Friday, January 11, 2013
Rip This World Apart For Just One Cell (Alien Bodies)
Alien Bodies, by Lawrence Miles, is the landmark Eighth Doctor Adventure - the one that changed everything. It introduces Faction Paradox, the War, kills off the Doctor, introduces the Dark Sam plot, and probably does a fair number of other things I’m not thinking of at the moment. Steven Moffat has praised it. Everyone has praised it. Everyone. It’s the fourth most popular Eighth Doctor Adventure, with an 84.1% rating. Jackie Jenkins, guesting for Dave Owen in Doctor Who Magazine, declared that it “nourishes itself through constant questioning,” which sounds like a touch of faint praise. Lars Pearson, unsurprisingly for someone who would go on to publish Miles’s Faction Paradox series, calls it “one of the best ‘Who’ novels ever.” Lawrence Miles, meanwhile, says that it “isn’t even that good.”
In news, MCI and WorldCom merge to become MCI WorldCom, which then became WorldCom, which then imploded in a massive and spectacular accounting scandal to nobody’s surprise and nobody’s edification. Mary McAleese is elected as President of Ireland, succeeding Mary Robinson in the world’s first female succession of another female as an elected head of state. The BBC begins online news service having previously only covered a few specific events, and the British Library opens a public reading room at its new not-in-the-British-Museum site.
While in books, we finally get to the bits where Lawrence Miles becomes Doctor Who’s driving creative force. It’s a short period - we’ll be out of it by the end of the month - and yet is by any definition one of the most important things to happen in the space between the TV Movie and Rose. It’s also terribly controversial, both because of the scope of Miles’s ambitions and ideas and because of his, shall we say, somewhat abrasive style. This sets up something of a choice. For the most part, all things being equal, I like to keep the lens on the present of Doctor Who. The Wilderness Years are a bit of an exception, in that I let the new series hang over them. The reasoning here is fairly simple: to present the Wilderness Years as they were would be to read them with a sense of continual despair at the fact that Doctor Who is never coming back, because that’s what we all genuinely believed more or less until Rose’s ratings came in. This, while authentic to the time, is a very silly way to read them now, so instead I’ve let the knowledge that the series does come back seep into things simply because it makes it feel less absurd.
But when it comes to this era of Doctor Who history it’s hard to just live through it. There’s a metric ton of fan politics going on in every part of this. And it’s not an era I lived through - as I said, I bailed out on Doctor Who in 1996. And even if I had, as an American high school student I wasn’t going to be up close and personal enough to see the politics. I’ve pieced a lot of it together from interviews, stories, and online discussions, but not nearly enough to call it a full history. And there’s no secondary source covering the history of this era comprehensively. Which means that I just don’t feel like I can give the play-by-play of the era. So instead I’m going to treat everything from here to The Ancestor Cell with the knowledge of what happens.
The short form: Lawrence Miles, mostly on the strength of this book and secondarily on the strength of Interference, introduced the bulk of the plot points that governed the first few years of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. But with the change of editors from Steven Cole to Justin Richards they decided to wrap up their current plot points. Instead of letting Miles wrap up his own plots Cole co-authored The Ancestor Cell, which provided its own resolution to all of them. Miles, incensed both by his marginalization and by his belief that The Ancestor Cell ripped off plot ideas he’d proposed to Cole, had a massive falling out with just about everybody. It wasn’t the end of his time with the Eighth Doctor Adventures - he wrote The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, openly for the money, but it marked a cataclysmic end to his time as the most acclaimed and controversial of the Eighth Doctor Adventures books, and began his current status as curmudgeon extraordinaire.
There are, if you will, three basic perspectives to take on Lawrence Miles these days. First, that he’s a mad genius who remains the most creative Doctor Who writer ever and everybody, but especially Steven Moffat and Neil Gaiman, rip off of him. (This is actually a point I have seen raised in all seriousness - the accusation that The Doctor’s Wife was knowingly ripped off from Lawrence Miles’s short story “Toy Story.” I relate this mostly to convey the fact that Miles has a dedicated enough fanbase to have stark raving mad extremists. And, you know - to sustain publication of the Faction Paradox line.) Second, that he writes overcomplicated shit that nobody in their right mind would ever like. Third, some diplomatic blurring of the two that allows that his personal style can be a bit grating but that his books are quite clever, albeit obviously unmanageable in any larger sense. A subset of this view is the “Alien Bodies was quite good, but as of Interference he started going a bit far” position.
All of this is rubbish. But the scope of it is kind of staggering, so let’s start with what the book is known for. There are in effect three major ideas introduced by Alien Bodies. The first is the War - a still mysterious event hanging somewhere in the future of both Gallifrey and the Doctor - in which the Time Lords very much have their backs against it facing an unknown Enemy. The second is Faction Paradox, a rival organization to the Time Lords who worship paradox and reflect the Time Lords’ technology back to them in a manner explicitly analogous to the practice of voodoo. The third is that the Doctor is eventually killed, and his body is bid on for its potential as a weapon in the aforementioned War.
