Doctor Who: Managra

Cover Art

Interviewed for a Doctor Who Magazine article years after Virgin Books published his Doctor Who novel Managra, Stephen Marley recalled being “excited about what the series almost was… I thought the point was to consider what it would be like were it done properly.” And, lo, the traditionalists were heard to mutter “how dare he!” On the other hand, this was exactly the point of these books as far as I’m concerned, so I’m pretty much Marley’s ideal reader.

Marley thought the Missing Adventures “went too far in terms of ‘period’ feel.” Still, Managra fits the mold of the early Tom Baker seasons produced by Philip Hinchcliffe: a gothic horror adventure centered around a charismatic madman rather than a “monster.” The difference is ambition. Managra is epic: a big world with a big story reaching back through time and the Doctor’s life, but comprehensibly human on the character level.

Doctor Who was conceived to take people from our familiar world into strange new environments, anywhere in time and space. The 1990s-2000s approach sees the primary purpose of the series as bringing time and space into a familiar world. New worlds are deemphasized; in books like The Janus Conjunction or The Infinity Race, or in the new television series, they’re spaces just large enough to contain a plot for the Doctor to foil. The inhabitants have no lives outside their purpose in the Doctor’s story.

I think we’ve lost something here. Travel between worlds enlarges Doctor Who, allowing it to move between, and colonize, new genres. Endless invasions of Earth make the universe seem smaller. Strange environments are flexible, with great scope for telling different kinds of stories (in the UNIT years, the writers feared the series might become a series of alien invasions—what we’ve seen from the last two decades of Earth-based stories). New worlds provide more space for satire, commentary (contemporary alien invasion stories usually work on the level of “pick a trend and make it evil!”), and exploration of character under unusual circumstances.

And sometimes they’re just fun.

Managra harkens back to the days when the TARDIS crew could spend the whole of the first episode just exploring. Managra’s Europa is several hundred years of European history and literature mixed in a blender, slathered over the site of the original with stolen Gallifreyan superscience… a crazy gothic Alexandre Dumas-Robert Louis Stevenson-Bram Stoker world sitting just underneath the New Adventures’ gleaming 30th-century Overcities… a mix of the familiar and unexpected peopled by adventure-loving humans, fictional characters brought to life, and “Reprises,” historical figures cloned and primed with memories of their original lives. Some multiple times—we meet three distinct Lord Byrons, two cloned from his hair. I once read that Byron would respond to requests for a lock of hair with clippings from his pet newfoundland. How big a kennel did Europa’s creators amass before they finally got a Byron? No wonder they cloned the last one from a toenail.

Managra works because of the expansive world implied beyond the story’s borders. There’s a lot going on in Europa and most of it has nothing to do with the Doctor. The series could have set another dozen books there if it had chosen, exploring a new corner every time. Earlier I mentioned stories that present their worlds as not much more than backdrops for adventures. Those stories give the solipsistic impression that the Doctor is the world. The rest of the universe exists for him, and goes away when he steps back into the TARDIS. Managra makes the Doctor’s world bigger. The backstory is as world-expanding as the setting. The story references a previous tangle with Elizabeth Bathory. We never quite learn what happened, but it scared the hell out of the Doctor, and the story in our imaginations is weirder and scarier than any full telling of that particular tale could ever be.

Created worlds have their dangers. Sometimes authors gets so into presenting their worlds they forget the other virtues of a novel: All tour guide, no story. Managra escapes that trap by building its big, complex world around a small, comprehensible emotional core.

In a book set in a world build from history and adventure fiction it’s appropriate that the villain is a failed writer: Francis Pearson, a failed Elizabethan dramatist who’s based his career around plagiarizing Shakespeare, badly. Doctor Who is at its best when its villains are motivated by something more comprehensible than broad conquer-the-universe megalomania—some ordinary emotion made dangerous by raw power. And Pearson, now merged with an alien entity, the secret power behind Europa’s creators, is just jealous.

The Doctor quotes the prologue of Henry V:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

…can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Pearson’s got a big hole where a muse of fire should be. He can’t create worlds with words… so he overcompensates. Gallifreyan superscience creates the vasty fields of France—and England, and the whole of Europe several times over—where he can rewrite reality, like a play with a cast of real people, with Mimesis.

“Mimesis” is a literary term for the representation of reality. This goes back to Greek drama; critics distinguished between diegesis (narration, a reported story) and mimesis (directly representing action.) In Managra Mimesis is also a Time Lord art reversing cause and effect: representation creates reality. Only a damn good writer can create a world from words. Anybody who knows Mimesis, regardless of talent, can with words turn reality into a play.

Europa is a land built from adventure fiction, a world of plots, rebellions, mysteries, monsters, duels, romance, and bigger-than-life heroes. The unstated attraction of the place is the chance to live in an adventure, even if only as the sidekick. It’s a giant MMORPG, the 30th century equivalent of Second Life… but that can’t be all it is. People live there. Europa’s not a theme park built for adventure. It’s a world.

Francis Pearson is Europa’s big nightmare. Not just a megalomaniac: Europa has plenty of those, and plenty of adventurers ready to knock them off their perches. For an adventure-fiction world Pearson is the most banal yet most existential of threats. He wants to turn Europa into badly written fiction.

Pearson would render living, breathing Europans into cardboard characters compelled to spend their lives acting out boring, illogical plots; speaking awkward dialogue; and rushing towards grisly, arbitrary, meaningless fates. You might think it would feel like living in a two-part season-ender written by Russell T. Davies… but the more apt comparison would be life inside The Infinity Race or The Janus Conjunction. The ultimate irony of Managra is that only the Doctor can save Europa from becoming the shallow kind of world he’d visit more and more often in the years to come.