Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

A Big Finish A ‘Week’ – Doctor Who Unbound: Deadline (hyperpost 1)

Posted in comics, Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on August 23, 2009

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Doctor Who Unbound: Deadline

Doctor Who Unbound: Deadline


THIS IS AN IMAGINARY STORY (WHICH MAY NEVER HAPPEN, BUT THEN AGAIN MAY) ABOUT A MAN WHO CAME FROM THE SKY IN A BIG BLUE BOX AND DID ONLY GOOD.

IT TELLS OF HIS TWILIGHT, WHEN THE GREAT BATTLES WERE OVER AND THE GREAT MIRACLES LONG SINCE PERFORMED, OF HIS HIS ENEMIES CONSPIRED AGAINST HIM AND OF THAT FINAL WAR IN THE BLIND WASTES BENEATH THE MEDUSA CASCADE; OF THE WOMEN HE LOVED AND OF THE CHOICES HE MADE FOR THEM; OF HOW HE BROKE HIS MOST SACRED OATH, AND HOW FINALLY ALL THE THINGS HE HAD WERE TAKEN FROM HIM SAVE FOR ONE.

IN THE BIG CITY, PEOPLE STILL SOMETIMES GLANCE UP HOPEFULLY FROM THE SIDEWALKS, HEARING A DISTANT WHEEZING, GROANING SOUND.. BUT NO: IT’S ONLY A SAW, ONLY A MACHINE. THE DOCTOR DIED TEN YEARS AGO. THIS IS AN IMAGINARY STORY…

AREN’T THEY ALL?

I didn’t write that, it’s from here. I was actually googling to find the precise wording of the opening paragraph of Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, so I could quote the first couple of sentences, but if you google “This is an imaginary story which may never happen” (without the quotes) that’s the first result involving the quote. One of those synchronicities…

There’s a long tradition in comics of ‘imaginary stories’, started by Superman editor Mort Weisinger in the 1960s (though someone will no doubt point me to an example from Pep Comics from 1939 or something), where stories that ‘didn’t really happen’ could happen – Superman could die, or marry Lois Lane, or split into red and blue versions of himself, or something else that could never happen in the ‘real’ comics, with no consequences – it was just an ‘imaginary story’, not a true story like all the other ones. This later became formalised in both the major comic companies as the series “What If?” in Marvel and “Elseworlds” in DC, where we could ask questions like “What would happen if Superman had landed in King Arthur’s time?”, “What would happen if Superman was adopted by Batman’s parents?” or “What would happen, right, if Batman had been a vampire? Wouldn’t that have been, like, just kickass?”

While these stories *could* have been an exciting and interesting thing to do – a way to tell stories about these well-known characters without having to dot the is and cross the ts and ensure they say nothing that contradicts anything in 70 years of already-mutually-contradictory stories, in fact they never were. In the DC Elseworlds stories, no matter what the premise, it almost always went the same way – everything would turn out exactly as it had ‘in continuity’, just with a different backdrop. Sir Kal would joust with the evil black knight Sir Luthor for the hand of Lady Lois, while his squire Jim Olsen looked on along with his aged mentor Sir Perry The White (I’ve not actually read the ‘what if Superman landed in Camelot?’ one, but I already know exactly how it would go). Meanwhile, in Marvel’s hands, the ‘What If…?’ question was always (for values of always that equal ‘quite often’) answered “the world would have ended”. What if Wolverine had had baked beans instead of tomatoes for his breakfast? – He would have broken wind and alerted the Skrulls to the X-Men’s presence and they’d have destroyed the world. What if Ben Grimm had bent over to tie his shoelaces? – A villain wouldn’t have tripped over them, and wouldn’t have been caught, and would have used his doomsday device…

In other words, what could be a way of freeing writers and artists from the creative straitjacket of continuity is instead turned into a way of reinforcing the primacy of ‘canon’. Things couldn’t be different, because no matter what change you make, no matter how major or minor, things still turn out exactly the same (DC) or the world would end (Marvel) so the only story that ‘matters’ is the mainline one. All is for the best in the best of all possible continuities. Hopelessly Panglossian indeed.

Big Finish also created their own range of ‘Imaginary Stories’ – the Doctor Who: Unbound range of audio stories – in the early 1990s, and for much the same reasons. Fans wanted to hear what it would be like if The Doctor was played by David Warner (the answer is exactly as you’d expect, which is a good thing), or “What if… the Doctor regenerated into a woman?!” or “What if the Valeyard had won?!!!!!”

These plays (which are all, incidentally, in the Big Finish For A Fiver promotion if you want to pick up some fun, cheap entertainment) were done at the time when BF were doing their best work, so they were pretty good, but that’s all they were – pretty good – with one exception, Rob Shearman’s Deadline, starring Sir Derek Jacobi (available here).

