Friday, October 26, 2012
Your Researches Have So Little Regard for Human Life (Sanctuary)
I’ll Explain Later
We’ve skipped Infinite Requiem by Daniel Blythe. If one were to make a list of the most skippable novels in the New Adventures line, it would easily make the top ten.
Sanctuary, David McIntee’s third and final New Adventure (he wrote two Missing Adventures as well), is the New Adventures’ sole pure historical, and the first such story since Black Orchid. It deals with Christian heretics in medieval France, and culminates in the death of Benny’s romantic interest Guy de Carnac and much emotional trauma. I have an unsettling feeling that somewhere in this entry I instinctively typed Guy Debord, but frankly if I did I’m too amused by it to fix it. Like most of McIntee’s work, it exemplifies averageness: thirty-second on the Sullivan rankings, with a score of 69%. Craig Hinton declares that “even if you don’t like historicals” you should read it, as “you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.” But one page earlier he gave The Ribos Operation one star, so, you know. Trust him as you will. Lars Perason backs him up, though, calling it “one of the best stand-alone books” and proclaiming that “the ending will tear your entrails out,” though this seems intended to be read as a selling point. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
On to books, such as Sanctuary. There are two kinds of binary distinctions that we’ve drawn up on this blog: ones that have eventually been deconstructed, and ones that haven’t. The latter category is by far the smallest, consisting, at this point, of this binary distinction and the one between Spooner and Lucarotti-style historicals. That’s not to say the distinction is never deconstructed - had we done Doctor Who and the Pirates as a Time Can Be Rewritten entry we would have seen it done. But it is, as distinctions within Doctor Who go, one of the most puzzlingly steadfast, and thus a useful one to turn to as we stumble about
To recap, since the blog has gained a reader or two since the Hartnell days, some of whom might have not bought the Hartnell book, the pure historical episodes of the Hartnell era divide fairly easily into two types. The first to debut is what I call the Lucarotti type, as three of the four historicals in this mode were penned by John Lucarotti: The Aztecs, Marco Polo, and The Massacre. All are serious-minded stories in which the focus is on the difficulties of being out of place in a hostile past. The other type, named after Dennis Spooner, who wrote the first two of this type with The Reign of Terror and The Romans, is often more comedic and is based on running through a bunch of obligatory set pieces implied by the story’s premise - the type of story now often described as a “romp.” The Spooner style is much more common - all of the historicals from The Reign of Terror to The Highlanders save for The Massacre fall into the category. But the Lucarotti style tends to be the more well-regarded, due perhaps to its more serious nature. But what’s striking, as I suggested, is that the distinction largely still holds. Very few of the sizable number of post-Troughton historicals push significantly at the Lucarotti/Spooner distinction.
Part of this is that one side of the debate is strikingly narrow. Lucarotti only wrote his three Lucarotti-style historicals, and nobody else really attempted anything in that style contemporaneously with Lucarotti save, arguably, for Anthony Coburn. And so the entire structure of the Lucarotti historical consists of Lucarotti’s own work and people who self-consciously followed in his footsteps. This is unusual in terms of type specimens of Doctor Who stories. Robert Holmes, for all his distinctiveness, was working in a very similar manner to Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke and at the same time. The wave of innovation that Cartmel ushered in was split among several writers. Even David Whitaker had other writers around the same time, most obviously Dennis Spooner, who shared many of his sensibilities. But Lucarotti cuts an odd figure in Doctor Who’s history: a writer with a wholly idiosyncratic style that nevertheless became utterly standard. Because here we are in the New Adventures and we get the obligitory “return of the pure historical” story. And it’s firmly a Lucarotti-style one - indeed, it’s basically The Massacre for the modern era.
