Friday, November 16, 2012

Some Planet Called America (Warchild)


I’ll Explain Later

We’ve skipped Shakedown, Terrance Dicks’s novelization of his direct-to-video project with added framing story featuring the Doctor, and Just War, which is absolutely phenomenal and will get covered in the book version.

Andrew Cartmel’s Warchild completes the trilogy began with Warhead, and features the final fate of Vincent and Justine, who were introduced in that book. It also ostensibly kicks off the Psi-Powers Series, an infamously loose series of books that runs over the final year or so of the New Adventures, but as it has next to nothing to do with any of the other books in that series we can largely leave that alone until Monday. Like all of Cartmel’s books it is neither loved nor hated, slotted at thirty-sixth in the Sullivan rankings with a rating of 65.8%. At the time Dave Owen gave a more or less positive review that largely declines to provide anything like a good pull quote. “The writing style is mature and restrained,” perhaps. Or “Warchild holds the readers interest.” Lars Pearson gushes more usefully: “An incredibly mature, humanistic book.” DWRG SummaryWhoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.

——
It’s February of 1996. Babylon Zoo are at number one with “Spaceman.” They remain there for the entire month. Blur, Bjork, Joan Osborne, Mariah Carey, Cher, George Michael, and Radiohead also make the top ten, while popular albums include Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele, Radiohead’s The Bends, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, which is on average an astonishingly lovely month for albums. I’d give you the lower chart data, but the absurd fact that it is possible to control the publishing of factual data means that the website I use to get chart data just got a takedown notice from the Official Charts Company, and the Official Charts Company’s own site doesn’t offer data past the top ten. Not, mind you, it doesn’t offer data past the top ten for free. No, it doesn’t offer it at all. Period. Bastards.

Wikipedia, meanwhile, still happily offers a summary of the news. What we’ve missed: The Dayton Agreement, which brought an end to the Bosnian war, was signed in Paris, which is a very poor definition of Dayton, Ohio. The European Court of Justice made a big, important rule that football players who have reached the end of their contracts may transfer for free to another club. And Calvin and Hobbes ended. Whereas in the month this book came out, Deep Blue defeats Gary Kasparov for the first time. The IRA ceasefire ends as the IRA bombs Canary Wharf. Prince Charles and Princess Diana agree to divorce. The Conservative Party manages to fall to a two-seat majority. And Pokemon Green came out in Japan, beginning that whole thing.

While in books, Andrew Cartmel’s Warchild. This is one of those properly strange moments in writing the blog: the last time we deal with Andrew Cartmel. This is strange in several regards. First of all, there is something odd about the passage of his era. The Cartmel years proper are only a three year run of the program, although the New Adventures have been existing in his shadow and running out the clock on his supposed masterplan since day one. So the fact that his time with the program here reaches its end feels odd, as though it’s both been too long spent in a single era and too short for the amount of time that has passed.

But secondly, the relationship between Cartmel and Doctor Who has always been an odd one. On the one hand, Cartmel is largely less central to Doctor Who than he might appear. That’s not to say that he wasn’t crucial, but so much of what we might call the long Cartmel era (that is, the period running from Season 24 to the end of the New Adventures) is due to the work of people around Andrew Cartmel. Furthermore, Doctor Who is perhaps more central to Andrew Cartmel’s work and career than Cartmel might like to suggest. Yes, Cartmel moved on from Doctor Who, but the truth is that after being head-hunted by Casualty in 1990 his career largely stalled and he kicked around the tie-in novels for Doctor Who and other properties. Cartmel unequivocally had ambitions beyond Doctor Who, but they largely weren’t realized.

I’m not terribly interested in the question of whether that’s just or not (though I mostly think it’s not), but I think these facts do go a long way towards explaining the strange status of Andrew Cartmel: the influence he did have on the program is blurred on both sides. On the one hand, Cartmel is quick to downplay Doctor Who as the focal point of his career (even as he, ever the self-promoter, hypes his own contributions to the program). On the other, his contributions to Doctor Who are simply less visible than those of other people working contemporaneously with him. The result is that Cartmel’s influence on the series is at once visibly massive and strangely hard to account for directly.

