Monday, January 21, 2013
If There Were Stars Up There, We'd Be Able to See Them, Wouldn't We? (Unnatural History)
I’ll Explain Later
No, really. I will. But I’m traveling this weekend and forgot to bring the stuff I need to write this section.
Since we left things off, Augusto Pinochet was placed under house arrest in the UK, much to Margaret Thatcher’s consternation. Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela. The euro was established, and there was a leap second. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah were extradicted to the UK over the Pan Am 103 bombing. TV presenter Jill Dando was murdered outside her home in Fulham. And Manchester United win the Champions League as part of their treble-winning season. While this month, Napster debuts, George W. Bush declares that he’ll seek the Republican nomination for the presidency. And Thabo Mbeki is elected President of South Africa.
While in books, Kate Orman and Jon Blum’s Unnatural History. So, since she’ll be on her way out of the books as of the end of the month, we should probably talk a bit about Sam, this book being all about her. She is in many ways a legacy of the tortured birth of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. We’ve talked about how this left the Eighth Doctor himself as a hazily defined character subject to the whims of the writers. That, at least, began to settle out over time, with a reasonably consistent vision of him as a particularly energetic and passionate Doctor cropping up often enough to at least claim that there is a characterization, if not often enough to constitute a consistent one. But there was a second problem in all of this: the latest iteration of the Problem of Susan.
Sam Jones was consciously designed as the most generic companion imaginable. To the point of letting Terrance Dicks draw her up. The last time Terrance Dicks did this, however, someone failed to get the memo and inadvertently cast Iris Wildthyme as the companion, so that attempt at genericness went out the window. This time there are no actresses to enliven proceedings, and so over time Sam Jones has slumped into being the single blandest and most generic companion it is possible to imagine.
This is a problem by any measure. I’m not one for the view that the companion is the “point of view” character or whatever, but it remains the case that the companion is useful for having interesting reactions to things that advance the plot or provide unusual perspectives on it. These don’t have to be the audience’s perspectives, but they have to be non-standard ones. The Doctor, being mercurial, brings upheaval to any situation, but he also is able to adapt and fit into almost any situation. The companion’s job is to not quite adapt. In short, the companion can be anything but a standard issue sci-fi character, including, as we’ve seen, a somewhat snobbish Time Lady, a savage, or a pair of futuristic cops.
Unfortunately, Sam falls afoul of this. By 1997 the role of the companion had itself become a standard sci-fi character, at least in the context of Doctor Who. And so Sam, who’s defined purely as a Doctor Who companion, becomes the most boring thing imaginable. She’s outright unable to fulfill any interesting plot duties at all because her only character traits are that she does exactly what is expected of her. In this regard she’s essentially indistinguishable from a peril monkey. It’s just that modern tastes have evolved, so there’s less peril. I’d call her a pluck monkey, but it just sounds obscene.
Needless to say, Orman and Blum rebelled against this. Actually, it was Miles who started it, back in Alien Bodies, by establishing that Sam has two sets of biodata, and that there was an alternate version of her that should have been. But Orman and Blum end up being the ones to actually explore the concept. Mind you, it’s a slender concept. The idea is that exposure to the Doctor changed Sam’s biodata so that instead of what she should have been - an occasional drug user video store clerk with no meaningful prospects - she’s the perfect companion for him. The problem, and for a novel that’s meant to focus primarily on “Dark Sam” it’s a big problem, is that Dark Sam is defined as an uninteresting person who could be something special but isn’t. So while there’s an interesting critique of Sam in general there, it’s not a critique that fixes the character as such. Equally, there was no way that New Adventurish writers like Orman and Blum weren’t going to make the critique.
Ah, yes. The New Adventures. Because even here, two years into the novel line, their shadow hangs over everything. Especially when you’re on an Orman/Blum book. The most New Adventurish thing about Orman and Blum is that they want the Doctor to be at least partially unreliable. With the Seventh this was straightforward, since the character had been being set up as at least partially unreliable since Remembrance of the Daleks. But with the Eighth designed, in books at least, as a reaction against the Seventh this was trickier, since that was in fact a move almost consciously designed to stop people from doing Virgin-style novels, which is to say, to stop Kate Orman from being Kate Orman. They then loused it up a bit by promptly hiring Kate Orman to write for them. So Orman and Blum try very hard to develop a way to make the Eighth Doctor an unreliable figure.
