Monday, December 17, 2012
Time Can Be Rewritten 36 (A Death in the Family)
A Death in the Family, ironically, only minimally features the post-Lungbarrow Doctor, focusing primarily on what is normally taken as a pre-Virgin Doctor situated between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys. (Though even that’s difficult to square away, as we’ll see.) The post-Lungbarrow Doctor appears, and is indeed absolutely central to the story, but as a peripheral character lurking in the background. But despite the relative briefness of his appearance he’s central to affairs. A Death in the Family is at its heart a story in the vein of Battlefield in which the infamously manipulative Seventh Doctor falls into the schemes of the one person who can out-manipulate him: his own future self.
But where Battlefield played Merlin as something that put the Doctor off his game, A Death in the Family has the two Doctors in relative lockstep. Indeed, they are sufficiently compatible in their goals that it borders on a plot hole: the older Doctor’s scheme relies on the younger Doctor making specific decisions requiring knowledge of the overall plan, but on the other hand the younger Doctor is clearly unaware of the older Doctor’s plans. This can be explained as the Doctor faking surprise at various moments, but it’s not an entirely satisfying explanation.
But then again, there’s a fundamental difference between McCoy’s Doctor falling into the schemes of some future incarnation and him falling into the schemes of McCoy’s Doctor only down the line. In this regard it’s telling that A Death in the Family straddles the Virgin era as it does. Because much of the story’s theme is right out of the Virgin playbook: an extended meditation on the nature of the Doctor’s manipulations. And it’s telling, then, that there are no particular differences highlighted between the two Doctors. Their manipulations are wholly compatible, such that the younger Doctor can smoothly slot in and finish a plan he hasn’t actually come up with yet.
But this poses a bit of a tension with the Virgin era, which does ultimately posit an arc for the Doctor’s character from beginning to end. This arc is actually for the most part opposite what people claim for the Virgin era, as we’ve noted: the Doctor’s vastly manipulative schemes increasingly fade to the background as more and more writers favor actually chucking the Doctor into unfamiliar situations. Notably, Paul Cornell, who took the manipulative Doctor as far as it could go with the idea of the Doctor leaving notes to himself from the future, actually stopped doing books where the Doctor has a plan going in after Love and War. No Future hinged on the fact that it was actually Ace who was running an elaborate manipulation, and Human Nature on the fact that there was no plan in place at all. By The Room With No Doors and Lungbarrow the Doctor has mellowed out considerably and seems altogether unlikely to launch into any vast cosmic manipulations.
Actually, all of this is just about salvageable. The easiest way to explain the plot is that the younger Doctor comes up with the scheme after discovering Nobody No-One, about whom more in a moment, and then waits until his older self to execute it. (This still requires a bit of causality paradox, but only a smidge.) In this light the plot is actually the opposite of what we’ve been describing - the younger and still ruthless Doctor comes up with a scheme that obliges his older and more mellow self to carry out one last ruthless manipulation. But while this might tie away the continuity issues it does nothing for the underlying tonal issues. The focus of the story is firmly on the younger Doctor, with the older Doctor playing the role of the mysterious mentor who steps in and gives cryptic clues. He gets some lines that gesture at a measure of regret about how he’s affected his companions’ lives, but if the story is about him being dragged back into manipulativeness for one last run then the focus is on the wrong part of things.
No, A Death in the Family seems to be working off the assumption of considerable continuity over the Seventh Doctor’s life such that the older version is perhaps a bit wiser and more weary, but still fundamentally unchanged. Which is to say, it seems to tacitly rely on the whole Virgin era never happening. Which, actually, is probably the easiest explanation. However bad the problems in squaring away the two Doctors with the Virgin line might be, squaring away Ace is just ridiculous. The story has a plotline in which Ace spends several months dating a man named Henry Noone, a relationship that grows serious enough that Henry eventually proposes to her. Ace ultimately abandons Henry, after taking advantage of him, but it’s clear that there was genuine affection for him, and though it’s never suggested that she was considering accepting his proposal, the strong implication is that she does love him.
The problem is that it’s very difficult to square this away with Love and War. The relationship between Ace and Henry renders her relationship with Jan there almost completely unbelievable. It certainly makes her reaction to the Doctor in Nightshade unworkable. Ace speaks of the way in which she’s grown up in the TARDIS, referring to herself as having been a child when she arrived. And this is important, since if Henry is proposing to the teenaged Ace from before the New Adventures the entire thing is phenomenally creepy. If nothing else, the New Adventures make it explicit that Jan was her second sexual experience, and the idea that a character like Ace would live chastely with someone in a relationship that led to him proposing to her just doesn’t wash. She’s not the wait-until-marriage type.
At the heart of this is the fact that Sophie Aldred had been performing Ace for Big Finish for a decade at this point, and A Death in the Family was her twenty-third performance in the role. The idea that Big Finish was going to leave the character eternally undeveloped so as to feed into Love and War properly is ludicrous. Slotting Big Finish’s work into the past of the series is always difficult, though. At least the McCoy material just mucks up the Virgin era - it’s difficult to figure out how The Caves of Androzani can possibly follow the fifteen Fifth Doctor/Peri audios that exist, little yet how the simpering wreck Peri is in the Colin Baker era can.
