Saturday, 9 January 2010
"One heart, soon to meet its twin"
Review: THE MAN IN THE VELVET MASK
Missing Adventure novel written by Daniel O'Mahony, 1996
Given its reputation, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is Doctor Who’s equivalent of Pasolini’s Salò. But no (no-one eats poo here, for one thing) – although there is an appropriately depraved tone to this novel, given that it features the Marquis de Sade as this week’s historical personage. (No-one seems to have really picked up on the fact that this book is Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Marquis de Sade! How fabulously horrifying is that? That le 6 is one of the most likeable characters in the book gives you some idea of what to expect.)
Here we have a murder machine, clockwork automata, rapists, killers, murderous rituals, and a hideous plan to weaken the population’s self-control with the introduction of maggot carriers – not to mention the ever-present drizzle and mud. Yes, you wouldn’t want every book to be like this, but, despite its depravity, it really is excellent. “It’s just… pain and sex and death,” Dodo says at one point, and that pretty much sums this book up.
O’Mahony is one of Doctor Who’s best writers – to the extent of almost being too good for the series (like maybe Cartmel or Aaronovitch’s New Adventures). This is a literary and darkly poetic work; while it may smack slightly of student angst at times, this doesn’t seem inappropriate given its twisted French Revolution setting (the recurrence of which is intriguing and seems appropriate to the First Doctor’s era). Besides, he went on to write the staggering Telos novella The Cabinet of Light and the Faction Paradox novel Newtons Sleep (which in some ways reads like a more detailed and complete version of this novel) – both of which I couldn’t recommend more. (Falls the Shadow was shit though; too confused to be effective.)
What I like best here is that this is in no way a rehash of its given era. (Who wants to be bound by that sort of reductive attitude anyway? That’s what DVDs are for.) I love seeing familiar elements pushed beyond their screen confines – though equally I can see why this novel didn’t go down well with those expecting something ‘traditional’. Personally I feel that while past Doctor stories should fit into a given slot, continuity-wise, what’s really important is that the characters remain true to their characteristics, no matter how unprecedented a situation the author might place them in. As for authors deliberately replicating capture-escape shenanigans, or mimicking Hartnell’s TV absences – what the hell is that!? Written Doctor Who shouldn’t replicate the exact approach of the series – it’s a different medium, for god’s sake!
One of the joys of Doctor Who’s ‘expanded universe’ is authors making the effort to rehabilitate ineffective elements from the series, rather than rehashing the popular parts. No-one needs more of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, or the Second and Jamie, because their stories worked in the first place!
Dodo exemplifies this approach. Amazingly, given her nondescript on-screen appearances, her voice feels strikingly accurate. Her thoughts are convincingly insecure too: she is variously described – often by herself – as having bad teeth, and being spotty, pudgy, and dull. Strangely, this insecurity makes her likeable, and she actually seems like a real person (fortunately without idealising her, or giving her an ‘edgy’ history of child abuse or mental illness). It is great to see that she is actually affected by the events of The Ark, Steven’s departure, and that she is aware she’ll soon be leaving the Doctor. It’s also quite appallingly twisted (but almost perversely sweet) for Dodo to willingly accept Minski’s infection, so as to remember her lover in this world.
I like Dodo here (almost to the extent of feeling bad that she’s homeless, unbalanced, and shot dead in Who Killed Kennedy!), and rereading this novel makes me wish ‘Viet Cong!’, O’Mahony’s planned follow-up, a “freewheeling black comedy new wave historical set in 1916” (!) had got to see the light of day.
The Doctor’s characterisation is sparer, but equally authentic, while his progressive frailty is a fascinating take on a usually infallible hero. He is particularly effective in opposition to the grotesque Minski, Sade’s dwarfish adoptive son – a callous, cherubic child with the voice of an adult (a memorably hideous image). The Doctor’s disgust at and refusal to rest on the female guards Minski uses as human furniture at one point, is rather wonderful.
It’s such a shame this novel was popularly dismissed (despite the largely positive reviews on sites like the Ratings Guide. A mark of its quality is that even when the relatively minor character Bressac dies, you are – unusually – made to feel the magnitude of his death, in a way most authors wouldn’t devote any time to. Things feel oxymoronically real in his novel (considering this is not only Doctor Who we’re talking about, but an anathema Alternate World!), thanks to O’Mahony’s depth and perception as an author.
Heinously, this came last in a nineties DWM poll of the Missing Adventure novels (while the equally gorgeous Transit languished at the bottom of the New Adventures list). Tsk. It’s depressing when fandom shuns things because they aren’t accessible enough – although I suppose it’s unsurprising: here we have an (unjustifiably!) unpopular Doctor, a flat-out hated companion, not to mention the novel’s generally dark tone.
I’ve never had a problem with a darker tone in Doctor Who – in fact, I love it; the depravity here highlights all the things the Doctor stands against. Despite the way the sixties are often looked down upon as being quaint, it doesn’t seem at all odd to see the First Doctor exposed to these things – after all, I would argue he is one of the most adult and convincing of all the Doctors. Seeing him struggling by himself in this horrific world, you rally for him all the more.
The Man in the Velvet Mask is bleak, unpleasant – and beautiful. I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t so po-faced as to think Doctor Who shouldn’t be allowed to stretch its boundaries.