Monday, August 26, 2013

Chat: Tragedy Day

John: I don’t know why, but reading ‘Tragedy Day’ reminds me of nothing so much as the scene at the end of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, where George Carlin watches Bill and Ted practice and looks at the camera, shrugs, and says, “They get better…” It’s that kind of book. It’s so obviously the juvenalia that even ‘The Highest Science’ wasn’t, a sophomore slump from an author who would figure out exactly how to make work what fails here. Or was that just me? I mean, I know you weren’t fond of it either, but did you feel like it was Gareth Roberts trying really hard to make things click and just not having it all sorted out yet?

Dee: I don’t think he’d really thought through how to make the characters relatable. I couldn’t find any, except for Benny in a couple of parts, who felt like real people. That’s partly in an attempt to show just how decadent this culture was, but it was heavy-handed and really made the book a slog. It felt like no one talked to him about how to make things lighter. Once again, I am going to put a hell of a lot of blame on the editor.

John: I do think that’s part of the problem, yes. The previous five books had a lot of story hooks; “Ace and the Doctor are in a simmering conflict over the Doctor’s manipulaions”, “Benny is disenchanted with traveling in the TARDIS and contemplating leaving,” “There’s a shadowy figure playing with alterations to the Doctor’s personal history,” et cetera. Those were a lot of things that could spark a writer’s imagination. This? “The Doctor’s just traveling now, and he’s got companions he gets along with.” It feels rather flat. But I don’t think the novel does its best even with the things it’s got. Olleril never really feels funny enough to be a parody, and it feels too contrived to be real. Luminus is too pathetic to be a serious group of baddies, and too murderous to be joke villains. The slaags work neither as serious monsters or comedy monsters. Everything feels like it falls between two stools.

DeeL No, I don’t think that’s the problem. Ace and the Doctor are still fragile, and there’s a lot that could be done interpersonally with them to show that. You don’t rebuild that easily. Instead, they’re split up. I do agree that he couldn’t decide what he wanted to write, but I don’t think it was a lack of story hooks. And there are serious problems with the antagonists, all of them. Not just Luminus and its pubescent leader (which, ewww) but the big bads at the end, whose names I have forgotten.

John: I almost said “The Monks of Felescar”, but those were the guys from ‘Love and War’ who wrote that book. It says a lot that they’re more memorable than the big bads in this book. These guys were the Friars of Pangloss, but I had to look that up. And yes. They’re all utterly unmotivated. Crispin is taking over the planet and killing most of its inhabitants because, um...Reasons, and the Friars of Pangloss are EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL! Because of Evilness! That was actually the only bit of humor I thought worked, although it may not have been intentional. The Friars were so ludicrously and unmotivatedly evil that if it was parody, it worked. If it wasn’t, then oh dear.

Dee: And the way Crispin died was so very anticlimactic. It would have been one thing if he’d been portrayed throughout as a kid, but he was portrayed as a short adult with as many maturity issues as your average MRA Redditor. Which, of course, makes the Benny crush thing even squickier. I am glad Roberts got through this phase, because if you had only given me this book to read I never would have watched any of his episodes.

John: Anticlimactic and unpleasant, too. I mean, yes, he wasn’t portrayed as a kid, but I still felt like he was being killed off because That’s What You Do With a Who Villain, and Roberts didn’t even think about how it might come off in the book. There’s a very real disconnect, I think, between the way the book plays with the tropes of Doctor Who and the way it functions as a novel, and a lot of the issues come from the way that it breaks away from its own structure in order to make a joke about Doctor Who. Oh, and Forgwyn a Marty Stu, or just a badly-executed effort at making a sympathetic non-regular?

Dee: I am seriously hoping the latter. He’s pretty incompetent, really, and I would hope Roberts thinks more highly of himself.

John: And Forgwyn’s mom...actually, you know what? That I’m going to give at least mild props to. There’s something interesting about a character who’s sworn to kill the Doctor while owing him a debt of honor, and I like the way that he didn’t go the cliched route of making her deeply conflicted. She’s not happy about it, but she knows exactly who she is and what she’s about, and she is not going to let her guilt get in the way of her family’s future. It’s some good stuff. If the book had focused more about it, or even just had more stuff like it, I’d have enjoyed it more.

Dee: Yes. We didn’t need the stupid Big Bads. I would have loved a well-done novel with a fragile-relationshipped Doctor being pursued by a really competent assassin! Ah well. A book we didn’t get.