Contrary to Miles’s insistence that they wrote the Eighth Doctor in such a way as to be obviously missing the Seventh, Orman and Blum do a credible job of this that is based firmly on the Eighth Doctor as a character. Indeed, there’s something a bit absurd about the accusation, given that Orman and Blum have put pretty serious work into developing the Eighth Doctor as a character. And they have a way to make him work as an unreliable and thus scary character. The key passage is the one in which Faction Paradox considers the Eighth Doctor: “this one was so close to being ideal for them… the joy with which he upset the established orders, his desire to leave his past behind, all fitted their aims precisely. Even so, he wasn’t ready to embrace the glory of Paradox; he was less interested in the beauty of the pattern, than in that of the one little girl’s life contained within.” It’s quite sharp, turning the way in which the Eighth Doctor is a reaction against the Seventh into a different kind of monstrosity. And bound up in it are the old frockish concerns; the thing that keeps the Doctor from falling to Faction Paradox is the fact that he’s more invested in the individual than he is in the grand scheme of things.
But, of course, there’s a perpetual hedge against this. Because the Doctor is, in practice, all too willing to sacrifice “Dark Sam” to bring back his Sam, with no attentiveness to the fact that this involves killing a real person. There’s a hubris here that sets the Doctor up for a tragic fall. And it’s substantive. The Seventh believed he knew better than everyone. The Eighth has what may well be a far more dangerous belief: that he can’t possibly make a mistake. Even within this book that proves disastrous, as he plays right into Faction Paradox’s hands through nothing more than his own belief that he won’t. And the only thing that takes the edge off of it is Dark Sam’s notes to Blonde Sam, in which she exhorts her not to go back to her ordinary life, proclaiming that “THERE IS MORE OUT THERE. If [the Doctor’s] magic’s good for anything, that’s it.”
There’s what is, if not a problem, at least an interesting wrinkle underlying all of this. The evidence of unreliability on the part of the Eighth Doctor is that he’s ideal for Faction Paradox. But this presupposes that Faction Paradox are villains. To be fair, Orman and Blum clearly do, giving the Doctor some stinging rebukes of their monstrous nature and the boy who serves them. But Miles, it is safe to say, has a somewhat subtler view on his own creation. One of the things he stresses about Faction Paradox is their similarity to voodoo, specifically the use of iconography designed to horrify people. But this is distinct from them actually being horrifying. In fact, Miles takes a relatively neutral view on the Paradox, save perhaps the general sense that they’re more interesting than either the Time Lords or the Enemy. Indeed, one of his eventual criticisms of The Ancestor Cell is that after having written three books in which Faction Paradox never actually kills anyone or does anything blatantly and horrifically evil they just made them into generic villains.
And the seeds of that are in Unnatural History, where Orman and Blum clearly think that Faction Paradox are black-hatted moustache-twirlers, albeit clever ones. Whereas Miles strenuously disagrees, and was in fact rather sharply critical of the use of them in Unnatural History, complaining that “the group we see in Unnatural History, it might as well just be a generic sinister-society-working-behind-the-scenes.” Which is fair enough when it comes to Unnatural History - Orman and Blum do just treat Faction Paradox as generic baddies whose flavor of bad is paradox, placing them adjacent to Griffin the Collector, also a fairly generic baddie, but one who wants to eliminate all ambiguity from the universe. So one gets the sense that they’re trying to thread some sort of a needle between Ian Levine and Paul Magrs.
Why one would do that is an open question. And to some extent we have to take Miles’s larger critique of Orman and Blum (with whom it can safely be said he does not get on at this point) seriously. The bulk of this critique, to use Miles’s own words, is that her (he does focus mostly on Orman, leaving Blum out of it) books are “almost suggesting that the universe really is on the side of the late-twentieth-century liberal.” The bulk of this criticism stems from his hatred of Walking to Babylon, a book we didn’t cover and I haven’t read, but which, in his telling (and Lars Pearson’s in I Who 2) all of the characters, including historical ones, act like they’re from the present day with no attention given to material history.
