The Scarlet Empress
I was a bit disappointed to hear that the Eighth Doctor radio stories which are appearing on BBC7 through into February will be the story of the time before his regeneration. I rather like the mystery, the fact that nothing about his era is predetermined, the details about the time war, how he became Ninth. Does this mean that it's in fact Ninth who was involved in said war, sometime after Eighth took a passionate, brilliant, dangerous decision one final time? Of course my fantasy, if it has to happen, he'll be regenerating in episode eight after defeating the Cybermen, a big bang, a musical flourish and a familiar Manchunian twang saying 'Oh, fantastic!'
But all that's in the future. I'm back in 1998 and ready to praise Paul Magrs, The Scarlet Empress a magnificent BBC novel which I think for the first time conscious bends the flexible format around a literary genre, the fantasy romantic quest story. The Doctor and Sam are taking in some R&R on the ancient planet of Hyspero when they get caught up in an adventure for Iris Wyldethyme, a similarly bohemian timelady renegade who is tasked with a mission for The Scarlet Empress, the tyranicaly monarch of the world. They travel across the landscape in Iris's TARDIS, a London bus which is even less reliable than The Doctor's type-40 (it's smaller on the inside than the outside) and along the way they collect members of a band of adventures, their glory days ended.
That's the framework anyway. What Magrs has recognized, however, is that a quest is only really about the journey the getting from A to B. The ultimate goal is almost always an anti-climax and so it proves to be here. But what a journey. The author threads in references and influences from inevitably Tolkein, but also Pratchett, Lewis Carroll, J M Barrie, Frank Baum and probably a dozen other writers I've never read. It's also effectively a road movie set in the fantasy realm, intensely episodic, the characters all learning something about themselves and each other along the way.
Hyspero unlike many planets that appear in Doctor Who feels like a consistent world - it has continents and races and the entire population isn't all huddled together in one area. Once again the novels were able to witness an entire civilization, albeit one with a somewhat post-modern history. This isn't just the population of one house or village speaking for a whole world as is so often the case and given the sheer number of different landscapes and environments traversed it's massive. This is the Tolkein influence and sometimes its hard not to think of New Zealand as the travelers get lost in a mountain range or a bog. The Scarlet Empress of the title is certainly a reference to the 1934 film with Marlene Dietrich at least in terms of how the succession in power occurs on Hyspero.
"I mean you've got to love any story in which The Doctor uses Vladimir Prop's narrative theory to get out of a scrape."
I mean you've got to love any story in which The Doctor uses Vladimir Propp's narrative theory to get out of a scrape. For the uninitiated, Propp reduced all stories to a series of thirty-one functions and when The Doctor is captured and is called upon to tell endless stories about his life in order to survive, he suggests that all he need do is create a list of monsters, villainous plans, companions, locales and heroic actions and the captors could simply construct their own adventures randomly and satisfactorily from the ingredients. He's very conscious of the repetitions of action that occur in his own life.
It's exceedingly metafictional that way, with both The Doctor and Iris referring to how their lives are really a string of adventures joined together and there's a particularly neat interchange towards the end in which they discuss exactly which genre The Doctor seems to spend most of his time in. One of the props which is returned to throughout is the Aja'ib an ancient book filled with stories and magic and mystery which could just as well be a metaphor for the Doctor's life or the collection of incidents in that life we fans are collecting. The Doctor even describes his life in terms of story titles; in one memorable moment he looks at one problems and fears that it might be the brain of Morbius all over again.
The main theme is of transformation. At some point in the novel, each of the characters and even, eventually the whole world goes through some kind of renewal or alteration either through a change to their genetic makeup or the merging of beings. Quite rightly as the regular characters, Sam and The Doctor are immune although the former reflects on the three years she spent away from the timelord and growing up and the latter for once largely sits back and lets himself be carried along by everyone else. He does get a final heroic flourish however, which feels like The Caves of Androzani if everything had gone right for him.
It's also I think the first novel since Alien Bodies that very specifically strives to be a piece of literature as well as a tie-in to the long running television series. Throughout the narrative swaps from a first to third person perspective with Sam, Iris, the other travelers and even Doctor describing and interpreting the action, the latter being very self-conscious about it. Although there's all the dialogue you would expect from a Doctor Who story, there are also very dense descriptions and flights of fantasy with some characters and bits of landscape requiring an imaginary leap of faith to fit within the reader's imagination.
