Monday, 24 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #31 – Goth Opera by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Goth Opera
By Paul Cornell

Here we go, then: The Missing Adventures.  Reading their parent series of New Adventures, this seemed inevitable.  There's been a growing number of references to things past, so why not spin the past off altogether?  After all, having Sylvester McCoy bumping into things that started with Jon Pertwee et al, or worse still Jon himself, isn't really in the spirit of a New series, fun as it can be.  It could be good for everybody, keeping things separate.

Peter Darvill-Evans says in his preface that these books will have the "flavour" of their era, and won't have "modern styles" such as "ultra-fast cutting".  Why you'd immediately ring up Paul Cornell for the first book, I don't know.  I'm not damning him, of course, as he's generally brilliant: a pioneer in moving Doctor Who into literature and making it feel, well, New.  Goth Opera dutifully captures the original characters, and by extension a bygone era of the show, but then it's also somewhat modern, and not something you could expect to see on screen in 1983.  Quality of the book aside, I wonder if any readers were disappointed by what is rather an about-face in terms of promise and product.

There are vampires, of course (which are as Doctor Who as any other monster, see State Of Decay), but contrary to the Stoker stereotype, many of them are young people.  We open with (relatively...  nice?) vampiric lovers, Jake and Madeleine, dancing through the skies and joking about eating a leukaemia sufferer.  Later there is a vampire baby, which is as David Lynch (rather than traditionally Doctor Who) creepy as it sounds.  Further on there is some pointed criticism of religious evangelism, enmeshed with a few references to familial sexual abuse, and yes: some fast cutting.  But at the end of the day, the first New Adventure was written by a guy who would rather have written for Tom Baker, and the New book Goth Opera directly follows is steeped in self-referential Classic Who nostalgia rather than anything "New".  It makes as much sense for the first Missing Adventure to be a wee bit progressive in return.

Don't panic, fellow anoraks: Cornell is as comfortable getting his fan-boy on as the Gary Russells and Terrances Dickses of the world.  Just look at No Future.  It's much less weird for Goth Opera to be steeped in continuity references than the former, since it's specifically set between two past adventures.  Cornell goes out of his way to show us the dust settling from Snakedance, and eyebrow-raisingly pre-empts the Black Guardian in Mawdryn Undead.  He even nudges us towards the TARDIS console re-design in The Five Doctors!  All of which is harmless and fitting enough, but I still hope that in future, the little note on the back cover telling us the two stories that bookend it will suffice.  (Still, there is something to be said for allowing just-finished adventures to come down a bit, as televised Doctor Who rarely had time for an epilogue.  But while Goth Opera does tantalisingly tease the idea of Tegan using her Mara experiences to better cope with vampirism, as the "snake in her head" prevents one from easily hypnotising her, it ultimately doesn't come to much as this is really more Nyssa's story.)

As it's a sequel to Blood Harvest, we're inevitably stuck with some of the same continuity.  The escaped vampire, Yarvin, has upgraded slightly from random vampire to progenitor of all vampires on Earth, with the lofty Dracula charm to match.  (He is still a bit of a random vampire, though.  You could totally swap him out with Dracula.).  The evil schemes are, at worst, new spins on Blood Harvest, but you won't need to have read it to understand them.  Nonetheless we're back on Gallifrey (and once again dabbling in The Thingummies Of Rassilon) for some of it, with Chapter Six bringing Romana back to continue her all-too-brief conversation with Ruathadvorophrenaltid, or "Ruath", one of the book's antagonists.  She's put to better use here.  (One could call such a mid-novel flashback a "modern technique", but one wouldn't want to make the Missing mission statement look any more fudged than it already is...)  Incidentally, this ends up as a delightful, if moderately fanwanky vignette, capturing Romana rather fabulously.  "When [Ruath's] hand reappeared, it had a staser pistol in it.  'Show me.'  'Oh, not you as well...'  Romana sipped her tea, frowning at the pistol.  'There's not much villainy left to be done over there, you know.  Everybody's had a go.'"  Before long she's distracting Drashigs in a miniscope and bumping into Sabalom Glitz.  Geeky it may be, but come to think of it...  has anybody got a time machine, so we can go back and request a full Romana novel or two?