But in many ways that’s fitting for a script editor. Terrance Dicks, after all, only had one credited script during the period in which he was actually a major creative force on Doctor Who itself. His most visible influence on the program comes from his role in the prose novels, and that is a major role, but it’s not a role in which he shaped the creative direction of Doctor Who. His major influence on the program was far more invisible, establishing the style of intelligent but action-packed stories that are the bread and butter of successful Doctor Who after that point. To see Dicks’s influence, though, we have to compare things he didn’t have any hand in: for instance, the way in which The Sea Devils and Fury from the Deep are both sea-focused action-adventure stories, but one is packed with ideas and implications for the world, whereas the other is just six episodes of killer seaweed.

Dicks, of course, oversaw twenty-eight stories over seven years, whereas Cartmel oversaw twelve over three years. So even in this regard it’s harder to pin down exactly what he did. Especially because, unlike Dicks, Cartmel took over the program when it was in a position of complete chaos, whereas Dicks inherited a comparatively stable program even accounting for the upheavals of the format shift. So while there are visible differences between Paradise Towers and Vengeance on Varos (picked because they’re two openly political and satirical stories), it’s more difficult to identify exactly what the difference is beyond a general “Cartmel did a better job than Saward” claim which, while true, seems unhelpful.

But Cartmel’s work in the Virgin era goes a long way towards illustrating what one of the key innovations of Cartmel was. The War trilogy is defined heavily by its focus on the experience of people into whose lives the Doctor intrudes. The linking material of the entire trilogy - the lives of Vincent and Justine - point towards this. There have been other linked series in Doctor Who, but they tend to be defined by big picture elements, whereas this trilogy was defined by the lives of a couple who, yes, had some psychic powers, but who mostly lived ordinary human lives that got repeatedly thrown into chaos by the Doctor. The story of Davies having a script rejected with the instruction that he should tell a story about “a man who is worried about his mortgage, his marriage, and his dog” also points towards this concern. It is also where the difference between Vengeance on Varos and Paradise Towers comes in. For all that Vengeance on Varos did to include the two viewers at home, the fact remains that it was a story about interplanetary politics and Paradise Towers was a story about a shithole tower block.

It is sad, then, that this is the aspect of Cartmel’s work that gets overlooked. After all, it is visibly this that influences Cornell’s love of the Seventh Doctor. The crowning moment of the Virgin era, Human Nature, clearly stems from this exact source: the way in which the Cartmel era refocused the Doctor on the small and the domestic instead of the big and epic. And since it’s visibly Cornell’s influence that’s all over Davies and Moffat, this lineage is straightforwardly Cartmel’s biggest legacy. And yet in practice we fetishize his supposed masterplan, despite him saying he never had one and it being the portion of the long Cartmel era with the least actual impact on the series.

But Warchild also points to something else that is interesting: it appears to be the case that Cartmel was actually one of the most radical forces in his own era. Cartmel’s New Adventures are widely criticized for their marginalization of the actual regular cast. Certainly that’s an accusation that sticks against Warchild, where the Doctor and Bernice spend most of the story sitting on the sidelines and Chris is an almost entirely minor character. Only Roz has a sizable plotline. Cartmel has, in other contexts, complained about how the New Adventures evolved continuity and said that he’d have preferred they just stuck to the Doctor and Ace, so most of this isn’t a huge surprise. Indeed, once you know this it’s difficult not to get the sense that Roz only has a sizable plotline because the book was originally outlined for Ace, and Roz was the character who it made sense to transfer the plot to.

This would, of course, have never happened on television. John Nathan-Turner would never have stood for it. Indeed, the moderating effect of Nathan-Turner on Cartmel’s instincts is still visible here: one of Nathan-Turner’s most common demands to Cartmel was that the scripts needed to have moments where the Doctor got to “be Doctorish.” And while the Doctor sits on the sidelines for most of the story, idly nudging events to keep them on track, the end, in which he calmly and casually pipes up in the midst of the final confrontation with Vincent and says a few words that bring Vincent’s world crashing down is one of the most perfectly Doctorish moments in the book line.

Even still, it’s easy to argue that this was a poor decision for the context. The New Adventures were, for better or for worse, being marketed to existing Doctor Who fans who were buying the books because they were Doctor Who books. Throwing one Doctor-lite novel into that mix is risky. Doing it routinely and serially, as Cartmel did over the War trilogy, was spectacularly aggressive. And borders on completely mad. As ever, the fact that it was even allowed to happen gestures to the peculiar beauty of Virgin’s editorial practices. Yes, the fact that Cartmel had a pre-existing connection with the series surely helped him get his books published, but that Virgin would so routinely try its readership’s patience like this shows again why this line and this era is so special.

