July 25th, 2013
Over the course of our history we’ve seen that there have been a handful of creative figures who have dominated particular periods of Doctor Who. When those figures have fit with what one might call the spirit of the show — people like David Whitaker, David Maloney, Robert Holmes, or Christopher Bidmead — the results have occasionally been stunning.
Here, with Alien Bodies, we see the introduction of Lawrence Miles as the latest in the line of dominant figures in the series, the heir to Whitaker and Holmes.
This isn’t Lawrence Miles’ first Doctor Who novel — that was the rather uninspiring and sexist New Adventure Christmas On A Rational Planet — but it’s the one that sees him take Doctor Who and make it his own.
To give an idea of how influential this story is, one only has to look at the TV series since Stephen Moffat took over. Every series finale since then has been Moffat riffing on some aspect, not just of Miles’ work, but of this specific book. And then Mark Gatiss has recently been quoted as saying “The ‘Doctor Who’ story I’ve always wanted to do is about Laika the dog, the Russian dog they put in space.”
To which one can only answer with the prologue to Alien Bodies:
Once his work had been completed, the Doctor balanced the tombstone at the head of the grave. He’d carved the name LAIKA into the rock in block capitals, without dates or descriptions.
The Doctor tugged the casket towards the hole, momentarily catching Sarah’s eye and giving her a fleeting smile (of gratitude, she supposed) before the box slid into its final resting place. ‘The first traveller ever to leave the Earth,’ he said, as he stood before the grave. His voice was tired and fragile, little more than a whisper. ‘1957. The Sputnik Two experiment. Sent out into the dark places without any way of getting home again. Alone and abandoned.’
Sarah lowered her eyes. She wasn’t sure why.
‘Why do I care?’ she heard the Doctor mutter. He scooped up a handful of blue dirt, and let it slip through his fingers onto the lid of the casket.
After that, there was silence.
But why is Alien Bodies so important to Doctor Who ? To understand that we have to look at what happened after the TV Movie was so “successful”.
When the TV Movie was produced, the BBC originally thought there was a good chance that it could lead to another series of Doctor Who proper, and someone in their licensing department noticed that the books had been selling at a reasonable rate. They used the possible new series as an excuse to take the book series off Virgin and relaunch a new line of Doctor Who books — the Eighth Doctor Adventures.
(Virgin meanwhile continued their New Adventures series without the Doctor but with some of the supporting cast that had been created for the books. We will be hearing more of this over the next few essays).
The problem was, the Eighth Doctor Adventures were rubbish.
Or at least so the conventional wisdom went at the time. The problem was that the range launched with The Eight Doctors, a frankly risible piece of nonsense from Terrance Dicks that wouldn’t even have passed muster at his lowest point working for Target, let alone for the supposedly more sophisticated audience reading the books by 1997.
The next few were patchy as well — Jon Blum and Kate Orman’s Vampire Science, the second in the series, was pretty decent, but the fifth book in the series, War Of The Daleks, was the point at which many people decided to jump off. One of the worst novels ever written, it combined a turgid prose style with an utter lack of reason to exist — the whole novel only existed so that John Peel, the author, could retcon away every Dalek TV story after Tom Baker’s first season, because he disapproved of them, and do it in an utterly cack-handed manner.
And then came along Alien Bodies.
It’s much harder to write one of these essays about a really good novel than it is about 100 minutes of TV story — there’s so much more to a good book than a good TV show, just in terms of the number and variety of ideas that can be included. But it’s especially hard in the case of a book like Alien Bodies.
The basic plot, in its broadest outline, sounds generic enough — there’s an auction, on Earth in the future, where a powerful relic is being sold off to the highest bidder, and a number of alien races all want to get their hands, tentacles, or pseudopoda. The Doctor comes in and disrupts everything, and then later there’s a twist as another set of aliens also come in and want the relic, and won’t take no for an answer. So far so simple.
But onto this simple structure Miles laid the outline of a whole new mythology for Doctor Who, based on hints and fragments from various Robert Holmes scripts, but with a coherence and imagination never before seen.
