I just read The Pit. It’s staring into me, man. It’s staring riiiiiiight into me.
The Pit. My god. No title has ever described its book with such pure and concise accuracy. Not even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This book is a legend among Doctor Who fans. Fifteen years later the mere mention of the name Neil Penswick brings fainting fits. Some people swear their copies of The Pit have tried to kill them.
Can The Pit really be that bad? Yes, it can. Is it the worst of the New Adventures series? Yes, it is. Is it really, as has been an article of faith for so long, the Worst Doctor Who Book Ever?
Well, no. But only because so many boring runarounds were published by BBC Books. The Pit is at least interestingly bad.
And bad in so many ways. It’s hard to describe what’s wrong with The Pit. The job is too big for the brain, like trying to make out the shape of a continent from five feet away. In a way The Pit is compelling. It’s like reading somebody’s fever dream. Things just don’t quite seem to connect.
Neil Penswick writes like Terrence Dicks entering a Bad Hemingway contest… short choppy sentences that don’t flow, following in ways that almost (but not quite) feel like non sequiturs. Dialogue is subtly unlike anything any genuine human would say. Here’s how a police officer (from the “Justice Police”) summarizes an incident report:
“The neighbors reported an argument in the apartment. A fight. Screaming, silence, and then a voice shouting the ‘days are eerie’. Even residents from this seedy downtown apartment block were disturbed enough to call the security police. We were called to investigate a crime in what is generally considered to be a no-go area of the city. The witnesses talked about inhuman screams.”
Notice how Penswick comes back to mention the screams twice. He tends to repeat himself. Also, notice how the sentences come in no particular order—logically, the fifth sentence should come first, and the fourth should have been last. Which goes a long way towards explaining that subliminal non sequitur feeling.
As above, so below: the lackadaisical sentences fractally reflect the plotting. Penswick plots like he’s tossing random junk into a box. Things happen for no particular reason, and are forgotten. A band of androids (who were “trained in jungle warfare by the legendary Brian Parsons,” who “concentrated on the ‘Najake’ concept”) encounter a 100-meter spider with “two protruding molars.” Laser beams bounce off of it. It’s wounded and runs off. This has nothing to do with anything. It’s just a thing that happens, as things do. The Doctor himself meanders through the narrative, passive, buffeted by random events, letting things happen. The Pit is one of the few Doctor Who stories in which the Doctor does nothing useful. By the end of the book he’s letting Kopyion lead him around by the sonic screwdriver.
Oh, yeah. Kopyion. Is there a word for a character who resembles a Mary Sue in every way except that he’s not an avatar for the author? Because we’ve got one, right here. The Pit’s reputation as the Worst Doctor Who Book comes from a lot of different places—the prose, the plot, the passive Doctor—but you have to assume that there was also a little influence from Kopyion Liall a Mahajetsu, that most legendary and badass of Time Lords, who subliminally reeks of terrible, terrible fanfic.
Kopyion is, at least according to himself, the Lord Defender of the Faith of the Peoples of Gallifrey. He’s the baddest Time Lord in the whole downtown. He singlehandedly beats back the most ancient of Gallifrey’s enemies. He bears the scars of terrible wars and his gaze will pierce you to your very marrow. Incongruously, he also listens to Leonard Cohen albums.
(I can just see him. A scarred and one-armed phantom striking down the bat-winged hunters with his terrible swift sword, cold eyes flashing… all the while humming to himself, “The sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone”…)
The telltale Mary Sue moment comes when the Doctor learns just who he’s dealing with, and prostrates himself at once. I’m not kidding. From page 245:
“‘You ask me who I am,’ the figure’s voice became louder. ‘I am Kopyion…’
‘Forgive me,’ the Doctor whispered, falling prone to the floor.
‘…Liall a Mahajetsu, the Lord Defender of the Faith of the Peoples of Gallifrey.”
The figure stood over the prostrate Doctor.
‘You may rise,’ said the figure.
