it turns out the entire point of that plotline was to create an excuse to bring Ace back. Basically, the Doctor manipulated Ace away so that he could clear the infection out of the TARDIS. People talk about how this retcons the ending of Love and War, but that seems unfair - the plan was always to bring Ace back, and so it seems more likely that Deceit’s version of events was always intended as the “truth” of Love and War.

The idea that the Doctor deliberately drove her out in Love and War is fine. It’s how dumb the plot that hinges on that is, especially compared to Love and War, that kills it. The infected TARDIS plot has no impact on anything, and is just a long-running plot thread that turned out to lead to Ace coming back. Yes, the same MacGuffin is used to defeat Pool and to explain Ace’s return, but this is hardly a substantive link. Ultimately, the problem is that the Ace return plot is arbitrary and pointless. And that gets the character off to a bad start. It was always going to be controversial to revamp an established and praised character into a less likable version, and botching the launch is a significant flaw that the character never quite recovered from.

I’d be remiss in moving on from Deceit if I didn’t talk at least briefly with the essay at the end of the book. The main thrust of it is an attempt to create a definitive explanation of how history works in Doctor Who. Its claim hinges on the idea that the “present” of Doctor Who is Gallifrey’s present, and that Gallifrey is actually in the ancient past of the universe, so present-day Earth is actually a fairly fungible future in Doctor Who. It’s a clever explanation, and comes closer to a general theory of Doctor Who than most others. It’s also, like most explanations of Doctor Who, limited in utility to the actual era that attempted to employ it. Since it doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with Deceit, however, we should mostly file it away and pull it out again for a novel where it has actual implications to explore and is more than a cool fan theory that got published at the end of a book because the fan was the author and editor.

19 comments:

  1. I don't dislike Deceit for any reasons of it being generic. I dislike Deceit because after almost exactly the midway point it becomes one mindless action scene- something the books could never quite figure out was really boring in prose form. And that scene goes on and on and on and more things are chainsawed to death, and Absolom continues to be a boring macho action figure that no one cares about, and then he chainsaws another thing and oh god kill me now.

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  2. We’ll deal with the specific iconography of aliens and conspiracy theories in a Pop Between Realities post that you get no points whatsoever for correctly guessing.

    Now you're just whistling past the graveyard. B-)

    of the post-Cold War anxiety to the effect of “what are all of these dangerous Cold Warriors going to do now that they don’t have a war to fight?”

    It sometimes seems to me that what they did, at least in the US, was continue the fight on the home front, against a Democrat [sic] Party they saw as the last holdout of the International Communist Conspiracy. And they're still doing it, as witness their portrayal of a cool, considerate man slightly to the right of Nixon as some sort of blood-crazed Mau-Mau Zedong.

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  3. Hm. Interesting point about UFOs and conspiracies as being what we're worried about when we don't have anything else. (Of course, if one wants to play with those same theories, one could say that wars and such are what aliens and conspiracies create to divert attention from themselves.)

    Also, I was wondering about Grimdark Ace. Makes sense that she'd be part of the zeitgeist that brought us Image Comics, all smartbombs and not quite getting the original. I'm also going to guess that the character's portrayal in Lungbarrow, which seems weird out of context, is an explicit reaction against this.

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    1. A quick, late thought: What about the UFO "flap" craze that was arguably a huge part of pop culture in the 1970s (the era of John Keel, blockbuster science fiction movies and spacey glam rock)? Do you see that as, say, an extension/repositioning of the space craze of the late-1960s instead?

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  4. The 'infected TARDIS' plotline, to me at least, doesn't seem a plotline as a recurring idea that nothing was openly done with. The 'infected TARDIS' is the reason why important plot events happened, but it flits around the far edges of the storyline from Witch Mark to here. It isn't dealt with as much as its effects are dealt with, and then it disappears. But something like an infection in the TARDIS should be something more noteworthy than what we got in this series of books. I remember what you wrote in your essay on The Enemy of the World, that what made Salamander a truly radical villain was that he penetrated the TARDIS; being able to affect the TARDIS is the sign of intense danger. But the 'infected TARDIS' is just a vague lurking.