This book marks the introduction of Iris, who through lashings of back story and very distinctive characterization she comes across as vividly as The Doctor. There are plenty of riffs on the nature of time and experience, with Iris taking credit for her friends adventures to the point that even he isn't entirely sure who re-opened the tombs of the Cybermen on Telos. The author apparently and quite rightly has a very clear notion of who would be playing the various incarnations of Iris, and this model is apparently Beryl Reed which helps the visualization of the character enormously. In the audios she's played by Katy Manning and that doesn't quite sit right for me.
"What's obviously clever about Iris is it's you're constantly having to remind yourself that she was never in the television series"
What's obviously clever about Iris is it's you're constantly having to remind yourself that she was never in the television series and it's a real tragedy that she wasn't picking fun at his various incarnations or standing shoulder to shoulder against the Master. They could have had real fun, as Magrs obviously is, having her show up being played by a different actress with a different personality. The old series was never as complex in its thinking although that probably had more to do with what was acceptable on television at the time than anything else. That was a family show and this really isn't a family book although I'd love a new fan to read this and see exactly how flexible the format really can be.
But I also loved that she was constantly having to remind the Doctor about his own life as we discover that the Doctor isn't all that sure about his own timeline, and that not every detail can immediately be called upon. It seems right that he shouldn't remember every adventure, every planet overthrown and life saved and this recalls to an extent the exchange in School Reunion when it becomes apparent that Tenth hasn't mentioned any of his previous companions to Rose. He's constantly about moving forward, even when that's into the past, not looking back.
Over time, the novel version of the Eighth Doctor is becoming increasingly coherent and he's slowly becoming as familiar as any of the others, with all of the familiar gestures and whatnot. But it also feels increasingly natural, the verbal ticks coming from the venture at hand rather than being plugged into to create distinctiveness. In the Afterword (its that kind of book), Magrs remarks on how refreshing it is to be writing for a Doctor whose only a few steps ahead of the audience:
'No more all-knowing prophet-like Doctor. I was always pleased when the Doctor was content to simply blunder into things, and let himself meet fabulous characters in that sweetly picaresque, eighteenth century way of his.' Which is exactly the man who appears in this novel and is I think a legacy of the Eighth Doctor's long era in the new series, returning that unique sense of adventure which was largely lost after the Baker Mk #1 era.
Of the rest of the menagerie, the figures who stuck in my mind were Gila the acerbic walking lizardman, Cassandra (oh yes) the very first Scarlet Empress and the cause of all the trouble and Gharib, your worst nightmare of a librarian too afraid for you to look at anything in case you either misinterpret or mishandle the books. One of the few problems I did have with the book was keeping track of all the characters, especially towards the end as the merry band had grown to a considerable degree. I'm sure I spent a whole chapter in there thinking two different characters were the same one which is ironic because later two other characters did exactly that. But all of the descriptions are very vivid and it's more than likely because I read the book over an extended period rather than in one or two sittings. This is possibly not something to dip in and out of even if it doesn't overall have a very complex multithreaded story.
"If there's a criticism of the book, it's that by including all of these other great characters Sam gets rather overshadowed largely being someone for Iris to talk to who isn't The Doctor. "
If there's a criticism of the book, it's that by including all of these other great characters Sam gets rather overshadowed largely being someone for Iris to talk to who isn't The Doctor. It's to his credit though that the character still remains colourful, not afraid to give her opinions on everything even when it isn't required and when she and The Doctor are separated once again, she stoic rather than panicky for a change. But then I've just remembered there is a rather lovely moment when she faces up to some sea creatures who want to envelope her into their collective (I think) were she realizes she still loves the Doctor which is just devastating.
As you can see from the length of the review, I really enjoyed this book appearing as it does from a whole other world and point of view to the new series and all of the merchandising thereof. It occurred to me the other day that at present Big Finish are the only company published material about the old Doctors and although they're doing a sterling job of that, it seems a shame that this older material will largely be missed by new fans, known only to collectors and available only secondhand.
If this had been any other kind of book it would have been relaunched and republished many times in the past eight years and packaged right it could appeal to a whole new audience. Perhaps when the new ipod-style books become more prevalent and people will be as comfortable buy novels online as they are music, the BBC could rerelease the entire back catalogue at budget price. It'd certainly beat ferreting through eBay.
Anyway The Janus Conjunction next and judging by the blurb we're back in space opera territory ...