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).