Wednesday, October 17, 2012
I'm Sorry, Sir, You Have No Clearance (First Frontier)
I'll Explain Later
We skipped the largely disliked Strange England by Simon Messingham. He gets better in the BBC Books line.
First Frontier, David McIntee’s second novel, mashes up American UFO myths with Doctor Who, and then, about halfway through, pulls off the return of the Master. The book is altogether lighter than White Darkness, although maintains McIntee’s fondness for lengthy action sequences, upon which its reputation largely hinges. Craig Hinton proclaims it to be “another winner from Mr. McIntee,” while Lars Pearson, who had been skeptical about McIntee’s first effort as well, says that the book “needed to shed about 100 pages and not end with a whimper.” On the whole this novel is apparently stunningly average - thirty-third out of sixty-one on Sullivan’s rankings, with a 68.5% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
Since last we checked in, a fire wiped out the Norwich Central Library. Woodstock ’94 happened, because nothing commemorates the spirit of the 1960s like a massive corporate remake. And the Provisional Irish Republican Army announces a complete halt to all military options. While during the month this book comes out, Louise Jensen is raped and murdered by British soldiers in Cyprus, the US carries out a bloodless invasion of Haiti, and, in a desperate attempt to let me have three items in this sentence, Andrew Wiles proves Fermat’s Last Theorem again.
And in books, First Frontier. Since the “I’ll Explain Later” section robs me of any chance to bury the lead, we may as well start with the big deal, which is that this book features the return of the Master. Actually, this is still burying the lead slightly, as the real story is in many ways not that the Master is back but that the New Adventures have decided to regenerate him, with the Ainley version of the Master getting shot down by Ace in one of the novel’s innumerable action sequences. This is an unusual move. For a variety of reasons it is unrealistic to have the novels maintain the status quo of the television series - and indeed they haven’t, both introducing Benny and evolving Ace into New Ace.
Nevertheless, there are degrees of this sort of thing. None of the wilderness years lines ever made a sincere attempt at regenerating the Doctor. The only wilderness year regeneration was on television. And the reason for this is relatively obvious: it’s done so that if the series returns to television it can, in theory, pick up where it left off. Even the aging of Ace in Deceit only serves to advance her age by as many years had passed since Survival, effectively keeping Ace and Sophie Aldred’s ages in line. So if Doctor Who were to have come back with McCoy and Aldred in 1993 it would have already had to age Ace exactly as much as Deceit already had. Doctor Who, having been a television series first, always enjoys a narrative gravity towards television. The canon debates on Doctor Who, tedious as they are, aren’t really about what counts, but about what counts beyond what’s on television. Nobody, for better or for worse, ever proposes a view of Doctor Who canon in which the auxiliary material is all agreed upon but we’re not quite sure about The Stones of Blood. And so very often the job of the books or audios was viewed as “preserving” Doctor Who for when the show eventually made its return to television.
But in 1994 Anthony Ainley was alive and well - indeed, he portrayed the Master again in 1997 for the Destiny of the Doctors computer game. And yet McIntee opted to regenerate the Master. To some extent this still can be read as a net favor to the series, in that it’s no longer stuck with an actor-bound Master who can’t regenerate, but making that argument requires that we both accept that the idea of a regeneration limit is actually binding and, more importantly, requires a whole bunch of assertions about the nature of what happens at the end of The Keeper of Traken that are, while admittedly plausible, in no way the only way to read events. Simply put, the amount of expositional lift needed to justify why the Ainley Master could regenerate is minimal. Indeed, McIntee’s book has little more explanation for it than “aliens! With nanites!” There is little to no favor to the future here, not least because the putative model for McIntee’s Master, Basil Rathbone, had been dead a quarter-century when First Frontier was published, making the regeneration an almost complete dead end for the series.
And certainly its effect was to be the first shot in one of the most snarled messes around for those who enjoy Doctor Who continuity, namely the timeline of the Master from Survival through to Utopia. With the TV Movie (which actually seems to contradict the existence of the Ainley Master for good measure), Mike Tucker’s novel Prime Time, Lawrence Miles’s implied Master in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, and the Big Finish audios Dust Breeding and Master all crowding in, not to mention Scream of the Shalka and, if you’re one of the people who blindly assumes that the Ainley Master couldn’t regenerate, the difficulty in squaring away the status quo of Utopia all crowding in. Which is, in practice, the problem with trying to do bold and definitive continuity changes in a non-television version of Doctor Who is that nobody is going to listen to you. Heck, you’re unlikely enough to get anyone to listen to you if you do it on television unless you’re Robert Holmes, in which case people will take every continuity change you make seriously whether you want them to or not.
This is a standard problem in other ultra-long-form serialized media. In superhero comics, in particular, it’s a common ailment. About half the chapters of my Wonder Woman book have some variation on “and then the writer threw out all of his predecessor’s new ideas and created his own supporting cast.” Doctor Who typically avoids this by having a relatively small amount of continuity - there just aren’t that many things to discard or completely reinvent, and most of those lack a heck of a lot of coherence to begin with. If you quietly change the Cybermen from tricky subversive communists who lurk around space stations into a strutting army of silver badasses nobody’s really going to notice. There’s just not a lot of continuity in televised Doctor Who to dramatically rewrite. Seasons Twenty and Twenty-Two excepted, the bulk of stories aren’t sequels to previous ones.
