Friday, 12 March 2010

"Our troops will flood your rivers with the discarded shells of their nut rations!"

New Adventure novel written by Paul Cornell, 1996

I adore the New Adventures novels, and though I realise a lot of that’s nostalgia for an adult-oriented take on Doctor Who, and for the manipulative, charming, morally conflicted Seventh Doctor – and Benny, Chris and Roz – the series forms one of my favourite (and formative) periods of Doctor Who. Equally, I do appreciate how shit a lot of the (especially earlier) books were. At best though, I love their intelligence, emotion, and that they didn’t have to bend over backward to accommodate a mainstream audience – at least when their basis in fandom was characterised by the understanding and investigation of the series displayed by Cartmel, Aaronovitch, and Orman, rather than a devolution into fanwank. Those are the authors I love best – the ones who can genuinely write, not the fan-pleasing ones like Gary Russell, Gareth Roberts or, yes, Paul Cornell.

Cornell’s righteous, right-on ‘bleeding heart liberal’ standpoint bugs the hell out of me, even if my sympathies (ie, environmental) are probably quite similar. With this novel’s little references to a late twentieth century environmental collapse, it’s all a little holier than thou and finger-wagging. (Not to mention his mystical, spiritual approach to the British seasons and country village.) Also, Cornell’s characters are all terribly, terribly nice, even the bad or questionable ones – which, in this book, amounts to a whopping two, Hamlet Macbeth and Alec Steel.

Having bashed Cornell - and despite never having liked his writing - though I feel I should hate this sort of indulgent romp, while Happy Endings may not be representative, it is a worthy celebration of the NAs. Based entirely around Bernice’s rush wedding to the dissolute Jason Kane from Death and Diplomacy, such an unashamedly fun and silly novel is inevitably never going to be seen as an ‘important’ story. But, it is still a million times better than the convoluted, po-faced, and surprisingly emotionally cold Shadows of Avalon (say). In fact, though I used to have a soft spot for this book way back when (Jesus, 1996 is a looong time ago), revisiting it as part of my mammoth Oxfam haul, I wasn’t sure what to expect – but I actually found it a great deal more likeable than even Love and War or (the novel version of) Human Nature. Perhaps because of their more serious intentions, Cornell’s ‘signature’ stories expose his prose limitations. He seems to have an unexpectedly surer touch at comedy – for example in the scenes told from the alternating, and clashing perspectives of Benny and Dr Watson’s respective diaries.

Having said this is a fun romp, it’s unfortunate that anyone who isn’t up to speed with the NAs (ie, particularly anyone who came to Doctor Who through the new series) would be as baffled as a casual viewer stumbling upon The Stolen Earth’s inclusion of Gwen, Ianto, Luke, et al. (And that’s even if they could even find a copy.) It’s so (deliberately) heavy with NA references and characters and loose ends that it’d probably be impenetrable. Although… as a kid, it was fun for precisely that reason, being able to launch myself into all this stuff I didn’t understand.

Not being an active completist (there’s loads of NAs I have no interest in bothering with) a lot of the characters here are still a bit of a mystery to me, or my only experience of them comes from this book (eg, the Ice Lord Savaar). But, in spite of a lot still going over my head, the book feels charmingly rather than disconcertingly full – there’s a lot of substance to the world the NAs created, which is very distinct from any other strand of Doctor Who. Something never equalled by, say, the Eighth Doctor BBC books – even down to references to NA future-history in the form of the Thousand Day War with Mars, or that this story is set in a period of recovery after the grim cyberpunk dystopia of Warhead and Iceberg is a pleasing link.

The whimsy of numerous aliens and time-travellers visiting a country village - especially for something as innocuous as a wedding - could be awfully twee, but fortunately it is very likeable. The nudity and shagging that’s thrown in helps, too.

