Monday, March 4, 2013

Time Can Be Rewritten 37 (Fear Itself)


This isn’t quite the last Time Can Be Rewritten entry, but it’s getting there. All that’s probably left after this are the two Lucie Miller audios we’re going to cover and The Gallifrey Chronicles, and the latter one is a debatable case. (Of course, I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the October Destiny of the Doctor audio will manage to sneak into the Tennant posts.) But even the Lucie Miller audios aren’t Time Can Be Rewritten entries in the usual sense. They were McGann audios in the Tennant era, yes, but they were essentially another McGann timeline - a fifth draft of the Eighth Doctor. This is the last time we get a Time Can Be Rewritten entry in the proper sense: an active revisitation of a past era of Doctor Who. And it is, by its nature, a bit of an odd one.

After the Eighth Doctor Adventures had resolved themselves with The Gallifrey Chronicles, it was announced that the Eighth Doctor would continue to appear in the Past Doctor Adventures. This was a bit of a feint. The Past Doctor Adventures, after all, only lasted six more months after the demise of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which meant that there was only one Eighth Doctor novel in the line before this entire phase of the operation and experiment were, in essence, shut down forever (save for a single episode of an Eighth Doctor audio that featured Fitz, in the context of celebrating the various spin-off lines in which the Eighth Doctor has appeared). At this point it seems clear that the narrative loose ends of the Eighth Doctor Adventures are never going to be resolved; that this vision of Doctor Who is in practice abandoned. And so this book is the one throw of the dice: the sole attempt to go back and fill in the gaps of the Eighth Doctor Adventures.

This is, of course, in part impossible. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but The Gallifrey Chronicles pointedly leaves the Eighth Doctor Adventures unfinished. The line ultimately admits that it can’t possibly come to a coherent end, little yet dovetail into the new series. So all the Past Doctor Adventures  could plausibly hope to do is repair job on the past of the series. Given this, it’s telling that the novels harken back to this point. Even after its resolution in The Gallifrey Chronicles the amnesia plot rankles. With one chance to go back and rewrite time, this is what it seems was needed.

It is in some ways telling that this happened at all. The Past Doctor Adventures, and for that matter the Missing Adventures, rarely went for attempts to “fix” past eras. Other than a strange profusion of attempts to explain Liz Shaw’s departure and to give Mel a debut story, most attempts at past Doctor stories have fit into spaces that are gaps in name only. But Fear Itself inserts itself into what is, in many ways, a very real gap.

The problem, of course, is that the act of inserting into a gap in its own way acknowledges the gap as a historical fact. Unlike EarthWorld this is not a book that solves a problem within the Eighth Doctor Adventures. It’s an apology for the fact that the amnesia plot didn’t work. Equally, the fact that there is a serious effort at fixing it says something about the nature of the repair job. The act of filling a gap implies a certain level of functionality around the gap - a nagging problem within an otherwise functional period. (Even Mel, wedged into the mess of the seasonish, is still visibly part of a transition to quality in the McCoy era.)

This fits with the larger observation of how the latter half the Eighth Doctor Adventures were, in general, of particular quality individually. But the whole was somehow less than the sum of its parts. Fear Itself, by its nature, admits to that, confirming that something didn’t work in this era. Fear Itself cannot possibly fix the era that already happened and make the amnesia plot work. Instead it’s a demonstration of what could have happened: of how the amnesia plot could have been handled.

It cheats, of course. One of the core problems of the Eighth Doctor Adventures is the same as it ever was: none of the authors were particularly inclined to follow in each other’s footsteps. The depth of the gap is in a large part because multiple writers all wanted to come up with their own accounts of the Doctor’s amnesia. Nick Wallace’s solution and explanation for why the Doctor doesn’t need his memories back works because he’s in a position to be guaranteed the last word. Nobody is going to write in amidst the Eighth Doctor Adventures ever again. And so he can explain the Doctor’s views on his amnesia in pleasant isolation, without having to worry about getting anyone to follow.

All of which said, the solution he comes up with works. Fear Itself tells its story in two separate timeframes: in one the Doctor and Fitz investigate mysterious goings on at a space station. In the other, set four years later, Anji attempts to find out what really happened when the space station and all hands on board, the Doctor and Fitz included, were seemingly lost. She’s aided in this task by the Professional, a government super-spy seemingly sent to clean up matters.

