Friday, November 9, 2012
What More Could A Renegade Wish For? (Head Games)
I’ll Explain Later
We’ve skipped the perfectly serviceable Zamper and Toy Soldiers. Head Games is a doozy - the sequel to Conundrum as well as part of a paired release alongside the Missing Adventure Millennial Rites, also in October of 1995, which constitute Virgin Books’ attempt to deal with the Valeyard and the regeneration of the Sixth Doctor. It also has both Mel and Ace. It’s… ambitious, as we’ll see. And yet largely praised. Lars Pearson somewhat idiosyncratically calls for a beverage pairing, saying that it “leaves a lump of your throat as you down cup after cup of cafe mochas.” Dave Owen, at the time, was a beverage agnostic, and was altogether more dour, suggesting that the book was good on the matter of “the psychodrama going on in the TARDIS,” but calling it “dreary” and “dull” when talking about any other parts. It is indeed considerably less popular than Conundrum, hanging out in the mid-list in thirty-fourth place on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings with a 68.3% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide Entry.
While we were not reading books DVDs were announced, the White Earthquake struck Chile, Bermudans rejected independence, and Microsoft released Windows 95. While in the month of this book, the Million Man March, consisting of somewhere in the range of 400-800 thousand people, takes place in Washington DC. And Julie Goodyear leaves Coronation Street. Nothing else happens that month. Nothing. (Oh fine. OJ Simpson is acquitted.)
While in books, Head Games. Encyclops, commenting a few entries back, suggested jokingly a glossary of terms that are cliches in fan-analysis of Doctor Who: “romp,” for instance - an admittedly problematic term, and “gurning,” a delightful word that fills a hole in one’s life that one didn’t even know existed. And then there was the third term he proposed, “nightmare brief.” It is, indeed, a fan cliche. But a history of the term is still interesting. The term refers to those occasional stories that happen in which two or more pre-ordained events end up taking place in a single story. The archetypal nightmare brief is probably Planet of Fire, in which Peter Grimwade got to deal with Peri’s arrival, the death of the Master, squaring away Kamelion, writing out Turlough, and going to Lanzarote all in one story.
The nightmare brief is not merely an event story. Remembrance of the Daleks, for instance, is not a nightmare brief, in that seemingly every idea involved in it was always Aaronovitch’s intention. Rather a nightmare brief is when a story has a list of elements that must be included and there’s not a self-evident reason why they go together. The concept is most associated with the Nathan-Turner era and his preference for laundry list stories in the style of, say, The Two Doctors, but it has earlier precedent. Indeed, a fair case can be made that the first nightmare brief was The Daleks’ Masterplan or, at latest, Power of the Daleks. But in the Nathan-Turner era, as I said, these sorts of laundry list stories became common. And they still crop up from time to time, although these days they’ve tended to go to the showrunner to handle themselves. But even still, you’ve got messes like Daleks in Manhattan that give all the feel of a nightmare brief story.
Head Games may or may not be a nightmare brief, but structurally it has all the hallmarks of one. It features every companion of the Seventh Doctor, including the first use of Mel in eight years, makes progress in dealing with the Valeyard (a topic that had been forbidden from submissions to the Virgin line, partially because of their efforts to avoid continuity porn and, perhaps more importantly, paying extra for the rights to characters whose original creators would get royalty payments), serves as a sequel to Conundrum, and ties in vaguely to that month’s Missing Adventure, the already-covered Millennial Rights. This may well have all been Lyons’s idea, but it means that the book is packed to the gills from the get-go.
This, in turn, means that it has to be something the Virgin line has largely avoided being up to this point, which is a book that simply does not have any room to play with any ideas that are not inherently related to Doctor Who. In many ways it’s a staggering achievement that it indulges in this so rarely. The novel line could easily have become packed with continuity-laden stories that dealt only with Doctor Who stories in the general case. It’s what people would generally expect from a line of sci-fi television tie-ins, and though the Virgin books routinely did continuity-heavy sequels, and routinely played off the legacy of Doctor Who, the fact that there are more books like Transit in the line than there are like Time’s Crucible is one of the many genuinely remarkable things about the line. But Head Games is not one of those books. Head Games is a book about squaring away major bits of Doctor Who continuity for the sake of having them squared away.
