Sunday, 19 April 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #100 – The Well-Mannered War by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#33
The Well-Mannered War
By Gareth Roberts

In all the excitement and sadness of the New Adventures ending you could almost forget that another range was going away forever. Unfortunately I feel about the Missing Adventures the way Arthur Dent did when he met prehistoric cavemen who would soon be wiped out by hairdressers. “It’s all been a bit of a waste of time for you, hasn’t it?

That’s not to say there aren’t any good MAs – only that by design, they were all over the place. They were a series of one-offs set at random times in the show’s history, so of course they had no overall direction or momentum. You were meant to enjoy them as treats, like Doctor Who’s highly erratic video releases – but the actual show wasn’t made like that, with a different production team turning up each week to frantically busk a different era. Conversely, the shared themes and ideas of the New Adventures were among the series’ key strengths. It’s no coincidence that the NAs got better and more consistent as they went along. What you got with the MAs was more like speed dating, where the only question was “What do YOU think would make a good Missing Adventure?” And well, nobody knew.

One of the few taking a bloody good stab at it anyway was Gareth Roberts. “What If TV Episode, But Book” is the most obvious route you can take with these, and The Romance Of Crime did Season 17 verbatim, but it also remembered to be massively entertaining. The English Way Of Death pushed more into Wodehouse territory than Douglas Adams – which depending on your view is much the same thing anyway – and it was subsequently more like a novel, less like a missing Target novelisation. Then The Plotters came along and showed that, with or without Tom Baker, Roberts could capture an era, structure like mad AND keep up the laughs. Conclusion: if someone has to close out this wobbly series of whatevers then Roberts has the best CV for it.

First, I should declare an interest. Although I’d never read The Well-Mannered War, I have heard the Big Finish adaptation. (I loved it, then forced myself not to listen to it again until I’d read the book; it’s been a while.) So I knew the main plot beats already, which took away much of the surprise. However, you come to a Gareth Roberts book mostly for the prose, which doesn’t translate to a script anyway, and The Well-Mannered War doesn’t disappoint there.

The setup* lends itself to the author’s favourite thing, British awkwardness. Two races are at war over a planet no one could conceivably want, except the war hasn’t officially started yet (in over 100 years) so all they’re doing is going through the motions and being terribly nice about it. Few of them actually want to start a fight (including the Chelonians, a race of bloodthirsty tortoises), but there are pathetic little displays of aggression anyway like haphazard missile launches, and a ritual where the leaders of the two camps attempt shoddily to assassinate each other, usually after a cordial lunch and before going back to their bases to give everybody presents. It’s as protracted as it is gloriously pointless. “The summit was dissolved after only four hours when it became clear that the parties could not agree on the wording of the initial clause of the discussion document.” / “‘I’m not expected to, er, well, you know...’ He mimed a shooting gesture. Even that level of violence made him feel giddy. ‘Oh hell.’” / “The atmosphere was rather like that at a party when the host goes to check the dinner leaving a room full of unacquainted guests.” / “There was an uncomfortable silence. Dolne regarded Jafrid as a friend of the kind one mixes well with in a crowd. When there was only the two of them conversation was hard. They just didn’t have enough in common. The big screen stayed blank. Both of them made disapproving noises to cover the embarrassing lapse.

(*It’s marginally similar to another MA just two books ago, A Device Of Death. I’m curious whether there were any crossed words about this at the time, but there’s certainly no fatigue in this second, stronger take on the idea.)

The two commanders, Dolne (a prissy admiral who has to mentally remind himself that he wears a uniform, not an outfit) and Jafrid (a relatively nice Chelonian) have a delightful friendship, which is worth highlighting as it’s a Gareth Roberts book and those are usually full of people who hate each other. (This can lead to lots of amusingly bitchy dialogue, but it becomes wearying after a while.) Depicting war as a silly routine is a clever way to parody the politics surrounding it, and not one I’ve seen a million times before, for which I’m very grateful.

But characters can’t be terribly nice and do nothing all the time, so things must escalate, notably during a scene with a broken down copier that at first sounds like it fell out of Roberts’ pile of sketch ideas. Much merriment is had about an error message that doesn’t make any sense, until this turns into “PREPARE TO BE ABSORBED BY DARKNESS” and that character is horribly killed and absorbed by an alien intelligence. (The automaton-spouting-a-demonic-message gag would crop up again via the Ood.) There’s a genuine sadness about this, as the character still has a vestige of himself afterwards and feels quite sad about being dead; also, the “Darkness” occasionally loosen their mental grip on him, apparently out of mercy. We’re right back to tragedy when he passes it onto another character you’ll have grown to like, who should probably have known better than to contemplate an early retirement just before answering the door.

Roberts invests his characters with enough little quirks to make their deaths really matter, like one guy’s love of dull grey uniforms and his subsequent hope not to be promoted into a nicer one. I’ve complained at length about unnecessary physical description, and Roberts indulges in it only where it expands your understanding of the character. That a man’s hair is greying tells us he’s been here for a while and is perhaps easily stressed; that a politician’s corpulence prevents him from easily getting out of a chair tells us he spends most of his time sitting comfortably, and so on. The Well-Mannered War is not a short book, but it doesn’t fill the time doing busywork with words, which separates it from a lot of MAs.