There’s an eventual twist, and it’s a clever one: the Professional is actually the Doctor, mind-wiped by the government. This is not a possibility the reader seriously considers, however, since the Professional has spent most of the book hanging out with Anji. So if the Professional were the Doctor, Anji should presumably recognize him. And so the twist revelation includes a secondary twist about Anji and how she’s been corrupted by an alien fear weapon. And yet despite its implausibility through the bulk of the book it makes sense, right down to the detail of how the two characters are named.

So Fear Itself creates a secondary amnesia for the Doctor. And more to the point, it creates a self-contained one. The Doctor loses his identity and regains it within the course of a single book, allowing him to have a concrete mirroring of his own situation to respond to. And in realizing how unpleasant his memories of his time as the Professional were, and how damaging the knowledge of who he was might be, he decides he doesn’t want to know about the past.

Added to this is the fact that Fear Itself can cheat and look ahead at The Gallifrey Chronicles. Fear Itself is able to let the Doctor know that there is a section of his head that is walled off for a reason, allowing him to compare his situation more directly. The Doctor’s amnesia changes subtly from amnesia to repressed memories. And it makes a tremendous difference. Amnesia, as we discussed last time, is primarily a lack. But now the Doctor has memories hidden in his mind. They’re not defined by his not having him, but by his not wanting them. But this only works because Fear Itself can do the one thing denied to the Eighth Doctor Adventures: admit that the amnesia is temporary. The memories genuinely aren’t a lack anymore.

So Fear Itself doesn’t present an alternate path. It’s manifestly not yet another writer’s take on how to make the amnesia plot line work. Which, in June of 2005, is a good thing, since the television program itself had already calmly demonstrated how to make the “the Doctor destroys Gallifrey and gets a clean start” work as a story. Not that Nick Wallace could have known this, since the book was written prior to Rose airing, but To go back and try to make the Eighth Doctor Adventures’ near-miss version of it work would be silly. Rather, Fear Itself is a retcon: an explanation after the fact. It’s not “here’s how they should have done it,” but rather something more akin to “here’s, in hindsight, the best explanation of where we’ve been.”

Put another way, Fear Itself is not so much an attempt to fix the Eighth Doctor Adventures as it is an attempt to make an argument for the quality of what was already there. It was primarily a simple argument: this era was pretty good. It could do stories like this. It’s less an argument about how the amnesia plot should have been handled than a demonstration that you could do good stories with the amnesia idea. In many ways the best way to think about Fear Itself is as a Big Finish audio set in the Eighth Doctor Adventures range. Not in the sense that it’s an audio, but in the sense that it has the same “just get on with telling a good story” ethos of the Big Finish Audios. It’s not a Big Ideas book. It’s a book set amidst a range based on big ideas, but it’s a book about telling a story.

This is important to make explicit: Fear Itself isn’t a book about the Doctor’s amnesia. It’s a book set in a period where the amnesia was a major plot point. This is a big difference. Most of Fear Itself, including its central twist, exists on its own terms. It’s mostly a book about the Doctor getting to know Fitz again as they solve a mystery, and about Anji as she adjusts to being inadvertently abandoned by them. In this regard it doesn’t quite work: the revelation that Anji has been semi-possessed all book blunts her story, and while Wallace goes to great lengths to assure us that most of what Anji does is really her, there’s something unsatisfying about her having such a drastic experience as this and then just forgetting it all. Especially within the Eighth Doctor Adventures, which were, to say the least, already having some problems with amnesia.

But despite its flaws, Fear Itself is still a book that celebrates the Eighth Doctor Adventures. And though we’re not quite done with them (we’ve got four more to cover after this), it’s worth remarking on this. The Eighth Doctor Adventures are in many ways viewed as a failed line. They started weakly, flubbed it spectacularly with The Ancestor Cell, attempted a fundamentally doomed amnesia plot, got overtaken by Big Finish as the “official” line in a lot of people’s eyes, and finally wrapped themselves up after the new series had started with an ending that conspicuously failed to tie into the new series. It’s a lengthy list of strikes, and it’s essentially impossible for it not to have damaged the line’s reception.