There are several observations to make here. First, for most writers any one of these ideas is sufficient. The idea of a massive war that wipes out the Time Lords is itself worth several novels. It’s perhaps cheeky to note that Faction Paradox could support an entire book line. And so to use both of these as ballast for a story that already has the phenomenally huge idea of the Doctor confronting the end of his story is a strange decision that seems in many regards profligate. But what’s perhaps stranger is that by all appearances Miles really did intend most of these concepts to be one-offs. He’s said in an interview that he hadn’t been going to build out Faction Paradox much at all in Interference, and only did because Orman and Blum grabbed them for Unnatural History. The War was something he seems to have meant to pick up, but his view is mainly that it should have been left to hang over the line.
Equally, however, he’s suggested that he thought other writers would play around with the War, which is puzzling. On the one hand, yes, obviously when you put something absolutely massive like the War into Doctor Who continuity people are going to want to play with it. But look at what he does with the War. You can’t actually depict it, since the one big thing we know about the War is that it kills the Doctor, which is kind of a problem for the long-term health of the line if you depict it. Plus, it’s clearly scads of years out from Alien Bodies and doesn’t feature the Eighth Doctor. So in fact what you have is a big War whose defining feature is that you can’t actually show it. And Miles thought people were going to pick up on this plot?
On top of that you have Miles’s… prickly manner. I don’t want to get too far into the gossip here or start adjudicating whether some of Miles’s more extreme statements are “just his sense of humor” or “him being an absolute and indefensible jerk to people and then using the classic lame defense of saying he was only joking,” but let’s allow that, broadly stated, Miles has had some feuds. One of these feuds was at least partially started when he suggested that Orman and Blum, in Unnatural History, did not get Faction Paradox right. Now, I’ve not gotten to Unnatural History yet, so I’m not even close to suggesting that Miles is or isn’t right in that accusation. But let’s leave the accuracy aside and just look at the basic frame of the statement - Miles is criticizing other people in a multi-author franchise for not doing what he would do with a concept.
On the one hand, fair enough. The issue of how to share and play with concepts in a multi-author franchise is a complex one, but there is a general ethos that the person who created a concept gets at least some say on how it plays out, and if Orman and Blum got Faction Paradox a bit wrong in Miles’s eye that’s at least something that’s OK to point out. On the other, it’s not like Paul Cornell vetted every Benny book for Virgin - there’s a degree of letting it go that one does. It’s a matter of personal preference, at least partially, but on the flip side, it’s pretty obvious that Miles is a writer who has strong vision of his ideas and is at least a bit put out when other writers break from his ideas.
So we’re left with a War that can’t be depicted and whose creator gives the sense that he’d rather people not break his concepts, and there’s any question why a lot of people didn’t deal with it? It’s not that it was a bad idea - it was in many ways a very brilliant idea. It’s just not a great long-term idea. And that was what it became.
This is not to say that Alien Bodies is bad or fatally flawed. It’s a damn good book, and it’s not a surprise that it set the direction of the Eighth Doctor Adventures for a good long while. It makes sense, really. Where Blum and Orman failed to set the direction with a vivid characterization of the Eighth Doctor, Miles creates concepts and ideas - the Eighth Doctor Adventures’ equivalent of things like “Time’s Champion,” Death, and the Other. Nobody really picks them up for a year, but to be fair, the gap from Love and War to The Left-Handed Hummingbird was a bit rocky as well in terms of actually having developing the ideas that Cornell established for Virgin. The problem is that these ideas just didn’t work. (Well, the War didn’t at least, and Faction Paradox didn’t really work within Doctor Who as such.)
But it’s not like Miles should have realized that he was inadvertently setting the stage for inadequate follow-ups of his work. After all, nothing he did in Alien Bodies is actually that much more bonkers than the Carnival Queen in Christmas on a Rational Planet or the true nature of Tyler’s Folly in Down. It’s just that this time he did it on a line desperate for direction and people seized on to bits of it to try to stitch together an aesthetic for the line. And because this time the sequencing of ideas went just a little differently. Where Down could be ignored like most of the Benny books and Christmas on a Rational Planet was an oddity in the wave of New Adventures towards the end, Alien Bodies came in a line that needed the direction. It was a Doctor Who book that at least had everyone talking in a way that didn’t involve rolling your eyes and wondering what the hell John peel was even thinking. That counts for a lot. Perhaps more than it should.
But what’s key ist hat this doesn’t seem to have been what Miles wanted for the book either. And understanding that requires us to understand Miles in a bit more detail. For our purposes the influence of Lawrence Miles has been hanging over virtually the entire blog, since he’s one of the co-authors on the superlative About Time series that I’ve engaged repeatedly. So before we tear into what he’s doing here, let’s pause and ask what he wants Doctor Who to be. After all, when we have someone who has expended as many words on the subject as he has, we may as well take his own standards for Doctor Who seriously.
