Wednesday, 29 August 2012

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

The role of the New Adventures novels (at last to be given their due, in this blog) and the Missing Adventures ones too (next year perhaps, fellas?) has been underestimated in the history of Doctor Who. Inasmuch as online forums now constitute fan activity, Virgin's novels tend to be defined, if not in opposition to the current TV incarnation, as its ersatz version: they 'carried the torch' during the 'wilderness years', or produced points of continuity to cause trouble for the series now (such as the Doctor's family, or his ability to produce one). Until mentioned onscreen, Wikipedia stresses their 'relationship to the televised serials' to be, primly, 'open to interpretation' (adaptation, in the case of Human Nature, simultaneously acknowledges and elides the original). Amid a bewildering mass of new reference guides, Lars Pearson's I Who remains the sole perspective on these ninety-odd adventures.

And to some extent, it's not hard to see why. Those books are out of print and as tricky to get hold of, for new, interested fans, as TV episodes before VHS. More in-demand titles, such as Lance Parkin's 1996 Cold Fusion, are about as available as 1967's The Evil of the Daleks, without the luxury of a novelisation.

It can't last. Already, a couple of print-on-demand editions of original BBC novels have been made legitimately available. The full force of the ebook hasn't been felt yet. For now, at least, demand isn't high and the books have fallen from fan interest. But just as the Hartnell era was unjustly maligned by fans – and the entire series dismissed by mainstream media – the reputation of these 'TV tie-ins' will, I'm sure, see them as rather more than marginal or imitative.

I look forward to that, and to the NA and MAs' greater availability. I'd like to re-read them myself; I have a modest collection, my original copies having been given away in my late teens, when my perspective on Who was changing. I kept ones I knew I'd re-read, but many had odd associations I wanted to be free of. They reminded me of lonely lunchtimes at school, embarrassing conversations (with friends). I was a child when Timewyrm: Genesys was published, you see. I read most of its sequels during adolescence, when I might have discovered Camus or kissed a few boys.

I find I don't even like to dwell on these times too much. Most of my fan friends are slightly older than me, and these funny little distinguishing experiences feel like a separation from them, a split in community. There are far worse ones in the community of fandom, of course, and that's the point – underlying, there's a sense of belonging there, strengthened by stories rather than experience. Myths and folktales give cohesion to a community, and the NAs and MAs mark a transition. After 1990, Doctor Who ceased to be a story shared via UK popular culture. It was inherited by the smaller community of fandom, and continued – after a fashion – in these books.

At Goodrich primary school, in 1993, I somehow whipped up a small time-storm of belated Who fandom. Ben Miller and Douglas Myers waved imaginary sonic screwdrivers in the playground; Douglas and I wrote an adventure called Cry of the Bogaloids (set on an unfortunate planet inhabited by all the Doctor's adversaries to date). But secondary school was different. Doctor Who was part of my eccentric, out-of-time solitude there. Things like DWM, though, which reviewed and debated and Preluded the NAs, were my link (pre-internet, for me at least) to a sense of community. Vitally, the community was still built on an ongoing story. It was in the junkyard, but it was still humming away to itself. 'It's alive!'

Richard, in his (first) piece for Time's Champions, wonders if it's slightly perverse to turn a kids' TV show into a line of adult-oriented novels. It never seemed strange to me. My Doctor Who experience was mainly on the page: DWM and its back issues, Titan script-books, yellowed Targets, coffee-table books like Timeframe. I saw the TV show in odd instalments, and delighted in it: books weren't up or down the hierarchy, but were perhaps less obscured by the 'production codes' of another time, more immediate. They were also copious and immersive, and could be crammed in a school blazer pocket. And they took the place of YA novels in my reading. They were a peculiar window on what adult life might be like: sex, drugs and all.

And it was fascinating, the whole thing. As a teenage reader, I was both cursed and blessed with the New Adventures. I took in all the bad prose and ludicrous angst, the sequels and evocations before the originals. But there was also beauty and wit, there was a very '90s bohemianism, and a sort of nobility in domestic life. There were queer characters and quests for identity. There was absolute vaulting ambition (at times).

There was also real, testing exploration of what it meant to be the Doctor, or his fan. There was intensive working through of what anxiety he must feel, what the consequences of Doctor Who were. Embarrassing now, perhaps (and only perhaps), but it was necessary for the giddy, uninhibited TV Doctor to return.

Because they were books, the Doctor Who experience changed, became more intimate, sometimes more reflective. Because they were novels, they had to follow lives beyond the immediate adventure. History, culture, and language became important, from the Ka Faraq Gatri via Xhosa to the People: cultural relativism, moral ambiguity, unreliable narrators. Ideas from beyond sci-fi – trickster figures, archetypes, psychology – were integral, and showed how unique Doctor Who is.

I was struck by Richard's description of them as perverse. More often than not, in many ways, they were – or would have seemed it, to the casual browser. The Man in the Velvet Mask, which I read last week, degrades its heroes with total, philosophical conviction. In isolation, it is bizarre – but as a Missing Adventure, it was part of a rigorous, intricate work of criticism and exploration. It was a project that saw the best in continuity. Continuity embellished our hero, who contained multitudes. (The BBC novels would later embrace ambiguity and multiplicity too). We often forget this – the inventing and the unifying – was done here for the first time.

It makes no sense, but before the TV series ended there were no original novel adventures for the Doctor. The closest ancestor is the DWM comic strip, especially under John Ridgway, but the resemblance isn't close. The editors of the NAs chose not to take the beloved, brilliantly successful Target books as their model. They made a TV institution the foundation of something done completely differently, and if what they ended up with was unpalatable to some (and in retrospect I find myself asking: where are the horror stories, the urban fantasy – why isn't Ace a lesbian – why are there so many trained killers about) it doesn't really matter. Doctor Who was proven to transcend format, medium, audience. It didn't survive sixteen years 'in the wilderness' through simply being produced. Without being reduced to formula, something essentially Whoish was searched for, tested, strengthened and celebrated.

Nowadays, Big Finish have their license to produce new stories from the BBC – but the 'license' to do it, confidently playing with the format, going where they like, comes from the New Adventures. We might see that license in some TV Who: TV stories that work like stageplays, movies, video diaries. Stories without the Doctor, or riffing on a good idea from three decades ago. These things are okay so long as it still 'feels like Doctor Who', and Rebecca Levene and Peter Darvill-Evans took risks to show that doesn't mean the furniture or format.

The era of the New and Missing Adventures of Doctor Who is now referred to as the wilderness years, and the image that conjures for me is desolation – emptiness. But in terms of invention and debate, the wilderness of Doctor Who was lush, verdant and full of exotic life. It was a wonderful place to be lost in for a few years. It didn't end with Virgin's books, but I think they opened the way into it...

Nick Campbell blogs at A Pile of Leaves.

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