Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Remembrance of the Daleks

This is where Doctor Who began.

Well, okay, there was a TV series before that, one with a very respectable 26-year run on television and several adaptations in other media as well. But that series got canceled in 1989. It was, despite the hopes and wishes of fans, over and done with. It would be over fifteen years before the BBC decided to launch a new TV series, one that kept the same continuity but changed just about everything else imaginable. And that TV series, that approach to Doctor Who, that show that triumphantly emerged in 2005 as a major hit...that started here, with Ben Aaronovitch's novelization of 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

This is a Doctor Who story that gives us deeper, more realized supporting characters than anything we ever saw on screen. This is a Doctor Who story that really cares about crafting excellent prose (the descriptions of the Special Weapons Dalek from the point of view of other Daleks, which called it the Abomination and loathed it almost as much as it loathed itself, the brilliant moment where the Supreme Dalek gets confused by its link to its small-child-as-battle-computer and wants to skip...) This is a Doctor Who story that actually gets into the heads of its villains. Everything about this book is a template for the direction the New Adventures, the audios, and eventually the new TV series would take, right down to its depictions of Rassilon, Omega and the Other (who wasn't capitalized here, but would be soon everywhere else.)

And it's bloody marvelous, to boot. Aaronovitch takes one of the best TV episodes ever, and magnificently fleshes it out in ways that the budget couldn't afford. The scenes of a few poncy Daleks exchanging primitive CGI laser blasts becomes an apocalyptic civil war on the streets of London. Flashbacks to ancient Gallifrey turn the Doctor's exposition into an epic that stretches back ten million years. Skaro boils away into space in a way that they might still not be able to do, even with Steven Moffat's budget. Characters are given extra depth, and the story feels like it's been freed of the confines of the small screen. It is no wonder that Virgin suddenly decided that they could sustain a series of original novels after reading this manuscript.

If Doctor Who was dead in 1989, Ben Aaronovitch showed us in 1990 just how it could live again.

Chat: Introductions

John: So, we're starting a book about Doctor Who books with introductions to Doctor Who books. If that gets any more recursive, we'll have people writing about this sentence. :)

Dee: That's true! And yet, I can't think of a better place to start. Except by marveling at Harlan Ellison admitting, at the time he did, that he actually enjoyed a TV show.

John: That is right up there with Dave Sim gushing about a female writer, yes. And yet, when you read it, you get exactly what he's talking about. He's saying that Doctor Who isn't trying to be like television.

Dee: Really? I got from it that it was trying to be television, but trying to be more at the same time. His problem with other shows seems to be they don't try hard enough.

John: Well, he's certainly on record with that, but I kind of got the sense that he was pointing to Doctor Who as an inheritor of a literary tradition. He talks about Tarzan, H.G. Wells, Uncle Wiggly...the Shadow, too, but that's radio. The main point seems to be that Doctor Who isn't about spectacle, it's about ideas.

Dee: I'm not entirely sure I agree with him that it's the only show about ideas.

John: Yes, but I think that it goes without saying that Harlan Ellison might be using dramatic hyperbole to make a point. I just think it's interesting for our purposes that he compares Doctor Who to literature and contrasts it with TV and movies...and years later, Neil Gaiman talks about how he doesn't want to go back and watch old episodes on TV because they're better inside his head.

Dee: Could you expand on that a bit for me? The thing I took away most from that essay was the idea that Doctor Who spreads itself, but we can talk about that in a moment.

John: It was a throwaway comment, when he was talking about 'The War Games'. He said he didn't dare go back and watch the story because it wouldn't live up to his memories of it. Which is interesting to me because so many Doctor Who fans, particularly ones about my age, did read Doctor Who as much as watch it. In a pre-VCR, pre-DVD era, you were as likely to have read the book as seen the episode.

Dee: I wonder if Harlan feels the same way! I have to admit that one thing I enjoy about going back and seeing old episodes IS seeing if I can see the zippers or the Hand of Sutekh.

John: Well, yes, no book can ever convey the delivery of "Nuzzink in ze vorld can schtop me now!" But I think that one of the reasons that the novels came out so well is that there was already a strong culture within fandom of Doctor Who as a literary phenomenon--and it's something you can see in these introductions.

Dee: I have a general rule of thumb that "whichever came first is better" when it comes tg visual media and novelizations. I haven't read any of the Target novelizations, so I can't say if that applies to DW, but I also think that what you're saying amounts to "it doesn't matter which came first here."

John: Not quite--Doctor Who has had a lot of talented actors working on it over the years, and that's something you can't duplicate--but I think Neil makes a good point when he says that Doctor Who is all about its ideas and its worldview. Doctor Who has concepts that change the way you think, and those work well in any medium.

Dee: How has DW changed how you think?

John: I think it certainly makes me look at everyday objects differently--I can't look at someone wearing a Bluetooth without getting creeped out, for example.

Dee: I think in a big way it's made me feel I'm not alone. I'm not the only one who looks up in a city, sees an airplane going by, and imagines the sky filled with zeppelins instead.

John: Which is something, until 2005, that the series never had the money for. But lucky for us, that never stopped it from trying.

