Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chat: Birthright

Dee: I know John usually starts these, but holy cow, I have stuff to say about this one. For starters, the more I got to thinking about it, the more I disliked this book. I am so. Very. Tired of TARDIS-rape. At this point, when I find myself saying “Well, say what you will about ‘The Pit,’ but at least the TARDIS wasn’t raped in it,” you start to get the idea that maybe they need a new plot.

John: I actually feel very guilty, because it didn’t even occur to me until you pointed it out, but once I saw it, man, it was not something I could deny. And it isn’t even something you can defend on the grounds that “it’s just a machine”, either; Robinson explicitly genders the TARDIS in the big virtual reality sequence that makes up the climax of the book (because it wouldn’t be a New Adventure without some sort of symbolic dreamscape-y thing.) About the nicest thing you can say is that Neil Gaiman does something similar, but a) tu quoque is not a valid defense, b) Gaiman makes sure that the TARDIS isn’t “at home” when it happens, so it feels less explicitly like an invasion, and c) Neil Gaiman handles it better on all sorts of levels. Which I’ll leave to you to detail, because I know you have thoughts on that too.

Dee: I admit that I’m going with an interpretation that many fans won’t want to consider because it’s, well, not fun and people want their DW to be fun. I’m going to contrast “The Doctor’s Wife” with “Birthright,” yes, and admit there are superficial but not-trivial similarities. First off, the Doctor’s impulsive actions (and I don’t care how much handwaving people do about “Seven had to do this,” it reads like an impulse action) set off the action in both sets. In both, two companions are trapped without the Doctor and have to make their way through minefields they wouldn’t have had to face with more information. In both, innocent bystanders die (although it’s not surprising the NA book has a higher body count). Both contain substantial amounts of background information which will set the tone for future adventures. Am I missing anything besides the critical TARDIS bits, which I’ll address?

John: I don’t think that Seven’s actions felt impulsive at all, which is in a way the worst thing about it. Robinson is really taking the “master manipulator” aspect of McCoy’s Doctor to its ultimate limits, which makes him out to just be a heartless bastard, and there really is an almost premeditated cruelty to his actions in this book. Yes, it’s meant to be a predestination paradox, but the guilt he shows at the end suggests that it’s not really one at all--he did all these things before ‘Iceberg’, not after it, and he’s really just finishing the job he started. Muldwych is really where you get the “future Doctor stuck in his own Web of Time” stuff, not Seven. But I’m digressing...no, I think you’ve hit the other similarities there. Feel free to go on with the critical TARDIS bits.

Dee: OK, so. Gaiman first of all, as you’ve said, removes the Doctor from the TARDIS. In this case, it’s more like a kidnapping and home invasion than a rape. (Still not good, mind you, but.) Where the TARDIS in “Birthright” is suffering terribly and no one can stop it, the TARDIS in “The Doctor’s Wife” seems more bemused by her state. Perhaps it’s because she gets to talk to the Doctor, and there is the second, critical difference between the two: in “The Doctor’s Wife,” they are a team, allies against the forces that took her from her home and are trying to kill her. In “Birthright,” the Doctor actually harms her himself, then shows up as if nothing had happened. In Gaiman’s story, the Doctor assists the TARDIS to get back where she belongs and then acknowledges her righteous anger, then spends time carefully repairing her and being loving to her in the only way he can. In “Birthright,” none of that happens.

John: Yes. Pretty much exactly yes. Robinson’s Doctor is someone who really does not care who or what gets hurt. He’s looking at the Big Picture, and everyone involved in this book is a detail. Which, I do understand, is what Robinson is trying for; he’s saying that this is the ultimate extension of the Doctor as the NAs portray him, but...there’s a limit to how far you can push the character and still have him be someone you want to come back and read about next month. This is about as far as it can go, I think. When he’s a pointless dick to Benny, Ace and the TARDIS in one book (and it is, as far as we can tell, utterly pointless--there’s never a reason for him not to let Ace or Benny in on his master plan) then we’re probably pushing the envelope. I think there’s a good reason that after ‘Iceberg’, we get a solid five novels of him getting his comeuppance for this kind of thing.

Dee: I know they were trying for the virus metaphor here. It doesn’t work, though, and a large part of that is that they have already done that with Ishtar. This isn’t new, it’s not novel, and there’s no sense of warmth or caring behind it. Amy and Rory weren’t supposed to get trapped in the TARDIS; Bennie and Ace were set up. Eleven cares deeply about Rory and Amy and Sexy, and he hurts deeply at the end. Seven just waltzes in. And if he wants Ace to be less bitter, he could stop poking and prodding her, by the way.

John: Yeah. This is a Doctor who is going out of his way to be the most manipulative dick he can possibly be. It never feels like Jared Khan or the Charrl are the kinds of threats that he needs to go eight million miles out of his way to deal with in the specific way he does (unless you buy into Muldwych’s “the Charrl are the nicest, bestest, sweetest, gentlest carnivorous insects that plan to wipe out the human race and use the pitiful survivors to incubate their eggs” bit, which was a pretty rough example of ‘tell, don’t show’ by itself.) This feels like the author wrote a normal plot, and at every stage where chance, coincidence or happenstance would normally occur, he just wrote in, ‘And the Doctor was behind that too’ without ever turning the story inside out to figure out what the Doctor was thinking when he did something. (Which is, I suppose, a point in favor of the predestination paradox idea...this is a book that can literally only work if at some point Ace and Benny sat down and told him everything that happened, and he said to himself, ‘Bugger, that was stupid. But I guess I’ve got to do it now!’)

Dee: It was doing OK... not great, but OK... until Ace knocked out Benny. From there, I just wanted to throw the book. Before that, I was at least enjoying watching Benny chasing around fin-de-siecle London. It was marginally entertaining, and as I said, Robinson did a far, far better job of it than some others. I found myself wishing that not all the East Enders had hearts of gold under their shabby exteriors, but that’s not an unexpected way to draw stock characters. But after that... just no. I didn’t care how it ended.

John: Do you care how this chat about ‘Birthright’ ends?

Dee: RAGE HISS SPIT AND FYI I AM NOT ENJOYING “ICEBERG” EITHER!!! **pantpantwhew** OK, I feel a little better now.

John: Very few people do. Enjoy ‘Iceberg’, that is. Still, we’re going to give it our best effort next time!

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