But underneath that are not just individual gems but a line that had moments of real promise and quality. The fantastic ambition of the War as an idea, the discovery of writers like Paul Magrs and Lloyd Rose, the way in which writers like Lawrence Miles, Kate Orman, and Lance Parkin hit new heights, and even, for all his inconsistency, the basic character of the Eighth Doctor. All of these were worth celebrating, and were genuinely beloved by people. But the era they belonged to has, in many ways, been pushed to the side, given the same status as, say, the Cushing Dalek movies. But even those had more direct influence on Doctor Who than the Eighth Doctor Adventures did. They were, for the most part, pushed into the corner once the new series started up. But despite their lack of legitimacy, they were long on quality. And for a while they had a real claim to being the proper Doctor Who of their era. However marginal they may be, they were important and worth celebrating.

But the nature of their end meant that the window where they could be celebrated was, in the end, very narrow. There was only room for one. Fear Itself is it. More than anything, this is what’s important about it: it existed, and it celebrated a line that, while rightly identified as flawed, deserved more praise than it ever got.

37 comments:

  1. One of the flaws you percieve in the 8th doctor adventures is that it never leads directly into the ninth doctor as he showed up on telly. Except that Big Finish doesn't do that either, and nor does any other version. My understanding is that that's a political thing.

    The BBC had got itself into trouble with spinoff media with one of the "Eastenders" video-only episodes that wrapped up plot elements that had been set up on TV - the argument being that the British public already pay for the programming anyway through the liscence fee, so why are you making them pay more to get the complete story.

    Therefore, the argument read, you couldn't have the doctor regenerate in any of the spinoffs or tell the story of the Time War, because that would be too close to making people pay for a story they should be getting for their liscence fee...

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    2. Except for the fact that RTD actually did give DWM the opportunity to tell the regeneration story in their comic and they turned it down. I think the key difference is there is less ambiguity and debate about what is considered canon in Eastenders, whereas Doctor Who spinoff material is always hotly contested. If DWM or an EDA told the regeneration story, it wouldn't necessarily be a matter of paying more to get the "complete story", it would be more akin to paying more to get one possible version of that story.

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    3. According to the TARDIS Data Core wiki, DWM were kind of stumped because the BBC wouldn't allow them to show the 9th Doctor with a companion, but they couldn't figure out a way to kill the 8th's one off:

      http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/The_Flood_%28comic_story%29

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    4. In an odd way, the ongoing adventures of the Eighth Doctor are the present for Big Finish. Doing the Time War would bring that to an end. Also, there are perpetual rumours of the television trying to get Paul McGann to return. Even if they're not true (presumably Big Finish have a better idea) it's something that the television might do. And Big Finish probably don't want to do something that will be so obviously superseded by television.
      So the Time War is something apocalyptic that hangs over Big Finish, perpetually deferred yet coming ever closer like Achilles and the Tortoise. (Lucie Miller/ To the Death is a clear example.)

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    5. To be honest I think the whole 8th to 9th Regeneration is in the same posistion as the whole Time War(s). There's just no way you could show what happened in a way that would match the fan's expectations.

      So I suspect it will alway's stay one of those untold stories...

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    6. To my mind this has always been a major problem with Doctor Who (and genre TV in general) - giving the audience what they think they want cheapens it. The first appearance of the Time Lords shrouded them in mystery and majesty, while providing little information. Their subsequent drops into the Pertwee era (and "Genesis") did little to diminish that mystery, until "Deadly Assassin" came along, and suddenly the Time Lords seemed smaller.

      Similarly the 9th Doctor's tenure gave us the same sense of the half-glimpsed majesty and horror of the Time War as Troughton's "War Games". This was something terrible and incomprehensible that we could never hope to understand, but that we should be glad we never witnessed. "The End of Time" showed us a glimpse of the Time War, but (to my mind) like "The Three Doctors" it only gave us a tantalisingly brief look through the smallest window. It didn't ruin the mythos, and even added to it (what the hell is "The Moment"??).