All of which is to say that it’s not accurate to call the marginalization of the Doctor a bad idea. Sure, it probably would have been in the specific context of the television series in the late 1980s, when its audience was also very fannish, but you’re arguing uphill if you want to argue that a show like Doctor Who can only work if the Doctor is always the center of attention, not least because that’s exactly what it did for its first few years. Cartmel’s approach is perfectly viable from a storytelling perspective: it’s only from a “being Doctor Who” perspective that it’s flawed, and that’s a perspective that deserves our active suspicion at this particular moment in time. Amusingly, of course, the non-existent Cartmel Masterplan’s real nature, namely Cartmel’s desire to make the Doctor a mysterious figure again, plays into this: the Doctor, when made mysterious, is better suited to flit around the outside of the action instead of being at the center of it. Making the character mysterious creates a sense of alienation from him, making it easier for him not to be quite as central.

But a corollary to Cartmel’s apparent interest in the people around the Doctor instead of the Doctor himself is, for our purposes, more interesting. The other thing that really happened in the Cartmel era was that the program returned to its roots of using its premise to explore unusual places. The Cartmel era put a lot of weight on the variability of concepts, and the show returned to an attitude whereby if you didn’t like what it was doing one week that was fine, because another radically different premise would be along shortly. That’s the attitude that leads to things like Delta and the Bannermen, The Happiness Patrol, and Ghost Light existing, and it’s certainly one I’m inclined to endorse. This also helps to explain Cartmel’s willingness to be so iconoclastic within the Virgin line. Simply put, treating the War trilogy as Cartmel’s vision of what Doctor Who should be is misleading. Cartmel wasn’t in charge of vision at that point. Cartmel was in charge of writing what he thought would be an interesting story, and he dutifully banged out a distinctive novel for 1992, 1995, and 1996. For Cartmel’s approach, the goal was to be as different from the books on either side as possible, not to be Virgin-styled as such.

But if this viewpoint - that Doctor Who should be judged in part by how different it is from story to story - was prevalent in the Cartmel era proper, it entered something of a decline in the Virgin era. That’s not to say that there isn’t a wild and joyful difference in tone between, say, Gareth Roberts and Kate Orman, but there’s also a clear degree to which the Virgin writers influenced each other and played off of each other’s ideas in a way that moved towards such a thing as a coherent “Virgin style.” More to the point, the fact that so many books were written consciously for an audience of Doctor Who fans means that there aren’t a lot of books where the most notable thing about them is the freshness of their ideas. Many of the freshest are simply pastiches of existing literature such as Sky Pirates! or The Also People. We’re visibly drifting away from being the sort of series where Delta and the Bannermen or The Happiness Patrol would ever happen.

And that’s a drift that never gets undone. For all that the new series is very, very good, and for all that it jumps around among premises and genres, the fact is that there’s more thematic and tonal unity to Doctor Who these days than there ever has been before. The most recent mini-season demonstrates the point perfectly: for all its aspirations to being five “movie poster” Doctor Who stories it turned out five stories of almost indistinguishable quality and tone. These days a Doctor Who story can do anything it wants as long as it makes it feel like a Doctor Who story. With fifty years of variations as to what exactly that means there’s still plenty of room to maneuver, and I’m hardly going to suggest that the series is stale in the least. Indeed, its consistency is undoubtedly part of what makes the series successful in 2012.

But it means that, as Cartmel departs the history of the series, we can see him as an oddly transitional figure. On the one hand, his successful focus on the human scale of the Doctor’s adventures was unbelievably influential, and there’s a clear sense in which everything subsequent to his time on Doctor Who stems from his work. On the other, he serves as the last flourishing of an old model of Doctor Who that we will probably never see return in full. More than any other figure, Cartmel embodies the transition from what the classic series was to what the new series is. As a result, he doesn’t quite fit into either paradigm, despite the bulk of his time on the program being crucial to the definition of each of them.

16 comments:

  1. I find it delightfully synchronous that Oasis is charting with What's the Story at the same time Wishbone is halfway through its first season and you're covering a Virgin book with an overt focus on the mundane.

    Great essay as always, and a good overview of why I'm such a fan of Andrew Cartmel.

    Oh also, "Spaceman" is awesome. I actually have that album and single.

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  2. Oh, this comment section is looking so lonely. Poor comment section! Is this an effect of the oncoming weekend?

