My friend Mike, who blogs at The Reinvigorated Programmer and Sauropod Vertebra Picture Of The Week, asked me if he could do a guest post. All opinions expressed below, especially those regarding the relative qualities of the new and old series of Doctor Who, are the responsibility of Mike…
A tale of two titles: eleven vs. fifty
These are good days for Doctor Who books.
In November last year, Andrew Rilstone raised £2,411 via Kickstarter (pretty amazingly, to me) to write his book The Viewer’s Complete Tale. He seems to be well on the way to completing it. (I’m signed up to get a copy as soon as it’s out, even though I already have the original Viewer’s Tale and the second volume, Fish Custard.)
The big news in November, of course, was the 50th Anniversary special. On the same day that it was broadcast, our blog-host Andrew Hickey released his book Fifty Stories for Fifty Years.
And then at the start of January — as soon as possible after Matt Smith’s final episode, the Christmas special, in fact — I released my own book, The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.
I’ve asked for this guest post for two reasons. The first is to publicly thank Andrew for his help in getting this book done. Two of his blog-posts were extremely helpful with the sordid details (Some Tips For Self-Publishers and How To Get Your Books On Sale), and I’d heartily recommend them to anyone who’s self-publishing for the first time. Beyond writing those posts, Andrew was very helpful in answering my specific questions, and I owe him far more gratitude than I squeezed into the acknowledgements (which were written before I really got into the production phase).
The second reason is because my book is the opposite of Andrew’s — or perhaps I should say, its complement.
Fifty Stories book was one of my favourite Christmas presents. I’d read a fair bit of it in the original blog-posts over at Mindless Ones; but it’s much more compelling as a coherent narrative, each story’s analysis leading into the next, and with a strong sense of each era emerging. It was an education to me, especially regarding the interregnum between Survival and Rose.
But Andrew’s distaste for the new series is very evident in the final stretch. He declines even to review any episode of the revived series 2 or 6 (preferring Big Finish audios), and this feels like a finely calculated snub — one that looks casual, but is definitely meant. Even the final entry in Fifty Stories for Fifty Years, nominally about The Snowmen, is really a shrug of the shoulders and a half-formed wish that Doctor Who will evolve into something quite different.
Whereas I love the new series. I’m on record as saying that “New Who is better in every single way than the original: acting, ideas, music (oh my, the music!) and, yes, even stories”.
Not that it’s my goal here to argue for the 2005 series and against the original. When I wrote what I quoted above, it was in reaction to a very dismissive review rather than a considered position. As always, comparisons are invidious, and building up one version of Doctor Who by running down another is not fruitful. But what I want is for the new series to get a fair crack of whip — which I’m not convinced Andrew has given it.
Here’s the biggest reason why I love New Who: because so much stands and falls on the Doctor himself. The most admired stories are usually those that explore an aspect of the Doctor’s character or nature (Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature, Vincent and the Doctor). The way it looks to me, anyone can save the world — as comparatively dull a character as James Bond does it every year or so. But the Doctor is more interesting than that, and I like to see that interesting character explored: he’s similar enough to us that we can relate to him, but different enough to cast a different light on what it is to be a sentient, moral being. And, after all, we know what Doctor Who without the Doctor looks like: it’s Torchwood. No-one wants that.
And the post-2005 Doctors — especially Smith and Eccleston — are just superb: they give rich, detailed performances with levels of nuance that simply don’t come across in the older series (nor, to be fair, in the later David Tennant episodes).
To be fair to the pre-1989 Doctors, I suspect much of the difference is in how the show has been made in the two eras. The classic show was essentially filmed theatre, and the delivery and gestures reflect that: they’re designed to be heard and seen from the back of the hall — or perhaps on a blurry twelve-inch black-and-white TV. The intimacy that the new show allows gives the actors opportunity to dial back the theatrics, to convey complexities and subtleties that simply don’t fit into the older style.
So when Doctor Tom asks “Do I have the right?” — a sequence that reads well on paper, deserving of its iconic status — the actual delivery is rather scenery-chewing and unpersuasive. Whereas when Doctor Matt says “I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart”, which is rather less well written (by the dreadful Chris Chibnall), Smith is able to invest it with about a dozen layers of meaning and create one of the most powerful moment in the series’ history.
(Andrew’s right about The End of Time, though.)
