Saturday, May 21, 2011

 

Doctor Who – The Time Monster: Inspirations, Dæmons and Fallen Gods

Say ‘What you need is more of The Time Monster’ to most fans and they’d back slowly away. And yet, against all reason, a dozen different Doctor Who stories – right up to last week’s episode – take inspiration from what seemed one of the most uninspired. Plucked from the wreckage and polished, other authors took TARDISes inside each other, Chronovores, battles snatched out of time, hermits and more and made something (usually) more interesting of them. Less surprisingly, The Time Monster was inspired by earlier tales in turn; less Greek myths than two other Doctor Who stories in particular.

The Time Monster and The Dæmons

One of Patrick Troughton’s earliest and, most concur, shonkiest stories as the Doctor was The Underwater Menace, in which he lands in the ruins of Atlantis and – not wishing to give away the entire plot – competes with the local mad scientist to see who can make them more completely ruined. It does not have a high reputation. So you do have to wonder what Barry Letts was doing when he replicated much of the same Atlantis set-up: the ‘villain from outside with the crazy destructive plot’ by whom ‘the ruler is chatted up, only to realise too late he’s actually a bad thing and that the Doctor was right’… Though the Doctor dropping a brick and exposing the villain’s ambition at a key moment is quite well-delivered in both.

The Time Monster co-writers Robert Sloman and Barry Letts had a much more obvious source of inspiration for their not terribly successful Doctor Who Season Nine finale, though: The Dæmons, the enormously successful Doctor Who Season Eight finale by, er, co-writers Barry Letts and Robert Sloman. If you thought some elements of Russell T Davies’ end-of-season epics were a little repetitive, he had nothing on Barry Letts. And it’s not just the overarching plot – essentially The Dæmons again with the end of Atlantis thrown in, and even that was mentioned in The Dæmons – that’s familiar, but many little details of the story are recycled. Ready?
Perhaps, then, given that I’ve now written about Barry Letts’ and Robert Sloman’s The Time Monster, The Green Death and Planet of the Spiders, it may be time I reviewed The Dæmons? But first, there’s something much more surprising than a list of elements The Time Monster ripped off – an idea of some of those it inspired!

An Unlikely Inspiration

Watching The Time Monster to ready myself for these reviews, I was taken aback – yet again – at just how horrible the one-story-only TARDIS redesign is. Known as “the Tupperware TARDIS”, the control room covered with huge, hideous ’70s plastic plates, it’s the equivalent of giving the Ship nylon flares, and makes me realise that Matt Smith’s is OK after all… Though the Master’s knobbly steel time rotor does have a look that might have inspired Matt’s bobbly glass one. Even Terrance Dicks’ novelisation, which isn’t bad but wasn’t able to make a silk purse of The Time Monster, has a cheeky little aside about this ghastly redesign that was dropped straight away:
“Something had altered, something about the circular configuration of the walls… From time to time, the Doctor altered some detail of the TARDIS interior. More often than not he decided he didn’t like what he’d done and reverted to the original.”
Given all that, it’s perhaps surprising that one of the biggest influences this story had on later ones is to do with the TARDIS. Though the first major reappearance of an idea from The Time Monster is the Doctor’s old guru, mentioned here and then turning up in person – distractingly played by one of this story’s actors in a different wig – in Planet of the Spiders before subsequently being referred to in several other stories in several other media, the first really interesting examples of one of this story’s inventions being reworked come a few years later, in Tom Baker’s last two season finales. Douglas Adams’ Shada was never quite completed for TV, but features some very similar sequences of TARDISes dancing about each other in the vortex and the Doctor being temporarily expelled; Chris Bidmead’s Logopolis, in which the two TARDISes (probably the same two TARDISes, at that) being inside each other become something altogether richer and more threatening. This year’s Comic Relief double-sketch Space / Time borrowed it, too, before last week’s The Doctor’s Wife made everyone sit up and take notice properly (as well as giving us another one-off TARDIS design. And does that mean she still has the Tupperware TARDIS on file? The horror).