Which is nice of him, although the reader could be forgiven for wondering why the Doctor waited for permission. Like I said, he’s been weirdly passive all the way through. To understand why, we’ll first have to talk about the one thing that’s right with The Pit.
Despite everything, I’ll give The Pit this much: it has some ambition. It’s trying to say something. It fails miserably, of course. The Pit’s reach so exceeds its grasp that it must have needed orthopedic surgery to recover from the effort. But just the fact that it’s reaching at all makes it more worthwhile than anything Justin Richards has done since Virgin dumped its fiction department.
And it’s nice, after the declining years of books influenced by TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters, to see Penswick taking his cue from books—he learned all the wrong lessons, but at least he’s on the right track. Obvious influences include Lovecraft (the Yssgaroth would fit right in with Cthulhu, Azathoth and the gang), Philip K. Dick (the Yssgaroth’s minions call themselves “the Empire that Never Ended,” and one of the subplots involves a drug that sends people into their own little worlds), and Tim Powers and James Blaylock (a volume of poetry by William Ashbless puts in an appearance).
The problem here is that The Pit’s ambition is to pull the series in a direction is won’t naturally go, like trying to bend somebody’s elbow backwards. The Pit’s core philosophy is at odds with the rest of the series. It grapples with the problem of why suffering exists, why people end up in hells of humanity’s own making despite the good intentions of individuals. To this question The Pit has a simpleminded answer: too much book-learnin’!
The Pit identifies the Enlightenment with the fall of Adam and Eve. We ate the fruit of knowledge and fell away from God, and this is the source of all ills. In an old interview still available at the Internet Wayback Machine, Neil Penswick says The Pit is about the Jungian archetype of the “shadow.” He’s all the things the Time Lords repressed. “Kopyion is a ‘shadow’ for the entirety of Gallifreyan history,” says Penswick, and here’s what Kopyion has to say on that subject:
“We believed in God. We were a spiritual race. We prayed. And then it started. Philosophers argued about the existence of God. And then the scientists stated that we were alone in the universe, that we made our own destiny.”
Rassilon’s time experiments let the Yssgaroth, evils from outside time, into the universe. They are, at heart, demons. The Pit’s universe is a mad, malign place where reason brings forth monsters. On Earth, a UNIT scientist wants to study an apparently dead Yssgaroth, which the Doctor urges him to destroy. Of course, the scientist turns out to be evil, and the Yssgaroth to be very much alive. That’s how it is; in the world of The Pit, working to understand the enemy is a terrible, destructive mistake.
The Pit’s worldview is Manichaean; evil is absolute and irredeemable. It sees evil not as something that people do, but as an outside force with its own existence—something people join with for reasons we can’t understand. These people are, or become, alien—incomprehensible, irreconcilable, other. The Pit doesn’t allow for even the possibility that villains might have motives. The closest any of them get to an explanation for their actions is “We reject your slave morality.” In the war on Evil any tactic, any amount of collateral damage is acceptable… and the most important thing of all is that Evil should know what a tough man you are. Kopyion blows up a solar system solely to show the Yssgaroth how entirely goddamn hardass he is, and the Doctor reacts with resignation.
I wonder if Neil Penswick is a fan of 24?
This is exactly opposed to Doctor Who’s humanist worldview. Doctor Who is rational, skeptical; to the extent it sympathizes with religion, it favors Buddhists and Pagans. It’s about new solutions to old problems. Violence is the lastest of last resorts. The Pit is militant blood-and-thunder monotheistic evangelism shoehorned into a humanist universe.
That’s why the Doctor can’t act. That’s why Kopyion shows the sudden telltale dominance of the Mary Sue. As long as the Doctor is in the world of The Pit he can’t be the hero. He represents the rational/scientific world view The Pit despises. Only Kopyion, Neil Penswick’s mouthpiece, can take control of this narrative.
It’s just as well. The Pit may have pushed the Doctor into the background, but in doing so it at least avoided twisting him into another Kopyion.