Thursday, October 05, 2006

 

Ben Aaronovitch and Doctor Who

Ben Aaronovitch was one of the exciting young writers of the late ’80s whose ideas shook up and reinvigorated Doctor Who. To Lib Dems reading: yes, he is the brother of journalist David Aaronovitch, but don’t hold that against him. He scripted two Who stories for TV, the first of which started broadcasting eighteen years ago today. Goodness, that makes me feel old; it still seems like the beginning of something new. Right from the start, you can see favourite themes like racism versus cultural diversity, though for me he really took off in print rather than on the screen. I’d still love him to do another script, whether for Big Finish or for Doctor Who on the telly; sometimes I don’t like what he comes up with, but I’d jump at the risk for the chance of him being really on form. He’s not the most prolific or swift of writers, but with only two novels in Virgin’s New Adventures range and a novelisation before that so good that it helped inspire that new range of books, he helped shape the New Adventures into one of the greatest, most beautiful, most imaginative periods of Doctor Who. He also started a third original Who novel, So Vile a Sin, an uneven epic of love, death, war and empires, interrupted by a hard disk crash and eventually finished off by Kate Orman for publication only just in time before Virgin lost their Doctor Who licence. After a long hiatus and a short story or two, he’s just had Genius Loci published, and I’ve discussed recurring themes such as mixing cultures and his love-hate relationship with soldiers in my review of the new book. You’ll find the same themes explored in the Who stories he previously completed…

Remembrance of the Daleks

When this began – eighteen years ago – it seemed to be where everything came together for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, making intelligent use of the past right from the opening sequence of the Earth, its historical period established by transmissions of Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr, framed on the screen as a huge spacecraft closes in… Right through to the stunning cliffhanger where a Dalek, for the first time, rises up a set of stairs. In between those two points, the direction, acting, production values and indeed the script all hit the mark. Yet this ended up being the sole Seventh Doctor television story that I disliked intensely as soon as I saw the climax, despite many others of the period displaying far less talent in each of those elements.

Much of it made the Doctor seem unlikeably self-aggrandising, as if he thought he was God mixing it for a bit, and that was an ethos that made me uncomfortable. I’ve always felt that when he uses a weapon to solve the situation, it’s a failure; when he sets up a huge booby trap to blow up a planet at the end of this story, he just doesn’t feel remotely like the Doctor to me. When he spends so much of the rest of his time here criticising people for carrying guns, it makes him seem not just a mass murderer but a hypocritical one. So I’ve always had hugely mixed feelings about this story, instinctively on-side with its anti-racist morality, but reacting with sick horror to the Doctor’s actions at the end.

Making it more complicated still is Mr Aaronovitch’s novelisation of the story, which is… Wonderful. If you ever see an old second-hand copy of Target Books’ Remembrance of the Daleks, pick it up. The verve, the passion, the sheer imagination easily makes it a contender for the best they ever published, capturing emotion, pace and even the thoughts of Daleks. On TV, this was the original series’ biggest special effects extravaganza, but the book’s supercharged Dalek battles give the lie to claims that action sequences only work on screen. Nope, with a sufficiently brilliant author, they can come even more alive on the page. The writing is so marvellous that, to this day, I can’t sort out my feelings about the story – associating the TV version with revulsion for its climax (and irritated by an ostentatious fault on the DVD), but looking at all the style and creativity of the book and still being lost in wonder at it.

Battlefield

On TV this goes wrong in so many ways, but it’s not just down to weaker performances and direction, nor terrible design (though it has all those, and a shockingly poor musical score. It really is ghastly). Though there are flashes of brilliance in the script, these are more obvious when they come out in Ben’s later work and you think, ‘Ah, so that’s what Battlefield should have been like’ – the strong women soldiers, the subtle undermining of this darker Doctor, making UNIT properly multinational, or even the archaeology. The novelisation, as it happens, turns a lot more of it brilliant, but it’s written by another author; very talented, but I can’t help wishing for Mr Aaronovitch’s prose. There’s even an original Doctor Who novel by new series author Paul Cornell, The Shadows of Avalon, which is absolutely magnificent and makes use of so many of the same mythic and emotional themes as Battlefield that it’s a curious mixture of love letter and literary criticism.