There’s a case for and against here. Against is that whatever the flaws of Walking to Babylon, Miles’s accusation just doesn’t hold up against the larger arc of Orman’s work, which has included some very historically sharp criticism that’s attentive to historical perspectives. Beyond that, the perspective Miles accuses her of is precisely what she treats as the fundamental horror of the Doctor, at least in the New Adventures. There the prospect of getting swept into the arc of history with the Doctor was overtly horrifying. Perhaps Walking to Babylon really was a bum note in Orman’s career, but the idea that Orman is fond of uncritically allowing a teleological view of history to steamroll everything in its path just doesn’t stand up.
Admittedly she’s flipped things - now it’s the Doctor’s rejection of structure and overconfident larking around that’s dangerous, not the Doctor’s belief that he knows how history should be written. So now instead of the wheel of history it’s the absence of the wheel - the possibility of a mad, unstructured, and paradoxical world. But in the end Orman’s investment is the same: the individual level on which the world is experienced. Far from being, as Miles accuses her of being, fundamentally in favor of a universal consensus and against individualism, Orman is fundamentally a champion of the individual. Her entire view collapses back to the feminist maxim that the personal is political, which makes sense given that the first thing we noticed about her is that she came out of feminist fandom.
But there’s something of a point lurking underneath Miles’s objections as well, and it’s something that’s been kicking around ever since Blood Harvest or so. There we praised Dicks because, for all the appallingly reactionary undercurrents of his politics, he was at least capable of viewing the world with nuance. But here, perhaps, it is time to turn that around. Note that, in making the transition from the Seventh to the Eighth Doctors Orman has simply flipped the ideology we view the individual in contrast to. Instead of the totalizing master narrative of history there’s the totalizing anarchy of paradox. But this begins to position the individual’s valued existence as nothing more than an endlessly compromising midpoint. It’s the classic and inevitably irritating perspective of the eternal moderate who believes that a position is inherently better if it’s an ideological compromise.
And in many ways this manifests in the basic dynamic that animates Orman - the fact that on the one hand she unambiguously and excessively loves Doctor Who and on the other hand refuses to do Doctor Who any way other than by soaking the Doctor in moral ambiguity. Because this is, for better or for worse, the default mode of social justice fandom: love the hell out of something while also ripping into it for its political failings. Which I’m not exactly going to sell up the river, since it’s a good, reliable model that allows one to function in a mass media culture while still retaining an ounce of progressive politics. But equally, why should we be able to? Isn’t this just how the anesthetizing nature of mass culture works in the first place?
Which is to say that while I’m not going to throw Orman and Blum under the bus suddenly after four months of near-constant praise, Miles has at least the general shape of a point here. There is a tacit embrace of the status quo underneath all the “all hail the tea and a nice warm bath” frockery. It comes perilously close to Debord’s depiction of the spectacle: what appears is good, and what is good appears. It’s not that the viewpoint is without any progressivism or belief in the possibility of social improvement. It’s not. But it fundamentally rejects the possibility of radical change. In that regard, while it might not require rejection, it at least requires opposition: an alternative.
Which brings us rather neatly around to Lawrence Miles. Which we’ll come back to on Wednesday. Well, sort of. But before that, let’s pause, as this is, in fact, the last time we’re going to deal with Kate Orman and Jon Blum on this blog. And while we’re ending on a bit of a down note with them that segues into future points, we ought also acknowledge that they are among the most important writers of the 1990s - indeed, probably the single most important Doctor Who writer of the 1990s not to have written for the new series. We’re chronicling a point in Doctor Who’s history where the concerns of feminist fandom and social justice heavily inform Doctor Who, and, in the wake of Buffy, one where those concerns heavily inform all genre television. Kate Orman was the first person to bring those concerns to Doctor Who. She did it extraordinarily well, and laid a groundwork that other writers, including Russell T Davies, built on. And she deserves a very fond and applause-filled farewell as we leave her in Doctor Who’s history.