Thursday, August 31, 2006

Attack of the memory cheats

Blimey: The official Dr Who website has posted up Nightshade, former Dr Who Mark Gatiss’ highly acclaimed first forage into BBC endorsed Who.

Here's a review of it I wrote earlier:

The readers of Doctor Who Magazine voted it best New Adventure of 1992, despite competition that included Paul Cornell’s dazzling "Love and War" and strong entries from Marc Platt, Andrew Cartmel and Ben Aaronovitch - three men who’d contributed some of the McCoy Doctor’s best TV stuff. The reliable reckoning of I, Who thinks it one of the "most emotive Who novels [...] striking a deep melodious chord with most readers," (p. 164).

The story is relatively simple – in marked contrast to the Doctor’s adventures at this time. The setting is a small town in late December 1968. Among the community is Edmund Trevethick, who used to play "Professor Nightshade" in the [fictional] BBC sci-fi series of the 50’s. He, the Doctor, the town and the staff of the nearby radio telescope are besieged by initially welcome, ultimately deadly ghosts from the past.

The book moves at a cracking place, full of drama. It’s built up of dialogue and action sequences, so reads like the novelisation of a TV story. It’s brief compared to many of the later books – only 228 pages – and keeps the reader on tenderhooks right until the end. The fact that it’s set in the days up to Christmas 1968 lends a significant atmosphere of invaded cosiness, as well as establishing a strong sense of time and place. Gatiss also takes us to the Civil War, albeit briefly, another potent time of English order being invaded.

"Nightshade" evokes the best of "Remembrance of the Daleks" – the first TV McCoy story to really impress. The 60’s setting is immediately identifiable, and would have ensured good production values had this been produced for television.

The interplay between the Doctor and Ace is excellent, giving both plenty of interesting character development. The way that McCoy’s Doctor and Aldred’s Ace speak on screen is nicely observed and mimicked: unlike a lot of books before and after this, we can really hear them speaking the lines. On page 198, Ace even gets to repeat the emphatic "Boom!" from "Battlefield", episode one.

There’s also a high demand for thrilling special effects sequences that screams for TV presentation. Thus, "Nightshade" transcends cursory similarities to classic Who of earlier eras – most notably "The Daemons" – and the ilk of English horror where evil whispers behind the walls in sleepy villages – without ever losing sight of its television heritage. Perhaps that accounts for the broad appeal.

This is the anti- Heart Beat, thank ****. There are terrors lurking behind the cosy fa├žade and nostalgia kills. There is continual effort made to undercut a rose-tinted view of the period. Veterans of ghastly world war still suffer the effects of gas poisoning and the loss of friends and family, while an age of free love and drugs for the young and the rioting in Paris leaves people anything but safe and secure. This all adds to the threat that the demons from the past present: Ace herself offers a telling critique on the contrast between the era and her mum’s own lovestruck recollection.

What is also gratifying about a re-reading eight years after publication is noting the foreshadowing of 1996 TV Movie Dr Who. The book opens with the Doctor listening to scratchy gramophone records, and wearing a russet waistcoat. Ace has the same sense on entering the tertiary console room as on her first visit to church: post TV Movie books have tried to render the TARDIS interior as sepulchral, a cathedral like Notre Dame.

Gatiss signposts several of his own later efforts: the failure of religion to comprehend or answer the attacking monsters foreshadows his more pointed dismissal of the church in "St Anthony’s Fire." The character of the Civil War suggests much of the activity of "The Roundheads", while he even uses the word "Phantasmagoria" on page 72.

Billy Coote, the vagrant, could easily be a comedy yokel taken straight from a cosy Pertwee script. His running off in terror at the arrival of the TARDIS is, however, laced with his "malicious" desire for the deaths of famous people. Celebrity death means fatter newspapers and therefore comfier bedding.

This scintillating morbidity comes straight from League of Gentlemen. Crook Marsham is a "hotchpotch of small houses," (p. 32) akin to Royston Vasey. As the Doctor and Ace walk through the drizzle into town, we almost expect them to stop off at a Local Shop for a can of Coke. League of Gentlemen and this kind of Doctor Who (and, to some extent, Withnail and I, which is cited on page 5) are funny and scary – in a disturbing rather than wholly gory way – with well-observed, over the top English archetypes.