Anyway, for those who’ve read Andrew’s book (as everyone should) and who want to balance it with a more positive perspective on the new show — and particularly the Matt Smith era — I do recommend my own book [Kindle at amazon.com, Kindle at amazon.co.uk, Paperback at Lulu]. It walks through every Matt Smith episode, commenting and discussing, reviewing and digessing, and hopefully drawing out some of themes that tie it all together and make the best moments of Doctor Who the best moments on TV. I hope it starts some interesting discussions — as Doctor Who so often does!
Fifty Stories for Fifty Years gave me a new appreciation for Classic Who. I hope The Eleventh Doctor can give people a new appreciation for New Who.
Tonight at 8PM on Resonance FM — Clear Spot:Novelising Doctor Who
I did an interview with Lawrence Miles for this show, on at 8PM today. About ten minutes of the programme, starting at the half-hourish mark, is the interview segment. An hour-long podcast version of just the interview will be available next week.
The podcast, like the radio show, will contain bits of the interview I did along with the interview that producer/presenter Alex Fitch did afterwards — he had stuff he’d wanted covered that didn’t get covered in the initial hour-long conversation. It’ll still be edited to remove off-the-record remarks, me messing with my mic, and that sort of thing, but it should be a very, very interesting listen.
The radio show also has interviews with Terrance Dicks, Marc Platt, and other Who novelists.
I apologise for the fact that I sound like a stammering, obsequious, half-wit on the interview. This is only because that is, in fact, what I am.
(Also, the plug for my work at the end of the interview was Alex Fitch’s idea, not something I asked for.)
Full disclosure before I start this — I am friendly with the author and the publisher, and I also potentially have a book coming out from this publisher. I don’t think that this has biased my opinions in any way — I became friendly with them because we shared a lot of tastes, so it’s unsurprising that I would then enjoy this book — but it’s only fair to point out up-front.
I’ve been putting off reviewing this one for quite some time, because as I’ve said before I’ve not been thinking very well for the last few months due to ill-health, and this is a book that deserves a more considered, thoughtful response than perhaps I am able to give. However, I’m still not fully well, and don’t know how long I would have to wait otherwise, so this is my best assessment given my limited faculties.
Against Nature is a fascinating, difficult book, that makes no concessions to the reader but is all the better for it. It’s dense, allusive, and expects its reader to think — but it gives plenty to think about. This is Faction Paradox in big, important, thoughtful mode, rather than light adventure mode — think Newtons Sleep or, especially, This Town Will Never Let Us Go rather than Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia. I’ve read it twice, and I still haven’t got all of it, but that’s a good thing — this is a book that absolutely rewards rereading.
I loved it.
I’m mistletoe, Todd thought, I was living on that tree, and now I’m cut off, just moving forward until I sputter out. He wondered if this life might present him with other obvious symbols for his consideration, truths revealed in the everyday details. It felt a little like this whole world was all for his benefit, so maybe.
Against Nature is about sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice, about dying-and-resurrected gods (and ones that die without resurrection), about what it means to be cut off from one’s culture and one’s past. It’s a book that could only have been written by someone profoundly disconnected from his own culture — and it’s no surprise that between writing the early drafts of this, and its final publication, Lawrence emigrated to the US.
The same injustice had befallen Europe a few centuries earlier, barbarians at the gates and so on, swords turning out to be mightier than pens despite the proverb. It was always the stupid idea that caught on, the story that even the village idiot could follow without giving himself a headache. Human history was a ratings war, and people would always choose the flashing lights, special effects, and generic hero pleading you don’t have to do this! over things of value.
One of the ways in which Lawrence creates this effect has been misunderstood by several of the readers, particularly on some Doctor Who forums (Faction Paradox still has a residual connection to what Lawrence refers to as Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time). The book is set in multiple times, in multiple locations, with multiple cultures. Two of those cultures — the Great Houses and the medieval Mexica people (the people we think of, wrongly, as “the Aztecs”) are ones which are very, very different from the likely cultures of any of the readers, not only in behaviour and attitudes, but in language.
Lawrence throws us in at the deep end, cutting rapidly, every two or three pages, between wildly different locations and time periods, with stories that parallel and comment upon each other, but do not link up until near the end. Each of these different cultures is presented to us without comment or explanation, so our first glimpse of the Great Houses’ culture comes with:
The blinkers were fashioned from the clothing of the deceased, specifically a pressure suit once belonging to Herrare, the material cut to form a collar of hide curving around the eyes in the manner of goggles. Emioushameddhoran vel-Xianthellipse adjusted the knotted strips of fabric which kept the blinkers in place and took a moment to inspect herself in the cheval glass
while the Mexica strand of the story starts:
It was the day Ome Ozmatli of the trecena Ce Izcuintli as reckoned by the Tonalpohualli calendar of the Mexica — Two Monkey, presiding Deities being Xochipilli, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl. This was hardly an auspicious combination by which to embark upon travel, but there being only nine days left before the occasion of the impending New Fire Ceremony, Momacani was left with little choice.
