(For those who haven’t been reading my blog before, or who’ve forgotten, I’ve been doing a series of posts (to be turned into a book, with luck) on Doctor Who spinoffery. Click the ‘bigger on the outside’ tag to read the rest of these posts.)
For those who are interested in ideas, The Book Of The War is quite probably the single best thing ever to have come out of Doctor Who.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the BBC had taken control of the ongoing series of Doctor Who books, and put out a series featuring the Eighth Doctor. Much of this series was regarded at the time as being a bit rubbish, not least because a lot of it was – The Eight Doctors and War Of The Daleks, in particular, are just bad fanfic, written to explain away or rewrite things their authors didn’t like (and the fact that one of those books is by Terrance Dicks, the single biggest contributor to Doctor Who ever, doesn’t stop it being bad fanfic. Picasso was once asked to separate a pile of paintings into real Picassos and forgeries. After putting one into the forgery pile, someone said to him “But Pablo, I was with you when you painted that one”, to which he replied “No matter. I can fake a Picasso as well as anyone.”)
But some of them were extremely good. Those by Lance Parkin and Paul Magrs we’ll come back to later in this series of articles, but there was also a set of books, starting with Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles, which set up a fascinating plot thread – a war, at some time in the Doctor’s future, between the Time Lords and an unnamed Enemy. There was also a third party in this war, a renegade faction of the Time Lords known as Faction Paradox, and several smaller parties.
Unfortunately, the editor of BBC Books at the time decided to wrap this storyline up in a rather spectacularly dull way, and to write almost all of the elements that had been introduced in this story out of ‘continuity’.
But if you’ve read this far, you’ll know what I think about ‘continuity’, and Miles and several of the other authors involved evidently had the same view. Seeing no reason to waste a good idea, a series of Faction Paradox books and audio adventures was started which continues to this day, and The Book Of The War was the first, and one of the best, result.
The Book Of The War is the work of ten different authors – some, like Miles himself, or Simon Bucher-Jones, or Daniel O’Mahony, having written excellent books in the Doctor Who ranges before, while others, like Philip Purser-Hallard, were doing great work on the fringes of Who fiction without ever writing a ‘proper’ Doctor Who story. The book is structured as some combination of encyclopaedia, role-playing sourcebook and hypertext, and purports to provide background information on a war in time between the ‘Great Houses’, an ancient semi-godlike race of time travellers who kept the structure of history together, and their unnamed Enemy.
I say ‘purports’ because what this book actually is is an assault on the dull, literalist way of reading that most Doctor Who fans had.
While Doctor Who itself has at its best always attacked the idea of simple binary choices, that way of perceiving things pervades everything in our culture. Conservative or Labour, Mac or Windows, gay or straight, male or female, if you don’t pick a side, you will be assigned one anyway. Everyone knew that the Lib Dems were ‘really’ just Labour-lite, until they entered coalition and they’re now ‘really’ Tories. Bisexuals are ‘really’ gay people in denial or straight people trying to look interesting. And so on.
And so for a lot of the readers of the Eighth Doctor War stories, the single most interesting question had been ‘who is the Enemy?’ [FOOTNOTE A question which may contain its own answer…or may not.] They saw a war, and read it as having two sides, despite it originally being described as having at least four – the Time Lords/Great Houses, the Enemy, the Celestis and Faction Paradox – with many other factions such as The Remote later being described. So obviously the only thing of interest was who the Enemy ‘really’ were.
We get a lot of hints as to who the Enemy are in The Book of The War, and they do seem to point to an answer (the answer here seems to be that the Enemy are actually the Great Houses themselves, or a group within them, grown so bored and decadent that they have to invent a war with themselves in order to have a reason for existence). But it’s made clear that who the Enemy really are simply isn’t important – and indeed, the various books seem to suggest that Lawrence Miles, who edited this book and is more or less in charge of the Faction Paradox book range, has had different ideas as to who the Enemy are at different times. Indeed, it is entirely possible that each author of this book had his or her own idea who the Enemy were.
But further, the whole book goes out of its way to throw doubt upon the stories it’s telling. Attentive readers will be able to tell, for example, that the whole War itself is merely a feint for some larger plan, involving House Lolita, a single individual who is (we know from one of Miles’ short stories) the Master’s TARDIS (and the Master of course may or may not be the same person as the War King who is now in charge of the Great Houses, and his Presidency during the War may or may not be tied into Lolita’s scheme). There are at least three characters in the book who may or may not be the Doctor, all of whom are on different sides in the War.
