Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Outside the Government 6 (Oh No It Isn't!)

I’ve been saying that the chronology through these parts is wobbly for a while, and have in fact said “now the chronology gets really wobbly” before, but in any case, as Amy Pond would have it, here’s where things get complicated. After weeks of violating real-world chronology in favor of maintaining in-universe chronology, despite believing neither in the idea of a Doctor Who universe nor in an absolute timeline of the Doctor, now I’m even going to bugger that up. And not even in order to go back to a real-world chronology. In order of release the next few entries go the TV Movie, The Dying Days, Oh No It Isn’t!, The Eight Doctors, Down. In-universe they go the TV Movie, The Eight Doctors, The Dying Days, Oh No It Isn’t!, Down. You will notice that the order we’re doing them in, Oh No It Isn’t!, Down, the TV Movie, The Dying Days, The Eight Doctors, is distinctively neither of those actually rational orderings, instead proceeding along that terribly nebulous logic of “thematic reasons.”


So, some explanations. Terrance Dicks’s The Eight Doctors is written so as to follow directly from the events of the TV Movie. Notably, it’s also next to impossible to reconcile with Lungbarrow, though you can just about do it if you squint and are determined to make it work. (Dicks, clearly, was in no way determined to do so.) But before The Eight Doctors came out in June of 1997 Virgin did one last Doctor Who-focused New Adventure, which featured Benny meeting the Eighth Doctor - that’s The Dying Days, released in April of 1997. Then, the next month, Virgin released Oh No It Isn’t!, the first of their new New Adventures, which featured Benny as the lead character. Benny’s status quo in this book stems out of The Dying Days, but, for obvious legal reasons, it makes no reference whatsoever to any Doctor Who concepts.

The reason for the shuffle, dear reader, is simple: the Benny line is the future of Virgin, which we’ve been dealing with for months. The Dying Days, on the other hand, is first and foremost a response to the TV Movie. So these books go here, as the final two entries of what will become the Sylvester McCoy book, The Dying Days goes as the third entry in the Paul McGann/Christopher Eccleston book, and it all makes thematic sense even if the chronology is at this point absurd.

As its basic nature and title would imply, Oh No It Isn’t! is a bit of a defiant book. It’s a book about doggedly carrying on the Virgin torch even after the ostensible reason for their existence has gone away. The usual line about the Benny books, shamefully repeated by Peter Darvill-Evans in the “Wilderness Years” documentary on the TV Movie DVD, is that there’s no point in doing Doctor Who without the Doctor. First of all, this is a frankly nasty slight at the decade-plus successful run of Benny adventures at Big Finish that outright put the lie to his suggestion that the Benny books couldn’t work. They just apparently couldn't work under his company, and so petered out after about two years. And while it’s certainly possible that the problem is just down to the differing expectations between what a company like Big Finish expects their margins to be and what a company like Virgin Books does, the larger problem is one of branding.

Simply put, carrying on the Benny books as though they were continuations of the New Adventures proclaimed them to be, well, Doctor Who. Which, indeed, is probably not a great idea to try to put out without the Doctor, although that certainly hasn’t stopped people here and there. Whereas the correct approach - and certainly the one Cornell visibly intends in his book - is to say that these aren’t Doctor Who, they’re Bernice Summerfield, who is her own sort of protagonist with her own sort of adventures. That her fans are largely coextensive with Doctor Who fandom is an interesting historical accident, but a Bernice Summerfield story is still a fundamentally different animal.

Still, there is a cheeky defiance underlying this. After the supposed final New Adventure we get a book that puts its attitude right on the cover: Oh No It Isn’t! It’s the Virgin line insisting adamantly that life goes on and that their aesthetic can carry the day. Or, more thoroughly, that they don’t need the Doctor to do the sorts of stories they’re good at.