The cultures involved are ones which Lawrence has an expert understanding of — he has been studying the Mexica people for decades, and has been involved in Faction Paradox fandom (for want of a better word) for almost as long. The result is that he can write about these cultures fluently, from the perspective of someone who lives there, because he does, at least internally.
Several readers complained about the fact that they had to keep track of unfamiliar names like Emioushameddhoran and terms like Ce Izcuintli, and there is no question that this does make the book many times more difficult to read than it otherwise would be. But this seems to me to be entirely intentional — the reader experiences a miniature culture shock every two to five pages, and has to assimilate everything with no background. One is as rootless as Todd, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure in this book.
But I’m making this sound like it’s a hard slog, something to read out of a sense of duty, and it’s anything but. It’s a clever, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking book, and will almost certainly prove the best novel I read this year.
In other news, I’ve decided to start putting my book reviews on Goodreads, since Amazon don’t want authors posting book reviews on their site. I’ve had the account a couple of years, but only just started using it. Add me here if you want. Or not.
Or what does this have to do with Promethea anyway?
Crossposted at Mindlessones.com, for reasons that will become apparent.
On March 7, 2007, I was at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre, which has been the scene of some of the most profound artistic experiences of my life — seeing Brian Wilson play his first two UK shows, seeing him premiere That Lucky Old Sun there and seeing Van Dyke Parks (and Wilson and Parks will both show up in these essays again, assuming we go the whole way with them) perform most of Orange Crate Art. It’s also the prison where the Doctor and Jo Grant were held in the 1973 Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, but that’s probably not so important.
But on that day I was there for something rather different. The writer Robert Anton Wilson had been one of the biggest influences in my life, the writer whose works finally showed me how to actually think, as opposed to glibly performing string manipulations and priding myself on my intelligence. I was sat there next to the woman I’d married a year earlier (and who is co-author of this series of essays), someone I would never have met without Wilson’s writing.
Wilson had died the previous January, and in his last months had, thanks to the American health-care system, become literally penniless. We were fairly close to penniless ourselves, but we’d still felt the need to Paypal him $23, a token amount, to help. Enough other people had done the same that he was able to die in his own home with money to spare.
The show in 2007 was a tribute to him, and to his work, and it was mostly for that reason that Holly and I had travelled down to see it. But it wasn’t just for that reason. There were three speakers there, all of whom I wanted to see. One was Ken Campbell, the great actor, writer and director, and one of my great heroes. The second was Alan Moore, of whom much, much more later. And the third was Bill Drummond.
Drummond was the one I was least interested in, because I was least familiar with his work. Oh, of course I loved Doctorin’ The TARDIS, had enjoyed 45, and The Manual is still one of my favourite books, but beyond that I knew nothing of his work.
Drummond’s first line was:
I’m a total fraud even being here. I don’t actually know much about Robert Anton Wilson, and I couldn’t be arsed to help him when he was dying.
So, you know, fair enough.
(And when I watch that video, I realise that I’m completely misremembering that, and probably remembering from this blog post rather than the event. Oh well. But it’s how I remember it.)
The reason I’m telling that story is so I can tell you this. A couple of months ago, the writer J.M.R. Higgs sent me a comp ebook copy of his new book, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, because he’d liked my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. I said I’d review it, but I ran into a problem when actually writing the review, because I am precisely the wrong person to review this book.
You see, Higgs’ book takes as its starting point the day when Drummond and his artistic partner Jimmy Cauty (known variously as The KLF, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The K Foundation) set fire to a million pounds, and tries to figure out exactly why they did this — something they admit themselves they are completely unsure of.
Starting from this, and in pursuit of an answer of sorts, Higgs explores a whole web of ideas and associations. He writes about Robert Anton Wilson, and sampling culture, describes the 1990s in a way eerily similar to the Ghost Point from the Faction Paradox books, discusses Doctor Who and the alchemical ideas that David Whitaker planted in it, the legitimacy of copyright, the Kennedy assassination, the work of Ken Campbell, Discordianism, the immorality of lending money at interest, Situationism, the Pookah and the wicker man in modern pop culture, Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, and questions whether the K Foundation’s burning a million pounds was a magical rite which eventually led to the economic problems we’re seeing today.
