Monday, 1 November 2010

"I cried out my eyes. They ran down my face like rain"

Given the range’s relative lack of coherence by comparison to the New Adventures, I always have limited expectations for Eighth Doctor Adventures when reading one for the first time. Though I remember Lloyd Rose’s subsequent novel, Camera Obscura, as being good, it didn’t blow me away – so I was doubly unprepared for quite how excellent The City of the Dead proved to be.

There’s no standard feel to the EDAs – you’d be hard-pressed to characterise the ‘archetypal EDA’ in the way you could with the New Adventures. The BBC’s novels suffer from this lack of identity, but books like this one are welcome in showing that they could still produce titles that went very right, whilst also being quite tonally distinct from the NAs.

The two key elements of this book are Rose’s portrayal of its setting, New Orleans, and her instinctive take on the Eighth Doctor. The City of the Dead proves a refreshing reminder of how compelling and distinct Doctor number eight can be when written well (ie, when the much-derided idiot savant routine is avoided). The character has a ‘Romantic’ sensitivity which lends itself to the written page in a way unlike any other incarnation, and this sensitivity is matched by Rose’s handling of the emotional content of the entire novel. I suppose there’s space for the sort of calm moments which are conducive to this portrayal – in a way that is totally absent from the new series Doctors’ characters, which are tailored to fit forty-five minute bursts of mainstream entertainment. By contrast, the Eighth Doctor has been smelted and mainly realised in prose, which has created a casual, shrewd and calm figure.

The Doctor’s characterisation also gains something from the amnesia arc that this book is part of. It was a little after my time first time round, but it doesn’t matter because it is so effective to have no continuity cluttering things up (which was the whole point), and it’s exciting to see the Doctor exploring himself, still discovering the limits of his ability to heal, or not to age. Similarly, though more about the audience these novels were aimed at, it’s equally enjoyable for an author to take the advantage of showing him at, say, a goth party, or able to display knowledge about heroin, or being asked to model naked for a reclusive artist…

Another element of the Doctor which it’d ordinarily be inappropriate to explore, but which these novels’ demographic allows to be addressed, is his sexuality. What’s satisfying about this in relation to the Eighth Doctor specifically is that though there’s a certain childlike element to him, here at least, Rose has him faced with sex without being infantilised by becoming embarrassed by it, or just failing to understanding. In this book, he’s perfectly aware of sex, it just doesn’t mean anything to him.

In one scene he stops a hokey occultist having his wicked way with an acolyte as part of a ceremony, displaying an evident understanding of sex to some extent (eg, effectively saving the girl’s honour). At the same time his actions are motivated from a moral point of view which, though outside of the remit of the series at large, wouldn’t be unfaithful to the way any of the Doctors would act. Later though, it’s implied he has a sexual relationship with Mrs Flood (albeit in the dream world), something rather more unprecedented, and illustrative of the freedoms both this version of the character and the series in general enjoyed.

As for the well-evoked New Orleans setting, its occult underbelly, all museums of magic and cemetery-art traders, is extremely well-suited to a Doctor Who story which errs towards the mysterious and magical. Alongside a wide cast of believably characterised individuals, there are also various medical and historical occult details scattered throughout which make this environment feel convincingly ‘lived’.

As an American-set story with an occult-cum-crime investigation premise, there are (not unwelcome) shades of Alan Ball’s True Blood; a Deep South-set police procedural with supernatural elements. (To a lesser extent, Twin Peaks too, though I’m seeing that in everything at the moment - understated supernatural elements in a domestic American milieu.) I’m slightly ambivalent about the Doctor visiting America – mostly I like it because it’s so contrary to the usual ‘Britishness,’ and in this case it’s welcome slotting the Doctor into uniquely American surroundings where events perhaps couldn’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

It’s a relief that the supernatural/magical elements of the book are approached intelligently, in such a way that acknowledges this is slightly contentious territory within Doctor Who. (Although in all honesty as we aren’t in beardy old men and magic ring territory, the presence of ‘magical’ elements doesn’t make a damn-sight bit of difference to the story at large, aside from bringing a gratifyingly unique feel to proceedings.)