There’s an obvious problem here, however, which is that the Virgin aesthetic and what people wanted the Virgin aesthetic to be were always at loggerheads. Or, at least, partially so. There were, of course, terribly serious writers in the Virgin stable who wanted to write “adult” science fiction where “adult” is defined as “all the violent stuff you outgrew when you were nine.” And through some strange and not entirely explicable process this became what Virgin was known for. It was helped along, certainly, by the fact that those writers with different instincts still liked making the Doctor into a slightly oversized and scary character. So even Paul Cornell had a streak of epic darkness running through things and Kate Orman loved a good bit of torturing the Doctor.

But crucially, this just flat-out isn’t what Benny supports as a character. I mean, we’ll look at the way in which she can be used for a dark story on Friday, but given that she’s at least partially defined by the degree to which she undercuts anything along those lines. She’s a character defined in a large part by her irreverence and the extent to which she rejects and takes the piss out of the standard conventions of sci-fi. In this regard she’s a fantastic character who can absolutely support an original fiction line, but she’s a wretched candidate to carry on the supposed grittiness of the New Adventures. And so unsurprisingly what people wanted out of the Benny New Adventures was not what they were good at providing.

In this regard, Oh No It Isn’t! is defiant in another way. Paul Cornell, after all, was never going to pander to the grim ’n gritty crowd in launching the Benny New Adventures. In this regard the book is willfully disappointing. Here’s Paul Cornell, fan favorite writer, launching the new New Adventures, and he’s being even sillier than usual. It’s Planet of the Panto People. It’s not that this isn’t what anybody wanted - Paul Cornell’s reputation as Frockmeister Supremo was established by this point, and he was still widely regarded as Virgin’s best writer. But Paul Cornell’s celebration of the everyday and determined rejection of the sweepingly epic is at odds with the expectations of a high profile spin-off launch like this. Even without the weight of Virgin’s misguided reputation, expectations for what the launch of a new line would entail would naturally push towards something more serious and weighty than this.

Instead, however, Paul Cornell gives the most unrepentantly silly thing he’s ever written: an unrepentant piece of comedy in which all of the characters end up inside a panto. Which is a rough premise on top of it - it’s more aggressively and self-consciously British than just about anything Virgin has published to date. If you’re not familiar with the basic conventions of panto, which, let’s face it, rules out most Americans. Which, I mean, I don’t pretend that the US was the primary distribution venue for the Virgin line, but we were at least a fair chunk of the audience. And this book bordered on the outright unintelligible. The defiance implied by the title (which is, of course, first and foremost a panto reference) is, in other words, also a complete refusal to meet audience expectations or compromise in the least on Paul Cornell’s vision of what these sorts of stories should be.

And, you know, fair enough. It’s a fun book. It at least proves Cornell’s basic thesis, which is that things like this are fun and worth doing. But there is the faintest trace of a problem, and it’s one we’ve seen before in Cornell’s work, specifically in Love and War. The problem is that Cornell has taken the approach as far as it can go. Nothing after Love and War ever managed to come close to that book’s depiction of a manipulative Doctor and the lengths he might go to. Cornell identified the theme and explored it fully. There wasn’t anything left to do with Ace or the manipulative aspects of McCoy’s Doctor after Love and War.

Likewise, as much as this confirms the quality of Paul Cornell’s frock, it feels as though there’s nowhere else to go with this approach. This feels as though it has taken this particular sort of over the top silliness and celebration of the everyday and lowly within a sci-fi adventure to its limit. Nothing else is going to quite manage to top or even equal a sci-fi adventure blended with panto for sheer plucky ridiculousness. Short of doing an audio adaptation in which you cast Nicholas Courtney as Wolsley the temporarily talking cat there’s just not a way to build off of this.

And in that regard, at least, it fails at its ostensible most basic task. This is in no way an effective start to a new line of books. The first book in a series is not the place to do a “take it to the limit” sort of approach. It’s a fabulous book, but it’s not one that leaves you with much of a clear reason to buy the next one. Which, when you’re trying to herd cats and get nineties Doctor Who fandom to buy something that doesn’t say “Doctor Who” on the front, is a problem. The ostensible audience for this book, after all, are the same people who wanted Lungbarrow. Getting them to keep buying the books without the Doctor was already an uphill battle. Throwing a willful piece of defiance that doesn’t really successfully set up a future for the line is just suicidal.

