Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Doctor Who, Celebrity Historicals, and Meddling

Fair warning: unless you watch Doctor Who this post will probably be of no interest to you whatsoever.

Recently news leaked about an upcoming story from the next season of Doctor Who. It’s a spoiler, I guess, although not much of one as it’s not the most original idea. The word is that Mary Shelley will meet the Cybermen, who will give her the idea for Frankenstein. In reality Frankenstein, like most great novels, was the result of a whole array of ideas and influences. Apparently in the Doctor Who universe Mary Shelley just saw a Cyberman. (This blog post assumes the description of the episode is roughly accurate. It could still turn out to be more complicated than that.)

I commented on Twitter that when SF stories explain a historical event was really caused by time travellers and/or aliens, they usually pick something that isn’t actually mysterious and come up with an “explanation” less interesting than what happened in real life. Doctor Who doesn’t often base entire stories around this concept. It’s usually a joke; an allegedly funny tag scene or name-dropping anecdote in an story about something else.[1] This is partly because the TV show rarely visits specific historical events at all. (The TV series, specifically–it’s more common in the books and audio plays.) At least, until recently. Between the Shelley rumor and season 11, the first produced by Chris Chibnall, it looks like the way Doctor Who uses history is evolving. This lets it tell different types of stories, but they’re story types with potential pitfalls.

You can divide historically-set Doctor Who stories into two categories. (Parenthetical caveat #3: Not the only possible groupings, just ones I’ve chosen for the purposes of my argument.) Type 1 stories have a historical setting, and may deal with historical themes, but aren’t about specific historical events–“The Pyramids of Mars,” “Black Orchid,” or “Thin Ice” (which uses a real event as background but isn’t about it).

Type 2 stories throw the Doctor into a specific, real historical event. This was more common in the 1960s when the show did what fans call “pure historicals”–stories with no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. (The only post–1960s pure historical is “Black Orchid,” an odd Peter Davison two-parter.) After the show went all SF, all the time, it’s hard to come up with examples. “City of Death” involves the Mona Lisa, but we never meet Leonardo. “Mark of the Rani” has Luddites but isn’t about them; they’re just background for bizarre Master hijinks. Before season 11 the new series had “The Fires of Pompeii” and… well, “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Day of the Moon” take place while history is being broadcast on television, but the Doctor is in the audience watching, just like us.

Most Type 2 stories are about the Doctor landing in trouble and trying to survive long enough to escape in the TARDIS. The historical event is usually wide-ranging enough to keep the Doctor away from the center of the action–the Reign of Terror, say, or the Parturition of India. You see why when you watch “The Gunfighters,” one of the few Doctor Who stories centered around a small-scale, local historical event. When we reach the big climax in episode 4, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Doctor is absent. There’s nothing for him to do there.

When the Doctor gets involved in real history there’s only two ways the story can go: she can observe, or she can intervene. First, Observation: the Doctor stands to the side and observes history without affecting it. This keeps historical figures at the center of their own stories, but reduces the Doctor to a supporting role in her own series. She isn’t participating in a story, she’s an audience member who has a closer seat than we do.

One variation on Observation is the story where someone travels back in time to change history, and must be stopped. It’s a popular idea but is almost never used in Doctor Who. The only time meddler stories in the original series are “The Aztecs,” “The Time Meddler” (both Hartnell stories), “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (in which the villains never manage to leave the 20th century), and “The King’s Demons” (another oddly old-fashioned Davison two-parter). “Rosa” is the only one I can think of from the new series. It rubs against the grain to have the Doctor working to keep everything the same; meddling is what Doctor Who is about. In fact, after the Hartnell era the show rarely mentions the possibility of changing history at all. In the new series “Father’s Day” and “The Fires of Pompeii” explain for the new audience what the Doctor can and can’t interfere with, but otherwise it’s assumed that changes, as the eleventh Doctor puts it in “Hide,” “mostly work themselves out.”

Another kind of Observation story sends the protagonist back in time to witness a famous disaster or injustice. Often it’s an event society is still processing–Quantum Leap used this model a lot and was specifically set up to take stock of the Baby Boomer audience’s experiences. The time traveler can’t make a big difference in what happens, though they might help a few people. The traveler learns more about history and the story follows their emotional journey as a proxy for the audience’s. “Witness to history” stories can be problematic. They’re often stories of privileged people[2] having feelings about things happening to marginalized people. That’s less of a risk the more distance there is between the audience and the history; for instance, an inoffensive literary example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is another plot Doctor Who almost never uses. The only one in the entire classic series[3] is “The Massacre,” and two things are interesting to note: first, it’s not an especially fraught tragedy for contemporary audiences, most of whom wouldn’t feel a strong personal connection to the persecution of Hugenots. Second, the witness is the companion; the Doctor disappears for most of the story. It’s as though this plot isn’t compatible with the Doctor.