      The Time War remains as exciting and mysterious a concept as it was when we first heard of it 7 years ago. The Time Lords on the other hand between 1969 and 1976 went from omnipotent superbeings to squabbling old men.

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    7. But the thing is, you can give someone what they want without screwing it up if you do it in a non-boring way. Deadly Assassin showed a lot of what Time Lordliness was like, sure, but it set up a lot of new possibilities - ones that were pretty much ignored in their later appearances, which just took the basic idea of Assassin and repeated it in the dullest way possible.

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  2. I dunno, I kind of like the fact that there's no set transition between Eight and Nine. In the end there was a Time War, and it's like a black hole, or an event horizon, and I wonder if it's more effective being like that. A clean break that isn't cluttered up by a particular history (though I wouldn't mind a televised story featuring McGann dooming his race and regenerating into Eccleston in the end.)

    Also, is it just me or is the sheer amount of stuff produced by Big Finish just absolutely mind-boggling?

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    1. Mind-boggling is the word. There's no way I can keep up with all of it. Of course, as someone whose preferred medium is audio, this suits me just fine: even if Big Finish lost the license next time it was up for renewal (unlikely), I would have years of fresh new stories still waiting! Unlike (say) McCoy on TV, where there's only one I've yet to see, and zero chance of any more appearing.

      I also like it that we've never seen/heard/read the eight-to-nine regeneration. I'm not against filling gaps (like the Liz and Mel ones mentioned), but this is one that should remain myth. If it has to be shown, I think it should be shown in several different, conflicting ways.

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    2. As long as the regeneration is never shown, there is a clear diegetic break between the old and new series.

      I like that.

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  3. Curious, assuming your covering any of them, what category will the in-between New Series Adventures go under, Outside the Government or something new?

    (The only one I can imagine worth talking about is The Coming of the Terraphiles, but what do I know?)

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    1. I'd suggest Dark Horizons might be worth covering. Perhaps Only Human since it was written by Gareth Roberts before he became on the scriptwriters for the tv series.

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    2. Only Human, Terraphiles, and Made of Steel are all certain. Probably one or two more beyond that. I'll probably do them as You Were Expecting Someone Else.

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    3. Terraphiles is an interesting one. There is a Ninth Doctor book called The Stealers of Dreams which I have not read yet (it's on my list), but it seems like just the thing you would talk about as it's about a world where fiction is banned. Touched By an Angel is also rather good and could be useful to discuss the Weeping Angels in translation into another media.

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    4. Dark Horizons is fun. I've just read Stealers of Dreams, Sick Building and Eyeless. Stealers of Dreams is probably the most interesting out of those. Eyeless and Sick Building seem a bit inhibited by the child friendly format; Stealers is writing for a family show.
      Terraphiles is more interesting for the author, than for the story. Doctor Who has been doing Moorcock since about the mid-seventies. (It's as if Joss Whedon were to write a Doctor Who story in his Buffy manner thirty years from now.)

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    5. 'Doctor Who has been doing Moorcock since about the mid-seventies.'

      Can you elaborate on this? I like Buffy but your Whedon analogy lost me I'm afraid. I've been reading Moorcock and watching Doctor Who since the early seventies and I've never detected a relationship. The closest I can reach for would be the Dandy Adventurer trope from the Cornelius novels but that really is stretching it. 'Terraphiles' was dross though wasn't it?

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    6. As Phil pointed out in his Buffy essay, the basic mode of storytelling in genre tv now is one that Buffy pioneered. The way I'd put it is that you're self-aware and ironic about the genre conventions you're using and then you go ahead and use them all straight anyway. TV series that have nothing to do with high school angst or horror are doing that. The state of play is now that competent genre writing means the ability to write a Buffy pastiche.
      Moorcock's influence over uk fantasy and sf is based around his deconstruction of genre moral tropes, his deconstruction of English identity tropes, together with his mix of psychodelia with fin de siecle decadence. The Doctor Who episode most directly influenced by him is Enlightenment. But the morally ambiguous Seventh Doctor is Moorcockian. So is the English innocent abroad Fifth Doctor. But Doctor Who has also been influenced by 2000AD, Alan Moore, and so on, who are all attempts to develop Moorcockian fiction beyond Moorcock. So Moorcock writing a Moorcock meets Doctor Who pastiche in the early 10s is writing something that Doctor Who and genre fiction generally have been doing for the past thirty odd years, and trying to develop further for the past thirty.

