Friday, 22 June 2012

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

In my house, I have a room full of books.

I know, that’s a huge luxury. I certainly appreciate it after years of squeezing untidy piles of books into any space I could find in pokey flats. We’re lucky, the house we’ve rented has a small spare room, and we’ve turned it into a library.

The reason for me having so many books, the collection ebbing and flowing over the years, is Doctor Who. Oh sure, my parents taught me to read with books about anthropomorphised badgers, and self-important puffed-up steam trains. I enjoyed them. They were fun. But they never truly fired my imagination.

Then one day in the school library, aged about seven, I picked up a book based on a TV show I quite enjoyed – something called Doctor Who and the Daemons. I tore through it in hours, I reread it, and begged my cash-strapped mother to buy me more. She obliged, and thanks to the prose of Barry Letts, I developed a lifelong passion for reading. That one book probably shaped my literary tastes for life - science fiction; occultism; horror; humour. And most of all, that errant, Earth-loving Time Lord, the Doctor.

So what does this have to do with my room of books? Said room is, obviously, blessed with quite a preponderance of Who-related literature. But pride of place is given – as it always was even in the pokiest of flats – to my complete collection of Doctor Who: The New Adventures.

I tend not to go back to reading the old Target novelisations of the TV Who stories – we now have the luxury, unimagined when I was a child, of being able to watch them at any time on shiny disc. That’s a shame in some ways, as Terrance Dicks’ clever, economical prose conjures up imaginary vistas in the mind that a 1970s BBC budget could never compete with. But the New Adventures? I still reread those even now, a whole fifteen years after the last one was published. These original stories never appeared on TV; never had BBC budget constraints; the monsters were real monsters, not men in rubber suits or badly scaled models with a flaring yellow chromakey outline. The New Adventures existed solely in the imagination. I loved them. And it’s fair to say, they played a huge part in making me the person I became.

Virgin started publishing them in 1991. It was the year after I left university, and I was starting to ask myself whether my love for a creaky old television show was something I really should have outgrown at the age of 21. Doctor Who on television had finished two years before, and despite some flickers of a growing sophistication with stories like The Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light, it was already feeling to me like a childish thing I should put away.

Then I happened on the first of the New AdventuresTimewyrm: Genesys – in the local WH Smith. “Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen”, it said on the back. Intrigued, I picked it up and read it within a day. And actually, on that first showing, I wasn’t too impressed. It was nice to continue the story of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, pretty much from where we’d left them, with ‘adult’ lashings of sex and violence. But I didn’t warm to John Peel’s prose style.

I might have stopped then and there. But I’m a sucker for sequels, and next month, Smiths had another one on the shelf. Timewyrm: Exodus. And it was by none other than the legendary Terrance Dicks, the man who’d held me spellbound, nose in a book, for most of my childhood. This one too I read in a day – but this time I was enthralled. Nazis! Time monsters! The Doctor actually having to help Adolf Hitler! All told in Terrance’s usual gripping, page-turning style, but free of Target’s constraints about violence, sexuality and drugs. So thanks – once again – to Uncle Terrance, I was hooked.

From then on, even though my employment then was patchy at best, I religiously picked up the New Adventures every month. And found Doctor Who maturing with me, into a complex universe of time and space that greatly expanded on the times, the places and the people I knew from the TV. The portrayal of the Doctor as a complex, sometimes dark and manipulative but still wise figure evolved; Ace grew from the not-entirely-realistic working class teenager I’d seen on TV to a character of real complexity, full of rage, bitterness but still capable of tenderness under her hard shell.

Along the way, I met a whole new gaggle of authors, many of them finding print for the first time. Obviously it was great to have old hands like Terrance on board, but even as early as the fourth book I fell completely in love with the work of Paul Cornell. Timewyrm: Revelation was full of pop culture references, philosophy, theology and downright surrealism, all mixed in with a depth of emotion unheard of in Doctor Who before. These felt like real people. I cared about them. I cared what happened to them – even the one-shot guest characters.