The other way the Doctor can interact with real history is Intervention: let the Doctor, or the aliens she meets, inspire or intervene in history. This lets the Doctor be active but diminishes the agency of real historical figures, giving fictional characters credit for their accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Mary Shelley. Assuming the description is accurate, the Shelley idea works according to an inanely reductive theory of art and invention where every idea can be traced to a specific incident from the author’s life. (There’s a lot of this among the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd: Shakespeare must have been noble, because only a noble could or would have written so much about nobles.) It’s a condescending, teleological version of cultural and technological evolution. Our ancestors weren’t sophisticated enough to come up with their own ideas–they needed help from us, the smart future people!

Doctor Who has flirted with this attitude before. Seventies Who got a lot of mileage out of Chariots of the Gods?, with aliens boosting ancient cultures a la von Däniken. And it tends to agree with Star Trek that low-tech cultures—including present-day Earth, from the Doctor’s perspective—need to be protected from anachronistic technology they’re not ethically developed enough to handle. Which I find dubious inasmuch as not everyone can handle the technology we have in real life. Let’s go for the edge case and consider nuclear weapons. If you showed a nuclear missile to random medieval people and explained what it did clearly enough that they really understood it, would they really be any less likely than people today to ask “Why the hell would you even build that?” By contrast, plenty of moderns assume we could survive a nuclear war and on more than one occasion in the last century we actually almost blew ourselves up. We have more information than our ancestors. In many ways, on average, we’re more enlightened. But that doesn’t mean we’re smarter. And it’s important to remember that our descendents will consider us ignorant and morally deficient in ways we can’t predict.

The time traveller who hands a historical figure their big idea is an inane gag, but scriptwriters never tire of it. Doctor Who has “explained” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and even Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording himself. On Quantum Leap Sam Beckett invented everything from the lyrics of “Peggy Sue” to the Heimlich maneuver. Back to the Future had Marty McFly writing the music of Chuck Berry, which was not only insulting but, inasmuch as it gave an average white kid credit for the work of a black man, also racist.

In classic Doctor Who, once you’re past the Hartnell era historical celebrities rarely appear onscreen at all. After “The Gunfighters” in 1966, the first historical figures who weren’t illusions or robot duplicates didn’t appear until 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” and “Timelash.” Modern Doctor Who invented what fans call “celebrity historicals”–stories where the Doctor visits the past and teams up with a famous historical figure. Charles Dickens or King James I wander into a standard Type 1 historical Doctor Who story and act as a one-off companion, with the Doctor and the guest sharing the role of the hero–or anti-hero, in James’s case.

But it sounds like in the Mary Shelley episode the Doctor is going to be at the Villa Diodati while the Byron-Shelley circle are writing their horror stories. This is a Type 2 historical story. What’s more, after a decades-long post-Hartnell dry spell season 11 has two of these stories: “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” And they’re different from previous historical stories in other ways.

First, these stories put the Doctor into segregation-era Alabama or the Parturition of India, history that’s both emotionally fraught and within living memory. Generally Doctor Who has stayed away from events that might be connected to painful family history for some of the audience. “Rosa” and “Demons” avoided trivializing their subjects, but it was a risk.

Second, these are exactly the kinds of stories Doctor Who hardly ever tells. “Demons” is a witness to tragedy story. Luckily it’s a good one–about as good as these stories can get, in fact. The writer is himself British-Indian and it’s a story about Yaz’s family that’s focused on her feelings, not the Doctor’s. And “Demons of the Punjab” is about witnessing and remembrance. The aliens of the week and the story itself are both memorializing the dead.

“Rosa”, meanwhile, is the first time meddler story since the Davison era. The script, co-written by a black writer, avoids most of the potential pitfalls of grafting a time meddler story to Rosa Parks’s most famous moment of activism. It doesn’t soft-pedal the racism or romanticize mid–20th century Alabama, which feels appropriately unpleasant. (I liked Quantum Leap but, steeped as it was in Boomer nostalgia, it presented a theme-park version of the past[4] even when it wasn’t appropriate.) “Rosa” doesn’t focus on the Doctor’s feelings and manages to avoid looking as though Parks needs the Doctor’s help. On the other hand, to offset the meddler’s work the Doctor does a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and stage managing, which is still not a good look. And the episode’s “Sound of Thunder”-style butterfly effect theory of time travel, in which small changes can rewrite history, has unintentionally problematic implications. The premise of the meddler’s plan is that just having a different bus, or a different driver, on the day Parks refused to give up her seat could derail the civil rights movement. This is different from how any other Doctor Who story has handled changes to history.[5] For one thing, if every episode worked on these assumptions just stepping out of the TARDIS to buy a newspaper might shred the web of time. More to the point, the idea that some asshole messing with a bus schedule could stop Rosa Parks from making her mark on history is at odds with the fact, which the episode itself acknowledges, that she was a committed activist. The butterfly effect model of time travel suggests progress is fragile. All human achievements, large or small, are the products more of random chance than of human effort. A time traveler steps on a butterfly and decades of social progress are undone.

