Before ploughing ahead, I’d like to begin with an offer. I actually received the Interference books from someone at the Bookcrossing website so I’m compelled to pass them on again now that they’ve been read. But I’d rather let someone here have them, so if you’d like to borrow them next, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org (with the subject line Interference) by next Friday and I’ll post them along. Obviously there’s going to be more than one so I’ll pull a name ‘out of the hat’ and let you know. Assuming you do want to after reading what I have to say.
Expectations were probably quite high when Interference was published, a two novel, multi-Doctor experience authored by Lawrence Miles, whose previous novel Alien Bodies was an instant classic and perhaps the culmination of some of the various storylines which had threaded through all of the novels since the series began, particularly the Sam-arc. Returning companions, mythology developments and perhaps a war all wrapped up in six hundred pages of Total Whoness.
So, assuming they haven’t skipped to the prologue, this reader at the turn of the century, for whom this is the next chunk of their favourite series, will have been greeted by a foreword from Miles which talks about the kind of political agenda the book doesn’t have; then an note from then commissioning editor Steve Cole, which between the lines indicates that these books aren’t going to be like anything they’ve read before which has a ring of that note in Douglas Adams’ So Long And Thanks For All The Fish which suggests the reader skips forward a few pages ahead if they’re expecting business as usual because there’s a good bit with Marvin the Paranoid Android; then the contents page and copyright notice in the wrong order followed by a dictionary definition of the word Utopia (yes really).
Finally, there is a dedication which quotes from Marshal ‘the medium is the message’ McLuhan, J.G. Ballard and James Stewart before thanking someone called Andrew Vogel who apparently changed the direction of the book with one carelessly chosen sentence. Everything in this is thematically connected with the novel, essentially suggesting that there’s no such thing as original thought because the media is already quietly filling in what our dreams and aspirations should be.
He’s not wrong -- I do spend half my time trying to battle against being a sheep, hoping against hope that creating a sense of rebellion isn’t just another form of control. But lets not forget that the reader is already seven pages into the book and the story hasn’t begun, almost as though the wary fan can’t be trusted not to take what’s about to happen the wrong way. I could describe what a new series version of this would be like, but I’ve already written about five hundred words and I don’t want to fall into the same trap.
When the novel itself finally does arrive, it’s a sprawl, a mass of ideas and incidents all of which in the end tell a non-traditional story in a fairly avant-garde fashion, in which narrative drive takes a back seat to structure and whose synopsis can’t help ending up being a list. As well as a tradition third person style, Miles' story is related as diary entries, didacticism, stream of conscience, authorial interventions screenplays and even a poster. Each of the chapter titles also includes a statement of intent -- so chapter one is called Gibberish (introducing Mr Llewis and all his neurosese).
The inevitable cinematic touchstone this time is Tarantino’s films, with the overall story separated into separate portions, all run after one another with the linkages becoming apparent as the narrative progresses.
The Eighth Doctor plot is about how aliens are trying to sell a weapon, The Cold on Earth and how Sarah Jane sets out to stop them, Sam being used as a test rat in an utopia seeking to deepen its purpose, Fitz isolated from everyone and lost in time and Eighth spends a spell either being tortured or in a prison cell discussing his own anomalous politics with another inmate.
The Third Doctor’s section concerns itself with a bizarre incident on the planet Dust at the end of that incarnation, in which he and Sarah-Jane become mixed up with a travelling circus and a lump of plot (for want of a better description) which has strayed into his era from the Eighth Doctor novels (he spends some of the time wondering if he’s stumbled into someone else’s adventure and he obviously has).
It falls short of being a hyperlink drama because although each book is split into two sections -- the Eighth Doctor and Third Doctor’s own adventures -- everything is still fundamentally linked in ways which are only apparent in the closing fifty pages and eventually dovetail together. There’s also a framing story about the Doctor and would you believe I.M. Foreman set on a planet somewhere.
All of which is an oversimplification of the action because like Alien Bodies, this is a book of ideas. There are hundreds of them, spilling out across every page either in dialogue or descriptions but unlike Alien Bodies in which they were hung on a fairly tight mostly traditional Doctor Who narrative, most of them here only broadly coalescing now and then, and because there’s such a bewildering prevalence of them it’s difficult to decide which are the most important and should be stored up in the memory in case they’re invoked later. This is probably the first novel in which a notebook would be handy, which is odd because although it’s good that Miles is attempting to challenge the reader, should there be any Doctor Who novel in which its good to have a notebook handy?
Once I turned though to the final page of the opus, I was feeling fatigued, slightly jaded, angry with the way some of the characters had been treated and rather depressed. One of the criticisms leveled at recently deceased director Ingmar Bergman is that these are the emotions that his films evoke -- but at least, even in the darkest of his stories Winter Light there’s an element of hope. After reading these two books I literally feel as though Miles has set out to deliberately ruin the franchise for me.
I’m not, for example, the kind of person who really wants every potential mystery in the Whoniverse solved -- I like not knowing how Eighth became Ninth and the details of the tv time war. Miles seems intent on answering questions when I’m not sure people have really ever asked the question. Do we need to know for example who I.M. Foreman is and what the junkyard might be really? I was quite happy to think he was a bloke who owned a junkyard that was a junkyard, but Miles provides an elaborate back story which whilst fascinating and clever, probably, reads as being as bolted on as it is.