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    7. Ah I see where you're coming from. Self-awareness of media-tropes and ironic distancing are conventions of Post-Modernism though and aren't specific to or invented by Moorcock, although he was one of the first in SF, along with J.G. Ballard to use them.

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  4. So where are we in the timeline? How many more entires are left in the Wilderness Years?

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    1. Well, the last entry in the proposed Eighth Doctor timeline was This Town Will Never Let Us Go on April 26th, so I doubt they'll last much longer than that!

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    2. Aaand pre-empted by the man himself while battle captcha...

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    3. Well, you can still play "guess what's on April 29th" if you like.

      Though it's just about the easiest Pop Between Realities pick imaginable.

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    4. Will get mentioned, but if I were giving it its own post it would go between Camera Obscura and Zagreus.

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    5. So if it's not a Russell T Davies authored fantasy drama starring Christopher Eccelston, then it must be a Russell T Davies authored fantasy drama starring David Tennant...

      Casanova?

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  5. I think it's only fitting that the only Doctor who lived primarily in spin-off media should be able to have an infinite and unbounded opportunity to continue appearing in them. The whole wonder of that is that the 8th Doctor is the only one who escaped 'back home' to the Land of Fiction where the 'real world' need never impinge. All of the other Doctors are hobbled by the real world in one way or another. Not the 8th. He's the one who escaped mundane physical reality to live unbound.

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    1. Actually, now I think about it, the wilderness years had an interesting effect on Doctor Who. All of the Doctors from the eighth onwards now have an established gap into which a future fandom can insert any number of stories.

      The ninth Doctor has everything before he meets Rose. The tenth has his grand tour prior to finally being called in by Ood Sigma as he were a pedalo on the park pond and the eleventh has a huge chunk in the Impossible Astronaut. In fact, Moffat has the eleventh continually up to adventures that we never see on screen.

      It's almost as if RTD and Moffat were creating the best situation for a future acended fandom to gestate inside.

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    2. Hasn't every Doctor since Colin Baker's had such a gap, though?

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    3. The 7th Doctor doesn't really have any gaps though. Lungbarrow leads directly into the TVM, and whatever Big Finish wants you to think, there's really not a lot of time between Survival and Love and War, certainly not enough to put a few years of Ace's life.

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    4. That's assuming that the Big Finish post-Survival Seventh Doctor stories are compatible with the New Adventures. I suppose if you squint a bit and ignore things like character development, putting those in the same timeline almost works... but it's much cleaner to say that (apart from audios like Shadow of the Scourge and the Love and War adaptation, which are clearly set in the Virgin continuity), the Big Finish Seventh Doctor stories are a separate strand from the New Adventures, just as the comic (which gave a huge FU to the NAs by killing off Ace) is. We've got at least three different ways to get from Survival to the TV movie, and again three ways to get from the TV movie to Rose. I tend to see them as strands of a frayed rope, as if the Doctor's timeline got a bit loosened during the Wilderness Years. The strands cross each other and occasionally touch, but by and large fitting the three media (novels, audios and comics) into a single timeline for the Seventh and Eighth Doctors is a fool's game.

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  6. Not related to the entry but of interest to me (as I have read the Troughten book thrice over) can we get a status update on the Pertwee volume?

    I know I can go back and read it on the site...but the added material and editing really adds another dimension IMHO.

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    1. I second the query, and add another: what's the status on the Wonder Woman book? I see that the Kickstarter was completed, but I haven't seen a recent update here on how it's going and when we might be able to get our grubby little protruberances on it.

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    2. The Pertwee book has under a hundred pages left to get back from the copy editor and is still on track for this month. Though I should ping her and see how she's doing.

      I'm about halfway through editing the Wonder Woman book, and assuming I do go with self-publishing on it my copyeditor should get to it after she finishes Pertwee. But that assumption is pleasantly uncertain right now - more as this story develops.

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    3. Hooray for pleasant uncertainty!

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