Friday, September 21, 2012
We Must Look Like Insects To You (Birthright)
I’ll Explain Later
We’ve skipped Shadowmind, by Christopher Bulis, because this sentence says almost everything there is to say about it.
Nigel Robinson’s Birthright, along with the novel after it (which we’re skipping), Iceberg, form a vaguely-linked two book sequence in which the Doctor has one adventure in Iceberg and Ace and Benny have a completely separate one here. In Iceberg the Doctor fights some very dull Cybermen, while here Ace and Benny are stranded on different planets and at different times having a linked adventure with the Doctor’s fingerprints all over it. The book introduces Muldwych, a supporting character in the Virgin books strongly implied to be the Merlin version of the Doctor. It’s pretty well-liked, with Shannon Sullivan’s rankings putting it in twenty-fifth place with a 72% rating. At the time, Craig Hinton declared it “probably the best New Adventures novel published so far,” and Lars Pearson goes with “a crisp and good little story, if a bit unpolished in parts.”
On the occasions where I go to conventions, I favor panels on which there are writers, with my stated logic being that there’s a minimal level of “being able to say articulate and interesting things” that writers necessarily have, and there’s not always for actors. David Banks’s Iceberg pretty much exemplifies that.
In the news, since last we read a book, Vince Foster committed suicide, giving right-wing conspiracy theorists their favorite part of the Clinton administration. Clinton also announced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” While during this month Buckingham Palace is opened to the public for the first time, and Magic: The Gathering comes out. Thrilling, I know.
On to books then. We’ve been talking for a few entries about the problem that a lot of the New Adventures have, which is that they seem faintly embarrassed to be Doctor Who. There seem to be, once the New Adventures finally got off their mark with Timewyrm: Revelation, three sorts of writers. The first are the embarrassed fans. There’s no serious argument to be had that McIntee, Mortimore, and Lane aren’t huge fans of Doctor Who, but they all seem like writers who will be happier when they move to more “serious” science fiction. The second are the Cartmel-era writers now on the New Adventures. They aren’t embarrassed about Doctor Who, but they have an iconoclastic tendency to want to change what Doctor Who is.
And then there are writers like Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts who actually seem happy as can be to be writing Doctor Who, but who are distinctly a new generation of fans-turned-writers with their own ideas for what Doctor Who can be. With the lens of history on our side we can see that the writers in this camp have a curious tendency to go on to actually write the series post-2005, which is probably non-coincidental. But there aren’t a ton of them around, and the result has been a run of Doctor Who books with an entrenched ambivalence about Doctor Who.
Enter, or at least re-enter, Nigel Robinson, last seen writing Timewyrm: Apocalypse. On the surface, this is not promising, especially given the rough reputation of Timewyrm: Apocalypse. But in this case, at least, the initial impressions are misleading. Since this is the second and final time we’ll be dealing with Robinson, let’s pause and consider him as a writer. Robinson was editor of the Target Books line in the 1980s, and wrote a few of the late novelizations for Hartnell and Troughton stories that weren’t covered by Terrance Dicks. He’s also responsible for some ephemera like the Doctor Who Quiz Books.
From this perspective it’s easy to understand how we got something like Timewyrm: Apocalypse, which was in many ways a Target novelization for a story that never existed. Robinson had a few more mature (in a genuine sense, as opposed to a prurient one) concepts in the book, but for the most part if was a very straightforward Doctor Who story told straightforwardly. It’s unremarkable, but it’s honestly hard to understand why it’s so hated. Simply put, it falls into the same category as the first two New Adventures: perfectly understandable guesses about what a line of original Doctor Who novels will be like by people experienced in writing Doctor Who novels. The series moved on past them, and we’ve mostly been able to forget about them since.
But here we have a return of one of those otherwise forgotten first three novelists. And not the easy one. We’ll get another Terrance Dicks novel to cover in mid-October, but that’s straightforward. Dicks’s first New Adventure was and is highly acclaimed, and there’s a level of goodwill he’s never going to sink below. (Even after the wrongly-maligned Warmonger and the I’ll-tell-you-how-wrongly-maligned-it-is-when-I-read-it The Eight Doctors Dicks maintains a healthy level of goodwill.) Robinson, on the other hand, has little built-in goodwill and his first novel is roundly hated. This should be a recipe for a bit of a wreck.
