Friday, November 30, 2012

The Select Few, All With Their Stories of the Doctor (Return of the Living Dad)

I’ll Explain Later

Return of the Living Dad, Orman’s second novel in five months and one of a staggering three-and-a-half novels she releases in a one year period (with another half coming out four months later, and another full one coming eight after that), features the return of Bernice Summerfield to the New Adventures after a… three month absence. So not really that big a gap, actually. It squares away the old plotline of what happened to her father during the Dalek wars. The answer is that he got time warped to 1983. So that’s unexpected. It’s a Kate Orman book, so everyone loves it. With Paul Cornell providing plotting assistance to boot, so, you know, even better. Lars Pearson goes with “one of Orman’s masterpieces,” Dave Owen at the time said that Orman provides “many profound insights into the lives of her characters, and indeed, people in general.” It’s eighteenth on Sullivan’s rankings, squarely in the narrow range Orman’s books all occupy.

——
It’s August of 1996. The Spice Girls are at number one with “Wannabe.” Manic Street Preachers, the Fugees, Los Del Rio, Alanis Morissette, Robbie Williams, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Underworld, Backstreet Boys, IMC, Pet Shop Boys, Jamiroquai, R.E.M., George Michael, Bryan Adams, and Ant & Dec all fail to unseat them despite making it into the top ten. Alanis Morissette at least manages to dominate the album chart for the entire month. In news, NASA tentatively answers David Bowie with “yes.” Bob Dole wins the Republican nomination for President. Prince Charles and Princess Diana are officially divorced. Osama bin Laden declares a jihad against the United States.

While in books, Return of the Living Dad. But let’s jump forward a bit. Let’s have a look at last month’s Doctor Who Magazine - issue #453 if you’re reading this from the future. In it is a four page feature commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Love and War and thus of the creation of Professor Bernice Summerfield. This is, to say the least, extraordinary. It is, of course, too soon to know for certain, but it is unlikely that Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester are going to get a four-page feature in a 2015 issue of Doctor Who Magazine. Even the Eighth Doctor Adventures’ major companion, Fitz, whose six-year tenure as a companion is second only to Ace in sheer length, is unlikely to be so honored. There is, in other words, something extraordinary about Benny.

Part of it is simply that she is an enduring character. From 1992 to 1996 she was a regular companion. Even after her “departure” in Happy Endings she made three  major appearances in the eleven subsequent books, plus a brief one in So Vile a Sin. Then came a two-and-a-half year run as the lead character in the Doctorless New Adventures line from 1997-1999. Concurrent with the tail end of these were Big Finish’s audio adaptations, which were where they proved their credentials and managed to get the Doctor Who license in 1999. The Bernice Summerfield audio line continues to this day. Plus there’s Big Finish’s book series, including both novels and short story collections, one of which features a story from Steven Moffat. So when we speak of the twentieth anniversary of Bernice Summerfield it should be noted, we do not simply mean that twenty years ago the first major untelevised companion debuted. We mean that a twenty-year running franchise began. The unlicensed Doctor Who spinoff so massively important that Steven Moffat wrote for it.

Return of the Living Dad has to be taken in this context. Several months after Benny’s ostensible departure from the novels we get a book in which she comes back. That’s not entirely unprecedented - Ace, after all, has appeared twice already since her departure. What’s surprising about Return of the Living Dad is that it’s not only a book that features Benny three months after she departed the series, it’s a book that is firmly and unequivocally about Benny and her long-running plotlines. This is partially explained by the fact that this book came out around the time of the announcement that BBC Books would be taking over the Doctor Who license, and that the Virgin line would be continuing with Benny-focused novels. (The August 1996 issue of Doctor Who Magazine contains the announcement, but they lagged a month or two behind the already Internet-connected fandom, so the announcement was surely already out. Likewise, the August 1996 issue of Time-Space Visualizer, the fanzine of the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club, contains an interview with Paul Cornell in which he discusses the Benny line and the early plans for it.) The return to Benny and to her plot lines was, in that regard, a signal that she was more than just a supporting character. She’s a character with long-term plot strands that get paid off. (The central tension of Return of the Living Dad, after all, being details about her father first established back in Love and War)

But why is Benny able to sustain that? Paul Cornell, in the more recent Doctor Who Magazine piece, suggests that “she became the voice of the readers in a lot of these texts. That when something huge and science-fictional was going to happen to a bunch of people, she would come along rather like an Eric-Idle-in-Monty-Python figure, and just sort of point at it until it was ridiculous. I love the fact that she got to meet things like Nazis and Daleks, and point out how ridiculous such pomposity is when compared to the wonders of domesticity.” Which, I mean, he would say that. But equally, there’s something to it.