To some extent, the magic here is part of a universe where Gallifrey has been destroyed and effectively never existed, following the events of (shudder) The Ancestor Cell, with ‘magic’ now existing because the Time Lords weren’t around to suppress it. Though, intriguingly, the Doctor appears to be familiar with elementals like the naiad. I have to say, I quite like the use of magic here, as it’s a practise (defined as a manipulation of energy) rather than just leprechauns or unicorns popping up, so it seems to maintain internal logic with Doctor Who at large.

What’s particularly pleasing about the way Rose’s handling of the occult is that it’s located in the real world; ie, pitiable wannabes with no real power (who, amusingly, the Doctor finds hopelessly gauche). For example, would-be villain and sometime ghost-tour guide Dupre has a room with walls covered in preserved human limbs and organs - but rather than being played for creepiness, the Doctor finds it grotesque but mainly pathetic and tawdry.

Perhaps most distinct about Rose’s writing is a notable perceptivity that she shares with the primary female writer of Doctor Who prose, Kate Orman – appropriately, given that City of the Dead is dedicated to her – as well as (Faction Paradox novel authors) Mags L Halliday or Kelly Hale; which is perhaps too easy to put down to some vague notion of femininity, but very welcome nonetheless.

The comparison to New Adventures doyenne Kate Orman is particularly apposite because, as I say, though distinct tonally, there are numerous links to that formative series of adult-oriented Doctor Who books. Although, ironically I suppose, it is most similar to Orman’s Eighth Doctor novels (which have a calmer, more reserved feel than her NAs) – all likeable, well-drawn characters, in a fairly restrained story in a well-evoked American setting). So, City of the Dead doesn’t quite feel like an NA, but there is a valid comparison to be made with Orman, one of that series’ most definitive writers.

While it doesn’t feel like an NA per se (there’s a more ‘sensitive,’ quieter feel to it, despite cruising the same areas of violence and sexuality), it’s very obviously the work of someone to whom those novels where a formative influence, with nods like the cameo of a white-suited Seventh Doctor in a dream, and a mention of Shango, a Yoruban lightning god mentioned in (most likely) one of Ben Aaronovitch’s novels. Also, most specifically, there’s the moment where the Doctor crosses his own timeline to steal the cat which is horribly killed by vivisectionists in, I think, Warlock. However, none of these references are heavy-handed, and to someone who loves the former series so much, they form a gratifying link between the often very separate Virgin and BBC series. (These references are also specifically cheering as they relate to Orman, Cartmel and Aaronovitch, my favourite Doctor Who prose writers.)

There’s also an appropriately Orman-like approach to gleeful Doctor-punishment: he is beaten up and nearly stamped to death by the white-trash Flood (who is subsequently turned to pulp by the naiad elemental trapped into living with him as his wife); manacled and thrown in a swamp to the mercy of unseen ‘boggles’; has his leg shattered; and, most unpleasantly, has occult symbols carved into his chest with a razor. Also particularly unpleasant is the character fostered by a family who take him in only for the state support fee, whose own children are said to be rapists and to have set fire to a horse (it’s okay though; he smears then all over the inside of their house).

A major element of what I find so fascinating about Doctor Who – besides its general, inherent eccentricity - is locating such a vast range of varied approaches within one ‘canon’ (for wont of a better word), from the sixties, to the comics, the New Adventures, to the new series. Therefore, this kind of violence is a pleasing reminder that – much as I enjoyed the most recent seasonDoctor Who is capable of a less tame tone than the prevailing jokiness of its most recent televisual iterations. After six years of family-friendly Doctor Who, the novels are a nice counterpoint to dip back into.

This book brings home how much the novels lend themselves to a richer textural palette, with more detail and depth than TV is capable of, and is overall a sensitive, intelligent, and compelling reminder of what the novels are capable of – as well as a validation of their continued relevance, in light of their very different approaches in contrast to the series itself.

This book is quite phenomenal, actually; the ending is muddled, but given what comes before, it hardly seems to matter. There are relatively few Doctor Who authors that really excite me, but with this book, Lloyd Rose has become one of them. Maybe it’s time to check out Camera Obscura again.

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