Bigger On The Outside: So Why ‘Non-Canon’?

(Part one)

Well first, as we’ve established before, there is no Doctor Who canon in the sense that there is for, say, Star Wars. There is no sense in which some of these stories that someone made up are more real than some other stories someone else made up. The very idea is absurd.

But in Doctor Who the idea of what ‘counts’ can be a fraught one. What’s the ‘real’ version of the Second Doctor’s encounter with the Cybermen on the moon? Why, it’s The Moonbase, of course – that’s what was shown on TV. That’s how it ‘really’ happened. We’ve seen it.

Except of course ‘we’ haven’t seen it, because the BBC burned two of the four episodes, without ever repeating it, before I was born. But almost every Doctor Who fan over the age of thirty or so has read Doctor Who And The Cybermen, the novelisation by Gerry Davis, who co-wrote and script-edited the story. Despite not being a very good book, it’s one that sticks in the memory – it was the first book my friend Alex Wilcock ever read, for example, and it was recently reissued as one of the first few of the Target books to get reprinted.

And reading it, maybe twenty-five years after I last owned a copy, this is memorable. I’ve seen the surviving episodes of The Moonbase and watched reconstructions of the others, and other than giving a chance to see Patrick Troughton work wonders with his eyebrows and to marvel at the astonishing beauty of Anneke Wills, there’s really nothing at all to make it stick in the memory. An adequately average piece of 1960s teatime TV.

But the book… opening it, I immediately get incredibly strong sense-memories, of sitting in the poky little room that passed for a school library at Grange Primary School, Winsford, in the eighties, at breaktime, opening my copy (with the eighties cover with Cybermen that look nothing like any that ever appeared on TV, rather than the seventies cover used on the reprint, which rather unfortunately includes a drawing of a zipper on the Cyberman’s neck) and reading:

Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distant planet of Telos sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics – the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel.

Finally, even the human circulation and nervous system were recreated, and brains replaced by computers. The first Cybermen were born.

Still gives me the willies reading that today.

So by now far, far more people have experienced The Moonbase as Doctor Who And The Cybermen than have any memory of it on TV, and those memories are far stronger. Since we can never know now what The Moonbase was really like, we can just count the book as the real thing.

Some of you will already have spotted the problem – the book says that the Cybermen came from Telos, yet The Tenth Planet, the first Cybermen story, says they came from Mondas.

Okay… but The Tenth Planet is incomplete as well. So we say that the books count more than the TV series when we no longer have the TV series to watch.

Except that in this story, Ben and Polly come from the 1970s. Yet in the novelisation of Evil Of The Daleks, another missing story, the adapter, John Peel, clearly states that they returned to the date in 1966 from whence they came. In doing so, he’s asserting in a missing-story novelisation that TV takes priority over missing-story novelisations.

So, OK, fine, Evil Of The Daleks is one of the last of the novelisations. Presumably they’d decided by then that the books counted less than the TV. Someone’s finally made a decision!

Except that John Peel, the same author, then went on to write War Of The Daleks, one of the worst books ever written, whose whole reason for existing was to state very firmly that the existing TV stories Destiny Of The Daleks, Resurrection Of The Daleks, Revelation Of The Daleks and Remembrance Of The Daleks ‘never happened’.

My brain hurts.

The only way to deal with this is to either say that Doctor Who isn’t meant to be read as a consistent narrative, despite having the appearance of one – that every story, or indeed every episode, is its own thing, devoid of any context except that which it explicitly references, or to embrace the contradictions and say that the story I wrote when I was six where the Cybermen and Daleks joined forces and created new Cyber-Daleks, and where the Doctor regenerated five times, ‘counts’ just as much as, say, City Of Death (the story that was watched by more people than any other on its first broadcast).

And in the same way, it’s impossible to put a simple label on what Doctor Who is ‘about’. At the time of The Moonbase, for example, the scripts were mostly unpleasantly reactionary right-wing nonsenses. While people, myself included, have often said that the ‘base under siege’ stories of this period were inspired by The Thing From Another World, they’re most clearly based on Zulu, a film about ‘heroic’ white invaders ‘bravely’ massacring hundreds of black South Africans who dared to fight back against them. Doctor Who And The Cybermen, indeed, makes this explicit, with its line “Cybermen, dozens of them!” (after “Zulus, thousands of them!” in the original) and the Doctor saying “Therefore this march towards the base is probably a show of strength, to scare us the way the Zulus used to intimidate their enemies with their famous slow march.”

Over and again we see the plot of Zulu repeated, but with monster-of-the-month taking the place of black people. Sometimes, for variety, we get a story like The Dominators, about how young people should be respectful of their elders and pacifism is dangerous nonsense.

And yet Troughton’s Doctor is an anarchic, anti-authoritarian figure. When put in a machine to tidy him up, he immediately jumps into a machine to rumple him again. This is the Doctor who said “bad laws are made to be broken.”

Meanwhile, in Jon Pertwee’s time, we have most of the key scripts being written by an anti-authoritarian cynic (Robert Holmes), a Buddhist supporter of the Liberal Party (Barry Letts) and a Communist (Malcolm Hulke). We get attacks on corporatism, materialism and colonialism, and an entire story (The Green Death) that is essentially about a hippie environmentalist inventing Quorn.

Yet Pertwee’s Doctor is a sexist patrician aristocrat, working for the military, who claims to be a friend of the genocidal dictator Mao Zedong, and who is horrifically insulting to anyone who doesn’t speak in an RP accent.

What we have here, in summary, is something that is a patchwork of so many influences, created by so many people, over so long a time period, that trying to pin down “What Doctor Who is” is a fool’s errand.

So I’m going to try, and I’m going to do it by getting rid of all the Doctor Who TV episodes, the things pretty much everyone is agreed ‘count’ as Doctor Who. If, after that, the residue that’s left still has something in common, a characteristic ‘Who-ness’, then that might be a sign that when we use the term Doctor Who we are, in fact, referring to something other than just “whatever we label as Doctor Who.”

So from here on in, we’ll ignore the TV show. The Doctor himself will be a relatively minor figure in our story. And yet, he’ll be there, somewhere, on every page.

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2 Responses to Bigger On The Outside: So Why ‘Non-Canon’?

  1. Alex Wilcock says:

    Great point about how the individual Doctors pull against their individual scripts (I might add patchwork Tom against his fear-of-hybridisation second season, for another example), but I’d say Troughton’s stories around the time of The Moonbase – if not necessarily in his other seasons – are more complicated than you suggest. Power and Highlanders are more about how humans mistreat each other (though less about the ‘rebels’ than one would think), while for me The Macra Terror and The Evil of the Daleks are among the most blatantly Liberal stories in the programme’s history.

    And thanks for the name-check!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh yeah, there are some good scripts in Troughton’s first series (and indeed in the other ones – The Mind Robber, for example, or The War Games). But it’s still a fundamentally reactionary era saved by a wonderful performance.

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