We’re not doing Buffy the Vampire Slayer until early January, but it’s still worth noting that the turn in the late 90s was towards increasingly trope-aware science fiction. We’re heading into a period where it becomes standard for protagonists in genre shows to comment self-awarely on their own conventions. Even The X-Files was doing it, with 1996 bringing the memorable “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” So the “point at it until it was ridiculous” approach was perfectly mainstream. What’s ostensibly different about Benny is that she does so in pursuit of the small and the domestic. There are other characters like this - the protagonist of Ursula Vernon’s (quite rightly) Hugo-winning graphic novel series Digger, for instance, is fantastic in a large part because it has a properly reluctant hero who wants nothing more than to get away from this vexed and busy life of adventure and go build a nice root cellar. Benny, it is true, is still inclined towards adventures, but in an essentially relaxed relationship towards adventuring. She enjoys adventuring, but in the manner of a hobbyist, linking her to the British ideal of, as Cornell described it back in No Future, “the creative amateur.”

Return of the Living Dad is, first and foremost, about establishing some of this about Benny. Its central conceit is the introduction of Benny’s father. Contrary to the widespread belief that he turned coward and fled the Dalek wars, in reality he was just pulled through a time rift and has been providing a halfway house for stranded aliens that the Doctor has overlooked in his various world-savings. Eventually he turns out to have also gotten himself involved in an ill-advised scheme to change history and prevent the Daleks from invading Earth, which turns out to have been a con by an evil Navarino (that would be the species that operates the tour bus in Delta and the Bannermen) who’s actually working with the Daleks. Crucially, Isaac Summerfield means well, even if his actual plan is completely foolish.

Isaac, clearly, is meant to be contrasted with the Doctor, Benny’s surrogate father who gave her away at her wedding in Isaac’s place. And Orman, typically, writes a marvelous Doctor, including a gorgeous moment at the start of the book where he simply takes a few weeks and volunteers in an Australian hospice. I admit to some bias here - my girlfriend is a hospice nurse, and so the image has particular resonance. But it’s also a perfect image of the sort of thing the Doctor, at his best, would do with downtime between adventures. More than that, it’s a perfect moment for the Seventh Doctor. Hospice is at once a very serious, weighty place and a human place, and the Seventh Doctor, always designed to work in the space between those two images, seems conceptually at home there. Perhaps more to the point, it is very difficult to imagine any other Doctor spending a week mopping floors in a hospice. Even the Eleventh Doctor, in many ways the most similar to the Seventh in how he embodies that division, is simply too eccentric and zany to function in that setting. No, McCoy’s “sad little man” demeanor is uniquely suited to the moral seriousness of the setting.

Not, of course, that the Doctor is entirely at home in that setting. Roz catches him out on this, both accusing him “only doing it to make yourself feel better” and, privately, of not being able to understand a woman who he met in hospice. Which is also fitting. For all that the Doctor is concerned with the individual human level, after all, he doesn’t understand it directly. That was the point of Human Nature. The Doctor loves the small moments of humanity, but he loves them from a remove and a distance. They are, perhaps, as much his hobby as adventuring is Benny’s.

The Doctor and Isaac, then, form mirror images. The Doctor is at home with the business of saving the world, but can’t quite get the domestic, human level right. Isaac picks up after the Doctor’s mistakes and helps stranded aliens get home or find places in the world, but when he confronts the epic scale of saving the world bottles it. And Benny gets to exist at the midpoint between them, capable and adept in both spheres. The book, in other words, is very much about her graduation to the full role of hero and main character, putting her into a position where she could anchor her own line for sixteen years thereafter.

Since this is a good book to talk about companions, we should perhaps spare a few paragraphs for Roz and Chris, who spend the book shagging in a development that is both obvious and, at least at first glance, inadvisable. The problem, of course, is that it’s an obvious cliche that by its nature implies that the characters are outliving their usefulness. It’s one of those plots that one turns to when one is out of actually creative things to do with characters. Of course Roz and Chris have a romance plot - it’s the most obvious thing on the planet for a pair of cops to do eventually. That they’re not just a pair of cops but a cliched one - the cynical veteran and the bright-eyed newbie. On any American television show they’d be a straightforward will-they-or-won’t-they setup, which is the heart and soul of why, on paper, they should never, ever go anywhere near that.