And yet Birthright is, on the whole, quite a good book. And more to the point, this isn’t a minority opinion - it’s in the top half of the rankings, its quality barely distinguishable from Blood Heat and a few places better than Lucifer Rising. And it manages this despite what is on paper a major hurdle to clear, in that it’s the first Doctor Who story to be overtly packaged as a Doctor Light story. The Doctor appears only briefly at the very end, and instead the action is focused almost entirely on Benny and Ace.
The trick, if you will, is that both of the most obvious assumptions about this book are flawed. Robinson’s background is more subtle than it gets credit for being, and a Doctor Light novel is almost exactly what the Virgin line needed at this point in time. We’ll start with the latter point. The first and major thing that a Doctor Light story does is help Benny as a character. Benny has, at this point, been around in the books for nearly a year. Despite that, there’s an obvious wrinkle to her character, which is that she’s the first major companion not to have an actor or actress behind her.
This is a real problem, because it’s normally actors who provide a measure of unity to the inconsistent writing implicit in having multiple writers tackling a show. If you look, for instance, at Peter Davison’s first year the writing for the Doctor is all over the map, but the character attains a level of consistency and depth by virtue of Davison’s particularly deft work. But Benny doesn’t have that advantage. She’s at the mercy of a disparate pool of writers with editorial oversight that we’ve already seen can be lax in some key ways (for instance, the incoherent Future History cycle and the mishandled Infected TARDIS plot). And so it would be easy for her to regress to the mean and be an extraordinarily generic companion.
Thankfully she’s designed in ways that make this actively hard. First, she was given a skill set that keeps her from being generic. Archeologist is a very clever career for a companion, because it gives the companion a reason to have a large pool of miscellaneous knowledge about the universe. So Benny is a return to the sort of companions who don’t necessarily need the plot explained to them - although she can still have it explained to her if need be. Second, she was designed as an openly sarcastic, highly clever character. Or, to put it another way, she was written so as to encourage writers to have her do memorable things. So even without a lot of detailed characterization about her she’s managed to bob along above the generic companion level by being the sort of companion who, as in Lucifer Rising, sits on the Doctor’s chest and refuses to let him up until he explains what’s going on.
But despite these advantages she’s largely been floating just above generic companion. She’s got just enough to resist the gravity, but not enough to really establish herself. And on a basic level a book like Birthright does a huge service to the character by putting her at the heart of things for most of it. The entire first half of the book is dedicated to Benny, alone in Edwardian London solving mysteries. This is an extraordinary level of focus on a supporting character, and both its length and positioning serve to strengthen Benny. Much as the Doctor Light structure is, in paper, something that provokes a slight wariness from a number of readers, given a Doctor Light structure readers are going to gravitate towards Ace, the character they know best and are most invested in. Pushing Ace back to over a hundred pages into the book and leaving the spotlight on Benny is useful, in other words, because it removes the distractions. There’s nowhere for attention to wander to. The reader’s options are to invest in Benny or wait for the next book, and the Doctor’s fairly absent in that one too.
And perhaps more importantly, Robinson makes Benny enormously effective. Having peeled everything else away he basically turns her loose to be an outright Doctor surrogate. But more to the point, she’s a Doctor surrogate in a more classic way. She’s not the manipulative anti-hero Doctor that the Virgin line has been favoring. She’s a good, old-fashioned Doctor who advances the plot by sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong and alternating between charming and bothering people. And Robinson knows classic, by the numbers Doctor Who. It’s what Timewyrm: Apocalypse was. This feels fresh because it’s Benny doing the Doctoring, but under the hood the first half of the book is just a Target novelization. Putting Benny at the forefront is just enough to keep it from feeling derivative, and it frees the old formula up to show why it became the formula in the first place. By the time Benny’s section of the book is done there’s no longer any risk of her regressing to “generic companion.”
