Thursday 2 April 2015

The Eight Doctors with a side order of objectivity ranting

From the TARDIS data bank
The Eight Doctors by Terrance Dicks: opening novel of the original Eighth Doctor novels; published June 1997; it follows on from the events of the 1996 TV Movie with an amnesiac Eighth Doctor meeting his previous selves in sequence to get his memories back; the novel also introduces new companion Samantha “Sam” Jones.

Canon fodder
The bulk of the novel takes place during or immediately after televised stories, we'll get to the full list later. Dicks actively de-canonises the New Adventures novels from at least First Frontier onwards, using the Anthony Ainley Master in a section set immediately prior to the TV Movie, which also contradicts the ending of Lungbarrow in the process.
In the “everything is canon in the Doctor Who universe except the Noddy series (unless the Doctor was lying)” stakes: a Roman officer in the War Games section of the novel refers to Lurcio's tavern in Rome so Up Pompeii and Further Up Pompeii canonically take place in the Doctor Who universe.

There's this pernicious belief on the internet right now that “objective review” is something that can exist and I provide no better counter-argument than The Eight Doctors by Terrance Dicks. This book is an infamous failure, a book so completely unsuited to launching the series it does that its amazing any editor would allow it to. However, using the only objective metrics I can think of I'd actually have to recommend it:

You see, it isn't as if this book is unreadable, far from it. I breezed through its 280 pages in two sittings, which for me is lightning speed. Terrance Dicks, elder statesman of Doctor Who and its most prolific noveliser, is pretty much incapable of writing bad prose. The characters he lifts from the TV show all act more or less as they did on television, voices and mannerisms captured near perfectly. The structure of the novel even gives the mythical new audience it was supposedly designed for a halfway decent primer on the high points of the television series. This is as close to an objective analysis of the novel I can produce and even then, let it be noted by the delusional people who think this is a good idea, it is still moderated through my personal and (all together now) subjective experience.

And once we get past this tissue-thin veneer of objectivity we are left with a very readable book that is mediocre on its own merits but where context screws it over into being outright the worst thing the BBC could have published in that precise moment. The root of the problem is that what was required, what was requested and what Terrance Dicks would inevitably produce were wildly at odds.

There are a lot of ways to go with the sentence “The problem with the TV Movie was...” but the one that concerns us here is the fact there's almost nothing in the movie telling us what the new Doctor is like. Between getting Sylvester McCoy in to film a regeneration and over-egging the post-regenerative amnesia we never get to see what the Eighth Doctor acts like when its business as usual. Unfortunately, one of Dicks' oft-stated opinions is that the Doctor is always fundamentally the same guy and only surface details change. Add in an editor who was nowhere near as big on co-ordinating authors as Peter Darvill-Evans and Rebecca Levene were at Virgin and the idea of strongly establishing an identity for the Eighth Doctor falls at the first hurdle.

Then there's the idea that a year after the TV Movie there was going to be a new audience largely unfamiliar with Doctor Who chomping at the bit to read this thing. I'm all for optimism but you can go too far in your blue sky thinking. However, if you're genuinely working under this assumption then Terrance Dicks would definitely seem like the way to go: he's reliable; his work is of consistent quality; he's written for just about every Doctor in one form or another; he knows the series' history because he was a huge part of it himself; and therein lies the rub...

What was needed was a bold statement about who the Eighth Doctor is and why the reader should be dropping £4.99 a month on these books, especially considering they replaced the beloved New Adventures line. What was delivered was a nostalgia tour through the history of Doctor Who as Dicks has an amnesiac Eighth Doctor meeting up with his previous selves one by one. Dicks was already King Of The Sequels at this point in his career but here he goes into overdrive giving us a series of interludes and epilogues to 1000,000 BC, The War Games, The Sea Devils, State Of Decay, The Five Doctors and The Trial Of A Time Lord before stopping off to give us a prologue to the TV Movie. What's more, the Sea Devils section is also a sequel to The Daemons; the Trial Of A Time Lord section is a sequel to The Five Doctors and a couple of characters and concepts from The Deadly Assassin turn up for good measure. Obviously, Dicks immensely favours expanding his own previous work here with every section from the Second to the Fifth Doctors being based on a story he either wrote or edited and the Sixth Doctor section being a sequel to one of his stories as well. Maybe its ego, maybe its just pragmatism, but at the end of the day it means the lion's share of Doctor Who is being presented through the lens of one man's body of work.

And none of it says much about any of it. There are few judgements on the ethics or aesthetic of those previous eras other than the fact that the First Doctor was wrong to try and kill someone and Dicks' being oddly down on the Seventh Doctor to the point of writing him as borderline suicidal. There's no comment on how these choices relate to the greater whole of the series just “Here's some nostalgia: enjoy!”. Given the fact that the Eighth Doctor is even more of a blank slate here than he was on television there's no point of comparison between then and now because there's nothing to compare the past with.

All of this is secondary, though, to the fact this does nothing to launch the Eighth Doctor as a concept. Dicks plainly dislikes the TV Movie, which is amazing given how neutral a narrator he was in his novelisations, describing it as “a weird, fantastic adventure, full of improbable, illogical events”, a critical mauling not at all softened by apparently being the Doctor's own thoughts on the matter. Still, it would have been a start to giving this Doctor some sense of character but then he stumbles into a trap a Master left behind and the amnesia sets in. Worse, the book spends chapters at a time away from the Eighth Doctor, setting up the adventures he's going to visit rather than having him jump straight into them.

And how on Earth did it feel like a good idea to take the end of The Trial Of A Time Lord and make it even more complicated by introducing an alternate timeline into the mix?

This review is in danger of turning into a rant but, ultimately, The Eight Doctors is more offensive due to circumstance than in what it actually is. If it had come later in the run or as an anthology separate from the ongoing series it would, as I say, be mediocre rather than facepalmingly frustrating. True, Dicks' unfortunate class politics show up good and proper in the Sixth Doctor section as we finally meet the Shobogans alluded to in The Deadly Assassin. They were originally a throwaway line of the sort Robert Holmes used to flesh out worlds and blatantly never expected to see expanded (see also, as this novel and many other Dicks-penned works do, the Celestial Intervention Agency). Here Dicks presents them as hard-drinking, violent savages living underneath the Gallifreyan Capitol who speak with a slightly stilted, caveman-esque vocabulary. He even recycles the trick from The Monster Of Peladon (largely his own script) of giving these lower class characters harsh sounding names like Kagar and Marek.

What this series needed was a strong beginning but what it got was nostalgia: the thing that ultimately doomed the TV series and crippled the TV Movie with the weight of having to please the fans with continuity porn and a pointless, time-wasting regeneration. Sadly, this set something of a tone as the Eighth Doctor novels would have a very shaky relationship with the series' past over the years.

In the end, reading this book I was confronted by one question, a question I really think should have been asked more often by everyone involved in writing this book:

What's the point of this novel?

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