Like The Massacre, its plot hinges on the assumption that the audience isn’t going to be hugely up to speed on the historical era in question. Sanctuary is about the annihilation of a dissident sect of Christians called the Cathars in the thirteenth century. This gives McIntee access to the same trick Lucarotti used in The Massacre, which is to have a horrible tragedy that is both inevitable and invisible to the audience. Like The Massacre, Sanctuary turns on the issue of trying to save one person from the tragedy, and, again like The Massacre, it ends up with that person almost certainly (but maybe not) dying. Unlike The Massacre, it actually bothers to focus on the human reaction to this, with Benny falling in love with Guy de Carnac and having a considerably more developed relationship with him than Steven got with Anne. Also unlike The Massacre, there’s not a horrible ending in which Dodo de Carnac blunders onto the TARDIS as the new companion. But on the whole it’s a very serious-minded, epic, dark historical of the sort that you’d almost stereotypically expect Virgin to publish.
To be fair, it’s one of two pure historicals that Virgin published, the other being Gareth Roberts’s self-professedly Spooneresque The Plotters. Which starts to give us a way into understanding the Lucarotti/Spooner distinction, as, at least within the Virgin line, it maps straightforwardly onto the good old frock/gun distinction, with Roberts and McIntee both being as steadfast representations of their respective styles as can be imagined. And it works well for the historical record, since Spooner’s stories were broad and comical and silly, whereas Lucarotti’s were largely darker and more tragic. So far, so good.
But there’s an odd problem to the Lucarotti style of historical that seeps through at the edges, and to understand it we need to look back briefly to Set Piece. There the central point was the importance of the small-scale and individual in the face of the epic. This is a common enough Doctor Who theme, but it echoes oddly in this context. And it is one that maps intuitively along the frock/gun distinction, with the focus on small-scale and individual dignity being an inherent contrast with the epic bombast of the gun approach. Again, we’re not at anything particularly new or insightful here: this borders on the basic definition of frocks, and is certainly the major point that both Cornell and Orman are pushing throughout their books.
But McIntee outright rejects that here, putting the Doctor in a hardline “not one word” position against making changes to history or saving people. The Doctor flat-out insists that they cannot save any of the Cathars in the besieged Roc, a position that is diametrically opposed to the one Ace takes at the end of Set Piece. And while Set Piece depends in part on the fact that Ace is contrasting herself from the Doctor, there’s still a tacit support for what she’s doing there that is fundamentally incompatible with the basic ethos of Sanctuary, where the pre-existing arc of history reigns supreme and individuals are almost entirely spurious.
But here’s the thing - Orman, at least, demonstrated the focus on the individual in contrast to the logic of big dramatic set pieces - a rejection not only of the dumb cult television approach of Sliders but even of the ironic-spectacle-based storytelling of Independence Day But if we take Sanctuary as a callback to the Lucarotti approach to historicals then we have to take it in part as a contrast to the Spooner style, which was a big, spectacular pile of set pieces. This is not, to be clear, a problem as such. After all, binary distinctions are made to be deconstructed, and just because Lucarotti/Spooner and gun/frock line up in some circumstances doesn’t mean they do in others. But this does, to my mind, set up an interesting debate about the utility of spectacle.
On the one hand spectacle is obviously a big part of Doctor Who throughout its history. Big, dramatic set pieces are the name of the game. And even if Orman critiques the way in which they exclude ordinary and everyday people from the narrative, it’s worth remembering that her book is also built around them. They’re a part of what Doctor Who is. Even Sanctuary relies on set pieces, albeit not of the “every trope of the Cathars you ever expected to see” variety. But McIntee, as ever, is fond of sprawling action sequences, and Sanctuary has several of them.
Of course, part of this is that it’s an error to think that the Lucarotti style is defined by the lack of set pieces. That just gets the order of events wrong. The Lucarotti style of historical came first, and Spooner second. That Spooner’s approach was more prevalent and visibly based on playing through expected genre tropes makes it tempting to define the Lucarotti approach as the opposite of that, but that ends up cutting Lucarotti himself out of the equation. And as we noted, the Lucarotti style is necessarily wrapped up in his own peculiar focuses. What defines the Lucarotti style is not its lack of reliance on set pieces, nor even its lack of humor as such (The Crusade, after all, is a Spooner-style historical without much comedy), but rather its focus on alienation. The Lucarotti-style historical is about the fact that the main characters do not belong to this time, and on the fact that the past is strange and unfathomable. Its lack of familiar set pieces is a part of that, certainly - an unfathomable past doesn’t have familiar set pieces to draw on - but it’s not the point as such.