    It actually reminded me of one fan theory I came across about the Colin Baker era, oddly enough. This theory (which, like all theories, makes just enough sense to be true, without having to be true) is that, like the Mr Darcy arc for Colin's Doctor, there was a long game in play for the planned seasons 22-24/5. Attack of the Cybermen, Mark of the Rani, The Two Doctors, and Timelash all involved shenanigans with time experiments, and in many cases the Time Lords were indirectly or directly involved. The theory goes that the original plan was to build slowly to an epic conspiracy at the heart of Time Lord society that the Doctor would uncover. Of course, this is probably blatantly untrue, as the quality of the late Saward era indicates pretty strongly that the production was falling apart. But it would have been difficult for even a competent production at the time to seed that kind of subtle thread through a series over several years.

    One series that did so in the 1990s was (he wrote not expecting to receive any points at all) was The X-Files. But they produced enough episodes in a year that they could put a minor element in one episode, have a major confrontation about it around October, not mention the conspiracy again until after Xmas, have another conspiracy episode to close out the year, and spend the rest of the season on adventures of the week and comedy interludes. Doctor Who having only six or seven stories a year in the mid-80s, couldn't treat its recurring elements that sparsely. The NAs could have done it better, having 12 books each year by this time, and books being a media better suited to close reading and scrutiny than television before the ubiquity of dvd box sets. In the case of the 'infected TARDIS,' unfortunately, they didn't.

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    1. This is a problem with shared universes, where one writer will drop an interesting concept into the world, but nobody who follows after them is interested in playing with it. You see this in comics a fair bit.

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    2. In a way, this makes the current production model for Doctor Who, where all the general directions and script ideas are at the direction of a single Svengali before whom all must bow down, better for this kind of approach. Davies or Moffatt (esp. Moffatt) could come up with a detailed story arc for the entire season, direct the individual writers on what to include, and then re-edit their scripts before production to reflect better his own priorities anyway.

      Of course, as soon as someone with less talent than Davies and Moffatt takes over the reins as showrunner, Doctor Who is going to explode. But it's the duty of the current producers to delay that inevitable collapse as long as possible.

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  5. in the 1950s when the second World War wrapped up and before the Cold War hit full scary imagination

    Actually, it coincided very much with the Cold War hitting full scary imagination.

    a similar switch towards there being uncanny things that threatened us instead of concrete fears

    I can't resist pointing out that the most infamous American hysteria over the uncanny -- the Salem witch trials -- were very closely associated with the fear of Indian attacks.

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    1. Yeah, I'd agree with Jesse. From my own research the Cold War fears are highest at the very beginning of the Cold War, from about 48-54. After 54, with Stalin dead and McCarthy disgraced, the interest in communist subversion in the country goes away, at least until the Cuban Missile Crisis. Plus, I mean, this right at the point when the Soviets get the atomic bomb. That's the scary part of the Cold War.

      Of course, to be fair, regular American men and women were never really scared of the Soviet threat at any point, except around the Cuban Missile Crisis. Polls taken at the time show most Americans were more worried about getting a job and raising children than any foreign threats.

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    2. That's interesting. By rights, the scary part of the Cold War should have begun in late 1955, when the Soviet Union develops its hydrogen bomb. That's when the outlook for WWIII goes from "WWII mass bombing on fast forward" to "total annihilation, the survivors will envy the dead". And less than two years later Sputnik demonstrates Soviet ballistic missile capability. I wonder why, in the popular imagination, fear subsided at the time when the potential danger was vastly increasing.

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    3. The interest in communist subversion doesn't disappear after 1954, but the McCarthy moment does end. J. Hoberman's recent book An Army of Phantoms discusses the subject intelligently, and yes, he brings the UFO scare into the picture.

      Of course, the fear of the bomb and the fear of subversion are different things -- strongly linked, but still distinct.

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  6. "the anti-Thatcher counterculture that had been so neglected by Doctor Who over much of the 1980s."

    I still don't entirely buy this.

    I think you could make a case that Seasons 18-20 were apolitical, and even then I'm not convinced Terminus doesn't have the horrors of how badly the underclass are suffering under Thatcher's Britain, on its mind. Or that The Visitation doesn't have an echo of the aftermath of the current riots.

    The problem as I see it is that Seasons 21-23 were political and against the state, but in the worst way. In which by demonising those in power, everything else that the people did was justified as comparatively fair game.