The ‘deadly things out of time’ sequence, wasted padding out the middle of The Time Monster, is used to great effect in Doctor Who Magazine’s finest comic strip, The Tides of Time, complete with medieval knight on horseback suddenly appearing in the Twentieth Century countryside. And that one really is a silk purse. Paul Cornell has used Chronovores, or something very like them, in his rather wonderful Christopher Eccleston story Father’s Day, and his rather less wonderful novel No Future. There was even another tribute to The Time Monster in last year’s The Lodger (possibly to make up for losing a villain from another famously rubbish story), which builds something out of the most outrageous slow-down-the-plot device in all of Doctor Who. And many other novels and TV stories have had other references along the way.

The most notable influence wielded by The Time Monster, however, was on two Doctor Who novels from the Noughties. Like karmic twins, they are opposites, and it’s rumoured that should anyone ever read both together, one of them is bound to be torn into little pieces and stamped on. And I know which I’d choose. They are prequel and sequel; subtle and self-indulgent; brilliant and utter rubbish. I know some people enjoy “fanwank”; if so, The Quantum Archangel is for you. But I never wish to read it, nor ideally think about it, ever again. Where The Time Monster fails spectacularly but has many redeeming features, the novel that sets out to do the same story again, but bigger, manages only the first half of that summary. Fortunately, it’s not the only novel whose entire basis was inspired by The Time Monster

Doctor Who – Fallen Gods

Everyone can think of stories which can seem ruined retrospectively by terrible sequels. The Time Monster, unusually, has a prequel which succeeds in lifting it, at least in the memory – unlike Myths and Legends, Fallen Gods really does come across as a Greek legend, and more a phoenix than a load of bull (as Daryl Joyce’s frontispiece captures). Who could be attacking the mighty Minoan Empire, protected by their own fleets and by the divine power of the Fallen? What is the secret of the fiery demon bulls that consume all that they touch? And who will the suddenly helpless people of Thera turn on in their rage and fear?
—One of the disadvantages of being a child of the gods is that you rarely see your family.
—Oh, I wouldn’t say that was the main problem.
—What would you say, then?
—That you’ll always be a child.
—In the divine realm, children overthrow their parents with startling regularity.
The New Adventures of the mid-’90s were among Doctor Who’s golden ages, though, as most people never read them, you might think of that as mythical; one of the series’ best finds as an author (along with such influential names as Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Lawrence Miles) was Kate Orman, who wrote 2003’s Fallen Gods with her writing partner and husband Jon Blum. It isn’t what you expect. From the out-of-print but in this case very much worth searching out range of Doctor Who novellas from Telos Publishing, this one has the length and depth to be more a novel than novella and, indeed, won the Aurealis Award for Best Novel; its distinctive prose style is quite unlike their other work, and unique; Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is captured here in a way that fits in with the convoluted and up-themselves BBC novels of the time, but happily soars above all that (he may or may not have destroyed his homeworld by now, and may or may not remember. He may have other things missing too, but that’s not important right now); and, while this is undoubtedly and absolutely a prequel to The Time Monster, it never says so, and doesn’t need you to be familiar with it in the slightest.

Don’t look for names from The Time Monster, then, or crowd-pleasingly crass nudges and winks. This is a book that requires imagination from the reader to see the currents between different times – though the Doctor and at least one other character do appear in both, if you look for them. In some ways, Fallen Gods has an ecological message that’s more Pertwee than Pertwee – yet in a completely unPertwee way, with a very different Doctor. It’s something wonderful and strange, and not like any other Doctor Who book. And yet, again, both The Time Monster and Fallen Gods begin with Thera (one as trendy news and a hook, one with the history, even making the famous bull-leaping its keystone image), so that Fallen Gods has two starting points, one declared and ‘real’, one an uncredited Doctor Who story that’s poles apart, and yet it moves them inexorably towards each other. Take a look at The Time Monster’s first major scene in Atlantis, the debates between Hippias and Dalios on how “the blessings our forefathers once enjoyed” were cruelly stolen, to see how both stories grow in stature if you take them together in the right way.

