I’ll Explain Later
We skipped Iceberg, but I talked about it Friday, so Blood Heat. The first book of the “Alternate History Cycle,” a five book series in which the Doctor faces a (for the first four books) unknown enemy who is altering history and causing all sorts of troubles. Or, as the Doctor puts it, “meddling.” So that’s subtle about who it is. In this first book, the Doctor ends up in an alternate universe in which he died during The Silurians, leading the eponymous Silurians to win. The book ends with what is almost certainly the New Adventures’ highest death toll as the Doctor is forced to destroy the entire alternate universe. It’s quite well-regarded, although Craig Hinton is relatively restrained, accusing Mortimore of being “a little more heavy-handed than Johnny Byrne, and considerably more so than Hulke,” though still basically liking the book. Lars Pearson is more unequivocal, calling it “magnificent” and saying that “fans still stand up and cheer about it.” Shannon Sullivan’s rankings put it at 24th, with a rating of 72.2%, nestling it snugly between The Highest Science and Birthright. DWRG entry. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
In news, since last entry Israel and the PLO signed a peace accord in Washington DC, with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands afterwards. Giuseppe Puglisi was killed in Italy due to his strong stance against the Mafia. While during this month the US badly botches Operation Gothic Serpent in Mogadishu, leading to the events depicted in the film Black Hawk Down. China performs a nuclear test, unnerving everybody a bit. Benazir Bhutto becomes the first elected female leader of a Muslim state in Pakistan. John Major attempts to revive the blatantly sagging fortunes of the Conservative Party, launches the Back to Basics campaign, which mostly becomes emblematic of failed attempts to relaunch political parties. And members of the Ulster Defence Association attack a bar in Greysteel, Northern Ireland, killing eight.
While in books, we have Jim Mortimore’s Blood Heat, which provides something of an interesting test case for a broader aesthetic and critical issue that has at times lurked in the background of this blog, and that is, in many ways, in play again now. In any given era of Doctor Who there is a critical gravity towards the idea of figuring out the era’s default mode, if you will. In the Troughton era, for instance, the default was bases under siege. In the Hinchcliffe era it was gothic horror featuring dead things returning and possessions. In the McCoy era it was ancient secrets and the Doctor knowing more than he lets on. And in eras that are less consistent or where there’s an overarching aesthetic problem that the era is working through there’s a real temptation to reach for the lack of a successful default mode to criticize the show.
This isn’t just me either, although I’m certainly guilty of it. Caves of Androzani is a good example of where a lot of people fall into this approach, with one of the standard critical lines being that it’s very good, but that it’s good in ways that are utterly unrepresentative of the Davison era in general. The eras of Doctor Who in which there is a clear and reasonably effective “standard operating procedure,” so to speak, are generally the more successful ones. (Even the Hartnell era, where the standard operating procedure was generally “whatever we did last time, do something aggressively different this time.”) Whereas eras where there’s some tension around the notion of a default approach are, while often still full of fantastic stories, somewhat more uneven as a whole. This should be relatively uncontroversial - or at least it can easily be phrased that way: if you don’t have a clear vision of what the show should be you’re going to have trouble delivering consistent quality.
And over the last few entries we’ve been running into this exact problem with the New Adventures. It’s not that they don’t know what they want to do so much as that they’re visibly lacking confidence in their approach. They don’t have such a thing as a standard issue Virgin book together yet, and they have some real anxiety over how to do it. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Blood Heat largely works, but that the things that make it work are almost entirely things that can’t be repeated in other books. The question is how much this matters.
On the one hand the basic argument is and should be “who cares?” After all, Blood Heat is just one book. The fact that other books can’t copy it isn’t its problem. And it’s a fair point - repeatability is not an inherent virtue in making a piece of fiction work. Either Blood Heat works or it doesn’t. And for the most part it works. Its central conceit - an alternate universe in which the Doctor died during The Silurians (or perhaps more accurately during Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters) and the world fell to the Silurians - is a stunner. It lets Mortimore pull an impressive trick. we recognize many of the supporting characters: the Brigadier, Benton, Jo, and Liz. We’re already invested in them in ways we cannot possibly be in new characters created for the book. But because it’s not “our” Brigadier the book can push things in ways that simply wouldn’t be possible under normal circumstances.
And so Mortimore can get away with scenes such as the one in which the Brigadier, in an attempt to get information out of a comatose Jo, drugs her with a stimulant to try to wake her up, and ends up killing her, just like her doctor said he would if he did that. This is, as you can imagine, an astonishing scene. And it’s one that would be difficult to do with the normal Brigadier and Jo - the former because it would permanently damage a recurring character to push him to the point where he does things like that, the latter because it would damage a recurring character to kill her.
