Wednesday, 20 June 2012

What Doctor Who – The New Adventures Mean To Us: Richard

Doctor Who: The New Adventures (not, as Wikipedia disparagingly lists them, "Virgin New Adventures"), for six years from 1991 to 1997 were Doctor Who.

At the time, everyone was on board with this. The general public may have drifted away, but fans, DWAS, Doctor Who Magazine (and their rivals) all bought into this unifying idea: the series was – temporarily – off air, but that was okay, because the line remained unbroken. People who were recognisably Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, joined by someone who would eventually turn out to be Lisa Bowerman, continued to play the Doctor and Ace (and their new friend Benny) albeit in paperback form.

With the exception of the four "Timewyrm" novels which are hard to place (although "at the beginning" seems obvious), The New Adventures form a continuous narrative of sixty adventures for the seventh Doctor in between his last two televised appearances. "Cat's Cradle" follows on directly from "Survival" (even the title is thematically consistent). "Lungbarrow" segues directly into the "Time Waits for No Man" TV movie. And "The Dying Days" is a bonus.

In hindsight, it was a miracle that everyone could play together nicely in the same shared universe sandbox.

So the first thing that the New Adventures mean is a shared community.

After Virgin lost the licence to print new Doctor Who there was what we might melodramatically call the great schism, partly caused by rival book continuities as Virgin's ongoing line of Benny-led NAs vied with the BBC's in-house Eighth Doctor Adventures, partly by the rise of the deservedly-popular Big Finish audios, partly just because fandom had decided to fall apart. The possibility that Doctor Who was a single ongoing narrative, one "continuity", was shattered at that point and there's no going back.

I'm not saying that these later stories are bad, or wrong. (Although I admit I'm no fan of the BBC's Past Doctor Adventures of the seventh Doctor and Ace, a strand that seemingly went out of its way to rewrite continuity as though the NAs hadn't got there first.) But Big Finish have produced an excellent series of audio adventures for the seventh Doctor, Ace and latterly Hex. There's also a darker, more contemplative range of solo seventh Doctor adventures, purportedly towards the end of his life, leading up to the lonely Doctor we see at the start of "Time Waits for No Man". But there is no gap for these stories to go in, any more than there is a gap for the equally-good fifth Doctor Peri and Eremim stories that allegedly go between "Planet of Fire" and "The Caves of Androzani". If you think that one continuity bulldozes another aside, that's up to you. If you want to think that they're a different time track, or an unreliable narrator, or a parallel universe away, or that time can be rewritten, or if you want to retcon that a gap can be there after all, then that's perfectly acceptable too. The dimensions of time are stranger than we know and any and all of these things can be true or false all at once.

But there's an extent to which this has led to a revisionist "they never happened" attitude towards the New Adventures. (Or the 8DAs or the audio adventures or all the above.) It's a tendency that says that since, by television audience standards, very few people read them they somehow don't "count", that because the general Joe in the street is not remotely likely to remember them that they didn't really happen (as though the average Joe in the street stands a chance of remembering "Enlightenment" or "Inferno" or even really "City of Death" either). People refer to them dismissively as spin-offs, non-canonical, or the derisive "fanfiction". (Though by that definition "Rose", "Blink" and "Human Nature (TV reprise)" should count as "fanfiction" too. Meaning: what's wrong with fans writing fiction?)

One particular way of disbarring the New Adventures is to say: "but people had to pay to read them".

Yet, for me, this is actually a strength. As fans we're all a bit Obsessive Compulsive to a greater or lesser extent. The urge to "collect the set".

So, the second thing about the New Adventures is their collectability.

In a way, I came to Doctor Who backwards. I remember watching, as a child, because those cliffhangers do stick in the head. I remember seeing Scaroth's face from behind a door at my gran's; I recall that I didn't see what the Foamasi did to Mr Brock because I hid my face; and I remember Tom regenerating into Peter. And Peter into Colin. But somehow I didn't remember the stories.

It wasn't until the advent of the video age, which coincided with both my going to university and my parents moving to Belgium (meaning I inherited a video recorder that would not work on the continent) that I got into Doctor Who. Which meant that Sylv could be my Doctor all over again.

With the series off the air, Doctor Who became treasure. Video was a source of stories that I didn't remember seeing. And of stories that I could never remember seeing, because they were older than I was. To me, the Hartnell era was a gold mine of new Doctor Who. And then came the New Adventures.

The inclusion of "story arcs", present from the very beginning in the "Timewyrm" and "Cat's Cradle" series, the recurring supporting cast, the ability to revisit and greatly expand the mythos of the Earth Empire or Ancient Gallifrey... all this adds to the addictive jigsaw that keeps you coming back for more.