Especially because, and Cornell had to have known this, it wasn’t like people were going to follow in his footsteps. The next five writers of Benny books were, according to a 1996 interview with Cornell, supposed to be Gareth Roberts, Matt Jones, Lance Parkin, Andy Lane, and Justin Richards. Richards and Jones ended up being right, but the next three after that were Dave Stone, Lawrence Miles, and Gary Russell. On either list, the idea that they were going to be similarly frockish was clearly nuts. Cornell knew full well that his book wasn’t setting up the novel line that was going to follow from it, and his editors knew it as well, which begs the question of why his book did. Purely the perceived trading power of his name? The fact that he has a built-in audience who would pick up the first Benny book based on him? Perhaps, but if so it’s the sort of short-term thinking that dooms long-term projects like novel lines. And sure enough, doomed it was.

All of which is a somewhat ignoble end for the Virgin era. It basically spelled the end of Virgin as a sci-fi publishing company. Which is mostly unfortunate, as the Doctor Who line largely showed they were pretty good at it. Indeed, there’s something just a bit puzzling as to how a company that had been so good at the Doctor Who line, making it succeed in ways that a spin-off novel series had no right to succeed, could have failed as thoroughly as they did to capitalize on it. But they managed it, leaving their legacy as the temporary custodians of Doctor Who as more or less the extent of what the imprint is known for in terms of science fiction. It is by and large the very definition of anticlimax.

12 comments:

  1. I only ever encountered Oh No It Isn't as a Big Finish audio -- the Virgin NAs became too hard to find for me not long after 'The Also People' hit shelves, but I immediately found it fantastic (It helps that I work somewhere that holds a ball every year, giving me a chance to appropriate the "The King's balls get bigger every year" joke). When I found out that Big Finish was doing a Benny line, I was initially ambivalent -- I'd always found Benny sort of insufferable in the books. But out on her own, without the weight of the "Darker and Edgier" Virgin NA line around her, it turned out that the character was just a lot of fun. (It undoubtedly helps that it was no longer the 1990s and I was no longer twelve)

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  2. Regarding your assertion that the pantomime tradition is largely lost on Americans: I agree that is the case for mainstream America. But this book wasn't intended for them; it was intended for the Doctor Who fans, who were a subculture with quite differing interests. It's not so much the case with the new series, but I'd argue that American Who fans in the 90s tended to be Anglophiles, and the book buyers moreso. They'd either be familiar with panto or immediately have something new they'd want to learn about.

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    1. Yes, but this was still early days of the Internet. Was there a "giant guide to Panto" floating around anywhere? I mean, I'm familiar with it in broad strokes and did my homework before reading this book such that I knew most of the major plots and conventions, but it was still a strange experience. I suspect general Anglophilia is not sufficient to tackle this one.

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    2. "I suspect general Anglophilia is not sufficient to tackle this one."

      It definitely wasn't for me: reading this book when it first came out was like going to a party only to find everyone else there in incomprehensible fancy dress sharing in-jokes that were probably funny if you were in on them but...

      I followed the Benny books because I loved the character, but good God, Virgin didn't make it easy.

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    3. "I suspect general Anglophilia is not sufficient to tackle this one."

      Oh yes it is!

      Sorry - had to be said.
      I can't actually imagine how to start explaining a British pantomime to someone who hasn't been to one. (Saying that it's as camp as a bunch of drag queens living in tents is only a start.)

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    4. I have never read Oh No It Isn't. I have no idea what I would have thought of it had I read it when it first came out, at age 14. As I read your summary of the book (sci-fi meets panto), I could only agree with your assessment: What the H was Paul Cornell thinking.

