Bigger On The Outside: Who Killed Kennedy?
I start this book with a warning to myself – a kind of memento mori. Should my book go wrong, it could turn into Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop.
Which is not to say that it’s a bad book, as such – it’s a very enjoyable book of its type, hardly high art, but better than one might expect if, as I did, one comes to the novel only remembering Bishop’s uninspiring work in Judge Dredd The Megazine in the 1990s.
Who Killed Kennedy is, however, a deeply flawed book. It is trying to be two different, mutually contradictory books, and the two parts don’t really gel. Reading through Bishop’s notes [FOOTNOTE Available, along with the book itself as an ebook, from the website of the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club at http://nzdwfc.tetrap.com/archive/wkk/] it seems that there were two different ideas in play. Bishop wanted to do a Doctor Who version of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ then-recent comic Marvels, a comic that told the story of the Marvel superhero ‘universe’ from the perspective of a journalist seeing it all from the normal person’s level, rather than from the godlike perspective of the superheroes themselves. With the early-’90s popularity of conspiracy theories, he combined this with an X-Files-esque idea to have a journalist investigating UNIT, the military organisation for which the Pertwee Doctor had worked in the 1970s.
However, Virgin Publishing wanted a novel featuring both Doctor Who and the Kennedy assassination (which was undergoing one of its occasional bursts of renewed interest thanks to the 30th anniversary and Oliver Stone’s film), and so in the last few chapters, Bishop’s novel takes a sudden turn into a completely different, unrelated plot about the Master travelling back in time and trying to disrupt the Kennedy assassination, with a little plot glue.
This makes the book seem unstructured, and also has one particularly unpleasant consequence. In order to get from the UNIT-investigation side of things to the Kennedy plot, the protagonist needs to be motivated. It’s therefore revealed that Dodo, a former companion of the Doctor who has been the protagonist’s girlfriend, had only been with him because she’d been brainwashed by the Master. This is only revealed after it’s revealed that she had been pregnant, but had been shot dead in order to get at the male protagonist.
This kind of misogyny was and is fairly common in comics, Bishop’s field at the time, but isn’t really the kind of thing Doctor Who does, and I must say that I think Doctor Who is better for it – we don’t need any more women in refrigerators [FOOTNOTE A comics term popularised by fan-turned-writer Gail Simone, for female supporting characters killed off, often in a sexualised manner, in order to provide motivation for male characters. See http://www.unheardtaunts.com/wir/].
The other major problem with the book is one that no-one seems to have pointed out, but which completely torpedoes any possible plausibility the story has. The basic plot of the first three-quarters of the book consists of our hero, a journalist, investigating two government secret organisations, UNIT and C19. He proves that one or other of these organisations has been involved in several major strange events which have resulted in serious loss of life, all of which have been covered up. As a result of his investigations, his house gets torched, he loses his job, he loses his wife, gets hospitalised multiple times, and his pregnant girlfriend gets shot.
He then stumbles into the latest strange event involving UNIT, and they give him a cup of tea and show him a dead alien, and this is suddenly enough for him to change his mind about them and decide they must be okay really.
Now, I’m not an expert on conspiracy theorists, but I do get the impression that most journalists in that situation, if they were shown absolute proof that the evil quasi-governmental organisation they’d been investigating was also covering up the existence of aliens, even a cup of tea might not be enough to convince them that they were in fact the good guys.
And this is a shame, because in the first part of the book Bishop nearly, and probably unwittingly, stumbles across a very interesting point. This is quite the most fannish book ever written – it’s meant to be what was going on in the background of all the Doctor’s adventures during the 60s and 70s, and often it will be ‘revealed’ that the person on the other end of a phone conversation, or a non-speaking extra, is really our protagonist. In one 1500-word segment, Bishop references the TV stories An Unearthly Child, The Chase, The Aztecs, Remembrance Of The Daleks, The War Machines, The Curse Of Fenric, Delta And The Bannermen, The Faceless Ones and The Web Of Fear.
Now, obviously, Bishop is doing this playfully. He’s engaging in a game with the reader, and this ludic-but-maximalist use of previously created stories (or, say, Lance Parkin’s attempt to provide a single coherent history of the Doctor Who universe, AHistory) has far more in common with Sherlock Holmes fans’ attempts to reconcile Watson’s two wives, or with Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, than with the stultifyingly restrictive arguments over what ‘counts’ as ‘canon’ that so many people engage in. However flawed Bishop’s novel is, he is using past continuity in precisely the correct way – as a springboard for the imagination, a basis from which to tell new stories, rather than as a tool to attack or constrain others, as it is so often used.[FOOTNOTE For much, much, much more on this use of continuity, see my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!]
But in the context of a conspiracy-theory novel, it hits on something that I don’t think Bishop intended. Because the nine stories listed above were made over a twenty-six year period, by different people, making what was to all intents and purposes a different programme. Remember, for example, that William Hartnell only played a Time Lord once – in 1973′s The Three Doctors. In all the stories made when he was the Doctor, the concept of the Time Lords had never been created. Nor did the Doctor travel with a single female companion, or regularly visit contemporary Earth, or any of hundreds of other things that were added to the show over ensuing decades.
So Bishop is trying to make connections between events which don’t have those connections, creating a story out of elements that don’t actually go together. And this is why the first part of the book works, because this is what both fans and conspiracy theorists do.
There’s a very fine line between the playful interpretation of a text and the paranoid seeing of hidden meanings where there are none. Conspiracy theory often shades into paranoia, as anyone familiar with the sad story of Kerry Thornley [FOOTNOTE: A counter-culture thinker, 'Zenarchist' and novelist, who became convinced, thanks to a series of bizarre coincidences relating to his having served with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Marines, that he had inadvertantly helped plan the Kennedy assassination with Howard Hunt.] will be all too aware. And on the other side, many serial killers or mass murderers (most notably Charles Manson) have found patterns in innocuous texts like the Beatles’ White Album and taken them as an incentive to kill.
Both of these come from the same place, ultimately. As humans, we are pattern-matchers by nature. Our brains are attuned to see patterns in everything, even where none exist. This is the root of most science and art, but when that pattern-matching goes into overdrive it can become extraordinarily dangerous.
And by having his protagonist be investigating a real conspiracy, and then having him accept that conspiracy at their own word, Bishop manages to duck this point, even though it could be used to go into places that Doctor Who had never gone before. For all the adolescent shock of Dodo’s murder, the book feels hollow, because it’s ultimately dealing with ideas that are weightier than it’s comfortable with, and so the sections on the death of Kennedy (a real man, remember, with a family and loved ones who were in large part still alive when the book was written) sit uncomfortably with the games Bishop plays with Doctor Who continuity rather than the two parts cohering.
This is a strange book, one that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s either a successful potboiler, enjoyable but not hugely impressive, or it’s a hugely ambitious failure at doing something totally different.
Whichever, though, it also serves as a warning, both to myself and the reader, as I proceed with this series of essays. Because even more than Bishop, I’ll be trying to find patterns in things that were never intended to be connected. Some of these patterns will be there nonetheless – but others will just be an application of that part of the brain that can’t see a colon next to a bracket as anything other than a smiling face. And I’ll be able to go a lot further, and have a lot more fun, if both author and reader are fully aware that that is the case.