John: Oh, well. At least we’ll get more Cornell soon. Because it’s back to the audios, for our first listen to the one, the only Bernice Summerfield! Join us then!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tragedy Day

It's hard to be nice to 'Tragedy Day'. There are two basic tacks you can take when writing about it; you can either say that it proves that Gareth Roberts was really better suited to write something other than the Seventh Doctor, or you can say that it was a work of juvenalia that sorted through ideas he later did a much better job of handling in his other work. Let's do both, shall we?

First, let's talk about Gareth and the Seventh Doctor. It's become more and more obvious over the years that Gareth Roberts is a warm, fluffy, huggable teddy bear of a writer who loves writing gloriously silly romps. He is a champion of the Graham Williams era, and has done an excellent job of pastiching it and capturing its humor, wit and charm. He's written for Tennant and Smith and Eccleston, and every one of his scripts is filled with glee and laughter. His Big Finish audios are comedy classics. In short, Gareth Roberts = fun and frolic and froth.

But the New Adventures were never particularly frothy, even after 'No Future' when they finally reined in the apocalyptic dysfunctionality of the TARDIS crew to manageable levels. Ace remains a hardened soldier and full-tilt badass, the Seventh Doctor is still a manipulative bastard (and I'm suddenly picturing the Tarantino Doctor Who story, "Manepulativ Basterd") and the Whoniverse is Grown Up and Serious. Trying to do a comedy in this line of books is like swimming the English Channel dragging an anchor. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's difficult enough to make you wonder why anyone bothered.

In 'Tragedy Day', you can feel the anchor a lot. There are at least three too many gruesome deaths of innocent people to really enjoy the comedy surrounding it, and even the death of the main villain feels awkward and unpleasant because (spoilers) Roberts came up with the bright idea of making the villain a twelve-year-old kid. Which yes, funny that a kid is behind everything, but less funny that a kid gets crushed by girders. There's a constant, unpleasant dissonance in tone that makes the work feel like a Frankenbook, comedy and horror stitched so badly together that you can see the joins.

And, to shift to the second tack, the comedy isn't all that funny. Everything Roberts does here, he does better in 'The One Doctor'. A villain with a scheme to turn a whole planet into a 50s sitcom is a vaguely amusing juxtaposition of adventure-story tropes and mundane domesticity, but it doesn't do the job nearly as well as forcing the companion to assemble dimensionally-transcendent shelving to placate psychotic furniture-packaging robots, while the Doctor is on a Quiz Show of Doom. Roberts got the hang of this as he went along ('The Lodger' is another good example of him hitting that sweet spot between "normal life" and "madman with a box") but 'Tragedy Day' goes on too long and doesn't have enough jokes to make it work, even if it didn't also have the minor problem of being bleak and miserable. (Although some of that may be ironic; the Friars of Pangloss are so over-the-top EEEEEEVIL! that it almost does become funny through the back door. But there's too much going on to be able to make that stick.)

Basically, the nicest thing you can say about 'Tragedy Day' is, "He gets better." And he really really let's just look at this one as an early work and move on.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Chat: No Future

John: The one thing I’m going to admit that the detractors of this book have right is that Paul Cornell has no idea what punk rock was about in the Seventies. Punk wasn’t actually about the political importance of anarchy; ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was taking the piss out of people who cared about that sort of thing. It appropriated the symbols of politics in service of nihilism, suggesting that the only real use for political symbols and movements was in displaying them in front of people who hated them and watching the sparks fly. If a real band had played a song called ‘Dissent Is Good’, like Plasticine did, someone would have cut their mike about thirty seconds in. That said, pretty good book, huh?

Dee: I loved it. I had such a good time reading it, and it’s one I’d go back and read again just for fun. The Brig, Danny, and oh my goodness the Monk... so entertaining.  If Cornell didn’t get punk, he did understand the Monk’s motivations perfectly. Also, origami.

John: It’s one I do go back and read again just for fun. Because it is fun. It’s so much fun. It is such a wonderful catharsis, after five solid books of “grim grim angst angst grouchy grouchy grouchy”, to see the Doctor win in such a magnificent, clever, spectacular, oh-my-freaking-grud-how-did-he-do that sort of way. It’s a clear influence on Moffat, now that I think about it; having the Doctor do something extraordinarily clever and wibbly-wobbly (if not actually timey-wimey in this case) that he waits to reveal to the audience until the last moment so as to preserve the wonderful gobsmacked-ness of it all is a very Moffat-y thing. And yes, origami is a Moffat-y thing too.

