Monday, 14 November 2016

The Infinity Doctors

Lance Parkin The Infinity Doctors (1998)
The magic of Doctor Who is that as a franchise it can be used to tell absolutely any kind of story, squeak the Whovian pod-kidults on a fairly regular basis - and please note depressingly telling use of the term franchise. It's one of those things people say because they've heard someone else say it, which actually translates to adventures in the wild west contrasted with adventures on one of Jupiter's moons as somehow equating to thematic variation rather than just a change of scenery. Try telling D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow as Doctor Who - or any other grown-up book for that matter - and the claim is revealed as absurd because The Rainbow is fine as it is and doesn't need to be Doctor Who. Annoyingly it also misses the point that there is a particular type of science-fiction story which Doctor Who seems almost uniquely suited to telling simply thanks to it being a serial of several decades duration, allowing writers to focus on some particularly weird narrative twists without first having to spend five-hundred pages on background and continuity; and this, I would say, is - or at least was - the great strength of the - ahem - franchise, if we really must call it that like the loyal little product-sponge cunts we have apparently become.

To further lay a few of my doubtless contentious cards on the table, Doctor Who ended when it came back on the telly in 2005. Certain gibbons of my unfortunate acquaintance have made the usual sneering noises about continuity, and about being more open-minded when it comes to the possibility of the Doctor enjoying a quick knee-trembler from time to time, or that maybe he had a Time Lord mummy and daddy whom he wuvved vewy, vewy much, but it isn't that which bothers me.

Doctor Who began as a kid's show, and as a kid's show it moved accordingly with the times, occasionally playing with the Prisoner dressing-up box in the sixties, going all Mission: Impossible in the seventies and so on, eventually settling into the habit of weirdly pseudo-allegorical narratives such as Logopolis, Castrovalva, Warrior's Gate and so on - or if not allegorical then certainly ponderous and a long way down the road from William Hartnell battering Daleks with his cane whilst screaming take that, you soppy metal cunt! Towards the end of the eighties Who began to suffer mild schizophrenia, unable to decide whether it was Jorge Luis Borges or Timmy Mallet, and was thus cancelled making way for the novels, most of which did a reasonable job of keeping things going in the right direction. Being written by fans, there was of course a certain reliance on fanwank - entire stories spun from minor points of earlier continuity just like what that Alan Moore might have done - but Who stayed true to itself, regardless of contradictions, because if a narrative so fixated on time travel and the fluidity of established history can't occasionally change its mind, then it may as well just be Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century.

It wasn't the introduction of a natural born Doctor who might nip off for a sneaky fuck every once in a while which rendered the show pointless in 2005 - although such details certainly served to diminish its uniqueness, reducing everything to just more generic cult TV landfill to be gathered on the shelves with all the other DVD boxed sets. It was the spirit in which it had been revived and how this tarnished the entire enterprise. Doctor Who began life as the work of cranky eccentrics who had difficultly playing nicely with other children and ended up writing for the BBC because they wouldn't have lasted two weeks as a milkman, and this was when the BBC believed it knew better and had a duty to educate the thickies whether we liked it or not. It believed it knew better because it was a cultural institution rather than a purely financial enterprise, dedicated to promoting elevated thoughts, arts, and in part to the literature of awkward anti-establishment buggers like Orwell and Huxley. Even as the BBC evolved, it retained some of this element, which continued in the Who novels during the nineties due to their similarly being the work of individuals pleasing themselves rather than a corporate agenda, and individuals raised on the work of cranky eccentrics who had difficulty playing nicely with other children.

The show returned in 2005 as a product designed by committee to provide optimum entertainment value to specific consumer demographics, retaining a percentage of its former typically English idiosyncracies for the sake of brand identification, then filling in the rest with proven formula material which had been seen to work for Babylon 5, Buffy the Ratings Slayer and others - notably a shitload of catchphrases, generic emotional crises, and more boo-hooing than your average Mexican telenovela, sweetie. Its anti-authoritarian content had been commodified as a marketing strategy. I'm probably repeating myself here, but it's relevant to what follows, and it brings me an almost sexual sense of satisfaction to upset those who might be upset by the above.

Anyway, to get to the point, there I was wading through yet another Peter F. Hamilton housebrick when I got to page three-hundred and just couldn't go on. I needed a break so I read Daniel Bristow-Bailey's The Ruins because it was short and had just turned up in the mail; and yet I still couldn't quite face getting back into The Dreaming Void so I picked this because I once read Who books to the point of obsession, thus quantifying The Infinity Doctors as comfort food; plus I vaguely recalled not quite getting it first time around, and Lance Parkin is clearly not lacking in talent so there was an appealing mystery there.

Despite that Doctor Who can be used to tell absolutely any kind of story, Whovian pod-kidults tend to argue over this book due to its featuring an ambiguous incarnation of the Doctor occupying an alternate non-canonical history; or it could be the first Doctor before he left Gallifrey, or the Eighth, or the last one, but the truth is that it doesn't matter. Oddly, I've only just noticed that the title makes most sense as a conflation of The Three Doctors and Arc of Infinity, television stories featuring Omega, the Time Lord who invented time travel and in doing so got himself trapped inside a black hole; and this tale riffs on both of them. Odder still is that much of it reads quite strongly as a television production in written form. By this I'm not referring to the tendency of certain Who authors who would quite clearly love to be writing something for telly, but find themselves obliged instead to plump for second best, a mere book which is pants because books are boooring innit, thus resulting in what is usually just a script with the phrase he said grinningly inserted hither and thither. Lance Parkin knows better than that, as is demonstrated by those portions of The Infinity Doctors which I suspect may serve as homage to Stephen Baxter, particularly the nosebleed physics, the wonderful descriptions of the process of universal expansion and so on, plus a mention of The Time Ships and the presence of a fictional element named baxterium.

Rather, the narrative unfolds as though we're watching a sequence of scenes upon a stage, rarely with a cast of more than five - some of them probably English character actors with lines provided by a BBC script writer, not least the Baldrickesque guard who refers to one of the Time Lords as that bloke. I suspect this is deliberate given the element of homage in combination with a few peculiarly self-aware passages, most notably:

'The best thing about books,' the Doctor confided to his fellow diners, is that you can always tell when you're getting to the end. No matter how tricky the situation the hero's in, you hold the book in your hand and think, hang on, I'm two-hundred and twenty-nine pages in, with only another fifty-one to go. It started slow, but it's building to a climax. This menu, though, with every single detail spelled out for you on an infinite number of pages is just dull. Where's the fun if everything's possible?'

...and yes, this monologue does appear on that very same page with another fifty-one to go.

There's a lot to recommend The Infinity Doctors, but its ambition somewhat outstrips its achievement, at least for me. It successfully invokes more ponderous television episodes such as The Keeper of Traken - with everything played as stagey pseudo-Shakespearian - but not quite by terms which work consistently on the page. The result is that some of the tale is unfortunately a little dull, leaving an overall impression of dramatic progression without much descriptive evidence of the same or any strong suggestion of there being anything much at stake; and of the fifty-one pages still to go, I managed about twenty before I lost interest and reluctantly shuffled back to The Dreaming Void.

The Infinity Doctors reads like a story stretched out to a much greater page count than was really necessary - much like Savar's TARDIS - or perhaps simply like something which could have used a further rewrite just to tighten up the saggy bits. It certainly has its moments and is in no sense a bad book, but Lance Parkin has written better.

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