Friday, November 23, 2012
Time Can Be Rewritten 35 (Happy Endings)
I went back and forth on how best to do this, and ultimately went with this. The main reason is, honestly, that I’m organizing the book versions by Doctor, so it makes sense to keep the blog organized that way. (Though ironically this does mean I’m breaking Benny’s timeline somewhat badly by covering Oh No It Isn’t! and Down prior to the TV Movie. This is because, on the whole, it makes more sense to keep those in the same book as the majority of the Virgin material.) And more broadly, because the TV Movie didn’t have that much influence on the tail end of the Virgin line except conceptually - through the very fact of its existence and what that meant for Virgin.
Which was, of course, that the party was over. Remember that the Virgin line was actually a fluke. Virgin Books had bought out WH Allen, and thus acquired Target in the process. The New Adventures came when they realized they were out of television stories to novelize and asked if maybe they could do some original novels, to which the BBC, having just cancelled the series, basically said “yeah sure, whatever” to. And so they did, and they turned out to be successful and actually alarmingly good, and so the BBC used the TV Movie as an excuse to take the rights back. So the Virgin line went into a year in which the Doctor they were using had already been regenerated on television and the line itself was facing cancellation.
This isn’t the first time that the future of Doctor Who has consumed its past. The Five Doctors and all of Season Twenty-One, for instance, aired after the announcement of Colin Baker as the next Doctor, rendering all of those stories the lead-up to an already-happened ending. The way in which the big press launch of Matt Smith preceded the 2009-10 specials season made this even bigger, with David Tennant’s regeneration happening as a cultural event nearly a full year before it actually got televised. But this is by some margin the most extreme: Sylvester McCoy regenerated into Paul McGann on television, and then we went back to Sylvester McCoy stories for a year.
It was, of course, not immediately clear how everything would play out. In theory, at least, there was a chance that the McGann movie could be successful enough to lead to a series pickup on Fox - it was, after all, intended as a backdoor pilot. But odds of that fell quickly as the ratings were, while respectable, not good enough to go to series. But until that happened nobody could make firm plans for the future of the Eighth Doctor. (A similar phenomenon impacts the end of the BBC Books line, where The Gallifrey Chronicles pointedly avoided wrapping everything up in case the 2005 series was a complete disaster and the books had to step back into the gap.) So the New Adventures were, as of May of 1996, left in an odd position: their time as the present of Doctor Who had clearly ended, but no future had yet emerged.
The main theme in this analysis is going to be eschatology and the frantic drive towards the apocalyptic that constituted the tail end of the second millennium. It’s a good metaphor, and there’s more to do with it, but what we have here is more straightforward and, as a result, all the more fexing. Happy Endings is a book that self-consciously commemorates the New Adventures line that, by pure luck, managed to come out the exact same month that the line was effectively killed off. (And it is clearly coincidence, as the ostensible occasion for Happy Endings is that it’s the fiftieth New Adventure, a fact that could not have been synced up with the movie’s transmission.) It’s not an engagement with the looming uncertainty of The Wilderness Years Part II, but rather an uncluttered celebration of the New Adventures line and what it was, told by its then most-prolific author (although Kate Orman will, by the end of the line, pip him by half a book).
Happy Endings is a deeply, exuberantly silly book. It picks up on Gareth Roberts’s idea of a Fortean Flicker from The Highest Science and absolutely goes to town with it, spinning an outrageous series of coincidences and contrivances to justify the sort of overblown plot that a big anniversary story calls for. Cornell has said in interviews that the model for the book were issues of comic books in which heroes get married, which is a venerable and deeply silly tradition characterized by preposterous numbers of guest characters and continuity references coupled with a gleefully silly villainous threat (in this case using the most obvious character for such a plot, the Master). It’s got a writer’s jam in which every past New Adventure writer save for Jim Mortimore contributes a scene, references to absolutely every New Adventure to date, and a song, with sheet music, as an appendix. Also a human/alien cricket match. As I said. Silly.
But there’s something a little bit strange here. Yes, Paul Cornell’s style of “it’s the little things” frockery was a major influence on the New Adventures, but we’ve been spending months working our way around the fact that the New Adventures’ most visionary writer largely goes against the aesthetic that the books are most associated with. On the one hand if you told people to pick the biggest creative force in the New Adventures almost everyone would pick Cornell. On the other, if you asked what the New Adventures were like you’d get a picture of a bleak and violent world dominated by a ruthless and callously manipulative Doctor. And Happy Endings is where those two viewpoints really come to their least reconcilable point. At least in Human Nature or Love and War we could talk about how the books revolved around that conflict, and that Cornell needed the Doctor to be pushed to the edge in order to show just how much frocks could be trusted to stand up to. But that’s not an option here. This book is just unrepentantly larking about. And more difficultly, it’s larking about while simultaneously positioning itself as the capstone to the entire New Adventures line.
To be fair, it’s not as though the book is without criticism of the past. Cornell does frame things throughout the book so as to suggest some real reservations or objections to what has gone before. Most obviously, he goes out of his way to retcon Neil Penswick’s characterization of William Blake from The Pit. While it’s difficult for me to object to this, given that Penswick’s approach to the character was so mind-wrenchingly inappropriate as to make me decide not to cover the book despite it having Blake in it, there’s something a little bit remarkable about Cornell taking active measures to retcon the book for the sole seeming reason of not liking what it did, particularly in the course of an anniversary celebration. Even if it is nice to read William Blake written by someone who gives any sense of having read any Blake.
