Wednesday, March 28, 2012


If anyone ever asks me why I complain so much about Mark Gatiss' work on the new Doctor Who TV series, I always point to this book.

Because once you've read 'Nightshade', you will never be able to escape the understanding that Mark Gatiss is settling for less in all his subsequent efforts. Gatiss is, of course, an outspoken writer and director and actor who has been public and vocal in his opinions that the series started to go rather seriously downhill at about the time that he hit puberty, but that this is purely a coincidence and it just so happened that his growing up coincided with the exact moment when the show became cheap and silly and all of the other people of varying ages who say the exact same thing about the era of the show that coincided with their hitting puberty are wrong because he knows when it became a tacky mistake. (I paraphrase slightly for effect.)

Gatiss' response to this has been to use his considerable talent as a writer to attempt to recreate what he sees as the One True Formula for writing Doctor Who, as seen in the Pertwee era; strange and mysterious happenings begin to occur somewhere in Britain, the Doctor investigates, everyone becomes trapped with the evil alien presence that is causing all this, and one by one the cast is whittled down to a manageable size in a string of memorable set pieces until the Doctor figures out how to outwit/destroy/defeat the monster of the week and all is made well again. This is Doctor Who, in Gatiss' mind, and you stray from it at your peril.

And while certainly 'Nightshade' falls loosely into that formula, Gatiss writes it with an intensity and an earnestness you'll never see again in his work. The Sentience doesn't feed on nostalgia and remorse because Gatiss decided that "nostalgia and remorse" was this week's gimmick; it feeds on those because they're powerful, relatable emotions and Gatiss is making a point about the need to not let oneself be consumed by them. The Doctor isn't having problems stopping the monster because it's only page 100 and there's still about 60% of the novel left to go; he's genuinely heartsick and exhausted by centuries of death in a way that few other writers have had the courage to convey. Ace doesn't decide to ditch this week's love interest because the actress still has another season left on her contract; the conclusion to this story is far more tense and bittersweet. (It's just unfortunate that at this stage, writers like Paul Cornell weren't informed about heartwrenching conclusions like this early enough to really work them into their novels. In later novels like 'Human Nature', Cornell, yeah then.)

Gatiss is writing about something here, and his book has an emotional core beyond simply "scare the kiddies, follow the formula, get to the end." It makes you feel in a way that something like "The Idiot Lantern" doesn't, and once you know he's capable of something like this, you never want to settle for something like that again. And because I keep having to, I keep complaining about Gatiss. Which is a shame, because he's almost certainly the best writer ever to irritate me this much.

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