Thursday, June 21, 2012

 

What Doctor Who – The New Adventures Mean To Us: Alex

Twenty-one years old today, the New Adventures were, and are, one of the greatest eras of Doctor Who. There are, I think, three crucial reasons. At the time for the series, they were a lifeline for Doctor Who after the TV show was cancelled, continuing, innovating, reaching into the future with authors like Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies; at the time for me, I was going through a period of explosive change and they act as milestones for me along the way; and, more importantly still, they were brilliant at the time – and they still are.

Doctor Who’s Lifeline

The first New Adventure was published on June 20th, 1991. A year and a half earlier, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor and Sophie Aldred’s Ace had walked off into the sunset at the end of Survival, the last Doctor Who TV story of the original run. And then Virgin Publishing saw them walk back into the TARDIS for what turned out to be sixty-one New Adventures (fewer with Ace, more without the Doctor).

I was probably the perfect audience for the New Adventures; part of probably the second generation of Doctor Who fans, I’d always followed both the TV series and the Target novelisations – since I was three and five respectively, a decade and a half by then – and with both versions of Doctor Who equally important to me, with no new TV stories what could be more natural than to continue the Doctor’s travels on the page?
“When is a lightning bolt not a lightning bolt?”
The first three books were all written by established novelisers for the Target range (which had itself by the end been taken over by Virgin, establishing a continuing thread from 1973 into the new books): John Peel, Nigel Robinson and, most importantly, Terrance Dicks. For the more conservative fans – and I started off more towards that direction – it was reassuring that the second novel was written by Terrance Dicks (then the grand middle-aged man of Who, writing for the seventh of seven Doctors), giving his blessing. It was also a help that Terrance’s Timewyrm: Exodus was clearly the best of the three, as well as notably experimental in its time-hopping. Within the next few books published, outstanding TV authors from the Sylvester McCoy era had joined the range – Marc Platt, Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch (with a new book out today that’s set to be another bestseller) – to make it clear that this was taking up where the TV series had left off with the BBC’s official stamp, all three not just providing continuity but driving on with the books’ original tagline of “Full-length, original novels, too broad and too deep for the small screen”.

But what really kept these Doctor Who stories exciting and made them the most brilliant, influential and coherent continuation of Doctor Who between 1989 and 2005 was the extraordinary influx of eager new writers, most writing their first novels, full of ideas, determined to make an impression. Kate Orman, Andy Lane, Jim Mortimore – and people who have worked on the TV series since its return in 2005 like Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell and Simon Winstone. Even, towards the end, a book each from the two biggest creative forces behind the next two big waves of Doctor Who – Lawrence Miles and Russell T Davies.
“Everything is history, if you look at it from the right perspective.”
Nothing dates like “New”, and it’s a bit startling to think that when they began I was a few months away from turning twenty, and now they’ve just turned twenty-one. I remember Paul Cornell at a signing about five years ago exclaiming with a shock that they’ve yellowed and started to smell like old books. But though it seems odd to look back from more than half my life ago at “New”, they still justify the title for always keeping the series going forward, rather than just dwelling comfortably on Doctor Who ‘as it used to be’ – because it never used to be just unoriginal, repetitive and comforting. The New Adventures opened up new vistas; I didn’t always like them, but I realised that when Doctor Who can go anywhere and do anything, it can’t sit still. Fans talked about Doctor Who’s own version of the Political Compass, with “Rads” vs “Trads”, “Frocks” vs “Guns”, and I found myself opening up with the NAs from Trad-Gun tastes to preferring Rad-Frocks. From the start, the New Adventures favoured story arcs before Babylon 5 made them fashionable, and as they increased in breadth and confidence they told cyberpunk future histories, turned the series inside-out with a new, old mythology and introduced the series’ defining companion, archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield, then later the Thirtieth Century police officers blond, heroic Chris Cwej and grumpy Xhosa aristocrat Roz Forrester, all with the Daleks seeming more powerful than ever by never appearing but always casting their shadow across the stories. And, yes, the books came to define their own clichés (Ace shooting and shagging, Benny drinking, Sylv’s angst and killer eyes, and lots of Kate Bush), yet they remain one of the series’ most creative ever periods. And traditionalists and radicals, Target-lovers and experimenters were all part of the same run, all playing in the same sandbox, and that made the series so much stronger striking out into the future.

