Monday, March 4, 2013
Time Can Be Rewritten 37 (Fear Itself)
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.