It seems like it should have been a mix of Quatermass and King Arthur, one of the BBC’s greatest imaginative triumphs and the other great (mostly) English myth, and the myth even has a great twist in it. So what went wrong, other than it looking so shoddy? The structure is all over the place (apparently it was originally written in three parts rather than four, so I always wonder where the breaks were meant to be), but my main problem is the morality. It sets out to be about the horrors of war, conventional and nuclear, but is fatally compromised throughout. Even the good guys who aren’t in the army love blowing things up; cringe-makingly, the bomb made by the Doctor’s companion has a CND sign on it. Bless. There’s a climactic battle, feebly staged but producing lots of dead bodies – yet none of the ‘characters’ with speaking parts die in it, meaning the ‘horrors of war’ moral is never brought home to us by killing anyone we ‘know’.

The biggest moral failure is that the finger-wagging lecture about the nastiness and dishonour of nuclear weapons that talks the witch-queen from another dimension out of unleashing an atomic holocaust appears totally clueless; it’s meant to show how much better she is than we Earthlings who would build such terrible things. Yet this is only her back-up plan, when she’s already unleashed a demon called the Destroyer to, yes, destroy the Earth; it’s a personification of Oppenheimer's quoting of the Bhagavad-Gita, and the exact equivalent of an enormous nuclear bomb, so she’s metaphorically set off the nukes already but the author hasn’t even noticed. When I mentioned ‘undermining’ the darker Doctor, what I meant was partly the welcome bits of teasing seen here, but also the way his own words are quoted back at him as the deadly, terrifying moral certainty of the previous year’s ‘Doctor as judgmental God’ is questioned. The New Adventures would go on to look at the moral grey areas in more depth, but some of the lines I like in Battlefield seem to be struggling towards this recognition. One of the things that sticks in my throat about the Doctor’s nuclear speech is that there’s no hint of contrition, only an appeal from one ‘higher being’ to another not to sink to the level of humanity; there’s no hint of self-knowledge that, in the previous year and the author’s previous story, he was himself the destroyer of worlds. It’s as if Mr Aaronovitch’s morality has been caught here in mid-evolution, with the Doctor forced by the plot to give a lecture before he’s had time to think through the moral implications of what he’s saying. Before that, though, the way the Destroyer itself is stopped gives the story its main saving grace. Dialogue and performances are a mix of cracking and terrible throughout, but largely it’s the older characters who work. The one who emerges with the most dignity is the Brigadier, so it’s appropriate that when he’s called out of retirement to face a demon, alone, his demand that it “Get off my world” is so heart-punchingly effective. Whatever I think of the rest of it, that’s a fantastic scene.

Transit

An early New Adventures novel and the one that pushed what you could feature in Doctor Who just about as far as it would go, this is a dystopian piece of cyberpunk set roughly a century in the future that I admit I hated first time round. Huge amounts of sex and swearing, but none of it between characters that were remotely engaging, and not much of a story to pull it together. It simply put me off. It’s all very futuristically ‘street’ and depressing, the Doctor’s hardly in it, and Bernice’s character is largely missing, too – in only her second book, I suspect Mr Aaronovitch hadn’t seen much beyond a character outline and played it safe by having her possessed or suffering lots of ‘Dalek air-raid orphan angst’ straight out of her biographical notes. Understandable, but at the time I wanted to read more of the new companion who’d so sparkled in her first novel, and it added to the feeling of let-down.

I re-read it a couple of years back, and though it didn’t quite win me over, I appreciated it a lot more. I had dozens of adventures with Benny to hand by then, so didn’t feel starved of her, and my Who horizons had broadened a long way in the decade since, not least as a result of books like this nurturing my imagination. I still found the characters brutish and off-putting, though, and I still found the story an unengaging and over-familiar piece of cyberpunk, so I’m still not going to rave about it; there’s an interesting idea in a transit system becoming so huge and complex that it develops sentience, but it seems too little to hang a whole novel on.

On the bright side, I’d mellowed into more of a mood to appreciate its strengths. If the plot is mediocre, the writing isn’t; it’s not as polished as Ben’s other books, but there are still some beautiful stretches and the jokes, though rare, are good ones. I laughed when the Doctor catches Battlefield showing in operatic form on one channel, something I’d either forgotten or missed altogether first time round. The world(s) it depicts may be unpleasant, but it’s compelling. Huge corporations wield power, with multicultural slums strung from one end of the solar system to the other and a mix of languages as global power and money balances tip away from the West and towards Africa (much more noticeably in the Earth Empire aristocracy of the later New Adventures). It’s peppered with intriguing snatches of future history, such as the fate of Paris. And, more personally appealingly, some of it’s set on the Isle of Dogs, and though I didn’t know the place when Transit was published, since a couple of years after then I’ve lived there. It was strangely endearing to walk round to an unimpressive block of maisonettes ten minutes’ stroll from home and think of it as a glamorous set from Doctor Who, a century in the future.