Part of My Lifetime

The New Adventures are a far more evocative memory for me than any other non-TV Doctor Who line, in part because for me they were so much better than any other, and in part because of the time they spanned, a uniquely transitional few years in my life. From Tom through to Sylv on TV, the stories are powerful memories but the setting usually at my parents’ in Stockport; from Chris to Matt so far on TV, the stories are powerful memories but the setting almost without exception with Richard in our Isle of Dogs flat. But the NAs summon up memories of the bookshops where I bought them (Colchester where I studied, or didn’t, London for politics or partners, strangely often the WH Smiths at Liverpool Street Station as I travelled in between), of starting to mix with fans, and much more so of university, people or politics. And as I spent a lot of my time at uni hitch-hiking up and down the country to help out the Liberal Democrats at by-elections back when I still had the health to do it, many NAs for me crystallise into reading them late at night while crashing on people’s floors in between days of leafleting and canvassing in different campaigns.
“You mean I’m dead?”
“…Oxygen starvation, brought about from finding yourself on the moon having believed the place to be Norfolk. I do believe that’s unique.”
So amongst the most vivid memories for me – among many others – are Timewyrm: Revelation in Lancaster for a few days with a brief fling; being frightened by Doctor Who for the first time since 1977 by Nightshade in a very tall, very dark room at friends’ in Portsmouth; Deceit at the Newbury by-election; Lucifer Rising in my physical office and at the end of my term of office as a students’ union President, sometimes surreptitiously, under the desk, because I’d much rather be reading a brilliant Who book than organising a handover; White Darkness at the Christchurch by-election; Shadowmind in East London, as my then relationship was breaking up; Conundrum at a local by-election in rural St Neot’s; Theatre of War at the Eastleigh by-election; a god-awful hitch-hike to Bradford South with only All-Consuming Fire to keep me warm in long, lonely hours stuck outside service stations along the way; St Anthony’s Fire being a very disappointing book but still a vividly exciting memory of finding my way on bus round the Isle of Dogs as I started going out with Richard (or, as I’m sure he’d prefer me to remember, reading the far better The Also People in what was by then our flat); Christmas on a Rational Planet in a coach back from giving a speech in Utrecht, having forced myself to put it to one side and write the speech on the way there; Damaged Goods at the Wirral South by-election and around Merseyrail; The Dying Days in short breaks as I was being driven from place to place as the candidate myself, strangely appropriate as a finale, in Stevenage on General Election day, then late at night when I should have been getting a nap in before the count…

Brilliant

My favourite eras of Doctor Who have long been Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s, my first and still the best, then discovering William Hartnell’s early days… And the New Adventures, most of all as they really get into their stride from about 1994-96. There’s much more Who that I love – 1978, 1980-81, 1989, 2005, 2007 all spring to mind; oh, really, the whole lot of it – but those are the benchmarks for quality I keep returning to. With the New Adventures in particular, I can simply think of more terrific books from that range than I can from all the other book ranges put together. Every set of books has its ups and downs, but the NAs were both unambiguously the Doctor’s continuing adventures and fortuitously had more consistent depth and inspiration than any other non-TV line of Who.
“‘In that case,’ said Bernice, ‘I’ll have an exaggerated sexual innuendo with a dash of patriot’s spirit and extra mushrooms. Roz?’
“‘I’ll have the same,’ said Roz. ‘But with an umbrella in it.’
“‘Coming right up,’ said the table.”
A few years ago, I wrote a series of short pieces on Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant? Several New Adventures featured prominently. We hope to be reviewing the whole range in time – that’s the plan – but in lieu of you reading every NA to discover for yourself how brilliant they are (though you should), here are a few of the standouts, should you happen across them in your local second-hand bookshop:

Loved or hated, the New Adventures were massively important; neither the BBC Books Doctor Who line that took over from them nor Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios would be around without them, and the TV series that returned, had it returned at all, would probably look very different. I loved these groundbreaking adventures that dragged Doctor Who into the ’90s and cast the Doctor as “Time’s Champion”, the books becoming his own champions striding into an exciting future.
“At the far end of the street, hostile armed men came to the party, and twenty minutes passed.”
Richard and I were both in the middle of following and loving the New Adventures when we met and fell in love with each other, so the NAs have an even more special place in our hearts. We started re-reading them this time last year, starting each New Adventure all over again on its twentieth birthday; for the series’ twenty-first today, we’re starting this new blog to look at them all in turn.


This is cross-posted from Richard’s and my new blog, Time’s Champions, a day later – so, happy -528th birthday, Bernice Summerfield!


You can read Richard’s heartfelt paean to the New Adventures here.


Incidentally, the new blog’s still very much a work in progress as we decide what to make of it, so should anyone have a Blogger template that looks like the New Adventures front and back cover designs, could you get in touch?

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Comments:
I hope you enjoy revisiting the New Adventures. I recently completed the same on my blog and have no moved on to the markedly less enjoyable Eighth Doctor Adventures.
 
Thank you very much, and I agree with you about both ;) Though at least you read a brilliant one recently...

We've started discussing Timewyrm: Genesys, so with luck it'll be up within the week or so. Just finding the time! And I hope you enjoy revisiting our writing when we've done more of it.
 
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