At some point in the future, relative to the Doctor, there was going to be a Time War. A War that would disrupt the whole universe. The Time Lords would be on one side — who the other side would be was never made clear, they were just The Enemy. By the time it happened, the Doctor would have gone through so much, and become so important, that his dead body would be a vital weapon that could decide the outcome of the War.
On top of this, Miles added idea upon idea in a way that no other writer for Doctor Who ever had. Here, almost every actual new idea that would be used for at least the next sixteen years in Doctor Who had its debut. Not just the Time War, though that was inspired by a story Alan Moore had done in the comics, but also the idea of a companion whose timeline is twisted and distorted to make her the perfect assistant for the Doctor (actually a way of reconciling the horribly conflicting portrayals of Sam Jones, the generic companion the Doctor was saddled with in the early Eighth Doctor Adventures), the idea that the Doctor himself is somehow uniquely important to time and space, the idea of a TARDIS taking on human form and talking, the idea of the Doctor confronting his own dead body…
And many ideas that were not ever properly followed up on — the Conceptual Entities, for example, barely appear in anything else (although the later Faction Paradox series deals with them a little). It would be easy to say that this isn’t so much a novel as a proposal for how to do Doctor Who — a series Bible that has been followed for the next sixteen years.
Except that it definitely is a novel. Miles is also a Proper Writer, in a way that few of the people writing for the Doctor Who books actually were. It’s easy now to think of Miles as just a former enfant terrible, taunting from the sidelines as his former friends and colleagues go on to better things while his career is in ruins. But the reason his taunting is noticed — the reason it still stings — is that his writing, at its best, absolutely sings, and while you’re reading anything he writes you’re utterly persuaded by what he has to say.
The book has flaws, of course. Miles has never been great at dialogue, as those who have listened to his audio dramas know, and some of the more minor characters here are a little stereotyped, a little unreal.
But reading this book in context — or even out of context, even with its biggest innovations having been absorbed into the fabric of Doctor Who as if they were always intrinsic to it, albeit in watered-down form — one is hit over and over again with a feeling of “This is how it should have been all along! Why did no-one ever realise you could do this with it?!”
While Miles is writing Doctor Who, he really belongs to the generation of British comic writers that came up immediately after Alan Moore, at least aesthetically. His work is often very, very close to that of Grant Morrison (though Miles is rather sick of the comparison being made), and I would compare it to that of Neil Gaiman as well, except Miles would be mortally offended by the comparison.
Like those writers, and like Moore, he has grown up with aspects of pop culture as his “native mythology”, as he puts it, and reinvents them to seem to an adult reader how they seemed originally to a small child. So the Krotons, a rather ridiculous monster from a late-1960s runaround (albeit a late-1960s runaround by Robert Holmes, directed by David Maloney, so still far better than the vast majority of TV), become horribly sadistic monsters, as chilling a portrayal of psychopathy as you can imagine — but then they are treated by the other participants in the auction with exactly the same lack of respect with which they are treated by Doctor Who fandom generally; a mistake which they come to regret.
And that’s possibly why Miles’ innovations have been absorbed so well into the body of the series — he’s writing about the series that we always thought was there, even when the series itself was nothing like as good as the one in our heads. (It’s probably no coincidence that Miles was in the first generation to grow up reading the comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine when they were better than what was on TV, and especially when Alan Moore was writing them).
Miles has often recently claimed to be “trapped in a hell of my own making” — hating everything to do with the current series, while recognising that it is a distorted reflection of his own work. He might be exaggerating his own influence somewhat (the most recent series finale as of this writing had ideas taken from a number of other Eighth Doctor Adventures, not just Miles’, though Miles was still heavily referenced), and there might also be a degree of paralllel evolution involved (Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who story The Doctor’s Wife has several elements in common with Miles’ short story Toy Story, but it’s very unlikely Gaiman has ever read the earlier work), but it’s safe to say that, for better or for worse, none of the Doctor Who produced in the last sixteen years would be the same were it not for this novel. It pointed a way forward when everything seemed lost.