Bigger On The Outside: An Introduction
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?
[FOOTNOTE: That piece of writing, a parody of Alan Moore's introduction to Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? , is something I found at the now-defunct URL http://blog.cartoonmoney.eu/post/149660318/this-is-an-imaginary-story-which-may-never . I've also quoted this in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, and wish I could properly credit its anonymous author.]
The memory cheats. We know this, because John Nathan-Turner said so, and he produced the most exciting, enthralling piece of television ever made, Attack Of The Cybermen.
As a six-year-old I was utterly enthralled by the return of the Cybermen, the fixing of the chameleon circuit, the return to Totter’s Lane, and all the other continuity references that were thrown in [FOOTNOTE: I really was. I was quite a strange child.]. So all those people, including thirty-three-year-old me, who say it was an appalling mess, and the story that single-handedly killed Doctor Who, must be misremembering. Obviously.
There’s a real point here. Doctor Who may well be the greatest TV show ever made, but that status has less than you might think to do with the actual TV show that was broadcast. Sometimes it does – I’d put, say, An Unearthly Child, The Aztecs, City Of Death, Logopolis, Ghostlight or Vengeance On Varos up against any other piece of television from their respective eras – but I couldn’t defend, on any grounds whatsoever, The Chase, The Dominators, Planet Of The Daleks, Warriors Of The Deep or Time And The Rani. Well, in every case there’s a lead actor who’s trying his best to make something of utterly awful material, but the general point remains.
But a lot of Doctor Who exists in a weird edge-space. When I watch The Five Doctors, for example, I’m watching two programmes simultaneously. On one level, I’m watching a lot of tired old hammy character actors wandering around Wales, stealing each other’s lines, screaming as they fall down a mild incline, and giving line readings that show they’ve not actually bothered to read the script. But on the other, I’m seeing a hero fractured through time, different aspects of his personality embodied and brought together to conquer the greatest, most fearsome enemies in existence, and to do this to stop his old mentor from giving himself the very power of the Gods themselves.
And both those aspects are definitely there in the programme – though only one of them may be easily visible to those who weren’t brought up on the series from before their critical faculties were able to form (I still have vivid sense-memories of watching The Five Doctors on its first broadcast, when I’d just turned five years old). The version of Doctor Who that many of us have in our heads is the real Doctor Who, the actual programme broadcast on BBC1 has only ever been an imperfect echo.
So is there any way of figuring out what that Doctor Who that’s in our heads is? Well, yes. Because between 1989 and 2005, the BBC didn’t make any new Doctor Who for TV [FOOTNOTE: Apart from Dimensions In Time , the TV Movie, Curse Of Fatal Death...] and that left a gap. And suddenly, rather than the BBC having a monopoly on Doctor Who, anyone could re-create the programme in their own image. Because Doctor Who fans wanted more, and were willing to pay.
So there were series of original Doctor Who novels and audio dramas. But there was more than that. Because if you couldn’t get the license for Doctor Who itself, why not get the license for one of its old monsters and bang out a direct-to- video film about Sontarans? And if you can’t get the license for the Cybermen, just knock the handles off and call them Cyberons. And while you’re at it, why not hire some of the actors who’d played the part of the Doctor, and get them to play characters called The Stranger or The Professor (nudge- nudge, wink-wink)?
Or if you lose your license to publish Doctor Who novels, why not just continue using all the supporting characters you’ve introduced? Or if you’ve created a particularly good villain for a novel you wrote, why not write more novels about them? The true Doctor Who devotee, who wanted everything, would end up following in either audio, video, books or all three, The Stranger, PROBE, Dalek Empire, Cyberman, Faction Paradox, Jago and Litefoot, Iris Wildthyme, Kaldor City, Gallifrey, The Minister Of Chance, and many more mutually-contradictory series of wildly varying levels of legitimacy and competence, and that’s without considering the actual Doctor Who material still being produced.
The return of the TV series in 2005 slowed this down, though it’s not stopped altogether; we now have an official idea of what Doctor Who is again. But the interesting thing about this material, good and bad, is that it’s not so much based on the programme as broadcast as on various people’s ideas of what the programme should have been. It’s a fan-memory of the programme made physical.
n fact there were roughly two schools of thought about how this material should be. One school was intensely conservative, and wanted something that made as many references to the TV show as possible, and generally to stick to a very specific version of the programme as it had been – a conflict-heavy, near-future military space opera, featuring famous monsters. A typical story of this type would be that the Doctor and his companion get stuck on a space freighter whose captain doesn’t trust them and so refuses to believe that the Ice Warriors are about to attack. Some good work was done in this vein, but it’s not, fundamentally, what I’m interested in.
The other school of thought is perhaps best summed up by Lawrence Miles [FOOTNOTE: Miles is a hugely controversial figure within Doctor Who fan circles, for reasons I won't go into here, partly because I'm not entirely sure of the history behind the controversies. Suffice to say, some of the people whose work I'm going to compare to his would not take kindly to the comparison, and he might well dislike it too.] :
Doctor Who‘s my native mythology, that’s all. If you read, say, the work of Salman Rushdie . . . forget about the blasphemy for a moment, it’s not important right now . . . there’s a lot of material in there that comes from traditional Indian culture, there are lots of links to Indian mythology. Which doesn’t mean he has to believe in gods with the heads of elephants, obviously. It’s just part of his background, those are the symbols he grew up with. That’s more or less the way I feel about Doctor Who. I’ve got a pretty low opinion of a lot of the original episodes, but it’s still my home territory. [FOOTNOTE: An interview available in multiple places online. I found it at http://www.authortrek.comlawrence-miles.html, but am unsure what the original location was. ]
The books, audio dramas and films I’m going to deal with in this book have little else in common – some are light comedies, some are hard science fiction, some are attempts at Proper Literature – and the creators of those works likewise have little in common. But one thing they are doing is taking Doctor Who the TV series as a starting point for further exploration, rather than an end point to be emulated as closely as possible. And so by looking at them, we might get a better idea of what it actually is that makes Doctor Who the idea so fascinating.