Dee: I think the richness of the world is also part of it. The books will deepen that richness, of course.

John: Yes, and I think that's a perfect segue to the next book on our list--the novelization of 'Remembrance' demonstrates how a really good writer can take an excellent TV episode and flesh it out even more without the constraints of filming holding them back.

Dee: I have a lot to say about that one!

John: And I can't wait to hear it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Beginnings and Introductions

Neil Gaiman. Harlan Ellison. Two wonderful writers, two gents who know whereof they write. And in this case, they are writing about pure awesome: Doctor Who. One man confrontational, argumentative; the other calm, reasonable. One comparative, while the other is emotional. In both cases, the love for the show shines through in scintillating colors.

Harlan Ellison recounts an event at a SF con where he introduced a whole crowd of people to the sheer, unadulterated find that is Doctor Who. In typical Ellison fashion, he manages to win friends and influence people. It's an interesting contrast to how he portrays his own first encounter with the series: two brilliant writers watching the telly, one an evangelist while the other is caught up in the magic. For many fans, I imagine that this was, indeed, very much like their own first encounter with the series: "Hey man, you've got to watch this!"

Gaiman, by contrast, speaks of the introduction of a good percentage more of fans when he talks about watching the series as it ran the first time, simply a part of daily life for a child growing up. For those fans, watching Doctor who is as natural as breathing. It's simply what you do. And it is those fans who often become the evangelists for the Ellison group.

There are, of course, more ways to encounter the series than these two ways. Yet for the lion's share of fans, this is how it is. Doctor Who spreads, as Gaiman points out, very much like a thought virus. "Viral" has become the catchphrase recently for any phenomenon that is spread from one person to another, any thought or experience or product to which one person alerts another by word-of-mouth. Seldom is that more true, however, that in the case of Doctor Who. Gaiman is aware of the truth of this; he speaks of his surprise in realizing that he, too, is spreading the appreciation for this wonderful series in that way and even of how shocked he was in realizing how deeply the series unconsciously imprinted his own work.

Ellison doesn't seem to note this. He simply gives reasons why he loves Doctor Who and expects the reader to share them. This essay was written at a time when Doctor Who was far less known in the United States than it is today. For that reason, Ellison contrasts the show to other television shows and movies of the time. His well-known dislike for television is not in question in this essay. This makes his argument for why the reader should watch Doctor Who far more compelling: if the man who wrote The Glass Teat can like a television show, it is by definition far more worth watching than your run of the mill TV fare.

Reading Ellison's essay is like having a conversation with the man himself. It is simple, direct, and to the point. Reading Gaiman's essay, by contrast, is more like listening to another story being told. At least for me it evokes the typical, dreamlike feeling that so much of his writing evokes.

So, which is more convincing to me as a reason to go on and read the Doctor Who novels and novellas? Or, more to the point, which one sets the mood for the story it precedes? It really depends on whether you are already a fan or whether you are encountering the series for the first time. Ellison's introduction is meant for the totally new reader. Gaiman's is meant for the existing fan, I think. Perhaps this makes sense, given that Ellison's essay is found at the beginning of mass-market paperbacks and Gaiman's at the beginning of a novella probably only those who already knew about the series would purchase. Both made me want to turn the page and dive into the story that follows.

So which kind of thing on, then, am I? As we begin this adventure of reading the books where the classic series left off, I think I am in an interesting middle ground. I am not an obsessive fan the way so many fans become. However, I have to admit that I have already begun to spread the Doctor Who evangelism: to my children, to my extended family, to friends. Even my older child is already spreading the word about Who to her high school friends.

I am the target of neither essay. Both moved me. Both inspired me to take on the journey that my husband and I are about to undergo. My reactions are likely to be more visceral than literary, despite the fact that my college major was literature.

If you are reading this, it is very likely that you, too, are in that middle ground with me. Take my hand. Come with me as we explore books of which you may never have heard before this blog. I know I am encountering many for the first time myself. As I take up Ellison's challenge and respond to Gaiman's dreamlike love, I hope you enjoy the journey with us.

Introductions: Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Not the very beginning, with Hartnell and a junkyard on Totter’s Lane, but my beginning. When I was first learning to read, the Pinnacle Doctor Who books were the first books I read that didn’t have pictures in them. I was far too young to know who Harlan Ellison was, but I knew what Star Trek and Star Wars were; and I knew the man who wrote about how much better Doctor Who was than either of them was funny, passionate, and clearly right. His words stuck with me for years, longer than any individual moment from the show, and it was from Harlan Ellison that I first got the idea that Doctor Who wasn’t just about moving pictures.
And then, years later, Neil Gaiman wrote his tremendous introduction to The Eye of the Tyger. It almost felt like Neil had read the same exact words, and had taken Ellison’s invitation right along with me (not actually possible, given the respective ages of everyone involved, but allow me a bit of romance here.) And Gaiman’s introduction talked eloquently and elegantly about the way Doctor Who changed you. It wasn’t just about the special effects or the acting, it was the ideas. Long after you grew up and recognized how silly the costumes looked and the way the walls wobbled, you’d never to be able to escape those ideas. Doctor Who takes place inside your head. What better medium for that than a book?