Saturday, December 17, 2011

Chat: Remembrance of the Daleks

John: You know what I love the most about Ben Aaronovitch? No matter how many times I read one of his books, I always find something new and interesting each time. It’s one of the things that makes doing this project with you so much fun.

Dee: You know what I don’t love about Ben Aaronovitch? Getting Dragon to recognize his last name - I gave up writing my regular entry! But you’re right, there is something new. And the way he portrays the Doctor is interesting to me. He really does make the Doctor seem incredibly alien.

John: Aaronovitch is definitely one of the few people who can pull off scenes from the Doctor’s point of view. (This does not stop other people from trying. You will see. Oh, yes, you will see...) I think he was tremendously influential in that regard; every time you hear “Rule One: The Doctor lies,” or see someone get upset with him for being too ruthless and playing games with people’s lives, you’re watching the work of a writer who loved this story.

Dee: He seems to love trying to bring in the alien perspectives. The Doctor, the Daleks... I forgot to mention the Hand of Omega’s perspective as well, but he works from its point of view. And I love how it really loves its work.

John: I think that “perspective” is a major theme in this book. Everyone gets a turn at being the protagonist, and everyone has a worldview that makes you understand why they behave the way they do. Mike, Ratcliffe, Davros, the Special Weapons Dalek, the Hand of Omega, the Black Dalek, the Doctor...they all have what they see as good reasons for what they do. But interestingly, what sets the Doctor apart from all of them is that he’s the only person to try to step outside his worldview. He’s the only person who really questions whether what he’s doing is right. Which, paradoxically, is part of how we know he’s the good guy. He’s the only one who wonders whether he’s the bad guy.

Dee: “Best to just get on with it...” and with those words, a barista dooms a planet.

John: And that man went on to found Starbucks! Actually, that line is a wonderful example of the playfulness in Aaronovitch’s scripts. It’s not just that he plots so hard you could bounce a quarter off it, it’s not just that he’s exploring some really interesting ideas (the Daleks move from being Nazi parables to something more complex and engaging, for example...) It’s also that he’s funny as hell. “Daleks are blobs. Imperial Daleks are bionic blobs with bits on.” “I had an argument with a window.” “It’s called the Hand of Omega because Time Lords have an infinite capacity for pretension.” “With all respect, Captain Gilmore, your career is magnificently irrelevant.” Every scene is practically quotable in its entirety.

Dee: Fanboy! … I agree. The writing is extremely dense, but it’s not unreadable-dense. The one thing I think is missing is the humor. The episode brought out the humor in the performances. The book is missing some of that, I think, if you don’t go looking for it. Of course, the Dalek interfacing with the little girl having the urge to skip is funny, but minus the tones of voice a lot of what I laugh at watching the episodes sails right on by.

John: Like the scene where Mike tells Ace that Captain Gilmore has ordered her to stay behind. The actors really added a lot of nuance to that scene, with Ace grabbing for the note and Mike holding it out of reach. ...but we’re here to praise the books, not to bury them! Whatever the book loses from not having actors, it adds in texture and density and depth. Kadiatu and the Zen Military, Dalek language and culture, the origin of Davros...there’s so much of the modern Doctor Who mythos that originates here, right down to the first actual mention of the Time Wars in Doctor Who history. And all that in a paperback book a tenth the size of a single ‘Wheel of Time’ novel.

Dee: I almost picture him giggling gleefully. “Ha! I worked in The Other!”

John: I see him going all fanboy about working in references from Alan Moore’s run on the Doctor Who comic strips in DWM. (Speaking of people who were disproportionately influential on Doctor Who, by the way...I said Aaronovitch came up with the Time Wars, but Moore came up with a very similar idea and did it a decade earlier.)

Dee: I want to talk about Ace a bit. I love early Ace. And I love the way Aaronovich has her think. “I’d be a right wally to go in there...” and in she goes.

John: Ace is a huge triumph. She’s not just a “strong female character” in the sense that she blows things up and hits things, she’s a strong female character in the sense that she’s a well-written character with a developed personality who isn’t just an appendage of a man. Not even in a series where that’s her ostensible role. Oh, and she also hits Daleks with baseball bats and makes her own explosives and she never, ever screams. She is the best of all possible companions for the Doctor to take with her into the realm of books, bar none.

Dee: And she does have a crush on Mike, but she doesn’t let him get away with anything. There’s no Bella-ian “oh, he’s just that way.” She calls him on it where he’s wrong, and he’s honestly taken aback. And good for her.

John: Yes, there’s nothing Bella-ian about Ace. (Bella-ian? Bella-ish? Bella-esque?) She’s an active character, with a strongly developed moral imperative, who thinks about others before herself. She was designed to be a “modern” companion, one with an actual backstory that came into play in the series (as opposed to all the classic series companions that had hugely elaborate biographies that were read once by the actors and thrown into the trash so they could become generic thinkers, thumpers or screamers...) And I think that’s why, in some respects, the time was perfect for Doctor Who to launch into a line of novels. The Sixth Doctor and Peri would not have worked for the New Adventures, nor the Seventh Doctor and Mel.

Dee: And yet she’s so very young. And she’s aware of her weaknesses, and in some cases embraces them. “I’d have to be a right wally to walk in there,” and yet she does. And some of that is what makes her a Companion. A Companion can’t resist going in the door.

John: Unless it’s on ‘Firefly’, then it’s totally her choice whether she goes in the door or not.

Dee: Reading this book, it’s hard to comprehend how close the series was to its cancellation.

John: Totally. The series was in the middle of a creative renaissance when it went away. The script editor responsible for the show’s doldrums was gone, and Andrew Cartmel was drawing his inspiration from the new wave of British comics writers like Gaiman and Moore and his talent from a bunch of eager young writers who wanted to really impress people with their work. It was ready to be deeper and more “adult”, and not just in the juvenile sense of the word. An adult Doctor Who could be more than just “the TV series sex and swearing”...

...which, unfortunately, was a concept that escaped the author of our next book.

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