      All I knew of panto at the time was a Monty Python sketch where Puss in Boots appears to menace John Cleese dressed as a fascist torturer who has ways of making you talk, which devolved into an exchange of "Oh no it isn't!" with Cleese's "Oh yes it is!" It was funny, but I had no idea what was happening.

      Really, the only way Doctor Who fans in America would know anything about panto is trying to figure out what kind of weird kinky drag show John Barrowman goes into every Xmas, and following Colin Baker's twitter feed. And even then, it's just kind of fucked up.

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  3. Panto is one of the great joys of Xmas. Before I moved to the parochial and retrograde North-East of Scotland- a kind of middle-class military forces fantasy of 1950s values in a setting of social deprivation and marked financial inequity- I would attend at least three pantos in Glasgow at this time of year.

    Rambunctious retellings of fairy tales with cross dressing, vaudevillian set pieces and topical jokes, they are probably an impenetrable theatrical form to US natives.

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  4. Panto has to be experienced to be understood. I wish I could help, but I can't.

    I also wish I had something substantive to say about this story, but I remember literally nothing about it. It's on my bookshelf, evidently I read it at some point, but not one word of it has stuck in my mind.

    And that's my problem with the Bernice Summerfield NAs generally. I found so many of them utterly forgettable, even when they were written by author's whose Who-NA work I had greatly admired.

    For me, the Benny adventures fell into three classes:

    1. Books I never read
    2. Books I read but immediately forgot all about
    3. Books by Lawrence Miles.

    Miles at least was determined to be strange, provocative and driven by a unique creative and ideological agenda. For the other authors, the Benny adventures just seemed to be stuff happening.

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    1. For me, the really great Benny books are:
      1 - Walking to Babylon (the absolutely definitive book on the lurking "Time War" concept)
      2 - Beige Planet Mars
      The second grade ones:
      3 - Ship of Fools
      4 - Dry Pilgrimage
      5 - Twilight of the Gods

      Walking to Babylon defines the "Serious Benny", as later done by Big Finish. Beige Planet Mars defines the "Silly Benny", as later done by Big Finish -- but is actually a book with a serious emotional heart and some intense thoughts. "Dry Pilgrimage" and "Ship of Fools" are books which "get" the basic Benny structural principles, and "Ship of Fools" is notable for being possibly the most fan-oriented book ever, with Dave Stone actually requesting fans on rec.arts.drwho to volunteer their names and methods of being murdered. I don't know if Random Companion still goes to conventions, but I remember meeting her...

      "Twilight of the Gods" is mostly notable for tying up a bunch of very poorly thought out arcs in a way which actually makes sense and is satsifying for the longtime reader, although very few readers seem to have recognized this at the time (I had to explain it to the other writers at the Gallifrey convention, probably because they hadn't read Cold Fusion). It reinforced my feeling that Mark Clapham was a writer who believed in rewarding the fans who'd been reading all along. But it was a "season finale" for a very long series of books -- the actual end to the Virgin line.

      The Lawrence Miles stuff in the Benny run isn't very good. It's got the wrong *tone* for Benny. Which you can tell by the fact that he promptly writes a Benny-free story. Which is still not good because it's still got the wrong tone for Chris Cwej! This is guns vs. frocks again. "Down" works OK only due to the unreliable narrator. But then Miles is generally tone-deaf and mispitches his books.

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  5. With immaculate timing, the current issue of Doctor Who magazine has a long feature on panto. It goes some way towards explaining what it's about, especially with the connections to commedia del'arte and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, combining with the luvvie reminiscences that give a better idea of how it functions in practice. But of course, there is no substitute for direct experience.

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  6. There is a panto tradition here in Canada.

    I hate them.

    This is not a very enliving comment, I am aware. I just needed to state, for the record, that I hate Panto, and everything about Panto that isn't the Pantomime horse sketches in Monty Python.

    "Here we see a pantomime Princess Margaret engaged in a life or death struggle with a breakfast..."

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