The biggest and most visible split between the two authors of About Time is on the Williams/Nathan-Turner axis. Tat Wood loves Graham Williams and hates Nathan-Turner, whereas Miles is the exact opposite, skewering Graham Williams while quite appreciating Nathan-Turner. And the bit of the Nathan-Turner era that Miles really goes to the wall with praise for is Season Eighteen: the Bidmead era. Which, good for him. There are places where Tat Wood is dead wrong, and his dislike of the Bidmead era is one of them. But if we’re going to pick a specific story to look at their differing approaches on the clear one to do is Enlightenment. Both of them like the story, but the nature of their praise goes in subtly different directions. Wood praises the way that the Doctor is at the center of the story figuring out the world. Miles, on the other hand, compares it to Hartnell-era historicals based on “an exploration of a complete world-view.” The difference is both stark and telling - Wood is fundamentally interested in the way in which the Doctor reacts to the world, whereas Miles is interested in the world itself - and specifically the world as separate from the Doctor. If we’re exploring a world-view then we’re not really all that invested in the Doctor at all. Miles is invested in strangeness. That’s the key difference. Wood wants Doctor Who to serve up something only it can do that’s never been seen before. Miles wants it to use the familiar to give us a peek into the truly strange. The Doctor is only interesting as something that gets out of the way in favor of said strangeness.
This is something Miles has backed up in later interviews, particularly after Interference. And it’s a troubling claim, just because it seems to rather badly reduce the amount of Doctor Who Miles can plausibly like. Bits of the Hartnell era, Season Eighteen, some scattered moments of Davison, and… that’s about it. Those are the only times the series has ever subjugated the Doctor to the weirdness of the world. And most of those are happy accidents - Season Eighteen works that way because the production is actively trying to get Tom Baker under control. Hartnell works that way because they hadn’t gotten the series together yet - and by Miles’s own admission that goes out the window by the end of Season One. For all Miles gives Wood stick for not liking the vast majority of Doctor Who, by his own aesthetic there’s precious little he can like.
This issue gets at at least part of Miles’s vocal dislike of the Moffat era. This is, to be fair, a somewhat larger feud, at least on Miles’s part. (There’s precious little evidence Moffat gives a damn.) Moffat, for his part, apparently told Miles that the cliffhanger to chapter five of Alien Bodies - that would be the one where the Doctor discovers that he’s involved in an auction for his own body - is the best cliffhanger of anything he’d ever read. Miles diagnoses that this is because, in his words he “turned the Doctor into a fetish object.” And he regrets this. Technically, at least, he’s right about what that cliffhanger does, but he’s so mind-wrenchingly wrong about the overall point that it’s tough to make much of this.
The big error is that he thinks that he’s the one who did that. Because the Doctor has been a fetish object since, at the very least, the Pertwee era, and frankly since about The Reign of Terror. The ship sailed long ago. So much so that it’s nearly impossible to argue that the interesting thing about the Doctor’s body in Alien Bodies is its fetishization. It’s not. What’s interesting is that the Doctor’s end is now a part of the story. One of the awkward bits of Doctor Who existing in relation to real world time is that it’s difficult to have the future of Doctor Who impact its present. You can write a Third Doctor story where the Eleventh drops in with no problem, but reversing that and having the Eleventh Doctor meet the Eighteenth is a problem simply because it’s impossible to accurately predict what the Eighteenth will be like, and everyone watching now knows it and won’t fall for it.
So Miles manages to pull off quite a trick in having the Doctor encounter his own death - both the most fundamental part of his future and the one bit you can get away with impressing on the past. Unless for some reason someone decides to attempt a proper, final tie-off of Doctor Who that involves killing the Doctor, it’s never going to be shown. It can just be displaced endlessly forward, left as one future adventure that will happen someday, to some Doctor. And so you get a book where the future successfully haunts the past, forcing the Doctor to deal with an inevitability. It introduces, in a much firmer way than the silly “twelve regeneration limit” idea, the idea of an end to Doctor Who without ever requiring that the end happen. This is the interesting bit of what Alien Bodies proposes. Unfortunately, it’s just the big silly epic War and the crazy voodoo Time Lords that anyone bothered to pick up on.
Another thing that Miles objects to is Moffat’s apparent declaration once that Miles, in his heart of hearts, knew Alien Bodies was the best thing he’d ever written. This horrified Miles partially because Miles likes to think of himself as perpetually improving, but there’s a larger issue. On the one hand Moffat was right - Miles never again had the sheer impact he had with Alien Bodies. The book came at the exact right time to have a big impact, and was the exact right configuration of his ideas. But the reasons it succeeded were largely the ones that were least like what Miles was interested in. It was simultaneously the Miles book most unlike his other stuff and most like what Doctor Who fans like. This was, necessarily, an unstable combination - one that burned tremendously brightly as we headed into 1998, but equally one that was inevitably going to flame out even more spectacularly.