While the blurb for that story makes it seem like it’s an absolutely standard Doctor Who story, it’s anything but. In fact, it’s not a Doctor Who story at all, but a story *about* Doctor Who. Jacobi plays a retired writer, a once-prominent playwright who had descended to hack TV work (any resemblance of this character to prominent playwright turned Doctor Who writer Rob Shearman is, one hopes, purely coincidental given the life the character is living). Stuck in a nursing home, slowly losing his sanity, estranged from his family, he muses on where it all went wrong, deciding that the turning point probably came when a TV show for which he’d been commissioned to write, Doctor Who, was cancelled before it ever aired.

While there are many hilarious moments in the story , as one would expect from Shearman, “We have so much in common – we write, we have bladder control, and we’re lonely” being a prime line, the story is one of the darkest, most upsetting pieces of drama I’ve heard in a long time.

Every character is emotionally crippled and monstrous. Martin Bannister, the writer, destroyed three marriages in pursuit of writing which even when he was at his youthful best never had any humanity to it. Sydney, the journalist for the official Juliet Bravo Magazine (Juliet Bravo was a real British TV cop show from the early 80s, which had many of the same writers and directors as Doctor Who, especially from its third series when Robert Holmes’ protege/former Who and Blake’s Seven writer Chris Boucher was the script editor) is a parody of the sad anorak fan (one of the few missteps in the story – this character seems dislikeable because Shearman dislikes people like that, rather than through his own actions). Nurse Wright is a sad old spinster, desperate for a sexual relationship with her patient but turning violent when it looks like it might actually happen, and Martin’s son Philip has spent his entire life trying not to be anything like his father, but is exactly like him in the end, and so desperate to talk to him he fakes his own mother’s death just for an excuse to get back in touch.

Throughout this, we keep slipping into Martin’s fantasy world – the world of the Doctor, made up of Martin’s scripts for those first few episodes (all of which are *almost* exactly like the scripts for early or unmade Hartnell stories, but not quite as good), with Martin as the Doctor – where he can be a good person, and has a granddaughter whom he loves, and where he’s a hero and nothing ever goes wrong. Slowly his dreams start to leak into reality – that wardrobe seems bigger on the inside than on the outside, doesn’t it? And doesn’t that green stain look like alien footprints? – and he has to decide if, in fact, reality is all it’s cracked up to be – if it’s better to be the Doctor, or to be someone whose greatest achievement is that he wrote the fifteen least-popular episodes of Juliet Bravo.

Many of the themes in this story are very much of a part with Shearman’s earlier story The Holy Terror – the writer who harmed his son because of his obsession with his own work, and who retreats into a fantasy world, occurs in both, while the characters being haunted by ghosts of their past, and the thin borderline between reality and fiction, are recurring themes in all Shearman’s Doctor Who work.

Deadline is in an unfortunate position, in that Doctor Who fans are the only people who could really appreciate it, yet that conservative group are probably the least likely group to be able to understand what Shearman is doing. This is simultaneously a Radio 4 Play For Today about a dying writer’s relationship with his family and a genre ‘Elseworlds’ story. In fact, it’s an Elseworlds that manages to use this world as the world from which it departs, rather than the fictional universe it’s ostensibly connected to. Like those Elseworlds, it shows that if you change one thing – in this case, the broadcasting history of a forty-year-old children’s programme – almost nothing would have changed. But like the What If? stories, it shows that for at least one person, getting rid of Doctor Who would have been the equivalent of the end of the world.

In this play, Doctor Who is both the least and most important thing in the world, a pernicious, damaging influence and the one thread of happiness in the mind of a monstrous old man who hurt everyone he touched but himself more than anyone. It’s a bitter, twisted little play, full of spite and heartbreak, but also surprisingly touching. Well worth seeking out.

Tomorrow, Melmoth (yay, more stories about people on their deathbeds! Don’t worry, after that it’ll be superheroes).

4 Responses

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  1. Zom said, on August 24, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Good stuff. Onwards!

  2. Andrew Ducker said, on August 24, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I rather like Red Son – the “What if Superman had landed in Russia?” story. Which included a lot of familliar tropes, but went in a nicely different direction with them.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on August 24, 2009 at 6:55 pm

      That one was OK, but mostly for the ending Morrison gave Millar

  3. pillock said, on August 25, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Damn, I think I can hear Jacobi’s voice in my head now…

    But I need to go off on this tangent, instead. The matter of Imaginary Stories, Elseworlds, and What Ifs is kinda interesting, because what you say about the reinforcement of the primacy of canon is absolutely true, and yet there are wrinkles. Imaginary Stories were in all respects well-formed for their time — it was just that they flirted with the termination of seriality and so had to be “explained away”. That was quite a feat of necessity, actually, considering the byzantine ins-and-outs of the “official” stories, and the crazy shit they swallowed and digested all the time! But that just meant that after a while, anything might be an Imaginary Story if the editor didn’t like it. So they’d label them — “This is an Imaginary Story” — on a case-by-case basis, until Imaginary Stories became something like a brand within the brand.