There’s a progression in Doctor Who’s use of time travel. The classic series used it mostly as a way to move between settings and genres. Russell T. Davies introduced the celebrity historical. Steven Moffatt brought in twisting, achronological storylines in the tradition of (albeit much simpler than) Primer. And Chris Chibnall is introducing traditional time travel premises that haven’t been seen much in Doctor Who.

“Rosa” and the upcoming Mary Shelley episode are celebrity historicals mixed with the Type 2 historical story: the Doctor makes a guest appearance in the historical figures’ own stories and gets involved in the events that made them famous. This is new. I mean, sort of new, in a not-actually-new-at-all sense. The spinoff media, the books and audios, do this all the time (Big Finish, as I mentioned above, has even used more or less this exact Mary Shelley idea). But in the actual TV show it’s rarer than you’d think.

There’s a reason for that: again, there are only two ways a story centered around the event that made the celebrity famous can go. The Doctor can be involved in the celebrity’s big moment, but then it’s going to look like the show’s giving her partial credit for their achievements. Or the Doctor can stand off to the side and watch the celebrity do their thing, in which case she’s not the actor but the audience. In either case, somebody’s probably going to be Poochie.

That’s Poochie as in “Itchy and Scratchy and.” The Poochie is a character who shows up partway through a story, encroaches on the cast’s narrative roles, forces them to react instead of acting, and looks cool and super-competent mostly because when the Poochie is around everybody else is less cool and competent. When the Doctor gives H. G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine in “Timelash,” he’s the Poochie–turning up in Wells’s biography and inserting himself into Wells’s most famous books. On the flip side, in “Marco Polo” the Poochie is Marco. He steals the TARDIS and the central narrative role from Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor. For seven episodes the show becomes the Marco Polo show, guest starring Doctor Who.[6]

I have one firm opinion on how Doctor Who ought to use history: if you’re going to do a celebrity historical, the celebrity should guest star in a Doctor Who story instead of the Doctor guest starring in the celebrity’s story. An original Doctor Who story can make room for more than one hero without shortchanging any of them. But the celebrity’s biography is an existing story and it’s hard for the Doctor to insert herself into it without to some extent hijacking it. I’m not interested in watching the Doctor become Forrest Gump, wandering into the frame whenever someone else does something interesting.


  1. There are exceptions; see the paragraph on von Dänikenism.  ↩

  2. If nothing else, the time traveler is temporally privileged in that they’re going back to the future as soon as the story ends.  ↩

  3. The original 1963–1989 series. It feels like the distinction may be meaningless soon, inasmuch as the new series is pushing 15 years old, but it’s what everybody calls it.  ↩

  4. I kind of cringed at how weirdly ignorant the TARDIS crew are of the dangers of Alabama in the 1950s; despite everything, they start the episode acting like they’re wandering around Disneyland. Later Graham turns out to be so well informed about Rosa Parks that he even knows the name of the bus driver, so why is his reaction to landing in the 1950s “Can we meet Elvis” and not “Hey, maybe this isn’t the safest place for my grandson?”  ↩

  5. With the possible exception of “Turn Left,” although in that case Donna’s left turn didn’t change real-world history.  ↩

  6. “Marco Polo” is one of only two missing Doctor Who stories I would not be excited to have back; the other is “The Celestial Toymaker.”  ↩

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

The Year of Intelligent Tigers

Cover Art

Kate Orman’s The Year of Intelligent Tigers is the book every Eighth Doctor Adventure wanted to be.

Every era of Doctor Who has its own stereotype. The Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts template includes UNIT, the Master, 1970s earth, chases, and Venusian Aikido. Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories are horror pastiches starring charismatic master villains; Saward-era stories are violent, cynical tales with a surfeit of tough guys and mercenaries. The EDA stereotype has an alien planet (usually a human colony) inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions, whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the possibly amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from some hitherto-unsuspected threat (usually a forgettable alien monster).

