Timewyrm: Exodus

All the early New Adventures read differently now than they did fifteen years ago, but Timewyrm: Exodus reads differently in two entirely opposite ways at the same time. In a way it seems much worse now, because in 1991 I had no idea how good the series was going to get. At the same time, Exodus is shockingly better than everything else Terrance Dicks has ever written. Is this the same guy who wrote The Eight Doctors and Warmonger? Terrance, what happened?

To kick off the New Adventures, Virgin Books drew on their stable of Target novelizers, who could be counted upon to deliver manuscripts on time and of technically publishable quality. It was inevitable that one of them would be Terrance Dicks. Dicks wasn’t just a Target writer–he was the Target writer, the most prolific novelizer in the bunch. In the Target days, the average Who fan’s personal library might be composed of at least forty per cent Terrance Dicks–more if he was a real weirdo. Month after month after month, Dicks extruded 128 pages of the literary equivalent of baloney on Wonder bread.

The prose in Timewyrm: Exodus is as bland as anything Dicks has written. He does little more than provide basic descriptions of settings, characters, and actions. Metaphor is absent. A lot of the adjectives are vague generalities like “incredibly” or “huge.” But in contrast with Genesys, this is competent bland prose. Dicks rarely lets the narrative point of view wander (although when it does it reads a lot like the POV in Genesys). Every sentence functions as it was meant to. The dialogue sounds more or less natural. Exodus is pretty artless, but written with care and a minimally acceptable level of craft.

Still, in retrospect, you can see the quirks that later took over Dicks’s writing. Like his fondness for recycling. Dicks uses his every idea over and over again until he’s run it into the ground. It’s amazing the milage he gets out of the things. His brain is the most efficient carburetor in the world. You could drop him into the jungle with nothing but a videotape of “The Five Doctors,” and when you came back in a month you’d find a thriving civilization of Terrence Dickses cloned from his fingernails, worshipping Borusa and fighting Nazis. After Exodus his books suffer from increasing nostalgia creep, but here he just brings back the War Lords, which works beautifully and was incredibly cool in 1991. I remember getting to the point where Kriegslier’s aide slips on a pair of glasses before questioning Ace, and suddenly realizing what was going on, and feeling terribly clever to have guessed. I was fifteen at the time, and probably needed a hobby.

Another Terrence Dicks trademark is the sudden descent into bathos when he deals with anything alien–like the Sontaran in The Eight Doctors who hopes that killing the Doctor will get him into the “Sontaran Hall of Fame”.1 Wild ideas, alienness and big SFnal concepts seem to freak him out. He’s only happy when he can tame them with a little jokey coziness. Here we have a “Gallifreyan Army Knife” and “Doctor Solon’s Special Morbius Lotion.” Just to reassure us that the Time Lords are regular guys, and not alien life forms with intellects vast, cool, and only semisympathetic.

“So what is Timewyrm: Exodus about?” you ask. Actually, you probably don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s an alternate history novel. As you read this, please remember that there was a time when the words “alternate universe” did not provoke uncontrolled convulsive retching among Doctor Who fans.2 Alternate history is an old and honorable subgenre in the wider world of speculative fiction, large enough to have its own cliches, including worlds where the Confederacy won the Civil War, worlds where a popular historical figure is working an incongruous job,3 worlds where contemporary people are thrown back in time and lord it over the natives through superior know-how and gumption, and Harry Turtledove.

Inevitably, Doctor Who’s first proper alternate history4 was the biggest cliche of them all: the world where Germany won World War II.

This scenario is nearly the first thing anyone will come up with if you mention alternate history. Why this creepy trope should have a white-knuckled death-grip on the collective unconscious is a question requiring essays of its own. Still, that’s no reason not to throw out a half-assed theory here. It’s worth pointing out that the formative years of science fiction–when it became defined as a genre separate from the larger mass of fiction–included the 1940s. With 60 years of hindsight, we’re used to thinking of the Allied victory as inevitable–so it’s easy to forget that the people actually living through the war couldn’t be sure of anything.5 They could only hope for the best… and sometimes, probably, fear the worst. Fears that the war effort might go wrong would have given that first generation of SF pulp ghetto dwellers a good few churned stomachs and sleepless nights. So after it was all over they worked their fears out in their fiction, and passed them down to the next generation.

Terrance Dicks lived through the WW2 era, too, but this nightmare is a little different. Dicks’s Nazis haven’t just conquered England. They’ve conquered the cozy cartoon England of early 1970s Doctor Who. This is the England populated entirely by comical rustics, government bureaucrats, businessmen, and scientists wearing turtleneck sweaters and black horn-rimmed glasses; all of whom live either in London or one of a number of small rural villages, connected by narrow, deserted highways. The resistance fighters could be the local poacher and his wife in any episode from 1970 to 1977. There’s even an incongruously amiable bobby so dense he never wonders why Ace doesn’t seem to know the most basic facts about occupied London.