    “What If” was an interestingly typical Roy Thomas-style reaction to this: a way for Marvel to have imaginary stories too, but also to make them count. What happened in “What If” was (at least at first) presented to us not only as what really would have happened if things had gone differently, but as what did happen when things actually went differently…and so it also revealed things which were “true” about the Marvel Universe, that couldn’t be shown in the regular books. For example, in “What If The Fantastic Four All Had Different Powers”, it’s made explicit that the cosmic rays gave the FF powers consistent with their self-image and personality traits…by pointing out that they all had self-images and personality traits that could’ve been inflected a different way, while still producing a credible FF. High-intellect Reed Richards gradually turns into a big brain, gearhead Johnny Storm turns into a machine-man, pilot Ben Grimm grows wings…damn, can’t remember what happened to Sue…but anyway there it is: the question of why the FF got the powers they did is explained by showing how they could’ve gotten different ones, and this counts

    Although sure: they all didn’t count. But that’s only because the conceit of divergent universes slipped its leash. And things got problematic in a hurry, since Marvel maintained a standard time-travel plot in addition to the more modern-seeming divergent-universe explanation. Still, even as late as “What If The Avengers Hadn’t Beaten Korvac”, the “What If” mag was still introducing new and instantly-canonical (!) details to the main Universe it served — in fact as I see it the whole problem with what “What If” turned into is that they were the only stories that could not be explained away as “imaginary”, “mistaken”, or otherwise wrong…because they couldn’t be contradicted, corrected, or retconned once they’d been written, but always carried the burden of being “real”. And so when this began to be forgotten or ignored, “What If” just started to reinforce existing canon full stop, its stories arguably becoming far worse than “Imaginary”. Fake, is what they became: until divergent universes could even flatly contradict one another’s differences, by the end of it. Just a mess. “This is an imaginary story” became an epithet to hurl at “What If”, rather than an invitation to read it. Exactly contrary to the damn rasion d’etre of the thing!

    Maddening.

    Then, finally, there was Elseworlds, which was just all Imaginary all the time…except that the stories didn’t have to be well-formed-merely-forbidden as they once were (didn’t have to be in the poorly-formed-but-permitted “What If” style either), but they could just be straight departures. The most annoying of these, to me, was the Superman-As-Mowgli story…even worse than “what if Batman was, like, a real vampire”, though still managing to be less insulting than the “what if Wolverine was the Messiah”-type stuff that Marvel was getting into by this time. Because at least it wasn’t supposed to be “real”, wasn’t supposed to function as a commentary on mainline continuity and character. Except in the manner you describe, of course — Sir Clark and Lady Lois and all that crap, ha! I mean, it was bad enough as that — what possible worth could there be in replacing Mowgli with Superman? But it had a potential, even as nonsense, that Marvel’s bad “What If”s lacked — if done another way, a smarter way or a more artistically-inspired way, there could’ve conceivably been a point to such “Elseworlds” stories. In the right hands, Superman-As-Mowgli might’ve been a wonderful surprise! Once “What If” turned sour, though, it couldn’t make anything but soulless junk, because there was very little point to any of it in the first place. DC put out a hardcover of Imaginary Stories a couple of years ago, and it was great, because the stories were still just regular stories, and they were fun and readable and made whatever amount of minimum sense they had to in order to be that way. But I have trouble envisioning the second volume of “What If” finding any sort of prestige appeal in a big hardcover…and to bundle a whole bunch of “Elseworlds” together, wow, I don’t know, I think it’d feel like sitting some sort of test: “if I just say that I accept the eternal nature of the innate nobility of Superman, can I leave early?” But it isn’t hard to imagine a hardcover collection of, say, Wednesday Comics, and naturally those are Elseworlds, those are Imaginary Stories, and yet it doesn’t matter, they don’t need the label…because the format makes it clear what they are from the outset.

    (I’ve never read “Red Son”, but I imagine the reason people speak so highly of it is that it did need the label, because it also intended to use it for something…to mark something out with it, for a purpose.)

    So for me, it all comes down to what necessity there is for the labelling. I believe Weisinger originally employed the term “Imaginary Story” to shut nitpickly letter-writers up, before it became apparent that you could bill a Superman comic as containing an Imaginary Story…above, I said that anything the ditor didn’t like could be an IS, but I guess I said that backwards: it was anything the readership didn’t like that you could call “imaginary”, just to get them off your back, and then it turned into a case where anything the readership wouldn’t like, you could sell to them anyway as “imaginary”, and they’d eat it up regardless. Marvel tried to invert this with “What If”; when “Elseworlds” came along they didn’t even make any pretense about it; Wednesday Comics simply leaves the whole business to one side.

    I don’t know…those differences just interest me, I guess.

    END OF RANT!


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