The Doctor, Romana and K9 find themselves on the dull rock Barclow due to an apparent series of coincidences. This is a theme throughout the book, which culminates in a much more satisfying explanation than Roberts’ last coincidence-themed book, The Highest Science. (That coincidentally (?) also featured an apparently dull planet being warred over by Chelonians and useless humans. Douglas Adams wrote reams about convenient things happening for no real reason, which is clearly not a coincidence.) Their misadventures certainly feel in keeping with the Adams era, with bit part characters espousing their woes such as a tea lady in no man’s land, a revolutionary running an anti-authoritarian press by himself in a cave, and Menlove Stokes, a returning nuisance from The Romance Of Crime. The vainglorious artist and imbecile perhaps works better when performed (by Michael Troughton in Big Finish’s Romance and War adaptations), as putting him on the page surrounded by people who loathe him, without the benefit of spirited inflection, just lays bare the joke that powers him and risks making him monotonous. But he’s not as bad as the revolutionary Fritchoff, who (like Spiggot, the nauseating cop in Romance) only exists to parody a certain outlook and method of speaking, here have-a-go fight-the-power nitwits who say “bourgeoisie” a lot. We get it, as does everyone he meets, over and over and over again. Folks, beware writing deliberately irritating characters because of that universal truth: Irritating Characters Are Irritating.

Fortunately we have the Doctor, Romana and K9 to anchor it all, who are all very entertaining in this, though they are in slightly sniffy moods. The English Way Of Death wobbled the Doctor-companion relationship between wanting to kiss and wanting to kill each other, and The Well-Mannered War places its bets on the latter, with nuggets like “Romana sighed. ‘Do you answer the question or do I employ physical violence?’” She spends most of her time with Stokes, so she’s irritated for almost the entire book with or without the Doctor. Still, this can work: “‘I specified to be woken [from cryosleep] only when my work was re-evaluated and properly appreciated.’ There was an unpleasant silence. ‘Stokes, we’re getting close to the very end of the universe.’

K9 is distracted by the loveable subplot about suddenly becoming a political candidate (“What do we want? A K9 administration! When do we want it? As soon as possible!”), but Roberts indulges an apparent love of the character by making it clear he still has some very human, or at least rather emotional thoughts and just expresses them like a machine. “‘Come here.’ [K9] crossed the room and [Romana] bent down and stroked his sides. ‘Misunderstanding of the functional nature of this unit,’ said K9. ‘Petting unnecessary.’ But he didn’t pull away.” K9 is instrumental to much of the plot; the Doctor not-so-coincidentally chides him for becoming too useful.

The Doctor spends most of it on his own or meeting the smaller bit-parts, and he’s in a foul mood for some of it (again because of company, such as Fritchoff who goes irritatingly back and forth over rescuing him from certain death – because he’s really annoying, you see). But he also leans into the whimsies of Season 17, such as putting a full cup of tea in his pocket and later retrieving it unspilled, or finding himself under attack by rockets and hurriedly thumbing through a booklet called So You’re Caught in a Rocket Attack. (There’s also a crafty sub-sub-subplot about his coat getting ripped and tattered, which helps explain why he switched to a different one the following year.) The writing is undoubtedly on point for Tom Baker, but there’s a certain feeling about him of being sick of it all. Maybe this ties into the Season 17 arc of evading the Black Guardian (who irritatingly doesn’t turn up to justify it), but it could also be a nod to Tom’s advancing years in the role. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and Roberts just enjoys a snippy Doctor.

One of the reasons I’m a bit iffy about the main characters in this is also one of the book’s strengths: the plot is excellent, a sort of Rube Goldberg device full of layers. It’s very satisfying watching it all click into place. But, as the Doctor eventually realises, he doesn’t have much agency here, someone else is manipulating events. This is satisfying in terms of construction, not so much in terms of the main character(s) driving the action, which is sort of a necessity. The war is a sham (which we know from the outset), the creatures arranging it are themselves being manipulated, and the people leading them into a trap have been manipulated as well. It goes click, click, click wonderfully, but it makes the main trio slightly surplus to requirements. (Even K9’s candidacy is written off not too convincingly as “It amused [the villain] to bring out the superiority that has always bubbled beneath that servile shell.” So for a laugh, then?) It’s debateable whether this matters, and even I’m not sure it does. But it’s odd.

Still, look what it achieves. In pulling all the coincidences and manipulations together, Roberts creates the Season 17 finale we never knew we needed. Forget Shada! Wouldn’t it have been better if, after setting up the whole “run away at random to evade the Black Guardian” plot, they didn’t just get bored of it and never mention it again? Finally it’s addressed, ending infamously with the Doctor and co. flying out of the known universe, where previously he ended up in the Land of Fiction. It’s a deliberate cliff-hanger, what with these books ending and no one being able to write a direct sequel, but it’s still satisfying. This explains how they shook their pursuer and carried on having normal adventures afterwards. We only miss the bit in the middle where they were in the Land of Fiction, or whatever realm it turned out to be. In all honesty that book would have been an absolute sod to write, and you may have been better off just imagining it even if they did carry on. It’s also quite sweet to leave us wanting more, imagining the next Missing Adventure ourselves.

The real takeaway here is that once again, Virgin went out on their own terms. The Doctor and Romana press the button that takes them away from all this, not some poxy BBC Books man. For symbolic good measure there’s a reason why they must not land on Dellah, the planet where the Bernice New Adventures are set. (And it’s not just that Stokes is going there which, strewth, why didn’t you warn me?! Props to Roberts for specifying he would “most definitely, never so much as think about the Doctor and company ever again”, saving everyone else the bother of an explanation.) For a series without any overall continuity it ties up nicely, including the Guardian name-checking earlier books as proof that he’s been observing all the while. (Gifting us the Doctor’s retort, “You’re dabbling with the forces of continuity”!) The Well-Mannered War is a finale in several respects, and even if I’m still uncertain whether this represents the best sort of Missing Adventure you could get, at least we ended on one that mostly works.

8/10

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