Tag Archives: Paul Cornell

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)

Timewyrm: Revelation

Three books in, the word for the New Adventures was safe. Each book took one or two big ideas, nestled them in comfortably predictable Doctor Who plots, and politely sat down to tea. And then Timewyrm: Revelation rode in on a huge motorcycle, punched out everybody in the room, sprayed the walls with neon graffiti, and escaped through the window, laughing manically as it sped away into the night. Revelation was the book that slapped Doctor Who awake and screamed in its face. Nigel Robinson heard it, rubbed his chin speculatively, and wrote Birthright. John Peel and Terrence Dicks were left stunned in its dust, mumbling “Oo ar? OO AR?” like the bicycle guy from “The Claws of Axos” as they watched it recede into the distance. Revelation was just that sort of different, as is still immediately obvious when you notice that half the action takes place in a talking church on the moon.

The great thing is that it’s an entirely naturalistic talking church on the moon. A lesser writer, given these concepts, might instinctually write a wacky campfest. Taking them seriously (not the same thing as humorlessly) is harder and riskier but makes for a better book.

The other half of the book–this is supposedly a Big Reveal, by the way, but anyone paying attention guesses by the end of Chapter Three–takes place in the Doctor’s brain. Which is appropriate, because if there’s one thing the NAs needed to do, it was explore the Doctor’s mind.

It’s commonly argued that the seventh Doctor and Ace were among the best developed characters in Doctor Who’s history. This is more or less true, but no matter how well they were written on the screen, they weren’t yet adequate for a novel. TV is about the characters’ exterior lives; any sense of an interior life comes from the actors’ interpretations of their roles. A novel gets right into a character’s brain and roots around; its characters need to be deeper and more complete.

Ace in particular needed work; due to the requirements of what was still considered an old-fashioned “family” program, she couldn’t be the modern urban teenager the writers wanted; instead she spoke in a strange mock-street kid dialect. Combined with Sophie Aldred’s more-enthusiastic-than-subtle performances you had a character who could come off as a broad caricature on the page. So besides literally running through every nook and cranny of the Doctor’s mind, Revelation gives Ace huge swathes of background. At times she seems to remember something almost every other paragraph. The extent to which both characters are built up can be judged by the increased depth of almost all the books that came after Revelation–as well as the fact that Virgin called on Cornell again when the Missing Adventures started and they needed to prove that the older characters could work in a novel too.

The most important thing for Revelation to flesh out was motivation. The Doctor can hardly land anywhere without someone trying to kill him. He sees more dead bodies in a year than a really observant morgue attendant. And yet the TARDIS crew makes no effort to avoid all this trouble. They actively seek it out. Why not steer the TARDIS towards safe, civilized garden spots? Why not stick to tourism? Why do they do this stuff?

Less thoughtful stories answer the question by pretending it doesn’t exist. In something like, say, Genesys, the Doctor’s adventures are all a big lark. There’s no danger! Those guys getting killed over there aren’t anyone we know or care about! La la la! By the end of the book, Ishtar is punching holes in people’s heads and a few pages later they’re fine. It’s so unserious that Ace meets some aliens willing to wipe out the human race and take over Earth, and she’s not at all offended; in the end, the Doctor happily fixes their spaceship and allows them to leave. Presumably to exterminate some other species we don’t know or care about.

The other option–one that’s been explicitly adopted by the new series, as seen in “World War 3”–is to argue that the rewards are worth the risks. Revelation describes a moral system based on a variation on Achilles’s choice: most people have safe, comfortable lives, at the cost of stultifying conformity and partial obliviousness to the world around them. Given Revelation’s occasional Buddhist imagery, it’s tempting to say that they’re not “enlightened,” a term I’ve recently seen translated more evocatively as “awake.” (I can’t remember where. It may not even be an accurate translation– I’m not an expert on the subject. But is sounds so much less vague.) A smaller number of people embrace their inner weirdness, living as geeks and outsiders, fighting and changing the world. Both the Doctor and Ace are explicitly presented with this choice at different points in the book, albeit from different directions. Going along with the Buddhist imagery, Ace experiences a life in which she’s gained friendship and popularity by subsuming her real self, becoming “asleep.” She returns to the real world, rejecting the illusion, when she awakens to her true identity. The Doctor attains peace through enlightenment, leaving the normal universe and seeing the whole thing from outside; he chooses to return to a painful life in the world in order to continue his work, like a Bodhisattva who delays his own enlightenment for the chance to help others.

The choice offered by Revelation is, of course, simplistic and much too black-and-white. It’s also remarkably flattering towards the primary market for Doctor Who fiction, which includes a number of smart but weird outsider types, and vastly more people who just like to believe they’re smart but weird outsider types. But what the hell–anyone who thinks a novel can give them a complete philosophical framework for understanding life is probably reading Ayn Rand instead of Doctor Who anyway.

Besides deepening the characters, Revelation made the universe bigger. You finish the book with the impression of some vast weight of history reaching back into time… mainly because Revelation is hugely allusive. It constantly references other parts of culture, from literature to pop music to its own continuity. The references ground the story, giving it a wider, deeper context and a sense that this story is one small part of a big universe. Going back to Revelation is almost a shock after the BBC novels, too many of which appeared to take place in hermetically sealed worldlets constructed solely for the Doctor to have an adventure in. There’s so much stuff here that I’m sure I couldn’t catalog all of it… and if this is done in a very first-novel manner, ideas stuffed in wholesale with more enthusiasm than careful selection, what the hell–just then, that’s what the series needed.

Most notably, Revelation borrows imagery from myth and legend, especially from Norse, Christian, and Buddhist mythologies. What’s interesting isn’t just that Revelation does this, but how it does it. Occasionally you see someone using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a sort of recipe book–a prescription for writing a story. (Perfect example: John Leekley’s attempted reintroduction of the series in the mid-nineties, one of a whole series of appallingly misconceived revivals detailed in Jean-Marc L’Officier’s The Nth Doctor.) Revelation uses myths like jazz riffs, co-opting the imagery, absorbing some of its power in the process, to tell its own kind of story. Often it blends its allusions with imagery taken from Doctor Who, as is the case with the Doctor’s other incarnations, who represent aspects of his mind–the first Doctor his memory, the third his striving for wisdom, the fifth his conscience, and the absent sixth his repressed id. They may represent mythic archetypes as well. Having read Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World not long before I reread Revelation, I was struck by the resemblance between Cornell’s fourth Doctor–who appears as a ferryman able to travel between areas of the Doctor’s mind–and Hyde’s view of the archetypical trickster as a figure with a special ability to navigate and cross boundaries.

By adapting mythic imagery, and by alluding to Doctor Who’s own history in the same space, Revelation gives the reader the impression that these things are interchangeable, that the series is itself a mythology. Revelation incorporates pieces of legend, literature, music and myth, and demonstrates that the Doctor’s fictional universe can be big enough to incorporate all those things too. This is the book that prepared the readers for the trip to come–and freed the writers to make that trip weirder and better than it ever had been on television.