Friday, September 14, 2012
Those Monsters Were Faked (Lucifer Rising)
I’ll Explain Later
Lucifer Rising provides the debut of both Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore, two of the more important of the novel writers. (We’ll see both again, and have, in fact, seen both before, though Andy Lane only in the Hartnell book.) It’s also the longest New Adventure to date, and one of the longest of the series. (I’m not certain, but I think only Warlock and Falls the Shadow are longer) While Deceit reintroduced Ace to the series, Lucifer Rising is the book that defines the character, with its plot hinging on Ace using the Doctor in order to investigate something on behalf of the International Mining Corporation and serving, for a stretch of the book, as one of the villains. It also serves as the end of Virgin’s Future History cycle, but as that’s the single most vaguely defined “arc” in Doctor Who it’s difficult to say much about that. It’s reasonably well-regarded, tucking in at twenty-seventh out of sixty-one on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, with a 71% rating. At the time of release Gary Russell, in his last column of Doctor Who reviews, calls it “an evocative science fiction novel” and refers warmly to its “overall splendor,” while more recently Lars Pearson says that it’s rightly praised as “a blood-pumping, brink-of-disaster feast,” though suggests the book has padding akin to that of an old-fashioned six-parter. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
While in the news, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa is assassinated by a suicide bomber. Eritrea becomes a country. Pierre Bérégovoy, the former prime minister of France, commits suicide. Ireland wins the Eurovision song contest. And the Conservatives continue to be obviously doomed in the next election, as they will until the next election.
And in literature, it’s Lucifer Rising. One of the first things we should note about this book is its swagger. It unfolds on an impressive scale, not in the sense of being epic, but in the sense of having a wealth of ideas and set pieces that are both interesting and take advantage of the novel’s lack of budgetary restraints. Lars Pearson, as I mentioned, compared it to a six-parter, but I’d go a step further: this is very much in the spirit of the Pertwee-era, where six-part stories were, after all, the most common structure. It’s not just the inclusion of IMC from Colony in Space that flags this as a Pertwee-esque adventure either. The entire space opera texture of it screams Pertwee era, and the density of ideas implicit in things like the multi-dimensional Legion or the complex workings of the planet Lucifer itself almost scream Baker and Martin (particularly the Baker and Martin of, say, The Mutants).
That this is striking is in and of itself a bit odd. Ostensibly the New Adventures have been in the midst of what they called their Future History cycle since Love and War. The idea of this cycle was to explore the Earth’s future history, although no clear attempt at a timeline manifests itself and in practice what we get is a bunch of books set in the future with nothing else to link them. And yet these books mostly avoided any sort of classic space opera, with only Love and War, Deceit, and Lucifer Rising poking towards it. Love and War, though, is almost as far from space opera as one can get in inclination (and no surprise given Cornell’s obvious, albeit fascinated dislike of the Pertwee era), and Deceit is fairly far from the approach as well. But Lucifer Rising, under the hood, is recognizably space opera.
To some extent this simply continues our larger theme this week of how the antiheroic thrust of the 1990s intersected Doctor Who. Space opera belongs to that pre-cyberpunk image of the future that is based primarily on space travel. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the New Adventures, and indeed the classic series, has been avoiding for years now. The last scientific outpost in space that is endangered by a combination of monsters and human politics was the default setup for Pertwee space stories (and, for that matter, for Pertwee UNIT stories, only with on Earth). Bu the last time we had one was, what, Terror of the Vervoids? Which was itself a Pertwee throwback. Before that you’ve got Caves of Androzani, which this story also explicitly tips its hat to by reusing the Frau/Trau terms of respect Holmes used there. This hasn’t been what Doctor Who did for years.
And the return to it is not a straightforward one based on imitating the past. The Pertwee era featured what is in many ways the most straightforwardly heroic take on the Doctor ever, surpassing even Tom Baker’s continual efforts to seek the audience’s love. Yes, there’s still an oddness, with Pertwee playing the Doctor as a sort of glam performance of the heroic role instead of just as a straightforward action hero, but it’s the polar opposite of the New Adventures’ antiheroic take. And that was a key part of the sort of Doctor Who that Lucifer Rising is an heir to, and the part that Lucifer Rising itself seeks consciously to omit.
In this case we have two distinctly antiheroic characters: the Doctor and Ace. And while for the most part in the New Adventures it’s the Doctor who gets the praise and post-Love and War Ace that is criticized, in this book at least it’s Ace that gets the better of it. Her plot involves her manipulating the Doctor into investigating events on Lucifer, then betraying him and everyone else to Legion on behalf of IMC, before, in the last act, betraying Legion and IMC instead. It’s important to reconstruct how shocking this is in its original context. From Deceit to her eventual departure in Set Piece New Ace is a companion for twenty-two novels and nearly two straight years. In number of stories this beats out even Jamie, who only appears in twenty stories. It’s a very long run for a companion, and as a result her nature is fairly well understood, including her lengthy period of having a lot of angst over the Doctor (which lasts for ten straight books, up until Paul Cornell’s No Future).