    Okay, I'll take this opportunity to ask for clarification on Cartmel's influence on the current series, or lack thereof. I get the bit about the "human scale," and I very much agree, but this other bit puzzles me:

    "For all that the new series is very, very good, and for all that it jumps around among premises and genres, the fact is that there’s more thematic and tonal unity to Doctor Who these days than there ever has been before. The most recent mini-season demonstrates the point perfectly: for all its aspirations to being five “movie poster” Doctor Who stories it turned out five stories of almost indistinguishable quality and tone.

    The quality of production certainly looks uniformly marvelous, but tone? We go from a creepy, tragic Dalek story to a hilarious romp, then a sober reflection on mercy and justice, a domestic soap opera, and finally a noirish convergence of love and death. What's indistinguishable about the "tone" of these stories?



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    1. That puzzled me a bit too; I suspect what Dr S is getting it is what I might call consistency of attitude rather than tone. For example, all the current scriptwriters are required to sign up to the notion that the Doctor becomes a scary badass when humans are absent for any length of time, which shows up in the "hilarious* romp" and the "reflection on mercy and justice" episodes. There's an emergent house style on everything from the Doctor's romantic feelings to how time travel works. In the original series, the writers gave little impression of caring about these things, let alone making sure they were consistent with what went before; the NA writers plainly did think about these things pretty deeply, but didn't always come up with perspectives that aligned with one another, and the editorial instinct at the time was to favour authorial, um, authority over inter-book consistency of attitude. I tend to prefer the NA approach for a couple of reasons. One is that, as long as I've get plenty of books to agree with, I don't mind disagreeing with some, whereas with the new series it's their way or the highway; and secondly, I don't think the modern approach is as consistent as it first appears - the "fixed point in time" thing gets looser and more plot-expedient each time it's brought up.

      * My mileage varies

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    2. peeeeeeet has part of it, but it is also the way in which the tone shifts have accelerated to where they happen multiple times within an episode. So, yes, we have a sober reflection on mercy and justice juxtaposed with a hilarious romp. But the hilarious romp has a tragic sequence where the dinosaur dies and a chilling moment of the Doctor's vengeance, and the sober reflection on mercy and justice has slapstick gun scenes and a joke about a trans mare. Variety in Doctor Who is these days a question of which elements get brought to the forefront of the mix, not what instruments are in the mix as a whole.

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    3. But isn't this kind of what we got in McCoy era? Delta's got its tragedy of the slaughtered Navarinos, and Happiness has the tragedy of Helen A's Fifi -- even Paradise Towers has the tragic end of Pex, and the Yellow Kang. And all these stories have gobs of humor and satire, too -- it's just a matter of what elements in the mix get brought to the forefront.

      Sorry, but I'm still not getting how the "tone" of the current run is any more consistent than in Cartmel's day -- or, say, the Gothic tone of the Hinchcliffe era, the humorous sensibilities of Williams' run, and so on. Seems to me there's an "attitude" as peeeeeet says in just about every era of Doctor Who, whether it's the "glam action hero" who juxtaposes a Buddhist/Crowleyian take with UNIT shenanigans for Pertwee, or the misanthropic cynicism of Saward's tenure.

      If anything, it's not an inconsistency of tone that the current series has drifted away from, it's the element of social critique so prevalent in Cartmel's run that seems to be lacking. We're not gonna see another Happiness Patrol anytime soon, or even a Green Death or Kroll; the show is more interested in exploring and deforming other genres and other forms of storytelling than contemporary issues or political considerations.

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    4. Scope, mainly. The Moffat era has had a relatively consistent tone for twenty-eight stories now. Whereas the straight "gothic" period of the Hinchcliffe era basically ran for less than a season when it did three Hammer knock-offs in four stories. Even there, though, there was some contrast: The Android Invasion feels jarringly weird in amidst Season Thirteen in a way that only the most aggressively experimental episodes of the new series do within their seasons.

      I mean, I think it's only to be expected. You've got a larger team of creatives working on each individual episode - a house style is useful for that. And you've got a much greater oversight by a single writer. That, at least, has faded from the Davies era, but Moffat's writing six of fourteen episodes is still more homogeny of tone than Robert Holmes brought to the series even at his most prolific.

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    5. " but it is also the way in which the tone shifts have accelerated to where they happen multiple times within an episode."

      They even managed that in yesterday's 2 minute webisode.

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    6. That's a really interesting way to think about the show's development. In a way, the circumstances of Doctor Who's creation made a kind of perfect storm for a wildly mercurial show. Yes, it was a very popular show in one of the BBC's peak family viewing hours, but it was still a cheap, weird, little production. So it had enough space for experimenting in tone and content with every story.