The only thing that suffers from this is Ace, whose short section following Benny’s half of the book is a terrible let-down. Benny gets to solve mysterious crimes in Edwardian London. Ace gets to fight bug-eyed monsters. The effects of this setup echo well beyond this novel. From this point onwards the standard setup is that the Doctor tasks Benny with an interesting investigative plotline and gives Ace a more action-based mission. This almost always leaves Benny looking better.
The other thing Robinson brings to the book is a sense of tradition. But crucially, not the tradition we might expect. I mentioned that Robinson was the editor of the Target line for a while, and that he wrote a few books. But crucially, he was editor of the Target line during a period where all there was left to novelize were obscure First and Second Doctor stories. It was under his watch that the norm shifted to hiring the original writers of First and Second Doctor stories to write their novelizations. The four novels he himself wrote were The Edge of Destruction, The Sensorites, The Time Meddler, and The Underwater Menace, as well as some uncredited reworking of Ian Marter’s version of The Rescue. His traditional Doctor Who, in other words, is Hartnell and Troughton.
From the perspective of 2012 it’s easy to miss the details of the sorts of continuity that get highlighted in these books. For instance, a major plot point of Birthright focuses on the time vector generator, a MacGuffin worked out by David Whitaker for The Wheel in Space. The Wheel in Space is, of course, two-thirds missing. The parts that survive saw a VHS release on Cybermen: The Early Years in 1992, but this is obscure at best, and the bits that explain what the time vector generator is aren’t in those two episodes. The novelization came out in 1988, and had one of the lowest circulations of any Target novelization. The audio release of the remaining parts took until 2004. In other words, an object we recognize fairly well in 2012, when the surviving bits of The Wheel in Space are on DVD, VHS, and, perhaps most importantly, widely pirated reconstructions was, in the summer of 1993, one of the most staggeringly obscure continuity references imaginable - a MacGuffin of a largely missing story that had two episodes, one of which didn’t even mention the time vector generator, shoved on a compilation a year ago.
Which is to say that not only is the tradition Robinson is reaching back to here the alchemic, Whittakerian tradition, but it’s a tradition that wouldn’t even have been entirely visible in 1993. Robinson is one of the only writers who could have brought this back in 1993, especially since most of the other people focusing on the era were prone to going in almost the exact opposite direction. (This book came out the same month as John Peel’s novelization of Evil of the Daleks, and a month after his Power of the Daleks novel. Both were dreary slogs that drained all power and wit from the stories.)
And so what we get in Birthright is a return to the fantastic and almost magical approach to the series. The TARDIS stops being a machine and starts being the work of extravagant, metaphoric madness that it was in The Edge of Destruction. The novel makes the TARDIS strange again in a way it hasn’t been in some time, accomplishing what Time’s Crucible set out to do, but with more success and less self-conscious bombast. But like establishing Benny as a character capable of anchoring a novel on her own, this would be difficult to do in a novel in which the Virgin Doctor were present. The Doctor of the New Adventures is, for all his fearsome might, still a well-known quantity in a way that Hartnell and Troughton’s Doctors never were. And so Robinson sidelines him and instead introduces Muldwych, a character who is strongly implied to be a future version of the Doctor, but who is enough of an unknown quantity to restore the original vision of the series for one story. Ace and Benny here become the first companions since Ian and Barbara to be stranded in space and time with a man neither they nor the audience trust. It’s something the series hadn’t seen since The Edge of Destruction or so - another story that wasn’t really seen or available as of 1993. (It came out on VHS in 2000, and the novelization was 1988.)
And yet the Virgin Doctor’s fingerprints remain all over the novel. Ace and Benny are clearly playing out roles in one of his plans, and it’s one of his most elaborate manipulations to date. The result is something that Nigel Robinson may have been the only writer in 1993 who could possibly have accomplished: a demonstration that the earliest conception of the series was still achievable within the Virgin approach. It is in many ways exactly what the Virgin line needed in the latter part of 1993: a novel that was unashamed about being Doctor Who and that demonstrated a continuity of approach from the show’s earliest days to the present. Birthright, in short, is one of the books that ensures that the New Adventures are “proper” Doctor Who.