But the fact that we’re familiar with the arc of the character obscures just how shocking her actions in this specific story are. In May of 1993 nobody knew just who New Ace was, whereas Classic Ace was a very known quantity. And the idea of Ace manipulating the Doctor or consciously betraying him to the story’s villains is almost unthinkable in that context. But in the aftermath of this book that betrayal makes up the lion’s share of what we know about New Ace, retconning as it does her rejoining the Doctor in the previous book. Even though she comes around to the good guys at the end there’s a real extent to which she is a deeply unpredictable character after this.
But what Mortimore and Lane do that’s clever is to use the same trick Paul Cornell uses on the Doctor in Love and War on this new version of Ace. Yes, this version of Ace is more violent, angrier, and untrustworthy. But she’s still firmly grounded in the same confused and childish nature that the character has always been. At least in Lucifer Rising it’s a mistake to treat Ace as a grizzled soldier antihero. She’s not at all. Instead she’s her original concept - a children’s television version of an urban teenager - pushed a step further into a children’s television version of a space marine antihero, saying things like “I’d do anything not to be confused, Bernice. Anything… so don’t confuse me any more than I am already.” Similarly, she later pouts that she prefers Legion’s orders to the Doctor’s because “at least my boss says he’s my boss, and doesn’t pretend to be my friend” immediately before Benny and Christine, a psychologist, observe that she clearly doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing. But the real telling moment comes in the climax, as Ace confronts a vision of Jan from Love and War and tells him that “I never loved you. I only went with you because he disapproved.”
All of this applies an interesting twist to the antihero concept, making it so that instead of being a case of Doctor Who getting darker and more serious the antihero gets repurposed through its “skewing our perspective on bits of culture with the lens of an unusually flexible children’s adventure series” approach. Even when Doctor Who is no longer “for children” in any meaningful sense - and the New Adventures clearly aren’t - this approach works and yields interesting dividends. Ace comes out of this as just about the least predictable Doctor Who companion ever - like Turlough only functional and on steroids, and yet extending sensibly from who she was all the way back to Dragonfire.
The Doctor, however, fares less well. His antiheroic turn in this book centers largely on a scene at the end in which, having concluded (with little impetus other than Ace saying mean things to him) that he’s “stained his soul” by manipulating others to do his dirty work for him, shoots and kills Legion himself. This is, it seems, meant to be a big, revealing character moment in which we’re meant to be surprised by just how far the Doctor is willing to go, complete with references to his failures to stop the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks and Resurrection of the Daleks, but…
For one thing, the Doctor killing the monster just isn’t a big deal. Even if he uses a gun. Yes, there are scattered high profile instances of the Doctor actively refusing violence, specifically with a gun, but there’s also Patrick Troughton giddily gunning down Ice Warriors. And this is McCoy’s Doctor. He’s talking about his cowardice in not stopping the Daleks or shooting Davros? The one who blew up the Daleks’ planet? And we’re supposed to have him shooting Legion send shivers down our spine?
But this points to a larger issue with this sort of attempt to add a moment of shock about how far a character will go, which is that there are diminishing returns. The Ace bits work in part because Ace is pushed further than she’s gone before. The Doctor bits don’t because it’s tough to be shocked by him anymore. (Though the novels certainly will pull off a few more shocking Doctor moments, including a jaw-dropping one by Jim Mortimore in a few entries’ time) But given that the trick used to make Ace’s antiheroic darkness work is largely recycled from Love and War, one imagines that the trick will wear thin with her as well.
And what’s troubling about Lucifer Rising is that for the most part the book works fine without these efforts to shock. For most of the book it’s a solid sci-fi thriller with good mysteries, an excellent and memorable supporting cast, and one where the darker version of the Doctor that’s been established over past volumes can simply be himself, allowing the book to be a sharp, modern take on the Pertwee era in the same way that The Highest Science is a sharp, modern take on the Williams era. But instead the book falls victim to a frustrating insistence on second guessing its own concept.
And this is a real problem. It’s not so much the turn to a darker and more antiheroic Doctor that doesn’t work, but rather the obsession with constantly challenging it. There’s a continual sense that the New Adventures aren’t actually quite at peace with their own take on the Doctor and feel as though they need to make the Doctor’s conflict over his own morality into a major facet of the story. And it’s beginning to display diminishing returns. If we’re being honest, the book would have been just as good - perhaps even better - without the tedious bit about the Doctor staining his soul. But instead the book tries to hedge it, not quite willing to commit to the darker image of the Doctor, and undercutting itself in the process. And this is a problem, and one that plagues the Virgin books throughout their run. It’s not that the antiheroic Doctor doesn’t work: it’s that he has to be let off the chain to be antiheroic instead of endlessly explored as an abstract concept. Lucifer Rising is proof that the concept can work. Which makes it all the more maddening that it’s not quite allowed to.
Or perhaps more worryingly, it’s too scared to. This is a book that could have functioned well by just being a Doctor Who story. Instead it’s so paralyzed by its own anxiety over being one that it second-guesses itself into something less than what it is. This is a larger problem with the New Adventures, and one we’ll look at in the week ahead: they frequently seem just a bit ashamed about the fact that they’re Doctor Who.