And yet this isn’t quite a cozy cartoon fascist state. It comes close, of course–Dicks has problems imagining anything entirely not cozy, so his occupied England is ruled by reassuringly befuddled stooges whom the Doctor can run big sweeping rings around. But it’s about as close to a brutally realistic fascist state as Dicks is ever going to get. He seems to have done some research about how someplace like this might work, just as John Peel did his research on Mesopotamia for Genesys. That’s one of the really striking differences between the New Adventures and the BBC Books–the BBC Books often gave the impression that the authors’ research consisted of going for a beer, flipping on “Survivor: Beirut,” and trying to remember what they heard thirty years ago in Mrs. Peebles’s fourth grade Social Studies class. Most of the New Adventures, even the lesser entries, look like someone thought about them.

But this is only half the book–Dicks wrote two substories, like a pair of Target 128-pagers stuck together. Having outwitted the local collaborators, the Doctor travels back to the war to correct the timeline–and discovers that the War Lords were helping Hitler’s rise to power all along. Observing a Nazi rally, the Doctor insists that it’s been “‘Arranged, preplanned–by someone with a very sophisticated knowledge of the psycho-dynamics of crowds. Knowledge that doesn’t really belong in this century.’” This is completely asinine… and also incredibly tasteless. And yet, somehow, not many of Exodus’s readers seem to have been offended. There are at least a couple of reasons why this might have been the case. For one thing, Doctor Who fans have a certain amount of permanent goodwill for Terrance Dicks. No matter what drivel he comes up with, the fans treat him like their favorite old uncle, who might sometimes embarrass them but is still family. Also, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, in mirror-image.

In 1968, Erich von Daniken published Chariots of the Gods?, in which he argued that the greatest accomplishments of ancient civilizations were all down to the intervention of space aliens. Native American earthworks? Built to be seen from space. Egyptian pyramids? Put together with anti-gravity devices. Apparently aliens have nothing better to do than cross millions of light years to play Lego with big rocks. It was crappily pseudointellectual drivel… but it was also a bestseller. The public ate it up. A lot of people like to believe that history is progress, a straight line that moves from less advanced to more, and the knowledge that these “primitive” people, unaided, accomplished feats that would stump later civilizations doesn’t fit. Von Daniken’s theories were wish fulfillment. They seemed to make history make sense.

Doctor Who ate this stuff up, too. After Nigel Kneale plagiarism, von Danikenism was 1970s Doctor Who’s biggest cottage industry. Egyptian religion, Greek myth, Scottish monster legends–everything in history was caused by aliens. Von Danikenism even showed up in stories that didn’t depend on it, like “Death to the Daleks,” which insists, for no relevant reason, that the Incas were too stupid to come up with their own architecture. There’s a major difference, of course–Doctor Who’s writers and viewers understood that this was fiction. But my point is that seeing von Daniken’s influence over and over again in Doctor Who made it familiar, almost expected. After a while, seeing it again wouldn’t even register. Which makes it easy to slip increasingly weird variations on von Daniken past the audience. And this is why the premise of Exodus failed to offend most of the readers. Most readers didn’t think about it, maybe didn’t even notice it. It was von Daniken again, and he’s part of the furniture.

In Timewyrm: Exodus we again have aliens interfering in human history–not to improve the old, “less advanced” societies, but to worsen a modern civilization in 20th century Europe. And, in a way, it’s wish fulfillment again, because no one likes to think that human beings could be responsible for the grotesque evils of Nazi Germany. It’s upsetting to realize that the Germans who participated in–who even stood by and permitted–these crimes were ordinary people. Exodus presents a fantasy world where that guilt is taken away, displaced onto an alien intruder. “This can’t be us doing this,” Terrance Dicks says. “This isn’t the human race I know.” Which would be a pleasant thing to believe. Dicks is imagining a world where evil comes from outside, where ordinary people are, absent intervention, just not that depraved. But the idea that humans aren’t capable of this kind of evil is a fantasy… one as misleading, in its own way, as the fantasy that humans aren’t capable of the good things built by the Egyptians or the Incas.

  1. Presumably located in Branson, Missouri. ↩

  2. The “Alternate Universe” story arc was an Eighth Doctor storyline that lasted from Time Zero in September 2002 to Timeless in August 2003. It may not be quite the worst stretch of books the BBC ever published, but it’s up there. Or possibly down, as the case may be. The effect was heightened because the arc started at about the same point that the EDAs went from monthly to bimonthly publication, stretching a six-month story out to the length of a year. ↩

  3. The August 1993 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction featured, I swear to God, two stories in which Fidel Castro became a professional baseball player, both of which had been submitted to the magazine at the same time. ↩

  4. Aside from “Inferno,” which featured an alternate universe but not enough historical speculation to really count. ↩

  5. Something that was also played up in “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances.” ↩