Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #96 – Lungbarrow by Marc Platt

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#60
Lungbarrow
By Marc Platt

I mean, where do you start. It’s fecking Lungbarrow.

If you like Doctor Who and read books, this one’s kind of a big deal. The sixtieth and penultimate New Adventure, the last full book (or story of any kind) for the Seventh Doctor, the fabled Origin Of The Doctor himself. The answers, at last! It promptly sold out for obvious reasons and there were no reprints for license reasons. Consequently it became very difficult to get hold of and so acquired pretty much the same mystique as the Doctor’s origins, which lends the whole thing a funny meta quality. It’s as if all the characters hectoring the Doctor about his past are really just curious about what’s in the book.

There’s some (slightly more deliberate) self-awareness in the fact that, deep down, you don’t want all the answers, and Marc Platt refrains from handing them all over. Look at Gallifrey: the more we saw, the less interesting it became. Gone were the all-powerful Time Lords, replaced by dodgy furniture and meetings. Enter Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt with some tantalising puzzle pieces. The Hand of Omega, myths of the Other, the ancient tragedy of the Pythia and the Looms. That idea wasn’t picked up outside of these books, and that’s a pity; it gave the Time Lords depth and made them alien again. They’re reborn into adulthood every time they regenerate, so it makes reasonable sense for them to be born that way. It’s sufficiently alien to remove the Doctor from the kind of background normality that makes him seem human and approachable – there should be differences between Time Lords and us. There’s also a real sadness about a species without childhood, highlighted here by the absurd fairytale image of Gallifreyan Houses with giant furniture, so the newly Loomed can feel like they were little once. (But also, less sweetly, so they can make each other feel small forever.) Time Lords were monumental, and then they were just staid and dull. Throughout the series there’s been a certain frigid quality to them, which Marc Platt has done wonders now to justify. They’re just a bit broken, really.

Into all that fits the Doctor, going home at last, because these books are ending and why the hell not. But you’ve got to be careful what you reveal about such a mysterious character, and again, Platt knows this. I don’t know what Lungbarrow was like as a TV script, supposedly rejected because it told the audience too much about the Doctor, but there’s a definite effort here to keep things, if not vague, at least arguable. So: the Doctor definitely grew up in the House of Lungbarrow. He definitely had 44 Cousins, just like all Time Lords. They definitely didn’t like him – with the exception of Innocet, who has a soft spot for his nonsense, and the patriarchal Kithriarch Quences, who had plans for him that went unfulfilled. (Platt gave a different answer for those plans in the audio drama Auld Mortality, a What If where Geoffrey Bayldon’s First Doctor never left Gallifrey. It’s amazing.) He was ostracised by the family, and somewhere before or after this his whole House (and everyone in it) went missing. Almost no one has heard of it now, not least because he never mentions it. And partly because of all this, his real name is strictly verboten. (No, it’s not “Strictly Verboten” – nor is it revealed, because nothing could possibly match the hype of not mentioning it for decades and then he wouldn’t use it anyway. Take note, New Who.)

The Doctor’s resistance to all this keeps it from really changing him. No two people seem to agree on anything in his past. For everything it reveals, which is still a pretty sizeable amount, Lungbarrow makes it clear that the Doctor is simply the Doctor, and you already know what matters about him. After 26 seasons and 60 books, you’d bloody well hope so. (Take note again, New Who.) Lungbarrow even goes to some pains not to overdo the Doctor as a presence in the novel; he’s not in it all that much, so you won’t get sick of hearing about him.

Oh but come on, what else is there. Well, we see certain important moments in his life. Since we’ve been good, we get to watch him discover the TARDIS for the first time. (It’s probably everything you hoped for.) He’s spurred on by the Hand of Omega, which buzzes around him like an eager puppy and helps the old ship to live again. We get some clues about how the Doctor can have a granddaughter during the Pythia’s blight, and who Susan really is. And of course we get some vital information about the Other, who may or may not be the Doctor. Shall we say, it’s leaning pretty heavily towards “may”? There’s some effort here to make it ambiguous by politely skipping certain beats, and then there’s the pretty major ingredient of the Doctor having no idea if he is or isn’t the Other. He’s almost as aloof to his origins as we are, which I think is the right call since these things haven’t noticeably mattered to him over the years. (Why would he make a fuss about it now? He’d rather not know, just as he’d rather not go home again. This is a perfectly sensible reaction to something that, for practical “no one wrote a script about it” reasons, has never been discussed.) All the same though, the narrative Platt weaves linking the Other and the Doctor is pretty conclusive. Why not? Clearly you can make the Doctor a figure of mythic importance and keep him as the relatively humble adventurer we love simply by the measurement of how much it matters to him. It’s a really good have-your-cake-and-eat-it.