Speaking of captured characters, it would be remiss not to look at this book's Classic crew.  The Fifth Doctor makes a canny adversary for vampires, as he embodies just the sort of scholarly puritanism you'd find Victorian authors hurling against the forces of darkness.  He's prim, polite, probably the exact opposite of vampiric debauchery.  Perhaps inevitably, he at one point appears to give in and offer himself up to the undead – but this, too, is a Fifth Doctor trait, or at least a Frontios one: the sudden, sinister lack of dependability that is secretly all part of his plan.  That's not to suggest Cornell has a rose-tinted view of this Doctor, which is good news for me since he's my least favourite.  (Sorry!)  During a dramatic moment his voice is "just a little too high to carry conviction," and through the ever-grouchy eyes of Tegan he seems like "a really dull Romper Room reject who'd rather play bloody cricket than do anything entertaining.”  And sure enough, there is cricket.  The Fifth Doctor here is a happy medium: he has his fustery, imperialist moments, when he seems a little too English and not quite enough alien, but then he's also a dashing heroic figure, a staunch moral voice against evil.  And come to think of it, that still sounds more like a wet-behind-the-ears public schoolboy let loose on the universe than a Time Lord, but then, c'est la Fifth Doctor.  At least he has that slightly blank-faced oddity during a few of Tegan's angrier outbursts, which paint him as slightly awkward and eh, a bit alien.

It's hard to tell how much Cornell is trying to capture the bolshy Australian and how much he simply may not like her.  Moments like "So, being Tegan she tried to butt in" blur the line somewhat.  She at least has a reason (the Mara) for being in a fouler-than-usual mood.  (The Doctor's reliance on her making the tea provides a rather unsung other reason.)  Goth Opera gives more attention to Nyssa, who (not a spoiler, see the cover) ends up a vampire herself.  Her "school prefect" sensibilities hold reassuringly firm, however, as the process is not complete, and as well as being believably petrified and self-loathing, she finds herself honestly wondering how this condition could be used to assist the Doctor, and possibly find (and elicit some kind of response from) the Master, about whom she is understandably still upset and just a little longing.  The great Nyssa-and-the-Master story has yet to be written, of course, but it's good of Cornell to devote some space to the issues that go all too unsaid on screen.  He's boxed in by continuity, unfortunately, which is one of the strict limits of the Missing Adventures series: you can't change who the characters are because we've seen the next episode.  But it's a good effort, and this companion, who often seems staid and dull next to a decidedly non-eccentric Doctor, really has her moments here.  Perhaps it's more obvious with the wealth of Big Finish material featuring Sarah Sutton, but there is a certain well of feeling to Nyssa underneath the frigid friendliness.

Regarding the plot, which is both a continuation of Blood Harvest and a separate entity, it holds together well.  Ruath believes vampirism is the destiny of the Time Lords (cuckoo!), and she's got a cockamamie plan to make the Earth permanently habitable (and populated) by vampires.  This isn't exactly a long-term plan – I was reminded of the 1998 movie Blade, which has its vamps trying to turn everybody into a vampire, which begs the unanswered question "Then what?" – but naturally, they'll march on Gallifrey next.  There's other insidious vampiric stuff left and right, sometimes cutting a little too fast to follow comfortably (sorry, Peter!), and the book glosses over much of the death and destruction that occurs, significantly to religious folk at an arena.  The Doctor, in particular, shrugs all this off; this has been attributed to Cornell's religious views at the time (he was just possibly not a fan) but it actually fits the rather Paul Cornell-ish quirk of rushing things at the end, as if he's just super excited to finish.  Incidentally, Paul: please work on that quirk.

Cornell at least fills it with memorable imagery, like a vampire child in the sewers, that horrific baby, and Jake and Madeleine casually flying to the moon.  It's those two that really separate Goth Opera's vampirism from the Hammer schlock exercise of Blood Harvest.  (As well as Blood Harvest secretly not being a "vampire novel" at all; despite the State Of Decay love-in, they were incidental to Agonal's plan.)  These are not Bela Lugosi fans, but people with a relationship and a history.  There's a moment where the Doctor suggests vampires aren't inherently evil, and sure enough, Jake and Madeleine end the novel on a note of hope.  Cornell, the old softie, once again cannot help himself.  But then we also have the Sinister American Evangelist With A Perverted Past, another victim of Cornell's religious stink-eye.  He has nary a nuance, and just is what he is – an obvious satire and a tool for the plot.  His followers are even less interesting, sadly.  Author's personal feelings aside, religious satire is a depressingly easy go-to for bad guys.

As (arguably) befits a Missing range, there's something in-between, and maybe less than spectacular about Goth Opera.  It definitely feels like Cornell is having a good time writing it, letting his hair down and indulging continuity, and it rollicks along entertainingly.  It also tosses out some interesting and contradictory ideas about Gallifrey's past, and features the novel range's first full-blown regeneration.  (Which is all a bit New, no?  Seriously, I don't mind at all, but why did they choose Paul Cornell for this?  Okay, shutting up.)  It may take some getting used to, popping in and out of characters' lives between the long shadows of adventures we already know.  Paul Cornell has turned in a gently Paul Cornell-ish take on that, advancing the characters where he can and pushing the boundaries a bit.  It's undeniably good, but I can't say I was blown away.  It's hard to know if the range can really shoot much higher that that, but it's early days.  We'll see.


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