Along for the ride (so to speak – not necessarily the shagging) are a chuckling Master; Saul the sentient church; Ace (aka Dorothée Sorin-McShane – who I definitely prefer in small doses, as in these later books); a particularly sardonic, centenarian Brigadier, along with Doris, and an elderly Benton and Yates; Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; an Ice Warrior battlecraft; a unicorn; William Blake; Muldwych; a couple of gay Earth Reptile lounge singers; Leonardo da Vinci; the Travellers from Love and War; Audrey McShane; Kadiatu, with aM!xitsa disguised as an owl; two oversize gerbil reporters; Ishtar Hutchings (formerly the Timewyrm); Nathan Li Shou and Sgloomi Po (“Is maximum English muffin! Oh yes!”); Irving Braxiatel; and the Isley Brothers. Oh, and a couple of old, Dutch, lesbian dressmakers.

It’s so pleasing, meeting old friends again (though I hate it when Russell T Davies does it… repeatedly… because that’s not for a laugh; and just feels cheap and rating-hungry), and Cornell juggles the massive cast really well, so the book’s plotlessness doesn’t feel aimless. It’s surprisingly welcome to have a Doctor Who story with such a languid pace; a story set in the Doctor Who world, among recognisable, well-loved characters, but with no real conflict or plot getting in the way. (Notably, the setting of Cheldon Bonniface might as well be The Tides of Time’s Stockbridge, albeit with a Battlefield-like near-future veneer of an agricultural ‘Reconstruction,’ and (inconspicuous) references to automated night trains, electric cars and ten pound coins.)

Equally welcome is the conceit of one of the Doctors most capable of both humanity, but also one of the most alien, trying to do something as down to earth as organise a wedding in such a genteel environment - something that he doesn’t really understand. It’s a wonderful contrast to the often tedious insistence of the modern series to operate at a syncopated pace, to see the Doctor act as peacemaker between the bickering couple, providing plates of scones, taking the vicar out for an Italian meal, and even indulging in a nudist pagan ceremony. It’s those quieter, more down to earth moments (well, compared to Saving The Universe) that the Doctor is afforded in the novels that make me really miss them. They’re so much more rounded than the series’ insistence on unremitting crowd-pleasing.

The Seventh Doctor, the ‘odd little man’ – definitely an unusual hero – reminds me how much I prefer that approach to the Doctor, rather than a more predictable, young, good-looking, energetic, emotionally-entangled one in the mould of David Tennant. There is certainly something to be said for all those attributes, but it’s just so mundane, for the Doctor – he should be better, more interesting, less predictable than that. Cornell has an obvious love for the character which really lifts him above an often nothingy (or out and out bastard) portrayal in some of the more amateurish NAs. The tactility of his relationship with Benny and their obvious affection is lovely too.

Cornell is good at humour and emotion – the other stuff’s a bit blah – which is good, as that’s what this book comprises. It’s arch and quite postmodern, in the way a lot of the lighter NAs were – maybe that’s quite nineties, but it’s also very funny; lots of fairly filthy innuendo and deadpannery. And in spite of all that, the more typical Doctor Who plot elements, when they emerge, hang together almost unfeasibly well. The whole thing’s rather unfeasible, in fact – including the amount of enjoyment I derived from it. The book may revolve around a massive fan contrivance, but is more fun and less ‘unhealthy’ than that implies, just by being so unapologetically straightforward about it – it isn’t a tortuous sequel, just loads of memorable characters bunged into one place. The sheer reliance on past books for its cast (but not plot) makes recognising them all – or not – part of the joke. It even comes with a poem, a song, and cricket match!

The whole thing feels like a fun, throwaway joke – a big, silly wedding with loads of faces from the past – which’d be easy to dismiss as an apocryphal Dimensions in Time-like frivolity… But, actually, it really works, because with its energy, and the sheer amount of people (especially in the multi-author reception chapter) – it actually feels like what a real wedding should be like, and as such, doesn’t feel out of place in the series. And I actually felt very (emotionally) involved (ie, the Doctor’s plan to leave all his companions and slip off) - Cornell is very good at writing for the Brigadier, so the scene where he admits he’s dying is very moving. It manages to balance a refreshing lack of cynicism with a surprisingly realistic view of relationships.

All in all, Happy Endings can’t help but make me feel how tragic it is that the New Adventures never have or will be reprinted, so they only mean anything to one generation, and despite their influence, will be forgotten. However, the NA world may be a niche within a niche, but… it doesn’t mean any less for that. For what it’s worth, I love it.

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