Sunday, 26 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles

Terra in the Philes

Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
by Michael Moorcock
Publisher: BBC Books
Language English
ISBN: 9781846079832

I’ve been "umming" and "ahhing" about what to write about this novel since before I finished reading it. This is a tough one for me and I feel really split. Here’s why...

When I was a kid I read those brilliant old Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories (starting with Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowman) that were on sale literally everywhere books could be bought.I literally had around 60 of them at one point... many of them put together from an old second hand book shop and some of the rest bought brand new, probably from W. H. Smith’s at Liverpool Street Station... they were always a rich source of good books back in the early to mid-seventies. Shops weren’t as bereft of interesting stock back then like they are nowadays. And this was, of course, at a time when I was not quite yet old enough to recognise the “evils of the novelisation” that were embedded in the unwary general public’s consciousness... or as Woody Allen referred to tie-in novelisations in one of his true masterpieces, Manhattan, “an American phenomenon that is truly moronic”.

I stopped reading these things in the mid-80s and “put away childish things” as the biblical reference sometimes goes, depending on translation... well okay, I still am quite, um, childlike in my approach to life to be honest but... whatever... the practical upshot is that I stopped reading Doctor Who novels back in the 80s sometime. Okay, my first point hopefully made.

Part of what replaced these novels for me, along with the works of my favourite writer Philip K. Dick, were the works of one of my all time favourite writing heroes Michael Moorcock. His Jerry Cornelius and Elric and Hawkmoon tales were completely captivating and rivetting to me in those days (and probably still would be if I had time to read them all again these days). Anyone who has read my review of the movie version of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel The Final Programme (right here) will know how much I revere the man... so when I heard at a Q&A session with Moorcock after that particular screening in London that he’d just written a Doctor Who novel... well it was a no brainer for me to put it on my Christmas list, that’s for sure.

Santa came along bearing various gifts including an abundance of reading materials and, since I don’t get time to read these days (no more long train journeys for me at present) it’s pretty much taken me this long to get to it. But get to it I did and, although I can’t say that I didn’t exactly enjoy it, it was certainly less than the novel I’d been expecting (especially after I’d heard that a certain “Captain Cornelius” would be appearing in it.

Now then... I couldn’t absolutely put my finger on how to express my feeling as to why this novel fails in some ways, until I read one of Hypnogoria’s reviews of a Doctor Who episode some weeks back (Hypnogoria’s site can be found here) in which, when talking about the great Neil Gaiman, who incidentally is quoted giving a positive review on the front cover of the UK hardback edition of Mr. Moorcock’s book, he said

“And as much as I admire the the man’s works, I was also worried whether he could actually produce something that felt like ‘proper’ Doctor Who. After all, many name authors have written pieces for universes other than their own and, sad to say, have come a cropper (names withheld to protect the guilty).”

I think the pertinent part of that little chunk is the phrase “ written pieces for universes other than their own" because, what I think Mr. Moorcock has given us with his novel is, in fact, fine as a stand-alone novel... just not a very good fit with the franchise/universe he’s been asked to write about. And that’s not necessarily his fault either.

Ok, so allow me to elaborate just a little on this.

Bear in mind I’ve not exactly had any experience at all of this, so my guesses at the process and effect of writing fiction here may be best taken with a pinch of salt. When you’re writing for a long established character you can probably get away with being a little off and making slight errors of judgement because I suspect the reader’s familiarity with the characters is enough to smooth things over and allow the words coming out of those characters mouths and the actions and mannerisms of those characters to kind of adapt themselves in the reader’s brain and fill in unconsciously over any slight discrepancies in their words and deeds. However, there needs to be at least a good sense of the characters inner and outer workings there in order to kick start this imaginary process in the reader... the author has to meet them at least 50% of the way I’d imagine. But in The Coming of the Terraphiles... things just felt wrong. The Doctor was doing and saying, it seemed to me, most unDoctor like things... and Amy Pond wasn’t a whole lot better either. I realised as I was reading this that The Doctor isn’t as much of a blank cypher as I’d imagined he would be because, it has to be said, this is all set in a very Moorcock universe.

Moorcock’s multiverse is a concept which The Doctor has much familiarity with in this novel and it kinda grates against what you know of The Doctor from TV. Since the multiverse seems to play such an important role in the lives of all beings in the galaxy, one almost wonders why you’ve not heard him speaking of it before in the TV show... seeing as it’s pretty much all that’s talked about here. Also, the sense of whimsy and love of the ridiculous, while all good Doctor traits, are just way over the top on what we’d get out of the character on TV. But... and this is where it gets interesting... I think I know why this is all a little out of kilter.

When I saw Mr. Moorcock doing Q and A after a screening of The Final Programme at the NFT last year, he explained that he’d written The Coming of the Terraphiles before the Matt Smith and Amy Pond episodes had even been aired (and possibly before they’d been shot) and that all he had to go on were detailed descriptions of the characters etc. Well that’s a pretty big burden placed on the writer right there if you ask me... I’m sure Mr. Moorcock felt no incongruity between what he was writing and what would eventually become the Matt Smith incarnation of The Eleventh Doctor because, frankly, he had no idea really of how they should be written.

As such then... I’m surprised he did as well as he did. It’s still not great Doctor Who, however.

What it is though, if you forget about the clash between the characterisation in this novel as opposed to what eventually became the on-screen counterpart, is a very entertaining Michael Moorcock novel. The story of a hidden object suspected of being the prize in an intergalactic games competition which claims The Doctor as one of the team players (he's particularly good, it seems, and more superior than the two Judoon competitors he goes up against, in the difficult sport of cracking nuts with a sledge-hammer) in what is pretty much a multiversal road movie style plot (or is that spaceway plot?) is not going to fail to bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded reader, with its sly literary references peppered constantly throughout... including hefty references to the legend of Robin Hood (especially the Errol Flynn version) and also some welcome references to Barsoom (which I guess you could expect from Mr. Moorcock, given his associations with the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs).

So even though I didn’t enjoy my return to reading the good Doctor’s adventures in print, I did at least get a smashing Michael Moorcock novel out of it (which wouldn’t look too out of place with the style of his Dancers At The End Of Time series I suspect, from what I remember of them nearly three decades since reading them). Definitely a big thumbs up if you’re a fan of Moorcock but not such a big thumbs up if you’re a fan of Doctor Who.

Hopefully they’ll give him another crack at the character soon, is my hope.

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