The crowning achievement is the depiction of social interaction between a range of characters, and the ways that this inter-linking group buckles and strains under pressure. The characters of batty pensioners and a carer who’d far rather be a political activist, the tensions amongst those working with the radio telescope – all are glorious.

The way the town hangs together is perhaps best shown right at the beginning of the book. Jack Prudhoe is aware that "there had been a lot of gossip recently about how ill Betty [Yeadon] was looking," (p. 4). This ginger suggestion of possible domestic violence and its evident interest to the townsfolk serves to ensure the close-knit feel of the town. The suggestion itself is soon forgotten in the wake of a cause far more horrifying. And yet, at the end of the novel, the town again closes ranks. Even "those who’d had the worst scares were the first to deny anything out of the ordinary," we’re told (p. 230). The novel rewards as a convincing case study in human behaviour.

Some of the cast are exceptionally engaging. Trevethick’s character is slyly observed. Like some other veteran actor whose telefantasy work is much adored, Trevethick is staunchly opinionated, loves to lose himself in Dickensian London and is a regular in the pub.

His relationship to the fictional Professor Nightshade recalls (in my mind, at least) a 1978 Nationwide interview, where Frank Bough accused Tom Baker of actually being the Doctor in ‘real life’. Tom muttered darkly that he only had to ‘be’ the Doctor as much as his accuser had to live up to being ‘Frank Bough’. The TV persona is a projection of a fallible, flawed man. If only Bough had listened and not laughed: it was exactly this dilemma between public and private personas that lead to his own plummet from grace in the 80’s.

Trevethick, as a retired actor whose private life is quietly evaporating, clings more and more to the strengths of a man he used to ‘be’. Rude and cantankerous, he’s still quietly delighted by the renewed success and longevity of his work, harbouring grand thoughts of a new series. But it’s not just this wonderful figure who suffers the crisis between public and private lives. The Doctor, too, experiences crisis as the misery and memories he has subdued for so long threaten to engulf him, overwhelming the space hero with all the answers that Ace enthuses him to be. Both Trevethick and the Doctor eventually have to face and live up to the responsibilities of their projected selves – it’s the only way to defeat the monsters.

Overall though – and despite the novel’s title – It’s not about Doctor Who and it’s not about Nightshade. This is Ace’s story. It is Ace who solves things, not only besting the Doctor but also provoking him into action when he has surrendered. Facing the angst of her past in the way she does resolves the ongoing issues explored in Season 26 - the final year of the TV series. As she acknowledges in the book, the Doctor has helped her grow up, straightened her out. She’s competent, brave and wise – knowing not only enough about Pulsars to explain them to Robin, but shrewd enough to manipulate the sly Time Lord.

Robin is a likeable, earnest, worthy and just bloody nice guy, and surely Ace earns her right to stay with him. In the books that follow this one, she’s never as happy with anyone else. In many ways, ‘Nightshade’ would have been a richly rewarding exit for Ace, and far more deserving of the character than what eventually got done to her.

If we can muddy the lines between TV and novels (as Doctor Who Magazine did in issue 287), ‘Season 27’ ought really to have ended with Ace’s victorious departure, the Doctor heading off to new adventures and a strong, new companion without her. Just think of all the crap she and we would have been spared...

"The ending breaks your heart," says I, Who. It’s certainly a stunning, powerful finale, and one that promises a new realm of forward-looking adventures. It’s a bit of a shame then that the loss of Robin is only fleetingly mentioned in "Love and War", and that such a genuine emotional match is eclipsed in favour of the unlikely and unlikeable Jan: something rather nicely made up for by Robin’s cameo return in "Happy Endings".

"Nightshade" is a richly satisfying book, superb to revisit. It’s also the sort of thing you can duplicitously hand to those strange and terrible Not-We if they enjoy League. Rah!

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