This is, unfortunately, something that McIntee doesn’t quite get. For all that his historical setting is unfamiliar to the audience, he’s strangely unconcerned with explaining it, generally acitng as though the audience should just be more or less familiar with the various heretical Christian sects of the thirteenth century. The cast he has is exactly wrong for a Lucarotti-style historical: both Benny and the Doctor know their history too well to be alienated from it. It’s a puzzling turn, both in terms of how it fails to mesh with the style McIntee is obviously drawing from and in terms of the effectiveness of the storytelling itself.
Instead McIntee draws on what is probably the most long-term influential aspect of the Lucarotti historicals, their obsession with the unchangeability of history. It is, after all, from The Aztecs that the oft-quoted “you can’t rewrite history, not one line” bit comes from. And this has influenced a host of writers who have done various takes on the Doctor’s grim-faced refusal to alter the web of time, a grim-faced refusal that, of course, applies only to Earth’s history prior to the transmission date of the episode (save, of course, for The Waters of Mars, which is about as clever as it thinks it is on this point). This is one of the big tropes of Doctor Who, and it dates straight back to Lucarotti. And it’s complete rubbish.
First of all, let’s just note how out of step with the rest of Doctor Who it is. There’s an obvious plot reason not to have the Doctor altering Earth’s history dramatically, but the idea of some complete ban on it being one of his most deeply held moral principles is very hard to fit with the more outright anarchic tendencies displayed elsewhere. And Lucarotti’s fondness of putting this supposed moral principle in conflict with more intuitively fundamental principles makes it even rougher. This gets played as the Doctor being alien and having ethics other than our own, and that certainly can be made to work in some cases, but for the most part it just seems weirdly inconsistent. It’s worth noting that Spooner himself rubbished the complete immutability of history, establishing that the Meddling Monk had, in fact, changed history into its current state.
But the second issue is that the immutability of history in Lucarotti’s work is not some vital moral principle that he espouses. After all, it doesn’t port well at all to any real-world issue. There’s no hot debate in the world about changing history, and suggesting that Lucarotti cares hugely about the idea of changing history in and of itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. It makes much more sense to treat Lucarotti’s obsession with history as a factor of his larger focus on the alien nature of the past. For Lucarotti, it’s not that we oughtn’t change history, it’s that we cannot alter a culture that we do not understand. (There is, of course, a second formulation advanced by Whitaker in which the issue is with rewriting one’s own history, making it a problem of identity, but that’s really not Lucarotti’s game.) McIntee draws on little of this.
The result is a book that’s not entirely successful. It deserves some praise, certainly, for an artfully done budding romance between Benny and Guy, and its final moments, in which Benny decides to give up any hope of finding Guy alive just so she doesn’t have to face the possibility of confirming that he’s dead, are quite starkly powerful. But on the whole the book seems faltering, and faltering in a manner that resembles the way in which Sliders is problematic: it mistakenly believes itself to be serious. It mistakenly believes that this sort of doomful tragedy is what Doctor Who is good at. And it’s not. It’s not that Doctor Who is bad at it. It’s that Doctor Who is… adequate at it. And, fine, but there are things Doctor Who is actually good at. There are, in fact, things that it is great at: that it’s one of the best in the world at. Set Piece pointed well in that direction. The next book does not so much point in that direction as demonstrate it with triumphant glee. This… works.
Which has always been the case. The Lucarotti historical was always pretty good. The Aztecs was great. The Massacre had its moments, but was heavily rewritten. Marco Polo has always had its reputation inflated by being the first missing story. But the Lucarotti historical was the most serious-minded approach of its era, and just like the base-under-siege became “what Doctor Who does” because it was the closest thing to serious drama of its era, the Lucarotti historical became beloved less for its quality than for the fact that it was Doctor Who trying to be serious drama, which is automatically better than anything else. But it never was.