The Year of Intelligent Tigers is about a human colony inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions (humans and Tigers), whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from the hitherto-unsuspected threat of an apocalyptic hurricane season. It’s the ur-EDA! But done with so much more skill it seems to have descended from some distant galaxy to let the children boogie. YoIT (YOIT! Great acronym!) is almost hard to review; I’m tempted to spend 1000 words just listing all the ordinary things YoIT gets right that other EDAs missed. But that would be unfair to a book that’s pretty incredible on its own terms. YoIT’s not a tie-in that rises to the level of an ordinary novel. It’s a smart, exciting, elegant science fiction novel in its own right, something you could give to anyone who loves SF whether or not they care about Doctor Who.

Continue reading The Year of Intelligent Tigers

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.

Continue reading Doctor Who: Managra

Vampire Science

Cover Art

All I’ve been posting lately have been Interactive Fiction Competition reviews, which have a limited audience. So I’m posting this book review I had on hand. Which is about a Doctor Who novel, and therefore also has a limited audience, albeit a completely different limited audience. Sorry.

When, in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Vampire Science, a villain sneeringly refers to Sam as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it’s hard to remember that in 1997 most people thought of Buffy as a crappy Paul Reubens movie. Vampire Science slipped in at the beginning of a vampire tsunami. Anne Rice started it; Buffy and Laurel K. Hamilton built momentum; today the healthiest marketing category in SF is “paranormal romance,” the genre of hot love between vampires, lycanthropes, and assorted psychics.

Vampires usually represent one (or both) of two things: disease and sex. “Disease” is the older metaphor. For the longest time, how disease got around was a mystery. So a town had some mysterious deaths, and people dug up a corpse for some reason, and it seemed very well preserved. And it looked like the fingernails had grown, and weren’t those canines longer?  So they staked the thing. Problem solved! This school of vampirism’s most famous representative is Nosferatu’s ratlike Count Orlok.

The other strand of the mythology portrays vampirism as… ah, intimate contact (a phrase which describes both subtext and text). These vampires are hypnotically glamourous. Usually literally. It’s most famously represented by the novel Nosferatu plagiarized: Dracula. Jonathan Harker hardly has time to unpack before he’s surrounded by lovely women with interesting dental work, and I’ve never seen a version of this story in which Lucy and Mina’s trysts with the Count aren’t sexualized.

Over the past couple of decades an army of stories forcibly evolved modern vampires from seductive psychopaths into the heroines’ boyfriends. Sex has won the Vampire Metaphor War. What’s remarkable about Vampire Science, then, is that Orman and Blum found something else to do with their vampires. Continue reading Vampire Science

British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

The cover of British Summertime.

British Summertime, Paul Cornell’s second entirely original novel, was published in 2002. Since then he’s published short stories but, aside from a novelization of a BBC webcast, no more novels. Lately he’s been writing for television and for Marvel comics. I can’t help feeling he’s come down in the world.

I’d like another book from Cornell. You will not believe that after reading this review. I ask that you take it on faith. Paul Cornell, I’ve come to realize, is one of those writers whose books I enjoy for reasons I cannot fully explain. Ask me why his books are worth my while and I’ll spend half the time on apologetic “okay, admittedlies,” “despites,” and “even thoughs.” I liked British Summertime, mostly, but all I can think to write about are my reservations, which have to do with Cornell’s obsessive sentimentality. His books drip with sentiment. Like Charles Dickens dipped in treacle. It’s both charming and irritating, in at least three ways. (Although as I’ve worked on this review I’ve come to think that “sentiment” isn’t the right word for the latter two. Maybe “unwarranted optimism.”)

Cornell’s books bask in nostalgia for a stereotype of early twentieth-century England (which seems to be the home of many Cornell characters’ speech patterns). It’s gotten worse over the years. In 1995 his Doctor Who novel Human Nature celebrated the death of Victorian values and the beginning of modernity; a dozen years later in Cornell’s television adaptation the hero learned to Do His Duty and die for his country. British Summertime, written in between, features Commander Leyton, an alternate-universe space pilot who talks like a stereotypical World War 2 RAF pilot. (Apparently this is a takoff on Dan Dare.) Leyton’s navigator is the disembodied head of a campy flapper. It’s like they walked out of the Powell and Pressburger production of Bring Me the Head of Zelda Fitzgerald.

What’s interesting is that, just while I’m reading, I’m willing to suspend disbelief in this sceptered-isle, stiff-upper-lip stuff. Continue reading British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

A Couple of Torchwood Books

Recently a couple of Torchwood books were recommended to me on the Jade Pagoda mailing list. I’ve now read Slow Decay, and decided to review it. I’m going to begin by talking about Another Life. I read Another Life, and tried to read Border Princes, not long after they came out. This is why I’ve only now read Slow Decay.