Much of the drama in Blood Heat comes from this trick. It’s able to make the grim brutality of the 90s work because it finds an approach in which the characteristic darkness of the 90s can have real impact within the confines of a serial narrative. It’s a version of narrative collapse - a way of pushing the storytelling structure of Doctor Who to its breaking point without actually having to break Doctor Who. And there’s no need to swerve away at the last moment. Mortimore can wreck all sorts of hell upon his characters without consequence. And this culminates in one of the most staggeringly antiheroic moments of the Doctor as it turns out that he’s had to destroy the entire parallel universe, dooming the people that he just spent an entire book trying to save to die in a premature collapse of the entire universe. This approach can’t work every time, but it only has to work this time, and it mostly does.
Mostly. I keep saying that Mortimore has found an approach that does this, as though Mortimore invented it and isn’t just stealing the premise from Inferno. And my general distaste for Inferno - one of the more controversial posts I’ve ever made - should make it no surprise where I’m going here. Because the parallel universe trick is just as insubstantial here as it is in Inferno. Admittedly, the biggest problem of Inferno doesn’t apply here. There the parallel universe was a fairly obvious feint to stretch the story out, with nothing that the Doctor learned in Eyepatch World actually impacting the resolution for our world. Here the action is confined to the parallel world and so there are no issues to be had in this direction.
But the more substantive problem is just a general flatness of the concept of parallel worlds. They’re something of a vacant idea in the first place. There’s a sort of disingenuous bait and switch involved in them, where they play off of emotional attachments to characters without actually employing the long-term investments that form those attachments. We care about the Brigadier because he’s been a recurring character on Doctor Who for over a quarter-century at this point in the series’ history. But the character in Blood Heat is actively not the long-running character, and the impact he has depends on that.
This isn’t a huge issue - but it does render the impact of the book a bit superficial. And that is, in many ways, the problem with Blood Heat. Having identified an effective way of turning up the volume on the story’s intensity, that’s ultimately all Mortimore does here. There’s not a lot here beyond an observation that people do terrible things, often in the name of protecting the children.
Put another way, this book is both relitigating the moral controversy of The Silurians and refighting the Mary Whitehouse debacle. For all that this is a case of the New Adventures’ paradigm working, the book is still caught up in old anxieties about Doctor Who. For the New Adventures to be caught up in the idea that terrible things are done in the name of protecting the children is sensible enough. For one thing, their own aggressively “mature readers” approach to Doctor Who raises the issue on its own. With Doctor Who Magazine tittering irritatedly whenever someone says “fuck” (resulting, in later books, in some phenomenally awkward fake swearing), the question of what must be done to protect children is sensible. Sure, upping the ante to people attempting genocide to protect their children is, perhaps, a case of Mortimore overplaying his hand a bit, but equally, the “for the children” defense is a big and chronic one that remains the justification for all manner of horrible things.
More puzzling is why we’re redoing The Silurians at all nearly twenty-five years later. The point of that story, at least, was to let Malcolm Hulke vent his distaste for the earthbound UNIT approach. And, pushed by Barry Letts, he does it in spades, aggressively undermining the entire UNIT era by making the Brigadier commit genocide. This was a reasonable, perhaps even a necessary thing to do in 1970. But what do we gain by doing it again in 1993?
Some of this can be explained by the anti-Pertwee strain of thought that was going on in fandom at the time - this is around the same time as Cornell’s damning review of Terror of the Autons, for instance. And we can simply put Mortimore’s book in this context, reading it as a broadside against the Pertwee era - an opportunity to do The Silurians with a furious intensity denied to the original. And fine, it’s effective enough at that. And I have enough problems with the Pertwee era and UNIT to be sympathetic to it. Even if there is, ultimately, a version of the Pertwee era I’m enormously fond of, there’s also the one that The Silurians is a critique of, and I’m as disinclined towards it as Hulke was, and as Mortimore apparently is.
So, fine, we’ve found a defense against all the critiques we can muster here. But in the end… this just doesn’t seem to amount to very much. And while I’m rarely one to claim that a Doctor Who story has to be anything more than exciting and entertaining it’s clear that this book thinks it has higher ambitions than being a pacey little thriller. The book is defensible, sure, but that’s not praiseworthy.
And I think, here, that there’s a larger critique to be offered against the idea of “sequel” stories like this. The past of Doctor Who is a vast collection of ideas and signifiers ripe for appropriation, adaptation, and screwing with. We’ve seen New Adventures do brilliant things with the past, and we’ve seen the new series do it too. But there’s a difference between Timewyrm: Revelation and Blood Heat, and a big part of that difference is that all Blood Heat has to say is a response to a single story from 1970.
It does that response very well. It’s thrilling, it wrings some real emotion out of it, and it’s a germane and on target reply to Hulke’s story - one that takes what Hulke did, particularly in the novelization, and pushes it further. But it’s still a book with no real ambitions beyond being a sequel to a twenty-three-year-old piece of television. And that, perhaps, more than the fact that what this book does can’t really be repeated, is the big flaw. The problem with these sequel stories is that they’re all too repeatable - that it’s far too easy for Doctor Who to disappear into a thicket of the past. Blood Heat is a fun novel, but it highlights a real risk for the New Adventures whereby the ideas of the nineties become nothing more than a lens to angrily reread the past through, as opposed to a vision of the future.