But what’s striking about Roz and Chris getting a romance story - and it is just a story, as at the end of it they decide to settle on being “friends who fancy each other” - is how well the line did at avoiding it for so long. Indeed, they did well enough that when it finally rolls around it’s not the cheap attempt to wring one more plot out of the characters that it normally would be. Roz and Chris are an obvious pair because they’re one of the hyphenated companion pairs a la Ian-and-Barbara or Ben-and-Polly - ones who come on and depart together. (Yes, Chris gets a few novels after Roz’s finale, but they both go out in the same general “end of the New Adventures” period.) But what’s notable, given that, is that in none of the books we’ve looked at since Sky Pirates! have Roz and Chris actually shared a plotline. For all that they’re mutually defined characters, they’ve been given a lot of room to develop separately. And this means that by this point in the series they’re actually more defined in relation to the Doctor than they are by each other. Roz, in particular, has steadily developed a particularly nuanced relationship with the Doctor, and with the departure of Benny she’s graduated to being the character who calls the Doctor out on things. But where Benny was typically the moral center who kept the Doctor from playing too extreme a game with people’s lives, Roz is a more practical center: she calls the Doctor out because she can understand him. It’s a good and interesting role, particularly for the Seventh Doctor. The character who best understands who he is and why he’s the way he is is the jaded and world-wearied cop.

Chris, on the other hand, has increasingly been given an entertaining variation on the role of peril monkey. Chris’s job in most stories is to get into trouble. But he does so in a satisfying way. He finds his way into trouble because he’s a naive and over-eager cop, and thus both a thrill-seeker and someone with a strong sense of justice. This lets him take what is usually a sexist role given to the (often lone) female character and largely redeem it, getting all the useful plot functions of the peril monkey with none of the icky bits. The Doctor has largely formed a standard paternalistic relationship with him, but it’s one that avoids the tacit sexism of the Doctor/Steven or Doctor/Jamie relationships (where they often did the overtly dangerous stuff while the female companion was marginalized) and instead works very much like the standard Doctor/Companion relationship. And in doing so it partially redeems the occasionally sexist moments of those, making it clear that the reason the Doctor has a paternalistic relationship with young female characters is down to casting directors, not to the Doctor himself.

Once these characters have been developed well in their own directions, then, throwing them together and carrying off the obvious romance plot has a very different tone. Instead of feeling like the point where the characters run out of ideas it feels like a fresh expansion of them - one that deepens Roz and Chris as characters, especially because the book also avoids the easy choice of just making them a couple. It would be a good move any time. Doing it as the novel line visibly winds down and as we head into So Vile a Sin is a wicked, brilliant bit of cruelty.

If all of this sounds a bit functional, however, it is perhaps because, well, it is. Return of the Living Dad, perhaps more than any book in the closing period of the New Adventures besides Lungbarrow, is a book that exists to perform a specific job. It’s very good, mind you. And that job is a crucial step both in winding down the line and in setting up Virgin’s future plans. But the end is near, and the moment is being prepared for.

19 comments:

  1. Good post, but you didn't say anything about how Orman's designed the entire place to be a commentary on Doctor Who fandom, or rec.art.drwho in particular. Are you going to explore this in a future Orman book?

    And no love for the Auton spatula??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought about it, particularly as that makes the book something of a precursor to Love and Monsters. But that's also ultimately why I didn't - most of the general points I'll make again there. But this book comes off poorly in the comparison, because Davies was very much right to realize that if you're doing that story you need to make the POV character a fan instead of part of the TARDIS crew. So with more than enough to do in this entry, I decided to save that thread for later, so to speak.

      Delete
    2. ...however, you neglect to mention that Davies's version of the story was quite terrible. Key point, that. :-P

      Delete
    3. It's Marmite. That's not in and of itself a bad thing.

      Delete
    4. Initially, I was one of the folks who hated Love and Monsters. And I had a variety of good reasons for my hatred. It was a screed against fan culture, the villain was cartoonish and ridiculous, the denouement was corny, and the episode's protagonist was a twit. Even in my most negative perspective on the story, however, I did respect is for providing Jackie Tyler her best moment on the series.

      Yet as the years went by, I've radically re-evaluated my conception of that story. I don't think it's RTD's best script, though I never thought it was his worst. But now I think I understand what he was trying to do in terms of expressing his philosophy of life as it was understood in the context of Doctor Who. He wanted to express how people could come to define their lives in terms of this figure/character, and the pleasures and dangers of giving one's life that kind of focus.

      Delete
    5. The first time I watched Love & Monsters, I had mixed feelings about it, and the second time, I adored it. I think I saw a lot more affection for fan culture than dislike of it on the second time through. I'd agree that Jackie's possibly the best part of it, but that leaves a lot of room for the rest to be brilliant. Looking forward to more discussion when it comes up!

      Delete
    6. Count me in among those who've come to adore Love and Monsters. And I can see how it's a divisive episode -- be it the odd chronology, the unreliable and somewhat unlikeable narrator, the off-putting Absorbaloff, and of course that joke -- but honestly, I never saw it as a put-down of fan culture. I always thought it was sweet, in its own way.

      Having seen it a half-dozen or more times, including a couple close readings, I now think it's wonderful and incisive, with all kinds of wonderful layers to it, and emotionally poignant, too; it's amazing what a change in perspective can do for the enjoyment of an episode of television.

