Saturday, 3 July 2010
Review: WHO KILLED KENNEDY
Missing Adventure novel written by David Bishop, 1996
A relatively obscure Doctor-lite Missing Adventure novel from fourteen years ago might seem a strange choice to review straight after the dizzy heights of a brand new series. But then, that’s why I like the novels, as they offer a more tangential approach to Doctor Who than the series ever can. In that way, they’re a satisfying counterpoint to the on-screen adventures - which almost by definition have to be far more broadly accessible.
Frustratingly, then, I haven’t read any Doctor Who novels in ages – not deliberately, just because of lack of time. Which, upsettingly, is why I left Doctor Who behind back in the nineties, because I felt I was missing out on so many other amazing books and films. So, since getting back into it, I’ve tried to alternate with ‘real’ novels (if you will), so I don’t burn myself out on it, or feel like I’m denying myself more varied things too.
There’s so much I want to enjoy though, Doctor Who-wise: at the moment alone I still have a big proportion of a 30-plus Oxfam novel haul to get through; I really want to reread the collected DWM strips to date; old DWMs I’ve eBayed from after I stopped buying them; and re-listen to several sixties audio soundtracks (I tend to listen to them at night, with the inherent danger of falling asleep and not giving them the attention they deserve).
It’s the novels that seem most important to me though. The Virgin series especially – at their best – represents Doctor Who at its most ‘right,’ for me. It upsets me, actually, how they are becoming more and more forgotten – even that they’ll never be reprinted and will gradually fall apart (which seems unfair considering they kept the series going, and their continued influence on the revived TV series; I really wish more could find their way online, for posterity).
In a way, I think that’s why I write these reviews, to sort of commemorate the books I feel are worthwhile, cos they mean so much to me!
Therefore, it’s really nice coming back to a book I read in the past but don’t have a huge memory of.
Who Killed Kennedy, while an aberration in published Doctor Who fiction, is a fascinating one, following journalist James Stevens on an investigation that takes in the events and cover-ups of various UNIT-era stories. With even on-screen, irrefutably ‘canon’ stories like Love and Monsters viewing the Doctor’s adventures from an oblique angle, it’s easy to overlook how radical and unprecedented Who Killed Kennedy’s outsider perspective was, and it’s actually much more successful that you might be given to expect. (I like the idea of viewing this as a Third Doctor era ‘Doctor-lite’ story. In fact, the replaying of events from recent adventures from an everyman, outsider context is present, particularly, in both Love and Monsters and Turn Left.)
There’s something about contextualising the outlandish events of Doctor Who within the default ‘real world’ setting it always returns to which I find really interesting. Having the events of The War Machines (C-day), Spearhead from Space (Black Thursday) – et al – mentioned alongside Asian flu, the fall of the Wilson government, or the death of Charles De Gaulle, is therefore rather wonderful, especially as these sorts of things never really impinge on the Doctor’s world.
Not only that, but seen from the point of view of reporter James Stevens, and grounded in the context of a life involving drink, sex, affairs, and divorce – creates a persuasive dichotomy. (And isn’t as jarring as it could easily be, perhaps because a realistic approach is brought even to characters like usually anonymous UNIT rookies like Private Cleary, whose letters bring to life a usually overlooked position. I always feel – especially given my appreciation for the NAs’ adult approach – that though sex and swearing and other ‘unsavoury’ activities don’t feature in televised Doctor Who, it’s not that they don’t exist in that world, just that we’re not permitted to see them; a viewpoint which David Bishop realises nicely here.)
Obviously the NAs put sex and drugs into Doctor Who, but they were dealing with the on-going adventures of the then-current Doctor; having such realism applied to a past era is unusual, and surprisingly doesn’t feel ‘wrong’. Whereas – in the first of possibly many comparisons with Gary Russell’s The Scales of Injustice – shoving some violence into a typical Third Doctor story just doesn’t work, and shows how facile that approach is. (Incidentally, I’ll be posting a review/defamation of Scales at some point.)
Subtle nods to Doctor Who tropes like Metropolitan magazine and a pre-digital BBC3 also show a relative subtlety unknown to the Gary Russells of this world, which help blur the boundaries between reality and the earth of Doctor Who. Even interviews with characters like Greg Sutton or Ralph Cornish don’t feel overdone – I guess because, in the context of a journalistic investigation, it makes sense they’d be tracked down, whereas Scales arbitrarily namedrops any and all characters imaginable.
(I also particularly liked the justification of the British Mars missions from The Ambassadors of Death within an otherwise recognisable seventies England – linking Ralph Cornish to the leftovers of Tobias Vaughn’s International Electromatics, and thus advanced Cyber-technology. Ooh, neat.)