Same goes for the question of why The Doctor persists in regime changes in remote colonies and the like and blatantly ignores the kind of despotism which is perpetrated on his beloved Earth. The already mentioned Aristotelian discourse on the subject between the time lord and inmate, whilst interesting, definitely, stops the time lord from doing what we’ve ‘tuned in’ to see which is the Doctor being heroic and doing heroic things which he totally fails to do with the exception of a neat bit of teleportation created through bloody (as in O-positive) equations.
The Sam subplot has more relevance to what constitutes the main story, again it seems like a fudge when you consider that it’s her final adventure. Given that she’s spent large portions of her tenure separated from the Doctor, perhaps it is fitting that she should be separated from the Doctor, the real one anyway. But after initially breaking into an arms fair and meeting Sarah-Jane she doesn’t become what you’d call an active participant as she’s then introduced to a dying colony and subsequently dropped into a series of fantasies based on her own television expectation what space adventure should be so that her actions can be observed and commented on.
Miles is obviously attempting to demonstrate what Ballard was talking about within the actual story, and it’s to be applauded for having something to say, but is this really the time to be saying it and with this character? Often described as a proto-Rose, she’s actually developed far further than her tv counterpart, the highlights of her tenure being Vampire Science and the events of Seeing I in which she demonstrated that crucially, unlike Rose she had a cause and perhaps an even greater strength.
Each of the different scenarios described here (using the admittedly ingenious device of a screenplay) have their own quotient of excitement (of course Brian Blessed as Rassilon!) and though they say a lot about her loyalty to the Doctor (an idealised version of whom also appears) and what Sam’s capable of, none of them in the end mean all that much and in the end become rather tiresome. To see her going out on a whimper as part of a far larger construct than a blaze of excitement is major a disappointment.
But that’s as nothing to the treatment that Fitz gets at the hands of the author the ramifications of which are bound to spill out over the course of the next few dozen stories and has nothing to do with the character who I so admired in the last couple of books. More than once I found myself saying out loud ‘You can’t do that’ and you can’t -- well alright you can, but you eventually end up with a lot of really pissed off fans. And apart from anything else it all seems to out of character for him.
Far more enjoyable are the sectors related to Sarah-Jane and the aforementioned alien weapons, which mostly inhabit the first book and generally provides the author with his chance to talk about the international arms trade. For once Sarah gets to be a journalist and a very good one and if anything she’s the one doing everything you’d expect the Doctor to be doing and it’s to Miles credit that the older version isn’t a million miles away from the extrapolation that appears in the new television spin-off, As with School Reunion, there’s some real nostalgia when K9 rattles onto the scene and you can’t help smiling when she’s befriending an Ogron.
I prefer the tv’s version of her being re-united with the Doctor when the TARDIS hived into view and she chides him for leaving her behind all those years ago. Here it’s all done straight to character and she asks none of the questions which you’d expect. It’s not a bad scene, it’s just not the conversation you’d expect them to have after all those years. It’s in these sections that Miles seems most at ease -- his characterisation of Llewis, the David Brentian arms-dealer are very precious, particular as he deals with his own personal demon in the shape of Perter bloody Morgan his office rival.
Obviously a younger version of Sarah appears in the Third Doctor portions and she’s definitely the version from Pertwee’s final year. His characterisation of Third seems more like a comment on how the character was portrayed in the Target novelisations than as a fully rounded character but perhaps that’s to be expected when there’s only a couple of hundred pages to play with, he isn’t enjoying his own adventure and the action is focused more on a visiting Faction Paradox splinter group, who I.M. Foreman is and creating another problem which will only effect the Doctor in his Eighth incarnation in the style of The Two Doctors. Ultimately though it’s in the second of these sections at the close of the second novel that the story really dragged and never mind interference I began to feel resistance.
Miles rather shoots himself in the foot because by presenting the epic conclusion of the Eighth Doctor story and Sam‘s beautifully written denouement in the middle of the book he provides the emotional climax to the story. And then it goes on for another hundred pages when the reader is spent and want to go on to something else. I’d wager this whole story might have worked just as well if the Eighth and Third plots had been presented in totally separate volumes, allowing the former to have much greater focus and the latter more room to breath, keeping the framing chat between the Doctor and his old friend to link them together. Perhaps a commercial imperative led to each story being separated across the volumes so that readers weren’t tempted to skip the Pertwee volume, but there would certainly have been enough in there to make it essential. Not that I’d want to second guess the author.
In the crush it would be easy not to notice that a new companion is introduced. The adorably named Compassion is one of the 'people' who is first seen on earth trying to offload the alien The Cold to Llewis. She part of the construct of the narrative, something of a plot point in relation to Fitz's story but quite a tragic figure. She's described at one point as a fuller version of Nicole Kidman with less dress sense and an English accent so at least there's someone to have in mind during future adventures. Like Fitz, here continuation aboard ship seems to be as a result of the Doctor not being sure what do with her otherwise rather than thinking she'll be a valid member of the crew -- hopefully like Fitz, she'll be given a big role in the next adventure which makes us care about her.
What you’re inevitably left with in the end is a real marmite of a book, and certainly I have seen reviews online from people who adore the novels. I’m disappointed to say, that, despite usually championing the avante-guard, the post-modern, the experimental, the problem I have in the end despite having some wonderfully written passages and wanting to stretch the mythology of the series, experimenting with what’s there to create some new things, it doesn’t hang together as a coherent story. It’s too busy answering questions no one’s asked and presenting other quandaries which subsequent authors are going to have to twist their brain in order to find a solution. It commits the sin of becoming too self-congratulatory, too convinced of its own brilliance and eventually gets lost up its own arse. Sorry Lawrence.