My kind of thing, in other words.
Except that the book’s climax is when Higgs talks about the Festival Hall event I discussed above. He talks about how the event actually inspired Drummond to read the whole of Illuminatus! for the first time, and how Drummond (who had used tons of ideas and images from the first 138 pages of the book, which is all he’d previously read, in his work) was shocked to find that most of his life seemed to be in there in some way. Higgs then goes on to say:
I had written 90% of this book before I finally got round to reading Illuminatus! myself, despite having a copy on my shelf for twenty years. Upon reading it, I was startled to discover that it contained a number of subjects which I had already been writing about, unaware of their inclusion in Illuminatus! and unsure if I could justify their inclusion in this book. I had written about usury unaware that the founding reason for The JAMs was to destroy usury, and I had written about Lucifer unaware that a Satanic mass was the initiation into The JAMs. I had noted the surprising number of paedophiles in this story whilst unaware of the character of Padre Pederastia. Such is the way with this particular novel. Reading it almost seems superfluous; it is possible to be swept along just by the idea of it. It is a novel that is perfectly content to sit on a shelf for decades waiting for you to be ready for it.
And this is the thing about the book. Its conclusion is, to me, the stuff that I’ve been thinking about and discussing and writing about for my whole adult life (I read Illuminatus! when I was 18, and have more than a passing interest in most of the subjects mentioned in the book). It’s a book that goes from a premise that I know little about to a conclusion that is familiar, solid ground to me. And the parts that I found most interesting were the parts where Higgs talks about the KLF themselves, precisely because that was the least familiar part of the net of ideas he was talking about. Higgs is mapping out an area in IdeaSpace, but it’s a map that takes this reader from Fairyland to his own front room.
I doubt it would have that effect, though, on anyone without my own precise set of obsessions. Unless you’ve basically read the exact same books and comics I read between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 26, and you’re also a big fan of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who work, the parts that seemed familiar to me will seem unfamiliar to you, while if you pay any attention to pop culture at all the parts that seemed unfamiliar to me will be old news to you.
So…I can recommend Higgs’ book unreservedly to anyone reading this, but I can’t say you’ll be reading the same book I am.
But what does this have to do with Promethea, again?
Well, Higgs’ book is basically a map of a mental landscape, but a rather odd one — he’s trying to give an impression of why Bill Drummond thinks the way he does, by writing enough about Higgs’ own obsessions. It is, if you like, a map of the border between Higgs’ area of Ideaspace and Drummond’s.
About six months ago, Plok, of the blog A Trout In The Milk, was visiting us and practically ordered Holistic Tendancies to write a book on Promethea, because he wanted to hear what she had to say about it. However, she was unsure about this, because she’s never written anything longer than a couple of thousand words before, and doesn’t believe me when I tell her that if you write the material, it structures itself and practically writes itself. I had to take a break from writing my previous book about comics, An Incomprehensible Condition, because I was seeing patterns relating to the subject everywhere, and had to get back into a more rational frame of mind — that’s the extent to which this kind of subject writes itself. But Holistic Tendancies is unsure, so she’s asked me to help her. She wants to write the book with me, and I’m in charge of structure.
So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to write ten more essays. Some of them will be on my blog, and some will be on Mindless Ones. You can follow either blog and not miss out, because we’re going to do this in a Choose Your Own Adventure style.
We’re going to look at Promethea as a comic, the way Alan Moore writes and the way J.H. Williams and the other artists put pictures on the page. But we’re also going to look at the ideas floating around it in Ideaspace — the Kaballah, Wonder Woman, America’s Best Comics, causality, Aleister Crowley, Platonism, topology and more. A lot of it will overlap with the ideas in Higgs’ book, but we’ll be travelling from different directions.
By making it a Choose Your Own Adventure, and having it run over two different blogs, we’ll let you wander round the parts of it that you find most interesting, and do a bit of sightseeing. But even IdeaSpace needs a map, so here’s the one we’ll be using:
Next stop: Yesod.
And just to reinforce how all this works, literally as I was typing the last sentence I received an email from Plok, who I mentioned before, about another collaborative project, one we’re working on with Illogical Volume and others. The email heading? “topological order”. And the first sentence proper of the email?
Topological order, so I’m told, being what they call a way of classifying substances with identical symmetries — by measuring their interactivity in an entangled system. Thus, the helpful analogy for the layman goes, the topological order of New York City would not describe the buildings and the streets, but would identify the city more finely, uniquely by a catalogue of the phone calls being made inside it.