Just to have something to post tonight, here’s a review of a _Doctor Who_ tie-in novel, which I originally posted on a mailing list. I have a couple more half-written which may show up here eventually, if I can make myself finish them.
In 1991, Virgin Books, who owned the Target Books imprint, ran out of televised Doctor Who stories to novelize. Fortunately, there was a way to keep the cash flowing: start a series of original novels, called the New Adventures. Even more fortunately, the BBC seems to have had a lackadaisical attitude towards the Doctor Who license. The New Adventures suffered from relatively little corporate oversight and interference, and for a while became something more interesting than the usual TV tie-in pap.
You wouldn’t guess any of this from John Peel’s Timewyrm: Genesys. But it is the first in the series, so bear with me while I discuss this dreary, half- assed little mediocrity in far more detail than it deserves.
Timewyrm: Genesys reads almost like fan fiction. The NAs were often called fan fiction by grumpy Usenet cranks, but this one really does come off as fanfic. It’s a fan’s idea of a generic Doctor Who story: A historical setting (ancient Mesopotamia) is invaded by an evil alien (Qataka) posing as an entity from human myth (Ishtar), who is defeated by the Doctor with the help of a famous guest star (Gilgamesh). This mass of cliches is mixed with some odd ideas, the first being the decision to start the book with the Doctor accidentally wiping Ace’s memories. There is a reason for this–it’s the first New Adventure, and this was an excuse for Peel, in the optimistic assumption that readers entirely new to Doctor Who might give the book a try, to have the Doctor explain the premise of the series. But it’s a very weird way to do it. It means we get two sequences within a few pages in which we’re introduced to a mysterious, unnamed, and therefore uninteresting viewpoint character–the first being the villain, the second being one of the regular cast. And these hypothetical new readers would have been baffled a few pages later when, in an act of blatant fanwank, the TARDIS sends the Doctor a “message” consisting of random video clips of old companions.1 They’d have been even more lost during the book’s climax when the Doctor, for no logical reason, suddenly announces that he’s going to channel a previous incarnation and starts acting like Jon Pertwee.
After what feels like fifty chapters of setup, the Doctor arrives in Mesopotamia. There’s one good thing about this book: John Peel did his research. He goes to some trouble to make ancient Mesopotamia foreign. This would not always be the case–by the BBC books era, most of the alien planets and historical eras felt a lot like contemporary Earth. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too obvious Peel’s done his research, and he comes off like a tour guide who keeps tugging at your sleeve to deliver another fun fact. And Mesopotamia is never as amazing and exotic as it should be because the entire book is written in a flat, affectless prose reminiscent of a sixth grade social studies textbook, and it sucks the life out of everything.
Including the characters. Gilgamesh, the historical guest celebrity of the week, is a cardboard drunk. Ishtar is a ridiculous Snidely Whiplash villain. As for the dialogue… well, at the beginning of Chapter Five, Enkidu, last of the Neanderthal race and companion to the legendary Gilgamesh, manages within a single page to say both “I’ve got a very bad feeling about this” and “It’s too quiet.” Meanwhile, Ishtar is given to statements like “‘Ah… morality. The weakness that marks the fool from the genius.” I don’t know how this stuff comes out of John Peel’s head. This is a man with a successful writing career, for certain values of “successful” and “writing.” I assume he has opportunities to observe and talk to people. Yet he writes with the insight into character of some guy living in a basement whose only social interactions are with his X-Men action figures. The impression is exacerbated by the weird, unpleasant, adolescent prurience that lies just beneath the surface of Peel’s Doctor Who work. (See also War of the Daleks.) At one point he manages to make even the Doctor sound like a dirty old man: “‘I like things to be tidied up and smelling pretty.’ He smiled at the young priestess. ‘Like this young lady.’”
Yuck. Thanks a lot, John–it’s going to take me years to scrub that line out of my brain.
So far, this is all just bad writing… but there are a couple of stylistic quirks I want to take a closer look at. Partly because they tell us something about this particular book, but also because they’re going to come up again. And again.
First, John Peel has some terrible problems with point of view. At times he appears to be trying to write in third person limited, but he doesn’t stick to one character for any length of time. The narrative point of view jumps from head to head like a hyperactive louse, occasionally slipping into third person omniscient. This can get confusing, as it sometimes takes a moment to realize you’re suddenly reading a new character’s thoughts.
So you can see what I’m talking about, let’s look at a passage from Chapter Eight which, up to this point, has been told from the POV of one of the temple priestesses:
Lost in her thoughts, En-Gula almost screamed when a strange figure stepped out of the shadows and politely raised his hat.
“Good evening,” the Doctor said, blessing her with his best smile. “I do hope I’ve not called at an inconvenient hour?”
Realizing that this strangely-attired little man could not be one of Ishtar’s messengers sent to call her to retribution, En-Gula managed to catch her breath.
You might wonder how En-Gula knows that this “strange figure” is the Doctor, especially since she immediately thereafter forgets, and can only identify him as a “strangely-attired little man.” What’s going on here?
The answer is that she doesn’t know. The first and third paragraphs are En- Gula’s POV, but the second paragraph isn’t–in fact, it isn’t the POV of anyone in the novel at all. It’s the POV of the audience watching the imaginary TV episode in John Peel’s head. It knows that this is the Doctor because it can see him, and unlike En-Gula it’s been watching the show from the beginning.
Peel can’t maintain a constant POV because he’s transcribing an imaginary television show. He follows what the camera shows him. He focuses on the Doctor when the camera does. He switches to Ace’s POV when the shot changes. He switches to third person omniscient when no one character dominates the scene. Think of his prose as an unconscious shooting script, and a lot becomes clear.2
Problems with point of view came up repeatedly in the Doctor Who novels, but not in every book. Another of Timewyrm: Genesys’s stylistic quirks would prove near-universal among Who fiction. It’s the way the novel is broken up into a series of short passages–ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages–which intercut between different characters and plot strands. Unlike the roving point of view, this isn’t really a problem. Lots of good Who novels were written like this. But that’s because–and this is the striking thing–almost the entire series is written like this. And after a while you realize that it’s less a deliberate stylistic choice than an unconscious assumption that this is what a Doctor Who book looks like.
Again, to understand where this comes from we have to look to television. The New Adventures, for all their newfound length and eventual sophistication, were still the mutant children of the Target books. In the Target days the short scene format made it easy to novelize a television story: one scene in the script became a few paragraphs in the book. The first three original novels were all by former Target writers, and the generation of new writers who started with Paul Cornell were fans who’d absorbed the Target style into their psyches. No one ever questioned that this was the way to write Doctor Who. A lot of good novels were written like this, so obviously it didn’t hurt the series too much… but it’s interesting that this style was still the standard as of the final BBC past Doctor novel, Atom Bomb Blues–which also has the same floating POV problem as Timewyrm: Genesys, probably for the same reason. Virgin Books may have advertised the New Adventures as “too broad and too deep for the small screen,” but it seems the Who books never entirely managed to separate themselves from their television origins.
The most interesting thing about this bit is the implication that the TARDIS likes to record videos of the Doctor’s companions screaming in fear. ↩
This kind of thing actually turns up a lot in bad fiction these days, and there’s a good explanation of this in an essay at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction website; it’s partway down the page under the heading “The Voyeur Camera.” ↩