But because of the differing audience for the novels there are, understandably, a heck of a lot more sequels. First Frontier is the thirtieth New Adventure and more or less the halfway point of the range. And while by definition any attempt to count this is thoroughly subjective, I can get a pretty defensible tally whereby it’s the fifteenth novel whose basic premise positions it in terms of some previous story. (That said, the frequency with which this happens drops off sharply around this point - ignoring internal New Adventures sequels [the back two-third of Cartmel’s War Trilogy, for instance] I get nine sequel books in the last thirty-one. The reason for this is relatively straightforward - those writers interested in doing sequels largely migrated to the Missing Adventures line, where sequel books were exceedingly common, including a five-book run in 1996 in which every single book was a sequel to a previous adventure.) And so the phenomenon of writers throwing each other’s continuity out becomes considerably more common.
Indeed, for all the influence of the Virgin line, and it ought be obvious by this point that there was a lot of it, virtually none of its influence was on the level of continuity. Save for the nod to the Chelonians in The Pandorica Opens I’m not sure anything plot-wise from the New Adventures has been acknowledged by the new series. Certainly there’s no evidence of its largest and boldest claims about continuity: the Looms and the Other and the Gallifreyan Houses and all that jazz. And this is true of most of the Wilderness Years material. Even as it spins increasingly fraught and complex takes on the program’s history and continuity, these inventions are almost all ignored.
I said on Monday that fannish engagement is an inherently paranoid mode. This obsessive and, more to the point, fruitless sequelizing of the fan-run wilderness years demonstrates that. The wilderness years were uniquely concerned with the endless propagation of theories and data, simultaneously working towards a master narrative of Doctor Who and foreclosing the possibility of that with their own tangled mass of contradictions. In this regard its fitting that McIntee makes what is probably the most blatantly and thoroughly overruled change to Doctor Who continuity in a book that is also a celebration of the iconic paranoia images of UFOs and the Cold War. It is probably going a bit beyond what can fairly be described as authorial intent, but it is further fitting that he picks the Master as the subject here, and that he makes a change that, in a fundamental sense, cannot possibly be reflected in many of the later media in that Basil Rathbone cannot possibly be cast in a major role in Doctor Who.
The relevance of the latter is straightforward enough. By making a change to Doctor Who that would necessarily have to be at least partially rejected by future media McIntee is almost inviting paranoid engagement. The idea that a Basil Rathbone Master was ever going to stand long-term was on the face of it ridiculous. (Indeed, it doesn’t even last until the end of the Virgin line.) But the use of the Master is perhaps more complex. I alluded to it partially last entry - there is something intrinsically paranoid about the Master. His prior three entries into the series all came at moments where the series took a paranoid turn. And here he appears again not only surrounded by the paranoid mythology of UFOs, but in a way that drives the paranoid mode of the wilderness years forward considerably.
It is worth, then, sketching out exactly why the Master is such a paranoid figure. A big part of it is the inherent confusion of his name. He may be called the Master, but the one thing he cannot possibly do is actually be the Master of anything. He is, after all, defined as the dark mirror of the Doctor. But this isn’t quite accurate. He’s not just the dark mirror, he’s the inferior mirror. This is the basic problem with any “evil version of the hero” villain. Because the role of the villain is to be reliably defeated they cannot possibly be an equivalent to the hero, whose role is, after all, to reliably not be defeated. (This inferiority is even reflected in his name - the Master has a lesser academic degree than the Doctor) And yet the nature of the “evil version of the hero” concept is that they are, in theory, an arch-villain. This makes the Master a figure of paranoia - he is on the one hand a supposed anchoring part of the narrative, and on the other is always inadequate to that purpose. Like the master narrative sought by the paranoid the Master purports to explain everything, but ultimately fails to explain anything at all.
The Master thus ends up representing many of the show’s worst instincts. His obligatory returns (even before the clues started dropping everybody knew he was back in Series Three), his inept schemes, and the way in which his presence collapses a plot into utter straightforwardness are fundamentally allies with a death-drive obsessed paranoia that is problematic in the context of Doctor Who. And unlike other villains who inevitably return, his concept is grounded in nothing other than Doctor Who itself. The Daleks and the Cybermen are concepts unto themselves that, when introduced, bring their own ideas to the story. The Master is nothing more than the failed master narrative of Doctor Who itself.
And yet he is strangely inextricable from the show. Which is odd. For the most part I would argue that Doctor Who resists paranoid readings. Its anthology-style storytelling intrinsically cuts against the idea of a torrent of information by fracturing the ongoing narrative - up until 2005 Doctor Who simply didn’t have “arc” stories that could provide such a strange and foreign thing as an ongoing narrative. It worked in an altogether more fragmentary style. But the paranoid is always lurking around in Doctor Who, if only as an alternative that it casts itself against. Doctor Who never drew much on UFO mythology - indeed, the ridiculous conceit of UNIT and routine alien invasions goes almost exactly against the secrecy of UFO mythology. When the show has bothered to explicitly address how so many alien invasions go forgotten by the general public it tends to suggest that the general public simply forgets about them in a supreme act of self-deception, not that there’s some shadowy government organization covering them up. It’s not until 2006 that we get one of those. Even the UK cousin of UFO mythology, Quatermass, is more often drawn upon as a contrast than as a model. Doctor Who is a conscious break from this style. (And so it should have been no surprise that it was also a conscious break from the standard paranoid style of cult television.)
And the Master ends up being the aspect of this break that continually haunts Doctor Who. He is the dark mirror of the Doctor in that he comes from the paranoid alternative to Doctor Who from which it is continually breaking from (and thus continually dependent upon). And First Frontier, in both framing the Master in a larger paranoid narrative and demonstrating the extreme paranoia of this era of Doctor Who, captures that perfectly, if perhaps inadvertently.