This is not inherently a bad thing. That the New Adventures largely avoided it is remarkable, but as I’ve said, the books were always going to appeal to an audience for whom dense continuity was intelligible. The question is really what sorts of dense continuity you want to tackle. A book that, for instance, attempted to square away the three Atlantises problem would be a tenuous idea simply because there’s not a lot of content to the question. But the Valeyard has some meat on the bones simply because it’s such a radical concept that was obviously not used to its full, or even really partial, potential in the TV series. On top of that, the concept, as we noted back in the Trial entries, coincides closely with a moment in the series history when there was a strange gap in what the series was doing.
Simply put, the ambiguities implicit in Trial of a Time Lord and the effaced Baker-McCoy regeneration serve as extremely solid metaphors for what was going on with the show production-wise. The Valeyard and the Trial were always designed, in part, to explore the possibility that the Baker’s Doctor was an inadequate or even failed version of the character. The missing regeneration coincides with Cartmel’s rapid evolution of the series, implicitly putting the Sixth and Seventh Doctors in an implied conflict. And in the face of Paul Cornell’s treatment of the Doctor’s psyche in Timewyrm: Revelation and his suggestion that the Seventh Doctor had murdered the Sixth so he could exist, that conflict becomes something that begs to be explored. So this isn’t just a story about tying off some mildly obscure continuity ends: it’s a story that literalizes part of an ongoing debate about the future direction of Doctor Who.
This also explains why the Land of Fiction actually fits in here: it allows for a debate about the nature of authorship and storytelling to fit into the story itself. Jason, the Master of the Land of Fiction from Conundrum, creates Dr. Who, a doppelgänger of the Doctor, and becomes his companion, allowing Lyons to put a monstrous parody of the Doctor into the narrative. Dr. Who is not an evil Doctor, but rather a simplistic one - the sort that would be written by a lame writer, which is basically the concept behind Jason. Jason mistakes Doctor Who for a story about defeating evil, nasty monsters, and so Dr. Who becomes the most simplistic sort of hero, to the point of making a machine that destroys lizard people by, basically, writing “Lizard Monster Eradicator” on the side of a cardboard box and pushing a button.
But this entire debate has one problem, which is that the Valeyard, as a concept, would seem to push both ways. He may, metatextually, be a symbol of the Sixth Doctor’s inadequacy, but if you want to pick a Doctor who seems reasonably likely to turn into a dark and evil version of the character it is, of course, the Seventh who seems like the obvious candidate. Which is why Jason, Dr. Who, and, eventually, Mel all find it so easy to characterize him as evil. The usual litany of bad bad things comes up: the destruction of the alternate universe in Blood Heat and the destruction of the Seven Planets in The Pit. But they’re almost pro forma at this point. By and large, a story in which it’s really, properly proposed that the Doctor could conceivably go bad, and that his usual modus operandi these days is well on the path towards that is just about the most obvious Virgin Books plot imaginable. It’s not just the books that have had the Doctor partially responsible for outright atrocities that point towards this, but the basic attitude in which book after book has overtly brought the Doctor’s ethics into question.
But there’s an odd dissonance here too. For the most part the Virgin line has brought the Doctor into disrepute not by having him be responsible for terrible things but by straining the relationship between him and his companions. For all the horrors of Blood Heat and The Pit, there remains no more shocking moment on the Doctor’s part than his seeming betrayal of Ace in Love and War. Head Games, to its credit, deals with this artfully. Central to the story is the planet of Detrios, which is currently being artificially sustained by a MacGuffin involving the now dismantled Land of Fiction called the Miracle. The Doctor intends to deactivate the Miracle, as it poses a threat to the universe. But, of course, doing so also dooms Detrios. So on the one hand the story sets the Doctor up for another atrocity in the name of the greater good. But it also has the Doctor keep this information from his companions, thus tying the two aspects of the Doctor’s untrustworthiness together.