      Delete
    7. FWIW, where Love & Monsters is told from a fan's perspective, Return of the Living Dad's take is told from a *writer's* perspective, if you will. A perspective on fans of someone who now has fans of her own. It discusses some issues of what you owe your fans. The Doctor of course believes he owes them nothing, but Benny disagrees... anyway, it's also doing something a bit different as it catalogues different types of fans, in a relatively loving way...

      Delete
    8. Also, this is another in the long sequence of "cleaning up what the Doctor leaves behind" stories, a theme which reasserts itself in Aliens of London, School Reunion, etc., but which was barely present before this. The theme starts in Head Games, I think. This is the most *fun* of the bunch though; they tend to be rather dark, but Kate manages to make it funny.

      Delete
  2. "Paul Cornell, in the more recent Doctor Who Magazine piece, suggests that “she became the voice of the readers in a lot of these texts. That when something huge and science-fictional was going to happen to a bunch of people, she would come along rather like an Eric-Idle-in-Monty-Python figure, and just sort of point at it until it was ridiculous. I love the fact that she got to meet things like Nazis and Daleks, and point out how ridiculous such pomposity is when compared to the wonders of domesticity.”"

    Ah, I did wonder where the worst and most obnoxious tropes of the RTD era came from.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sorry, you misspelled "best and most enjoyable".

      Okay, not really, but first, yeah, this sort of thing tends to be loads of fun for me, at least, and second, aren't the worst and most obnoxious tropes of the RTD era the melodramatic bits that overshoot their emotional goals?

      Delete
    2. Have to say I'm with Tommy here, although I'd substitute "worst and most obnoxious tropes of the Steven Moffat era" myself.

      "Mundane" and "Domestic" are not synonyms. Neither, for that matter, are "Domestic" and "Heteronormative".

      Delete
    3. I must say, Tom, I can't wait for the RTD era proper to start on the Eruditorum, if only to anticipate all the mad conversations I'm sure we'll have once we start digging into it. I remember various comments over the last couple of years where you mentioned your distaste for Davies' style because of his philistinism. Frankly, I've never quite understood it (same for the accusation of Moffat's sexism, but we'll save that argument for that era).

      But I am interested to see the details of Phil's conception of domesticity. I think I see shadows and suggestions, thanks to his inclusion of Our Friends From the North as his example of the resurgence of BBC Drama in the mid-1990s. It isn't just because Chris Eccleston starred in it, but because of its political conclusions, as I mentioned in my comment to that post on Wednesday. If the best frame of reference for a "Tomorrow's too late" spirit of revolution to work is the context of personal transformations and lives, then the individual domestic level is the best way to affect political change. It's a similar insight to Gandhi's model of activism through conversational understanding of people different than you.

      The figure of Benny makes this strange because it combines her focus on everyday people with a kind of trope awareness that was developing in popular culture during this time, and has become thoroughly mainstream now. If I can make a point with reference to another cult show, by the end of the Moffat era, we may all become Abed Nadir.

      Also, I kind of hope that at some point, there'll be a Pop Between Realities on Inspector Spacetime. At least by the time the Moffat book hits the market.

      Delete
    4. "If I can make a point with reference to another cult show, by the end of the Moffat era, we may all become Abed Nadir."

      I definitely need more coffee. First time I read this I thought you said "Abu Nazir," suggesting a completely different kind of revolution.

      Delete
  3. Hm. Here I've got to ask a question that's been swirling around my head: how exactly do you define "domesticity"? Because, in my head, there is a lot of stuff that has to do with the activities of "normal" humans that isn't really domestic, and it includes a lot of what I define as best in life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Can't speak for others, but my definition would be something akin to my reply to Tommy above.

      Delete
  4. Dr. Sandifer, I love your observation here about the Seventh being the most likely Doctor to volunteer in a hospice. Even though I'm not his biggest fan, I'd agree, and contemplating this makes me feel a little more warmly about him and about the prospect of meeting Sylvester McCoy in February. Oddly, the only other Doctor I can imagine taking a break to do something like that is the Ninth. He'd sweep angrily, like a man doing penance, and be deadly serious about how everyone else should take time to do the same.

    Actually, it's this same angle on the Seventh Doctor that makes me think that he's the wrong one for Human Nature in the same way that the Tenth is. I don't think the Seventh Doctor seems as alien as he's made out to, and as the most professorial of all the Doctors (there's a reason Ace calls him that, isn't there?), it's not a stretch at all to see him as a teacher. Imagine the Second Doctor in that same role!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can imagine all the Doctors in Human Nature, including The Doctor Donna! It's a lot of fun. I'd love to see a Matt Smith version, though Moffat would never have the stones.

      Delete