The "Cartmel Master Plan", derided or affectionately remembered, was never a setting in stone of the book series' overarching story. But instead was a metaphor, the idea not just that this secret document was kept in the vault at Virgin Publishing, but that these secrets would be revealed. It adds another dimension to the series' collectability: the desire to keep coming back to see what they will tell you this week, to see if you can puzzle it all out.

But equally the long running themes and arcs of comic book storytelling which underlay Andrew Cartmel's conception of the series in the last television years translate directly into the so-called soap opera aspects that Russell Davies brought to the series in the 2000s. The ongoing emotional developments (and occasional breathtaking resets thereof) of the lead characters were a main feature of the range. Indeed "angst" is easily the word most associated with the range. Yet the very fact that these characters could have relationships was revelatory, even revolutionary.

So the third and final thing that the New Adventures mean is transgression.

Doctor Who has always managed to present as startlingly genderqueer thanks, ironically, to its massively conservative "no hanky panky in the TARDIS" rule (mixed in with actors such as Patrick Troughton, Katy Manning or Tom Baker all liking to play it a bit "naughty").

As often observed, those time-space bromides in the tea (clearly enforced by the TARDIS telepathic circuits until they burn out trying it on with Captain Jack, leading to Doctor ten being Mr Smoochy, Doctor eleven getting married, and Amy and Rory Pond doing the deed while in the Vortex faster than you can say "bunkbeds") meant that we had a male lead who was intelligent, witty, heroic and totally uninterested in girls (Russell retcons about Sarah Jane notwithstanding). At the same time we saw a succession of strong female characters from Barbara Wright to Ace – taking in the likes of Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Leela, Romana and Tegan along the way, not to mention best-friend Sarah – who were more than capable of holding their own against Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen and usually more devoted to their hair care than any man. Toss in gay icons from Kate O'Mara to Bonnie Langford – and that's in the same show! – and you can start to see how this was looking to a certain section of the audience.

And yet it was all left unsaid.

The New Adventures could come out (as it were) and say it. How we thrilled – as boy readers identifying with a girl character – to experience Ace's emotional roller-coasters. How we swooned at every hint of Benny's bisexuality (yes, the time-travelling archaeologist who's very much the fiftieth century girl years ahead of River Song. In so many ways). And then actual gay characters (from "Tragedy Day" on). In those years before the word "squee" had been found, we didn't know what to do with ourselves.

And, yes, a lot of the sexualising of the characters was hetero. We'll no doubt discuss the "het-ing up" of Ace later. But we didn't care. The world is mostly straight but not all of it. And so were the New Adventures.

Arguably, taking a television kids' series and turning it into grown-up novels is a pretty perverse thing to do in and of itself. Answering questions you'd never think to ask – can the Doctor get drunk (yes), does he have a navel (yes), do the Time Lords fu- (apparently they used to but gave it all up until very recently) – are all very risqué.

But if that isn't already transgressive enough, the novel as a form lends itself to transgression, playing with time and point of view and unreliable narrator. Perhaps the most playful NAs are "Conundrum" (almost to the point of meta-textuality) and "Christmas on a Rational Planet" (deconstructing the established myths of the New Adventures while playing a game of spot the Doctor Who story reference – can you find them all?) while "The Highest Science" and "Tragedy Day" toy with satire and "Parasite" does the Joseph Campbell monomyth thoroughly to death.

(And in the related Missing Adventures, "The Romance of Crime", "The English Way of Death" and "The Well-Mannered War" develop pastiche to high art in rediscovering the Douglas Adams era.)

In conclusion, then:

Chelonians, Pakhars, Legion, Hoothi, Phractons, Sensopaths, Sloathes, Slaags, Quoth, N-Forms, Toys – never heard of them? You should have. Toss in generous helpings of Ice Warriors and Earth Reptiles and everywhere the shadow of the Daleks and you've got the most interesting range of monsters in Doctor Who's history. Yet two of the best, "Sanctuary" and "Just War", have no alien monsters at all.

From Earth to Io to the edge of Empire. From Gallifrey in the Dark Times to the Worldsphere of the People to the End of the Universe. From Dalek opera to the etiquette of the Ice Lords to Time Lord finger-biscuits. From Ace to Benny to Chris and Ros. Time's Champion, Ka'Faraq'Gatri, The Doctor.

These are the New Adventures.

These are my Doctor Who.

This is how much they mean to me.

1 comment:

  1. Commenting on your post rather than Alex's simply because it's first...

    This is a BRILLIANT idea. I feel exactly the same about the New Adventures - perhaps because we're the same age. Looking forward to reading more of this, and happy to contribute/comment. Bookmarked!