Of course this also has to be a book that is about something, which so far it doesn’t sound anything like. Is now a good time to mention that, for such an infamous book, I’d never heard a plot synopsis for Lungbarrow? To hear it whispered about, you’d think it consisted entirely of the Doctor pulling up a chair and relating his life story directly to Marc Platt. It’s not like that, partly because the Doctor is almost visibly uncomfortable about any revelations, but even so I would be hard-pressed to describe it as plot-driven. The TARDIS is drawn off-course and lands smack-bang in the Doctor’s old digs, which has (almost) fallen out of Gallifreyan record. The House slowly comes to life, including the Cousins and, surprisingly, the furniture, while Chris is assaulted by psychic jetsam from the minds around him. (Including the Doctor’s.) Soon it becomes apparent that – all together now! – there’s been a murder. Possibly two if you include Quences, the head of the household who has been asleep this whole time, waiting for the Doctor to come back so he can read his will. (Or possibly he’s just dead. Also, his murderer may have looked like William Hartnell.)

Now is probably a good time to remind you that Lungbarrow was repurposed into Ghost Light on television, and many of Platt’s ideas appear in both stories. The sleeping figure, the grotesque madhouse, the lunatics slowly returning to life and hatching their plans, the lost policeman, the inherent trauma a place holds for one of the main characters. Rather than feel like a repeat, there’s something pleasingly symmetrical about the Doctor enduring a similar crisis to Ace. And quite frankly, both stories are so rich in atmosphere that I’d gladly show up for round three. Ghost Light drips with gothic menace and so does Lungbarrow, which has a much bigger budget as it’s only on paper: the House is enormous and it wobbles between walls and woodland, the chairs and tables can get angry, there are enormous wooden “Drudges” that stomp around doing the housekeeper’s bidding. There’s an ancient well and a river hidden somewhere, mirrors you can pass through, the TARDIS stuck high up in a cobweb and psychic visions pulsing through the lot. The Cousins have their own distinct, vivid personalities, and all along we’re picking up scraps about the Doctor’s past. For so many reasons it’s fascinating just to sit here and take it all in, which is good because the plot isn’t moving at a conventional speed. There’s plenty of information, but the drive to investigate the murder(s) and locate the missing Gallifreyan policeman is not really front and centre. Then again, who’s here for that?

Ticking alongside this is a subplot on Gallifrey – the more recognisable, Big Collars And Arguments Gallifrey. President Romana is struggling to quell an uprising while she’s off-planet, firstly via hologram, secondly via Leela and Dorothée. All of this serves a purpose (several in fact), but it’s very much second fiddle to the House stuff. It’s enough to say that it feels right for the Seventh Doctor to see Dorothée again, and it’s handled wonderfully when they finally meet up. They talk to each other with an ease that took them years to earn, and there are little moments like “He dabbed her nose in a way she had missed desperately” that take us gorgeously right back to the early days. In a story about how far the Doctor has come from his roots, especially one that serendipitously feels like Ghost Light, it’s lovely to check in with her again and bask in how she’s grown. (This is underlined by a surprisingly beside-the-point sequence where the Celestial Intervention Agency interrogates her using a younger Ace.) She also gets to see some other companions and unknowingly marvel at how they were changed by their time with him: “If they’d both travelled with the Doctor, then they’d both seen hell too. So how come they were so superior about it? So nice.