The Also People

Mr Aaronovitch’s novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks had been so stunning that I suspect Transit bore the brunt of criticism less for its individual failings and more because it simply didn’t live up to his promise. With The Also People, though, he delivered another book that cruised to the top. Some authors are equally good on the page and on the screen; others seem to excel in one medium and struggle in another. Chris Boucher, for example, is for me one of the best Who scriptwriters, but his novels seem lifeless by comparison. Ben seems almost the other way round, with flashes of brilliance in his scripts but novels lifted by breadth of vision and a writing style that seems effortless but makes just about every other Who author look clumsy. The Dalek novelisation was more innovative and breathlessly exciting, but this is better-plotted, with crisper dialogue and the breezy confidence to take its time in exploring a huge, impossible world. Even the cover painting is great, well-composed and capturing one of the most striking moments in the book (to be found on page 182, should you have it to hand).

This really shows the New Adventures at their peak; this is one of the great periods of Doctor Who, despite the disadvantage of not reaching a wider audience. The regular characters are a line-up perhaps only beaten to my mind by the original TARDIS crew, with the Seventh Doctor accompanied by now old friend Professor Bernice Summerfield and tough future police officers Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester, one young, innocent and impossibly attractive, the other a cynical veteran who’s turned her back on her aristocratic family. All of them are such fine characters and so perfectly captured here that they all at different points steal the book: Roz multi-layered and a damn’ good cop, with not a few shadows of mortality; Chris blossoming into a sexy Biggles type; Benny being handed some of the Doctor’s responsibility; and the Doctor trying to do the right thing and really just wanting to juggle. Together, they’ve come to the closest thing to paradise, a supremely advanced civilisation made up of organic people and super-evolved machines that are also people living on an immense sphere enclosing a sun, where there’s no such thing as need or violence.

Where better to set the Doctor Who equivalent of film noir?

This book is so good that it manages to create one of those futuristic utopias where no-one has money and yet at no point bores your socks off (Star Treks, take note). Critics claim that much of this novel pays homage to Iain M. Banks’ ‘the Culture’, a set of books which, with hundreds of others, still glare unread at me from the shelf; so what? Doctor Who has always borrowed from everything in sight, and I love that I can instantly recognise one of my favourite movies in many of the lines making up the heart-stopping final confrontation (imagine Roz – a short, black woman – being played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart, as a clue). It’s sheer pleasure to read and classy as hell, all the characters from simple, surprising humans to mile-long, very aggressive spaceships carefully interwoven, making up an immensely clever murder mystery and a breathtaking feat of imagination. And despite the huge sci-fi ideas, it’s not those that stay in the mind, but the raw emotions, the inspired mythical vignettes in the style of African legends, and of course the funny bits. At last, the author’s relaxed enough for some superb comedy: the suspicious yellow dip at parties; the Doctor getting buried; the dream of a drinking Dalek with its serious moral – because the thing that I most love about this gorgeously written book is its moral evolution, as it takes just the same sort of problem as ‘How do you deal with the Daleks?’ from Remembrance of the Daleks and, as if Ben had finally made up his mind what was so wrong with his earlier story, finds a more Doctorish solution than ‘Exterminate!’
“Tsuro turned to the woman. ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘are you going to let her out?’”
Of course, it’s not perfect. It… (drums fingers) …It’s not very well-bound, as between us we’ve got four copies now, and the pages are falling out of three of them, so I hardly dare touch the fourth. Any chance of an eBook? And even with the aid of the Notes on the Pronunciation of Proper Nouns, I still have problems with some of the character names.


Just as I finish writing all this, I’m told that Ben Aaronovitch will be at Tenth Planet for a signing on Saturday and I’ll be pointed out to him. Mixture of fannish excitement and nervous ‘Aaagghh’. Fingers crossed that he reacts better to the mixture of ‘this is brilliant, but this other bit… Not so much’ than one or two other authors…

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Comments:
May like to see Bhagavadgita English. bhagavadgitayb.blogspot.com
 
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