Dee: It’s the kind of thing he wishes he’d thought up first, yes. I wonder if Amy wasn’t in some way a recovery from Ace in the books. In some ways they have similar personalities. But really, I don’t want to compare this to Moffat too much. I want to talk about how much fun Benny is. I want to talk about the Brig’s perception and wisdom and his learning from his past experiences to keep from getting found out by the baddies. I want to talk about Ace’s being able to fool everyone. And I have to say, this is the book where I first found myself really liking Benny and seeing what everyone saw in her.

John: And coincidentally, this is the first book since ‘Love and War’ written by the guy who created her, and the first where he’s allowed to really play with her. You remember how I said that I felt like in ‘Love and War’ Benny wasn’t so much a part of the plot as a character who wandered through and explained her backstory? She doesn’t feel like that here. She feels like a proper viewpoint character, arguably the main character of the story, and she’s really good in that role. She’s the only person who has no trouble holding fast to her principles, because her principles are all about small kindnesses and human decency being the really important things when you get right down to it. And I think she’s vindicated in that, especially at the end where the Doctor symbolically restores his TARDIS to the blue box. (Which is now Cornell’s third book where the Doctor renounces his manipulative ways and vows to be a straightforward adventurer once more, but I forgive him that because it’s also a book where Ace learns that sometimes you gotta be sneaky.)

Dee: I agree. I think the events of Conundrum make it easier for her to do and say the things she does. She is really, really good to Danny and the other band members, and they appreciate it. Her reaction to the bomb is wonderful. I also like your point about Ace learning to be sneaky, but that is partly because she’s chasing something from someone who has the power to make her regret just about everything in her life. I love the red-clad woman bits of the book. At first, I thought they were a mind control device from the Monk. I was glad to be wrong.

John: No, they were awesomely fanwanky fanwank instead. (I find it amusing, by the way, that Craig Hinton reviewed this for Doctor Who Magazine and complained about how fanwanky it was to bring back so many old elements like the Chronovores, the Vardans and the Monk...and then he went on to write ‘The Quantum Archangel’. Bless his heart.) Actually, that’s something that takes some getting used to as I go back into the Wilderness Years stuff, how continuous the threading of continuity was through the work. It was like we were all speaking in a secret code back then, dropping all these references throughout each story as if to say to each other, “You get it, right? You’ve picked up on the secret messages that we’ve implanted into this TV tie-in, and you’re one of the We.” It makes more sense when you remember that these authors were really Internet-present back then during an era when that wasn’t as common, and that readers could go onto rec.arts.doctorwho and say to Paul directly, “I loved the ‘chap with ‘Wings’ reference!” It was a really weird sub-culture thing, I think, and you don’t see it at all anymore on the new series.

Dee: Having memory of the 70s makes me giggle at that because I remember not getting what the big deal was... it sounded like perfectly good music to me. I liked that part of it more than the in-joke for fandom. But I get what you’re saying there, of course. I just wasn’t a part of that culture. (I wonder if I’m going to be visited by a gatekeeper now? “You don’t like the joke because of the chap with the wings bit? You are NO TRUE WHOVIAN!”)

John: I hope not. I mean, I’ll admit that one of the weird things nowadays about the new series is that it’s so easy to get into. You can pick up everything you need to know about the new Doctor Who over the course of a week or so with Netflix, whereas back in the day, getting every single joke in ‘No Future’ probably involved a masterclass in British Popular Culture. (I didn’t get everything either. I mean, I maybe got more of the Doctor Who jokes than you did, but I have no idea who the Goodies or the Wombles are, and I don’t think I could even name a single Wings song.) But I like to think that I have enough perspective to understand that those things aren’t actually important, just because they’re ‘Doctor Who’ references. Trivia is called that for a reason, after all.

Dee: Back to the Brig... I loved the natural progression of his growth from the series. It made perfect sense to me, the Buddhism idea. At the beginning of the book, I was as stunned as I was supposed to be by his behavior, of course. When the explanation came through it almost made an audible click, it matched so perfectly.

John: Oh, yes, it’s a perfect evolution of the character, and a wonderful comment on the Buddhist threads that ran through the series in that era. Barry Letts, the producer, was famously converted to Buddhism not long before he took over Doctor Who, and he tried to work little subtle references to the attainment of enlightenment and the abandonment of worldly things. The Third Doctor’s regeneration is presented as a sort of Buddhist parable; in that light, having a Zen Brigadier was a perfect evolution. And since they never used the Brig much in the new series, we can imagine that this was how he finally wound up. YAY!

And on that note, it’s time to move on to a book that both of us liked, um...considerably less. Join us next time as we slog through ‘Tragedy Day’!