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 Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
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.