Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible

In retrospect, the most significant thing about Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is what it did for Gallifrey. Which is interesting, because it’s also the smallest part of the book.

For years, Gallifrey was a mysterious, rarely seen planet of space gods who, in their first appearance, casually sent the Doctor spinning into a big black void with his head missing. Subsequently they did crazy crap like unexpectedly appearing in midair outside of radio telescopes, or pulling transmat beams halfway across the galaxy and thousands of years into the past, all the time wearing relaxed, bemused expressions that suggested this kind of thing was just part of the morning routine, and after they’d had their coffee they’d really get going.

This changed with “The Deadly Assassin.” Robert Holmes gave Gallifrey layers of down-to-earth corruption and politics which added interesting story possibilities but were not immediately accepted by fans. A now-legendary review from a fan club newsletter, written by one Jan Vincent Rudzki, was reprinted 20 years later in Paul Cornell’s book License Denied. It’s worth tracking down, if only as a reminder that the style of writing that dominates many internet forums–a sort of breathless, half-literate nitpicking –did not originate there. As with a lot of this stuff, Rudzki’s criticisms are mostly based on unwarranted assumptions and personal hobby-horses, like his innocent faith in the notion that all Time Lords have easy access to “time scanners.” Most awesomely, he ends his review with “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” in big capital letters, which should end every post on rec.arts.drwho. Even so, he does get something right: “This story really showed up the infatuation for Earth people in Doctor Who. It could have been set on Earth and no one would have known the difference.”

Robert Holmes’s Time Lords are mundane. They’re very, very human–almost indistinguishable from a herd of aging Oxford dons. Later writers took the wrong lesson from Holmes, making the Time Lords more and more prosaic until by “Arc of Infinity” they were pretty much a bunch of nice middle-class office workers hanging out in the food court at the mall.

Until Time’s Crucible. Marc Platt made Gallifrey weird again. Ancient Gallifrey is a world of telepaths dominated by those few with the will to make their thoughts entirely their own, ruled by a mad old seer whose office is a cage suspended above a fissure. The nice office workers don’t speak the language, and will probably lose their travelers checks within a couple of days.

What’s less immediately obvious is the skill with which Platt drew this society. Time’s Crucible displays an easy mastery of the technique that fantasy writer Jo Walton calls “incluing,” conveying more background through implication than infodumps. He trusts the readers enough to know that, from phrases like “strange-featured people who thought in strange accents” and the stress placed on words like “Individuals,” they can infer a great deal about this world, orienting the readers so that, by the time he states outright that everybody’s telepathic, they already have some idea of what this means.

I’m not blathering on about this because I think the art of suggesting more background than is shown was new to Doctor Who. Robert Holmes had mastered of the technique, as is obvious from something like “The Ribos Operation.” What’s important about this is that Time’s Crucible–to a greater extent than the more mythic Revelation–signals the point when Doctor Who seriously began learning from the themes and techniques of mainstream literary SF. This was a break with the TV series, which naturally was more influenced by other visual media, especially Hammer films and Nigel Kneale. Its literary sources tended to be writers old or famous enough to have works adapted to film, so that, when books like The Left Hand of Darkness and Stand on Zanzibar were winning SF awards, Doctor Who was broadcasting “The Dominators” and “The Space Pirates.” The New Adventures brought Doctor Who to the point where it was only about five or ten years behind the times, rather than twenty or thirty–which sounds snide, but it really was a major accomplishment. Their literary influences were a huge shift in tone for Doctor Who, and a sign of the writers’ recognition that this was a series of novels and not novelizations. The new direction alienated those few fans who wouldn’t accept anything but a TV episode frozen in print, but gained a stable audience and led to an artistically successful line of books. (I’ll repeat that, just so you realize how amazing it is: an artistically successful line of TV tie-in novels. That’s huge.) This success is only more obvious in comparison with the BBC Books, so many of which looked away from literary influences towards Hollywood blockbusters and modern media properties–and suffered as a consequence.

There are a couple of things you realize about Time’s Crucible on a second reading. First, that there’s a lot less Gallifrey in it than you remember. Second, that the issues the rest of the book deals with, which you didn’t remember at all, are a bit… well, abstract.

Judging from online reviews I’ve skimmed through, this is thought to be a difficult book. At first it’s hard to understand what the Process is trying to do, or what the hell it’s even talking about most of the time. But Time’s Crucible is less complex than it seems. There’s a reason why the Process’s goals are hard to understand: it doesn’t understand them itself–it doesn’t even know it doesn’t understand them. The Process’s plans, its blather about the “stolen future” and the conflict between its older and younger incarnations are all, in themselves, meaningless. The Process is an unwitting character in a psychodrama, acting out the conflict between Rassilon and the Pythia on ancient Gallifrey, absorbed through the Pythia’s mental link to Vael. The barren city where the biggest chunk of the action takes place is an empty stage for a few actors to play a stripped-down burlesque of the Pythia’s fall, a planetwide political revolution boiled down to its essence.

