June 4th, 2013
By 1990, Doctor Who had finished on the TV. There was nothing left but the hopes of the occasional of old shows on VHS or (for stories that had been destroyed) cassette, the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, which surely couldn’t keep going that much longer now there was no TV show, and the Target novelisations, which themselves had to come to an end once there was nothing left to novelise.
And the novelisations themselves had been fairly pointless for some time. Terrance Dicks had been bolting together bits of boilerplate prose about pleasant open teeth and wheezing groaning Bohemians, sticking “he said” and “she said” after every line, and wrapping everything up in exactly 126 pages, for a decade or so, and the books were being bought more and more by collectors and less and less by the children they were aimed at.
However, a pointer to a possible way forward came from an unexpected place.
Ben Aaronovitch had written two stories for the TV show during its last two years. Remembrance Of The Daleks, his first, is the last unambiguously good Doctor Who story of the original series. I have a soft spot for it because its first episode was broadcast on my tenth birthday, and seeing a Dalek go upstairs for the first time ever is as good a birthday present as you can get at that age, but even given that, it was the last story where everything clicked for every group of people watching. It referenced old stories, but in a way that was ignorable if you didn’t know them. It was clever, exciting, had a couple of funny moments (Ace attacking a Dalek and saying “Who you calling small?” is a favourite moment for one little girl I know), and had genuinely good special effects (with one notable exception…but we’re not talking about the TV story here, so I won’t go into that).
Aaronovitch was given the opportunity to write the novelisation, and grabbed it, having never before written any prose above the length of a short story. And he does it properly, giving all the characters back-stories and inner lives, and building up a consistent world for them to live in.
Some of this had been done before, most notably by Malcolm Hulke, and indeed in his introduction to the 2013 reprint of this novel, Aaronovitch notes Hulke as an early influence (he’d been allowed to read Hulke’s novelisations, even though his mother didn’t approve of SF, because his mother knew Hulke through the Communist Party). But there’s another influence that shows through, though one that Aaronovitch doesn’t acknowledge in his introduction:
It was Dorothy who stared at the burnt house, the burnt face, the burnt life, the racist graffiti. And it was Dorothy who stared at the words ‘Pakis out’ on the wall of the playground.
It was Ace who blew away the wall with two and a half kilograms of nitro-nine.
I am sure that almost everyone who reads this will get the reference, but for anyone who doesn’t:
It was Kovacs who said ‘mother’ then, muffled under Latex. It was Kovacs who closed his eyes.
It was Rorschach who opened them again.
That’s one of the most famous moments from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the most famous comic of the 1980s (if not of all time).
Alan Moore has been a shadowy figure in the background for much of the last decade of our story, since he wrote backups for Doctor Who Magazine. While he wrote only a handful of stories for the comic, his stories introduced many ideas, from a Time War to Rassilon and Omega having collaborated, that we’ll see slowly entering into the series over the next decade or two.
But Moore’s biggest influence would come from a single comic — an issue of Swamp Thing called The Anatomy Lesson — which may be the most influential ‘mainstream’ comic, for good or ill, of the last thirty years.
During his time as script editor, Andrew Cartmel had wanted to restore some of the mystery to the character of the Doctor. He discussed this with the new writers he was working with, especially Marc Platt (of whom more later) and Aaronovitch (who it has been suggested Cartmel was grooming as his successor). This has since been mythologised among Doctor Who fandom as ‘the Cartmel masterplan’, but was nothing like as structured as that phrase suggests.
What they agreed, though, was that just as in The Anatomy Lesson it turned out that the Swamp Thing was not, as he previously thought, a man who had been fused with rotting vegetable matter in a hideous scientific experiment gone wrong, but was in fact the reincarnation of the mind of that scientist, embodied in living vegetation, it would turn out that for the Doctor, too, Everything You Know Is Wrong.
The plan centred around Platt’s rejected TV script Lungbarrow (part of which eventually became the TV story Ghostlight in 1989, and the rest of which was used for the novel Lungbarrow in
20071997), and was to reveal that there was a third Time Lord, “the Other”, who had worked with Rassilon and Omega at the dawn of Time Lord history, but who had been written out of official history, and that the Doctor was a reincarnation of The Other.
Although this idea was not made explicit until
20071997, Aaronovitch introduced parts of it in the backstory of this novelisation. The result was a book that, after Doctor Who had disappeared from the TV, seemed to open up all sorts of possibilities for new kinds of stories within the series, and new ways of telling them.
They had ripped it from its birthing cradle, aware like all Daleks. They had taken it and placed it in its shell and given it functions. But the shell they gave it was wrong, twisted, a single function monstrosity – a vast weapon and the power plant to drive it. They led it to the firing range and had it destroy to order. As it fired, the first backwash of radiation sleeted through its fragile body. It served in many campaigns: Pa Jass-Gutrik, the war of vengeance against the Movellans; Pa Jaski-Thal, the liquidation war against the Thals; and Pa Jass-Vortan, the time campaign – the war to end all wars.
Perhaps there might be some way for the Doctor Who books to continue, even once they’d run out of stories from the TV to novelise? Some new stories to tell? We’d soon see…