Speaking of other companions – it’s only ruddy Leela! Better late than never, we find out a little of what life was like for her on Gallifrey after she settled down with Andred. (It’ll always be a bit random that she did that, but her genuine concern and passion for him resonate here.) Their relationship has lasting consequences for the Time Lords, which of course Doctor Who never got to explore, but it’s nicely bittersweet that the idea is seeded anyway. It’s more important that we’re spending time with Leela, who effortlessly (with maybe some help from Marc Platt) proves how great she is and how insane everybody else has been for not writing Leela novels. “She managed to invest the most banal events with an inherent wonder all of her own” sums her up rather well; see also, “She sat awkwardly, the correct way one sits in company”, and the way she handles the ongoing question of the Doctor’s past: “‘But what about the Doctor? Who is he really?’ ... She understood the Doctor’s secret. He could not and must never be tied down, pinpointed or categorised. ‘He is a mystery,’ she said with the utmost reverence.” It’s lovely that she can recognise a different Doctor without difficulty. There’s just something true and intelligent about Leela that I wish we had explored more in these books. Or at all. But Platt does her justice here.

Perhaps a visit from Leela was a deliberately tied up loose end, and if so, cheers – but it’s not the only one. Lungbarrow is well aware that the end is nigh, and little is left unresolved. Chris is still reeling from his various traumas; I think that’s over-egging it a bit as The Room With No Doors was all about closure, but then I suspect there wasn’t time to compare notes with Kate Orman, as it feels so distinctly odd for Chris to receive a bunch of the Doctor’s thoughts and not comment on that happening only the other day. (It was the reason for the title!) He essentially gets a blow-out of the Doctor’s mind in this, and that’s enough for them to amicably part ways. It’s a shame they reach this decision “off-screen”, right after Romana says not to be too hasty, but then again Orman already spent a novel doing the legwork and it’s the Doctor’s book, so it’s fine. Chris flies off to meet up with Bernice; I couldn’t be happier with that pairing unless, well, the Doctor showed up too. C’est la vie. (You also get to see the two K9s in this, which I couldn’t work into the review anywhere else but is, I assure you, adorable.)

Of course the Doctor is the biggest loose end. Not that there is a great deal left to resolve – there’s been a whole series of books about him! But the good folks at Virgin decided to be the bigger people and tie this in with the TV Movie, and never mind how silly it was that the Daleks put the Master on trial, and let the Doctor come and collect his remains without shooting him first. (Wait, are there Dalek lawyers? I want to read that book now.) Romana’s hush-hush mission ends well for Gallifrey, but the attempted coup draws the Doctor towards his fateful mission. The final moments are bittersweet by definition, but there’s an absurdly jolly air as they plug the gaps before he goes away forever. The screwdriver, which he never replaced? It’s Romana’s. The fancy new TARDIS interior? It happened a few chapters earlier, and Chris is impressed. The Bernice Summerfield New Adventures? Nicely hinted at, thank you. It’s box-ticking, but of a well-intentioned kind. That’s sort of Lungbarrow in a nutshell: not as substantial as an ending, but a lovely epilogue.

The Doctor has no reason to be terrified of a 4% chance of survival after coming to terms with things in the last book, and if that miserable House taught him anything, it’s that change is for the best. The Doctor’s last line here – the last thing he says in Virgin canon – is a continuity reference only Dorothée gets. As well as making me burst out laughing, it’s a sweet reminder that his fate isn’t sealed. (And that mortality is never far from his thoughts.) After being surrounded by his House and its ersatz childhood, it feels bizarrely like he’s off on his first day of school, bright eyed and with a packed lunch.

And so we leave him, unburdened, slightly richer for the knowledge we’ve picked up but still reassuringly himself. What can you say about the Seventh Doctor at this point? The New Adventures have given him more depth and colour than he had on screen, certainly, but as of 1997 it’s more than any Doctor. He got to play out the Cartmel Masterplan, tragically breaking Ace until she rebuilt herself. (There’s a wonderful reference to Season 27 and the mooted plan to send her to Gallifrey; she quite rightly thinks about it and says “No thanks”, which he’s fine with.) He met Bernice, Chris and Roz, people unencumbered by Ace’s neuroses who could speak to him more on his terms. He lost friends and found others, fell apart and was almost human underneath. (But not.) He could be as whimsical as the Doctor has ever been, and the more books we got, the more he seemed to need that. He could be terrifying, a quasi-magical figure that defies analysis when you look at it. He had strange little ways of not getting dirt on his shoes or appearing without a sound. He had horrible schemes, or maybe he just thought he did. He was other, whether or not he was Other. He was the Doctor to the nth degree, evolving and maturing but always the Doctor. It is difficult to imagine all fifty-odd years of the character embodied more accurately than he was in these books. They can have the license back. The mission was already accomplished.

8/10

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