Crystalline, Fallen Gods is a book in which you can see many different sides reflected. I said it has an ecological message; some might barely see it, and yet – in the sense of an ecology as everything taken together, rather than just ‘environmental issues’, this might be the most ecologically minded Doctor Who story of all. And while it tells what is for the most part a cracking good story on its own, just as you’ll get more out of it if you see how it in turn makes The Time Monster something bigger, you’ll most appreciate this novel if you recognise that it takes history and myth and deftly shapes them into a glittering pattern of allegories.

Perhaps the most obvious thing to ‘get’ about this story is that almost everyone in it is a fallen god – the Doctor both literally and metaphorically (there’s a fabulous place for the TARDIS to park, that in itself calls up myths of ancient heroes avoiding the maelstrom). Perhaps the thing that’s most missing from the book is Doctor Who’s sense of fun; true, it starts with a playfulness and sense of wonder, but very soon everyone and everything will have feet of clay, though not all of them will be brought down to Earth. Perhaps the novel’s central concern is with being forced to see the truth and take responsibility – but along the way it deals with blessings and betrayals, guilt and exploitation, and it’s rare for Doctor Who to so agonisingly debate making compromises. You might read it at any time and see an allegory of colonialism; knowing it was published in 2003, it’s obvious that much of it is informed by 9/11; yet if you were told it came out last month, it would seem just as clearly a commentary on the deficit.

So this is a Greek tragedy. Very serious, very stylised (and, you might say, everyone’s wearing masks – except one). While it’s written for Paul McGann’s Doctor of the books, I can still more easily imagine him as Christopher Eccleston, consumed by but hiding his guilt and responsibility, taking on an ‘apprentice’ while really longing for something else, and not really being to her what she thinks he is as he diverts her future and uses her past (with the priestesses, it always makes me think of the empty horror of The Tombs of Atuan). Still more than in Season 14, he’s explicitly Prometheus here, but more complex, a figure not just of gifts but of sex (one of many things she might think of him that might not be) and betrayal.

The first half of the novel, as you spiral closer and closer into the mystery until the appalling moment where you suddenly realise what’s going on, is certainly the stronger. Written in five parts, the key moment, when your jaw drops, is the end of Two. Utterly chilling, utterly brilliant, nothing afterwards matches it and perhaps some of the latter passages might have been trimmed, though admittedly what for me is the overly repetitive torture-anger-atonement sequence is really much shorter than it feels. It’s how the characters react to it all that keeps the drama flowing: the Doctor and how he changes things, from fashioning weapons to what turn out to be his two apprentices; the Fallen themselves (I’m not sure I buy their origin, but they’re used brilliantly); and virtually all the scenes with King Rhadamanthys are fascinating. He feels like a powerfully effective king (in all the good and the bad ways), while the Doctor teaching the King’s two sons brings a lot out of all concerned – the Doctor thinks he’s giving them something to think about, whereas in fact…

It may not be easy to find a copy of Fallen Gods, but look for it if you can. It takes both The Time Monster and Greek myth and asks, ‘If these were true, what would they mean?’ And it makes both great and terrible, rejecting easy rage and easy answers, but ending in redemption, of a sort. Because it has to. If you’ve never seen The Time Monster, you can enjoy Fallen Gods without knowing it. If that means you never have to watch The Time Monster, that may be preferable! But, much as they may fall at opposite ends of the Doctor Who quality range, like all the best prequels – or, more accurately, reimaginings – I think you’re best knowing The Time Monster first, then riding the winds of time back through Fallen Gods to find both are the richer for it.

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Comments:
I love The Time Monster. Sure, it's a mess, but it has that lovely moment at the end where Benton appears naked, and the Brigadier looks him up and down... Feeds into my Doris = post-op Benton fanon.

AND it's got Cousin Di in it.
 
It takes all sorts - I'm very fond of the Nimon...

And I suppose Benton naked looks more convincing than Hippias.

And is she? As the Minotaur, or what?
 
Only just found this review... Thanks, Alex, it's wonderful to know that the book worked so well for you! I only hope I'll be able to write something that powerful again some day...

--jon
 
My pleasure, Jon. Glad you enjoyed the review - I wonder how much of it was your head, and how much just in mine...? I'd have put in more analysis still, but reading it back I was clearly in one of my more spoilerphobic moods. I hope some people managed to find a copy to justify that ;)
 
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