But this isn’t the only point where Cornell feels as though he has an objection to the entire enterprise. He makes quite a point of suggesting that Benny and Jason are a terrible couple who shouldn’t be getting married. Here there’s at least some ambiguity that might salvage matters: they do get divorced in just eight months, and that may well have been planned even from Happy Endings. But that doesn’t diminish the sense of Happy Endings kicking and screaming a bit at the prospect of marrying Benny off. The book feels unhappy with its project even as it’s having a tremendous amount of fun making it happen.
But this largely gets back to the way in which the Seventh Doctor has, over time, drifted. Certainly the manipulative aspects of the Virgin Doctor have roots in the Cartmel era, but they’re not a part of it as such. And tellingly, the key difference is visible in Love and War. Prior to that, the Doctor had never manipulated an innocent to their death. Yes, he’d nuked Skaro and set up Ace for a Freudian encounter with underwater vampires, but come on. The Cartmel era was repeatedly and self-consciously riffing on the fact that it was a children’s show, and these are all children’s television examples of a dark, manipulative figure. McCoy’s Doctor wasn’t a ruthless cosmic chessmaster, he was a twelve-year-old sci-fi fan’s idea of what a ruthless cosmic chessmaster would look like. That was what was so shocking about Love and War: that the Doctor would go that far. Nothing like Jan’s death had ever happened before. It was a sudden and shocking shift of narrative codes: suddenly the Doctor wasn’t just a children’s television manipulator, he was a dangerous and scary figure who really might not be on your side.
Furthermore, as we saw back in the Warchild entry, the real lasting innovation of the Cartmel era was the overt connection of the material and the epic in the specific frame of human experience. Cartmel’s big idea was taking the Holmesan epic and telling it with the narrative focused specifically on the small and everyday end of the pyramidal hierarchy that stretches through time and space. The Ribos Operation told from Binro’s perspective, if you will. The Doctor was pushed towards a mysterious and manipulative role not because Cartmel was fascinated with grimdark antiheroes but because it provided the contrast for the human sphere of things to really stand out.
And this is the part of Love and War that everybody missed. Everyone seized onto the sheer dramatic weight of the Doctor betraying Ace, which, yes, remains simply one of the greatest moments in Doctor Who’s history, but they miss the fact that Cornell framed that betrayal in terms even more children’s television than Cartmel: Terrance Dicks’s “never cruel or cowardly” mantra. Cornell wasn’t trying to establish the Doctor as an untrustworthy antihero. He was just pushing the existing tension within the character further, in a manner wholly appropriate for a series of books “too broad and too deep for the small screen,” a phrase that, properly taken, points not towards rejecting the structure of televised Doctor Who but towards looking at what happens to the idea when you take the boundaries of television away.
Which is to say that while Paul Cornell is largely responsible for the decisions that gave the New Adventures their reputation and ostensible legacy, it’s a legacy that was always at cross-purposes with what he wanted to do. And while some writers did take the New Adventures down the path of having the Doctor defined primarily by his manipulations and questionable morality, that certainly wasn’t ever what Cornell saw the point as being. This is, in many ways, similar to what we saw in The Shadow of the Scourge, where Cornell overtly tried to rework the legacy of the New Adventures into something more like this. But here we see him do it more completely and thoroughly, making a declaration about what the New Adventures are in the course of them coming out. It is on the one hand a more thorough and complete statement about the books, and on the other a more limited one, in that it is not a retrospective declaration so much as the staking out of a position within the books.
What is perhaps most striking about this, then, is how non-confrontational it is. Despite a host of books with very different approaches than what Cornell values he only ends up being really aggressively contradictory on the point of Blake. Instead he applies his own method to the darkness of the other New Adventures, subsuming the writers who disagreed with him into his own vision, as differing versions of the Doctor’s betrayal of Ace and sacrifice of Jan. And in the face of all of that, he simply reaffirms the joy he views the Doctor as representing. He’s even explicit about it, giving Annie Trelaw a sermon at the wedding that says all of this bluntly:
“In the last few years, we’ve all seen enough strife. We’ve seen a new set of rules drawn up, rules under which it was fine to cheat your neighbors, to make use of violence, to kill. We’ve all had to live in the darkness, and, in that time, we’ve all had the opportunity to see that darkness within ourselves. It’s there. We can’t ignore it. To do that is naïve. But what we discover, when we look into the pit of ourselves, is this… that though we are often caught up in violent situations, we are creatures of piece. Although we find ourselves in a world where darkness is all around, we persist in shining. We cannot help but shine. That’s the great thing about us, about us all, not just the humans here. That’s why we’ve survived the naïveté of childhood, and the terrible awakening of these recent years. That’s why we’ll keep on going, and keep on having new adventures.”
One is tempted to simply wrap up Paul Cornell’s contributions to Doctor Who here, using that as their epitaph. Certainly Cornell seems to have intended that - after this book he took a four year hiatus from writing Doctor Who, with the only exception being the first Benny-only New Adventure Oh No It Isn’t!, which, of course, isn’t Doctor Who and that’s the whole point. But for better or for worse, Cornell returned to Doctor Who in 2000 for another round. That is, of course, another story and another entry. But just as Happy Endings seems to, inadvertently, draw the Virgin line to a perfect close eleven books before its actual finale, it also seems to step in gracefully as Paul Cornell’s last Doctor Who story. That he has five more that we’re going to cover is, like the fact that we’re doing the New Adventures for another month, almost beside the point. This is the definitive statement of one version of what Doctor Who is, and the one that most actively kept the flame of the series alive for five years. The rest is footnotes.