Stevens’ integration and presence in existing stories is also very elegant and constrained (Spearhead, Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Mind of Evil). This is perhaps because, as Bishop himself was a journalist, it feels as if the concept for an investigation of these UNIT stories’ events was inspired by the pre-existing presence of journalists in those stories, rather than shoehorning these links in later.
The cover-ups Stevens faces, and the conspiracy thriller elements of the book also seem quite believable (or at least believably unpleasant), whereas, watching the stories in question, it’s all too easy to scoff and deride the fact that their events are apparently forgotten next week.
It’s also pleasing to have conspiracy thriller tropes applied to the usually morally black and white Doctor Who world, especially when the Doctor himself and the UNIT family are present in the background (and especially since they are made ambiguous themselves by distance).
Again, this is a less broad approach than in Scales, but to similar ideas, with Bishop taking a more believable and genuinely unpleasant approach (rather than just throwing in the odd arbitrary decapitation). These conspiracy sections might be trashy to an extent – beatings and firebombings – but it is to the author’s credit that, in keeping with this realistic perspective, they are also terrestrial, and don’t veer toward slavering dogs infected with Inferno-ooze, Cyberised villains, or partially-Auton henchmen.
Given that this deals with the first prolonged period of alien activity apparently in the public eye (the UNIT era), tellingly, this book wouldn’t work with regard to the second (the Davies era), because Russell T Davies repeatedly went out of his way to point out the whole world couldn’t possibly avoid this invasion… Only for it to be mentioned once more down the line and then forgotten, with our suspension of disbelief in tatters. At least it does seem conceivable that the events of The Web of Fear could be put down to some kind of tear gas attack.
(I guess this approach to existing Doctor Who stories – presenting them as events within a continuous timeline – could go on for ever; I’d love to see more stories presented in such a way as to believably fit within a near-real world, but it’s probably a blessing that Bishop exercised as much restraint as he did.)
I also particularly liked the idea of the Master’s ‘Victor Magister’ persona being portrayed as a terrorist by the media after the events of The Dæmons, used as a scapegoat for what, from the public PoV we are seeing through Stevens’ eyes, appears to be a spate of terrorist attacks. Having said that, I sort of wish the Master weren’t any more directly involved with the story than this, as it does seem slightly predictable within a UNIT era novel.
However, this is balanced by possibly the bravest element of this book; its use of Dodo. Seeing even such an unloved companion homeless and hopeless following her ignominious departure from the Doctor, is quite horrifying. There is also added pathos given her treatment as a real person in The Man in the Velvet Mask, while, like in that book, it’s kind of sweet that she’s allowed a starring role (especially outside of her era, and over Liz, say). It’s also nice having an earlier companion linked to the mainly UNIT-oriented situation here, making Doctor Who’s twentieth century seem like a coherent whole. It does seem a shame however that, given this novel’s proximity to The Man in the Velvet Mask in the schedules, that more wasn’t done to link them.)
It’s to David Bishop’s credit that a melange of elements including the Master, Dodo Chaplet, Liz Shaw, et al, feels cohesive, and not overly unrestrained.
Some of the journalistic wranglings and access to important and/or convenient contacts seems a bit too easy, but we’ll let that one slide in the name of dramatic licence. The sections toward the end where Stevens is locked up, and comes face to face with the Master (nefariously posing as the Director of the Glasshouse), followed by his all-action escape, and live-television humiliation - while necessary in terms of genre conventions, does seem at odds with the realism previously built up, but I can also forgive this as central to the gradually-building degradation and defamation the character is put through, resulting in not only the murder of ‘the woman he loves’ and their unborn child, but his arrest for said crime.
Stevens really does get put through the ringer in a way that wouldn’t really be achievable with a companion. Although, look at Dodo – at least not during their time with the Doctor, then. Similarly though – as in The Man in the Velvet Glass – Dodo’s fate was probably only sanctioned because of how unloved a character she is. (Can you imagine anything comparable happening to, say, Martha, these days?)
The Master’s dastardly (and, let’s face it, somewhat overcomplicated) plan – which I suppose is true to the character – also jars, though the major letdown is just how unrelated (and unnecessary) the Kennedy assassination seems. It feels very much shoehorned in, especially given the coincidence that Stevens happens to have always been interested in this, which remains nothing more than a coincidence, and doesn’t have any particular significance aside from providing him with the requisite detailed knowledge back in 1963.
Overall, Who Killed Kennedy is an unexpectedly brave formula experiment. Though well done, there isn’t quite enough invention for it to be brilliant, even though it takes an interesting perspective. That it avoids becoming a list recounting the events of various familiar stories is probably the books greatest feat (though there is perhaps – if necessarily – a little too much of this). Most of all though, and not for the first time, this novel makes me wish a similarly experimental series of books were still being published…
Next Time: SILVER NEMESIS