A Death in the Family is interesting, however, because this long-term planning is absolutely essential to it. It’s a fantastic story, but much of its heft and weight comes from the fact that it pays off years of story lines within Big Finish. Its emotional impact basically assumes you’re familiar not only with the background of the Doctor and Ace but of Hex, Big Finish’s original companion for the Seventh Doctor, the history of the Forge (which goes back to August of 2001), the Sixth Doctor’s companion Evelyn Smythe, and the relationship among all of these things. And knowing who Nobody No One is would probably help too. A Death in the Family is a season finale in the mould established by the new series. Indeed, plot-wise it’s almost identical to The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, which it predates by two months.
The influence of the New Series is all over this, really. In the interviews at the end of the second disc the writer even talks about things being “timey wimey” in the audio. Given this it’s not a surprise that they land at the same structure as Steven Moffat’s first season finale. Though honestly, the basic structure is the same as every other season finale. Since 2005 the model for a Doctor Who season finale has been a narrative collapse. In this regard A Death in the Family borders on the obvious. Nobody No One is a clever conceit, but he’s pretty much designed for season finales. A character who is explicitly able to control the narrative and who exists in language, and who is furthermore a twisted inversion of the Doctor is interesting precisely because he generates narrative collapses reliably. It works, one is left with a satisfying appreciation of the basic cleverness of Steven Hall, the dramatic payoffs all pay off, and the whole thing holds together.
There are some weak spots - there’s nothing like enough time to build up the Ace/Henry relationship to the point where her abandoning him has any impact, especially because we know it’s doomed from the start. Most of Hex’s coming to terms with what happened to his mother happens “off camera.” The wealth of elements mean that Evelyn doesn’t have as much to do in this story as she probably should. She has an entire storyline about an ancient civilization (one that’s more or less just The Face of Evil/Full Circle/The Doctor’s Daughter done again) that takes place entirely in the background, making her feel marginal within a story where her death is the price paid for averting the narrative collapse. But for the most part it’s a perfectly serviceable season finale, if a bit by-the-numbers.
This reflects, to a large extent, the way in which Big Finish has come to work these days. The move to annual trilogies featuring the various Doctors and to distinct story arcs makes them behave more like the television series, only with older Doctors. This is part of what rewriting time means, especially in the conditions that Big Finish operates in. For much of their existence they’ve only had four Doctors to work with. One doesn’t really have a characteristic tone beyond what Big Finish invented for him, and two have very similar tones having been overseen by the same producer/script editor team. And, on top of that, the Davison and Baker eras were deeply flawed in ways that don’t necessarily make nostalgic reiterations the soundest proposition. The McCoy era was the only one it would have ever made sense for Big Finish to attempt nostalgic imitation of, and its eight-year run and extensive exploration by Virgin made that undesirable in its own way.
So Big Finish largely developed its own tone, and, when the new series came along, adapted that tone to the storytelling techniques it introduced. Which it had to - the idea of Big Finish slavishly mining the nostalgia market for over a decade straight is preposterous. Every Doctor who has done Big Finish audios save for Tom Baker has done more audios than they had stories during their tenure. The Big Finish versions of the characters are fully their own thing.
Which is to say that the business of trying to reconcile A Death in the Family with the Virgin line is silly. Trying to reconcile the Big Finish audios with anything other than themselves is silly. They feature “consensus” versions of their respective Doctors, cobbled together out of memories and storytelling necessities. Colin Baker is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this, finally being handed a Doctor that actually, you know, works as a character, but all of them are modified. So instead of having the arc of development that he had from Time and the Rani through to Lungbarrow McCoy’s Doctor is an amalgamation. His manipulative tendencies are increased in accordance with Virgin’s perspective on the character (if not in accordance with what they actually did), the focus of the ethical debate drifts to modern tastes (the “how it affects the companions” approach being pure Russell T Davies), and the fact that there’s an old and a young version of the character (without, as there is with Tom Baker, a continual production of stories in between) gets incorporated as one particular flavor.
In this regard the search for a “return” to the Virgin era is as silly as that of a return to the Hinchcliffe era or the Lloyd era. There are, for any popular era, a number of homages and nostalgia-fests. But there are very few neo-Hinchcliffe stories, no matter how much Mark Gatiss tries. When pure nostalgia stories do exist they tend to be fundamentally defensive, rehabilitating projects in the vein of Gareth Roberts’s Williams-era Missing Adventures. And so the mark of the Virgin era is not how many new Doctor/Benny stories have been produced since 1997. No, the mark of the Virgin era can be seen in A Death in the Family. The Doctor in this story is far grander in his schemes than anything we saw in the televised McCoy era. The image of the Doctor as an arch-manipulator comes from the Virgin era. It wasn’t their only idea, but it was the best-known one. And it changed the general conception of the Seventh Doctor. A Death in the Family doesn’t need to lead into Love and War. It already leads out of it.