The very text of the book itself presents itself both as fallible and as existing within the War universe – the text itself is corrupt, both in the sense of having (deliberate) mistakes in it, and in the sense that it reads as propaganda for one of the sides in the War – which one is open to question.
This corruption of the text exists from even the indicia, where we have “First printing September 2002. Almost certainly printed in Illinois” and “No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or biological”. It’s not often the copyright warnings in a book forbid you to even remember it – and of course this ties in with the material on biodata later on.
Parts of the book have been censored – every entry relating to the Enemy has been deleted, although the links to them remain. Other parts, parts giving crucial bits of information, are interrupted by a ‘conceptual entity’ called The Shift who lives in the relation between the book’s words and the reader’s mind. And then there are entries like this:
“YOU” DIVERSIONS [House Military: Culture] Of increasing interest and concern to the Houses is the concept of interactive propaganda: the interweaving of propaganda messages into the receptors of a target audience’s brain, or even directly into the audience’s local culture. This is a typical tactic of the conceptual entities, but since the enemy gained some understanding of the same technologies the “trick” has become more widespread and more aggressive. YOU, YES YOU – REALLY – YOU. YOU BOUGHT THIS, THEN? THEY’RE TRYING TO TELL YOU THAT THIS CAN BE HISTORY. THIS POLITE FICTION YOU’RE READING INSISTS THAT THE WAR WILL BE SOON BE OVER, THAT IT HAS A SPECIFIC “FIRST FIFTY YEARS”. WELL, IT HASN’T. IT ISN’T OVER. IT’S NEVER OVER. ONE IN EVERY THOUSAND PIECES OF INFORMATION IN THIS TEXT HAS BEEN RE-ENGINEERED. THE MATERIAL BEYOND THIS POINT IS PROGRAMMING HYPERLANGUAGE ONLY YOUR LOCAL IDENTITY IS ENDING. PAY NO ATTENTION. YOU WANTED TO KNOW WHO’D FIGHT FOR THE REBEL HOUSES? WHO’D BEAR ARMS AGAINST THE ENGINEERS OF HISTORY? YOU WOULD, would be a typical opening gambit in such cases.
After its appearance, the recipients of such messages would be told to await activation instructions. Often the level of paranoia induced by this would be sufficient to disrupt normal activities, the same exploitation of House anxiety also reflected in the principles of xenoprediction and mentioned in the “Probability” Doctrine. In some cases the propaganda thrust would be augmented by a secondary double-bluff, suggesting that the text did in fact originate from legitimate sources, which would then be undercut. THE PREVIOUS SENTENCES WERE A LIE, AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS would be a typically smug signing-off for such a message. It would then be followed by some vague, largely meaningless command such as WAIT, ACTIVATION LOCK ACCOMPLISHED.
The fact that almost any action could be construed as having obeyed the allegedly treasonous command is almost always sufficient to ensure that the messages aren’t even reported to the higher ranks.
Much of the book works on multiple levels, sometimes obviously like this, sometimes more subtly. There’s a description of a plot of a bad late-90s blockbuster film, for example, which reads like (and is) a parody of both Mulan and The Phantom Menace. It’s also a good description of the plot of some of Miles’ later Faction Paradox audio dramas, and itself gives another conflicting clue as to what is ‘really’ going on.
This is a book that’s full of ideas. Almost all of its several hundred entries would make the basis of fine short stories in themselves (and several of them made the background for Philip Purser-Hallard’s marvellous novel Of The City Of The Saved). There are digs at Richard Dawkins’ lack of imagination, expansions on the ideas of Teillhard de Chardin, parodies of Ally McBeal and reality TV, conspiracy theories, a subplot inspired by Godel, Escher, Bach and much more.
Possibly the closest comparison to this book is Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, but where that comic series takes ITC adventure serials, with their relatively limited scope, as its point of departure, The Book Of The War builds an entire mythology – or multiple mythologies – out of asides from Robert Holmes scripts.[FOOTNOTE – The Book Of The War is a much, much more mature work, too, far less concerned with a rather sixth-form idea of cool.] And this is definitely the Robert Holmes vision of Doctor Who, rather than any other, but fleshed out, and with the world foregrounded, rather than the character of the Doctor.
But most importantly, it’s a book that you have to approach as a critical reader. It forces its own unreliability to the foreground, and resists all attempts to fit its narrative into a simple binary, goodies vs baddies, format.
Or, at least, that’s what I think…