The problem that Lyons runs into, then, is that he’s got two competing cases for what the Valeyard represents. One is metatextual, based on the fact that the Valeyard, in Trial of a Time Lord, is a symbol of the failures of the Colin Baker era as a whole. The other is actually character-based, based on the fact that the New Adventures feature a much darker and more ethically questionable Doctor. Within the book it’s the former that is mostly focused on: the Sixth Doctor is portrayed as the one likely to become the Valeyard, with the Seventh explicitly accusing him of being on the road to that. It’s reiterated that the Doctors opt to keep the Sixth Doctor imprisoned in their mind out of fear that he might become the Valeyard. But there’s very little that manages to justify that here.
At the heart of this is the fact that, in the absence of any clear account of things, Trial of a Time Lord was always easy to misunderstand. The Valeyard, as Robert Holmes created him, was a figure based on the terror of authority. The Doctor turning evil is what happens when he becomes a creature of rules and regulations. But since Trial of a Time Lord was a confused and barely coherent mess, Holmes’s intent never really came through. So in fan lore the Valeyard becomes a factor of the Sixth Doctor’s flaws, and, more broadly, of the flaws of the Sixth Doctor’s era. But as compelling as this metatextual approach is, it never really worked as a reading of Trial of a Time Lord itself. And here it finds itself dwarfed by the obvious idea that the Seventh Doctor is the one likely to be the Valeyard.
To be fair, Lyons tackles that idea, allowing the Sixth Doctor to accuse the Seventh of being more like the Valeyard than he is. And the Seventh Doctor admits that “for all his intentions and all his games, he was still capable of becoming the Valeyard.” But this still positions the Seventh Doctor’s darker tendencies as a way of resisting the Valeyard, which seems unconvincing at best. The basic problem remains: the Valeyard, coming as he does from a barely coherent story and serving as a dead end for an entire approach to Doctor Who, is very hard to incorporate into any other mythology of Doctor Who.
But I said I was going to be nice to this Steve Lyons book, so let’s instead note that for all the difficulties it has resolving its themes, Head Games still displays a striking unity. And to be honest, an exhaustive and complete solving of the Valeyard is probably impossible, at least in narrative form. Whether imposed on him or taken by choice, Head Games really is the nightmare brief, and Lyons’s decision to stop short of a big “explain everything” book allows him to tell a story with some great moments in its own right. Dr Who failing to convince student radicals talking about how the entire social order needs to be overthrown to actually join his rebellion is a fantastically sly bit. And the angry dissolving of the Doctor and Mel’s friendship is brutal. Given the disdain with which much of fandom holds Mel and the degree to which it treats the turn towards Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six as an improvement, turning the book into a work of nostalgia for an era that isn’t normally well-remembered and reminding the reader that there was something lost in the turn towards the darker and more ruthless take on McCoy’s Doctor. And it must be said, Lyons, even if he treats the Valeyard as the endpoint of the Sixth Doctor, also clearly loves the era. He did, after all, write two Missing Adventures for Baker’s Doctor, plus a Big Finish audio. He’s able to sell the nostalgia for Mel’s simpler morality, and it makes for an effective critique of the current era.
All the same, there is something notable about the way in which this book turns towards a task Virgin had largely avoided, namely wrapping up strands of the series’ past. Head Games doesn’t explain everything away, but it does serve to close the book on the Valeyard to an extent, giving him a place in the series’ past with the potential for return, but nothing like the necessity of doing so. And it makes relatively definitive statements on many of the Virgin era’s pet continuity theories, taking some of Paul Cornell’s more brash hints and making them “official,” so to speak. This is not surprising, of course - even though the book license hadn’t been officially taken away from Virgin when this came out (I don’t believe - though if someone happens to be able to track the date of that announcement easily I’d be curious), we are now in the point where the TV Movie is looming and the writing is on the wall for, if not the Virgin line, at least the Seventh Doctor. The line is entering the phase where it is tying up its loose ends and making its final statements about the Seventh Doctor. Head Games is perhaps overwhelmed by how much it has to do, but its also a necessary book in that it renders explicit many of the assumptions of the Virgin era. Put another way, if the Colin Baker era had ever had a story that this meticulously and coherently wrapped up its themes, Head Games might not have needed to exist in the first place.