(Time’s Crucible was originally a TV proposal, by the way, and here we see how some version of this story, rewritten to require fewer special effects, might have worked–about six or seven actors besides the regulars in a setting that could be cobbled together from whatever sets and locations were on hand. Keep the Gallifrey bits brief, and you could suggest an offstage political coup with just Rassilon and the Pythia arguing in a cave.)

Time’s Crucible is a political satire. It’s about what happens when the powerful become complacent; when political power is something to be held onto for its own sake, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Usually at that point a special kind of denial sets in. It’s a defense mechanism. Powerful people don’t like to admit, even to themselves, that they could stop being powerful. They see the future as a kind of eternal Now, which their heirs will rule forever. Often this extends even to the past, which they conceive of as a place of eternal “traditional values,” unchanging and unchallenged until the decadent present. Anything that suggests even the possibility of change is blasphemy.

U.S. politics provide an illustration. In a recent (at the time of writing) primary election in Connecticut, a longtime Democratic senator who had lost the trust of his constituents was thrown out in favor of a new candidate. This is the kind of thing that happens in a democracy, and always a disappointment to the loser… but the senator and his supporters reacted like a dog had walked into their dinner party on its hind legs, climbed on the table and recited dirty limericks. It was his right to run for reelection, damn it, and anything that challenged that was unnatural. Something of his attitude is demonstrated by the name of the third party he immediately formed in order to stay in the race. In the U.S. political parties usually take names that communicate their values: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green. Senator Lieberman named his new party “Connecticut for Lieberman.”

The Pythia can’t imagine a future she hasn’t chosen. As she becomes entrenched in power her denial grows stronger, until she literally can’t see the future that it’s her function to predict. Meanwhile, the city reduces the struggle to retain power and deny history to absurdity. Time has looped back on itself, creating three eternal presents. The Process, unable to admit any change, struggles not with successors but with other versions of itself to preserve not only its reign but a particular moment of its reign as the true reality.

Despite this, the Process talks a lot about the future. Just what it’s saying about the future is one of the less clear things about Time’s Crucible, mostly because none of its dialogue means very much. It’s convinced the future was “stolen” because the Pythia believes that Rassilon has stolen her future, but it has no real idea of what the future is, beyond something that ought to belong to it. In the mouths of the Process “the future” becomes political jargon–the kind of word that shows up in speeches because of its great emotional appeal and slight intellectual content. Every government has jargon words, and the more self-aggrandizing and inbred the government the more of them there are: just think of the piles of inane buzzwords associated with communism. Closer to home, “freedom” has been taking a beating lately from George W. Bush, and if you sat him down and asked him what the word meant to him I doubt he’d have a coherent answer.

Taken to its furthest extreme, the obsession with holding on to power leads to a totalitarian state, arranged to suppress anything that might threaten the rulers. We don’t see a lot of Gallifrey, but what we do see suggests that the Pythia’s reign approaches totalitarianism. (Who needs telescreens when everyone constantly hears everyone else’s thoughts? And the Pythia seems to have no qualms about probing Vael’s brain at whim.) The city again reduces the situation to its barest essentials: a tiny closed ecosystem where the State is all that exists. With all else stripped away, the ruler’s preoccupations are revealed as pointless, egocentric absurdities. The citizens are literally made to participate in their own oppression, as the brainwashed guards from the final phase police their own past selves.

But the city, though useful for satire, is also Time’s Crucible’s big weakness. It’s a high-concept world of big ideas and mind-blowing set pieces, but curiously lifeless in its chapter-to-chapter existence. The only inhabitants are the Process, a group of mostly indistinguishable early Time Lords, the Doctor and Ace–and the Doctor vanishes for most of the book, leaving Ace to carry whole chapters on her own. This book apparently bores a lot of readers, and I don’t blame them; I liked it, but even I wanted less Ace and more Gallifrey. It probably wouldn’t have hurt the book to be about 50 to 75 pages shorter. The biggest problem is that Time’s Crucible is so very sedate. It needs more wit of the dry, not quite laugh-out-loud kind found in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Eugen Ionescu’s play Rhinoceros. It needed, in other words, to be a true absurdist novel.

Even so, Time’s Crucible isn’t nearly as much of a slog as its reputation suggests. It didn’t equal Timewyrm: Revelation, but if you’ve never reread it–or never read it for the first time–it’s worth going back to.