Paul it was, too, who invented the books’ first original companion, who was an instant role model for me – even if she was a woman. Sarcastic, hard-drinking fake archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield is one of the series’ lasting legacies; fan readers of all kinds fell instantly in love with her. Always ready to prick pomposity and pretention (even her own), Bernice’s adventures threaded through those of the Doctor’s for almost all of those magical six years. She continues even now, incarnated perfectly by Lisa Bowerman, in Big Finish’s audio range – in fact, the company started out with her adventures long before it had permission to actually feature the Doctor. That’s how good Paul Cornell is at creating a character.

More than anyone, Paul, for me, defined the flavour of the New Adventures. Depth; believable characters; emotion; beautiful prose. And he managed to establish that as early as book number four of the series. Thanks to Paul, I had my eyes opened to cyberspace, to paganism, to the mind-expanding (and responsible) use of recreational drugs. And most of all to alternative sexualities.

I’d always been a liberal – I think most Who fans find their politics shaped that way by the show’s hero. So I had no problem accepting the ‘other’. But in the asexual world of TV Who, there was no frame of reference for sexuality. I’d spent my entire teenage years managing to hide from my own sexuality, even while being accepting of others. It pains me to say it, but I must have, on some level, been ashamed of the fact that I was gay, and unwilling to acknowledge it even to myself, despite the mounting evidence.

The New Adventures were a major factor in changing all that, in particular Paul Cornell’s. The future worlds he painted, where sexuality was fluid and gender never an issue, seemed revolutionary to me then. Love and War in particular, with its omnisexual pagans and liberal attitudes, was the beginning of me thinking that my sexuality might be nothing to be ashamed of. Might, in fact, be a little bit cool. It was published in 1992. That was the year I came out of the closet, first to myself, then to my friends, and finally to my family. So, belatedly – thanks, New Adventures.

The books continued to open my eyes, and plenty more were as good as Paul’s. Kate Orman’s The Left Handed Hummingbird hit me hard with its mixture of misanthropy and hope. Mark Gatiss’ Nightshade was a forerunner of all his work since, with its blend of gothic horror, humour and nostalgia. Andy Lane’s All Consuming Fire set me on a lifelong love affair with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The ever-unpredictable Lawrence Miles baffled my brain with Christmas on a Rational Planet, which felt like TS Eliot had taken to writing Who novels. And some chap called Russell T Davies wrote one – Damaged Goods – set on a grimy London council estate, mixing working class characters, several of them gay, with a twisted alien menace. The characters and dialogue were first rate, but the ending didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Imagine that…

In the mid-90s, I finally moved to London, and like any fan at the time, I started going to the Fitzroy Tavern. And it was there that I started to meet these mystical, godlike people who were ‘authors’. And guess what? They turned out to be just like anyone else. Not in a bad way; some were wonderful people, some not, some neither. I was surprised to find that Paul Cornell wasn’t a dreadlocked hippy pagan; he was actually a quite dapper young Christian. And a really friendly, welcoming chap too. The late Craig Hinton was the sort of guy who makes you feel so at ease with him that we were telling each other dirty jokes within five minutes of meeting. And Lawrence Miles was exactly as you’d expect – determinedly eccentric and provocative, but with a wicked sense of humour.

The New Adventures have pride of place in my room of books. I still reread them. Some, with their hip, up to the minute pop culture references to the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays, seem a bit dated now. But never less than enjoyable. Look down the spines, yellowing a little now after years of being in smoky rooms, and you can tell which ones I liked best; their spines are creased and a little cracked from all the re-reading. They made Doctor Who grow up right alongside me, and shaped my personality and my philosophy along the way. Into, I hope, a better person than the one I was.

Simon Fernandes blogs at Simon’s incoherent blog.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant - brings back memories of driving down to bournemouth in the early 90's just to get my fix of audio / video of "who" because I loved the idea of it all

    If you you can, I say "live the dream"