    The era seemed to tap into the more harmful public attitudes that came about in the wake of the 1981 riots, in which the public seemed to be almost on the rioters' side against the police who were pacifying them, and so rampant violence and criminality was being almost condoned and celebrated in defiance of a corrupt state and corrupt police force. Where in the absence of justice, people started to demonise the police and think of themselves as laws unto themselves and think it was their right to treat each other and their communities as horribly as they liked- infact it almost seemed like the tyranny of violence became the glue holding broken families and communities together.

    This attitude was in Season 21 and 22 as well, or at least was tapped into, under JNT and Saward's cynical, hopeless wino's vision of the show. In which the police were even more demonised (Resurrection of the Daleks), the Doctor was reinterpreted as a domestic tyrant (Twin Dilemma) and also the Doctor would praise criminals (Attack of the Cybermen) and violent mobs (Warriors of the Deep) almost as if the fact they were violent outlaws made them worth championing and protecting from the state (at least Vengeance on Varos had more worthy things to say about the problems with our justice system and why hysterical lynch mobs are a bad thing). And basically the Doctor, who was always a law unto himself, was now becoming that unhealthy 80's idea of what being a law unto yourself means, in which he was either the enabler or instigator of violence.

    One could argue whether this was the show being deliberately political, or just following the zeitgeist of shows like Comic Strip Presents (particularly the episodes Slags and Gino), or the movie The Long Good Friday which was about that constant state of vengeful social rage of the disenfranchised being impossible to appease and finally bringing the rich and corrupt down into ruins. But to me the show was always left wing in the 80's (The Two Doctors excepted of course). The problem was it was left wing in the worst, most corrosive and destructive way.

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  7. Much like The Pit, I find Deceit interesting despite the book itself.

    First of all it's written by the editor Darvill-Evans. Back in other eras it's become almost irresistable to discuss the producer and the script editors and their influences on the text and shape of Who. From the start of the NAs D-E had to act as both, appealing to the audience, giving the works identity and encouraging new talent. And to his credit he did a damn good job. But his best quality was his openess to new ideas.

    In the 2001 DWM special they show his original plans for the NA books and how the Doctor would collect companions over the series, for some galactic finale later on in the series. It feels like the NAs would have been less like Gaiman and more like 80s DC (?)

    Then Cornell came along and D-E recognised the talent and by giving him such an important book allowed him to shape the NAs and give them a different identity. The problem is that D-E isn't able to change enough to catch Cornell's pass. I'm certain would've seemed more spectacular if there had been no Cornell or Platt. For me this book shows a good editor whose original plans have been completely surpassed.

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    1. It's worth mentioning that D-E added references to the infected Tardis to Love and War, and asked that The Pit show the Doctor as unwell. This was all to build to his planned "finale" of Deceit. Just as he later added references to the Chronovore to some of the earlier Alt-Universe books.

      Another influence I detected in Deceit was from either Dungeons and Dragons or the increasingly popular Warhammer. D-E wrote the roleplaying game "Timelord"

      Much is made of the Medieval style castle setting and the space marines (although precious little is really done with either) and one of the book's biggest flaws is that after the first 1/3 it gives the characters so little to do. Once the Doctor and his party land on the planet, they run and escape, and fight and escape, with the same enemies over and over until they reach Pool.(150 pages thereof)

      To me, this 'spinning out" quality are very remiscent of a D&D campaign

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    2. Darvers not only wrote Timelord, he had earlier worked for Games Workshop (he was my first boss), and he also wrote Fighting Fantasy books. So the RPG connection is indeed pretty strong, making your D&D theory quite compelling.

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  8. I love the distinction you draw here between Cartmel-era Doctor Who and New Adventures-era Doctor Who in regards to how Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was envisioned. I think there's a troubling tendency in some sectors of fandom to think these two interpretations are the same and the the New Adventures were the logical conclusion of what happened in the televised McCoy era when in reality they are two connected, though different, readings. This is the best summation of that shift I've read.

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  9. Sorry to sound an arse, but did you mean to say "As I explained EARLIER, this is not one of the most beloved of New Adventures"?

    I've been proof-reading at work recently; quite disturbing its seeped into my real life!

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    1. I didn't, actually - I was making a small joke based on the name of the lead-in section in which I established its lack of belovedness. What I did wrong was forget to include the "I'll Explain Later" header on that section for this entry.

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