Torchwood is strange. It has moments of genuinely good drama, sometimes, but for the most part it’s fun for reasons the producers did not intend and will never fully understand. At heart it’s a series about dumb, horny college kids who somehow got the keys to the most powerful paranormal investigations agency in Wales… basically a Battlestar Galactica-style dark reimagining of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, except instead of a talking Great Dane it has Ianto.

Continue reading A Couple of Torchwood Books

Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind

You know what’s interesting about Shadowmind? It turns out I’d never read it before. I skipped it when it came out due to a limited teenage book-buying budget and mediocre reviews. Much later I decided I wanted an obsessive-compulsively complete New Adventures collection, picked up a copy at a used bookstore… and immediately forgot about it.

You can’t blame me. By that time I was all too familiar with Christopher Bulis. Among Doctor Who fans the Bulis name is synonymous with “meh.” As I’ve mentioned before, Bulis’s trademark move is to take a really amazing, ass-kicking central concept and surgically remove the fun. I’ll bet his novels sound wonderful in outline–Space marines meet Dungeons and Dragons! A steampunk expedition to the moon! I imagine Bulis working far into the night on his outline. Sweating over it until it gleams. With sweat. Finally he holds the precious document to the light. It’s perfect. “This is the most brilliant idea I’ve had so far!” exclaims Bulis. “Now… how can I make it suck?”

Continue reading Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind

New Adventures Reviews: White Darkness

Zombies are hip. They’re in our movies and comics and major investment firms. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across some shambling horde of loosely anatomical types desperate for brains. Zombies, it seems, are the new ninjas. So the cover of White Darkness—on which a smiling Doctor, intrigued Ace, and off-model Benny greet their happy zombie friend—might look ahead of the curve. Not exactly. White Darkness gets into the kind of stuff that started the pre-pop-culture zombie legends. David McIntee “set out with the intention of giving Haiti and voudon society a fairer representation than is usual in fiction.” White Darkness is a straight-up historical adventure novel, with no pretentions to anything more, but it’s coming from a slightly smarter place than the books, films, and flash mobs covered in fake latex sores.

White Darkness innovated in setting the story somewhere other than goddamn London again. A lot of Doctor Who stories take place in and around London. I mean, a lot. There was a reason for this, once. The TV series had tight budget constraints and, hey, the Home Counties were right there. It’s slightly less understandable in the new series, which by the same logic should spend more time in Cardiff. When the novels and Short Trips collections head back to London again it’s plain baffling. It costs no more to set a novel in Africa, or India, or even on some entirely imaginary alien planet, than in Croyden. Apparently these stories suffer from imaginitive constraints… which may also explain those alien-world EDAs that could have been set in London. Conversely, many London-based stories could have taken place in any city and even at any time… but the TARDIS automatically, unthinkingly seeks out contemporary London again. (Preferably a neighborhood with some nice middle-class white people.) It’s like the default state of Doctor Who.

David McIntee did more than any other nineties author to claw the TARDIS from the death grip of southern England. Of his dozen Doctor Who novels only one is set in the London area, and that was a Pertwee-era UNIT story. Ironically, the author who in one book dropped in a lame joke about “political correctness”—which sounded completely bonkers coming out of the Doctor’s mouth, being normally used only by old-fashioned types who resent being asked to show some manners—did so much to diversify the series. When he wasn’t taking the TARDIS to strange new worlds, he set it down in 19th-century China. Or medieval France. Or imperial Russia. Or contemporary Hong Kong. Or, in this case, Haiti.

Continue reading New Adventures Reviews: White Darkness

New Adventures Reviews: Lucifer Rising

In their first couple of years the New Adventures covered surrealism, cyberpunk, high fantasy, space opera, a Quatermass pastiche, and even a right-wing religious authoritarian mystical horror novel (The Pit, which arguably took Doctor Who into places it should never have gone). Lucifer Rising was the NAs’ first Big Dumb Object novel.

Big Dumb Objects are one of your standard SF tropes—what Rudy Rucker calls “power chords,” the ideas that are to SF what the hooks are to a pop song. BDOs are the coolest gadgets in science fiction—both artifacts and environments. Rendezvous With Rama’s vast wandering starship is the canonical example. (And one of the blander ones, to my mind… although it’s been years since I read it and if I went back I might have a different experience.) My favorite is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (from Solaris, natch). It might be stretching a point to class a living planet as a BDO, but Solaris does the same thing: injects Sense of Wonder straight into the novel’s jugular and gives the characters something mind-blowing to explore and react against.

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