      Now Doctor Who is a flagship show for the entire BBC, and everybody knows it. So the kind of everyday experimentation in tone isn't really possible. Yet it's just as mercurial because the established tone of Doctor Who is now a show that shifts tone all the damn time. Moffat's "compressed storytelling" season this year (which in my opinion has been more successful so far than the arc-based seasons of the last two years) is a perfect example. The content can vary, because everyone who's familiar with the show understands that Doctor Who is a program that tells crazily divergent styles of story week after week (hallucinatory action, madcap romp, Western, etc). If you don't like variation of that sort, you don't really like Doctor Who. And my friends who don't like the show (to the extent that they can really remain my friends) dislike it precisely for that reason: they don't know what Doctor Who is going to be week to week.

      The key influence of Cartmel is in what stays consistent through all this variation: the focus on individual people and their motivations, among all the major supporting characters, and most importantly, the regulars. Through all this flux, Doctor Who creates characters who are constant across the stories and develop according to their own logic and personal narratives. A show with the kind of flux we see today that had the kind of cookie-cutter characterization of the Nathan-Turner/Saward era would be disastrous: pure chaos without a single anchor through which we could care about it.

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  4. Dr. S, would you say that the Visians are "far more invisible" than the Refusians since we never see the former throwing cups around?

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  5. "And while the Doctor sits on the sidelines for most of the story, idly nudging events to keep them on track, the end, in which he calmly and casually pipes up in the midst of the final confrontation..."

    I can't remember if you've talked about Sandman yet, but this desciption of the Doctor's role reminds me very much of Morpheus in that comic. Since Cartmel's TV era was heavily influenced by 2000AD & Alan Moore it makes sense that his books would be influenced Sandman & Neil Gaiman.

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  6. I think the elusive 'tone' that we're all attempting to pin down has a lot to do with the foregrounding of the primary characters' emotional responses in both Moffat and RTD's seasons. The emphasis on Nu Who is consistantly on how the defining moment of each story affects the protagonists' feelings for eachother and possibly more importantly, for the Doctor. For example I don't believe we've had the uncertainty regarding the Doctor's motives, loyalties and motivations played as a major source of the dramatic tension (Seventh Doctor's machinations notwithstanding) so much since the Hartnell era, perhaps shading into the suspicious and anarchic early Troughton. The consistant (if not always succesful)attempt at maintaining high production values even in the more dodgy stories helps too.

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  7. When you described the Davies script-rejection incident, I thought you were kidding, but it looks like you're actually endorsing the idea that such a story would have been a good idea. I half agree with you, but only half.

    I just rewatched "Varos" in anticipation of the Wife In Space watching it soon. It's not great -- most of the acting is hilariously bad, and all the hallucinatory nonsense is tedious and uninspired (I don't think I ever need to see another story in any genre or medium where an obstacle is overcome by repeating "it's only an illusion!") -- but it's not about "interplanetary politics." It's about Earth society and politics, as you clearly point out in your essay on it; even within the story itself Sil is primarily there to provide an unambiguous crisis for the Governor (and, of course, comic relief). Whereas "Paradise Towers," though it's a tad underrated, is a story about a bunch of cartoon characters trapped in a building together.

    Yes, we have tower blocks in present-day Earth, and we don't have televised torture zones for political criminals. We have televised torture zones for obnoxious would-be celebrities, and we have clandestine torture zones for political criminals. But I find it easier to credit the idea that the Varosians are us than I do the idea that the Towers residents (as portrayed onscreen) could be.

    They're both decent satires and I appreciate them, but I can't really buy your suggestion that Towers somehow treats ordinary people more effectively. So maybe I've just completely misunderstood that suggestion.

    As for "indistinguishable quality," I would (did) say that "A Town Called Mercy" jumped out pretty prominently as a fourth-rate Star Trek story which was a lot closer in quality to "Victory of the Daleks" and "Curse of the Black Spot" than the other stories in the season. I mean, it tried a bit harder to say something, but:

    PAUL: ...it tried and failed?
    MOHIAM: It tried and died.

    I'm the only person I know who thinks that. But it really made me angry, and I was surprised because I don't usually feel that way about a Whithouse script. Otherwise, though, I see where you're coming from.

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    1. Holy crap... someone who agrees with me on "A Town Called Mercy"! :-O

      And may I shake your hand, sir? :-D

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    2. Just don't shake the one that's been made into a gun (what a novel idea!).

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    3. Let me attempt to doff to you the hat that's seemingly welded to my head, sir... :-P

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