...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 2701: DOCTOR WHO: Lungbarrow


Oh, no, you're NOT going to get away with a weekend without Dr Who, just because of Eurovision!

Anyway, there WAS new stuff on the telly, with the thrilling Dalek-stuffed trailer for the rest of the season, what does make it look like there's an ongoing DARKNESSSSS theme. Eek!

'Lungbarrow' – by Marc Platt, writer of "Ghost Light" for Sylvester McCoy's last TV season, and a story to which it bears much resemblance for reasons obvious to anyone knowing their history of the making of Doctor Who – divides Doctor Who fans. Ironically. Because it ought to unite them, being not a turning point, but a definite ending that wraps up most if not all of the ongoing threads of the Cartmel and New Adventures years, that answers all the questions and allows them to be left behind. It is an epic milestone (or millstone, to some readers) in the Doctor's history. It is a masterpiece.

Most of the story is set in the buried House of Lungbarrow, from one tumultuous day in its past to its sepulchral present. And, like an archaeological dig – a metaphor used in the book itself in order to allow a cameo for the companion of the New Adventures, Professor Bernice 'Benny' Summerfield – this book is all layers upon layers of meaning.

On the most superficial of levels, it's a murder mystery: who killed the head of the House? But like quintessential science fiction, the bigger mystery is what is this place and how does this world work? As you play the conventional murder mystery games of hunt the missing will and unmask the killer, you also unravel the customs of the House, and how they've devolved over the centuries of darkness. Appreciate the petty rivalries and tragedies of the inhabitants. Understand why the furniture in the House is so oversized. Learn about the game of Sepulchasm – and think how it applies to Gallifrey's history.

Yes, Gallifrey, because this is the story – more than any since "The Deadly Assassin" – where the Doctor comes home.

'Lungbarrow' is the last Gallifrey story that could be told, the story that reveals all of the answers and leaves you with a completely new mystery. So, obviously, it's good, brilliant, fantastic that it was told before the planet was wiped out in the Time War.

The Gallifrey that we get to see here is the one that the television never gave us – except perhaps in a glimpse in "Last of the Time Lords". It is awesome and alien, powerful and petty, bizarre and yet hauntingly familiar all at once. Where in a very human way, every family is the worst kind of family reunion, where you can never grow out of your childhood humiliations.

And yet, the story isn't about Gallifrey at all. It's about "home".

Lungbarrow is a House of horrors, whether it's the Doctor's relatives, his Cousins, with their cruel bets, or the experiments that the Doctor left forgotten in the north annex, or the monstrous house servants, the Drudges,or the body in the funguretum. And yet it's also a marvellously Gothic science-fantasy, a House of living silver tree trunks, where the mirrors reflect the other rooms, where you can get beaten up by the Library, or share dreams through the cobwebs, and where the Cousins queue up for a glimpse of the sky through the chimney.

It's a story of great character, and of great characters: the Doctor's cousins each realised in different insanity, be it brooding or obsessive or guilt-ridden or guileless greed or senility or denial or evil. You can't help but feel sorry for them, and then feel they deserve it, and then that they just deserve a good slapping as each new layer is turned and overturned. And the greatest character is the House itself, alive and laden with centuries of aggrieved malice. A House that is a living forest, from its canopied branches to its streams and dells, sounds idyllic until you venture under the surface to find the fungus, the neglect and the decay.

It's a mirror image of "Ghost Light" (appropriate because, of course, this was "Ghost Light" on first submission) a point made most obviously in a moment where the Doctor lists all the things he likes (whereas in "Ghost Light" he lists all the things he doesn't). This time it is the Doctor who has to return to face the things in his past, psychotherapy made physical, and by revisiting and understanding the traumas of his childhood, peeling back the layers to reveal what was underneath, he puts himself back together as a whole person. In a society where sexuality isn't so much repressed as abolished, this is obviously heavy on the Freud, with literally the interpretation of dreams key to the plot. But with archetypes in spades, there's a good side-order of Jung-to-go too.

It is inescapable to say that 'Lungbarrow' is continuity-heavy. It would have to be, steeped as it is in the tradition of the New Adventures with extended story arcs running through half-dozen book mini sub-series like "The Future Histories", "The Alternative Universes" and "The Psi Powers", but also overarching themes that continued through the entire range, linking ideas such as what the Doctor wanted from Ace, the ancient history of the Time Lords, or the corrupt power of Earth's corporations and future Empire.

But that continuity is completely the point: the entire theme of the book is uncovering the past, shedding light onto the old mysteries and through that letting them go. It is a celebration of the richness of the Doctor Who legacy, and at the same time it's the book that says it's time to say goodbye to all that.

Every novel has to have a last chapter that concludes and completes what has come before. 'Lungbarrow' is that chapter for the New Adventures. To criticise it for being that is to say you would never read the last page of an Agatha Christie, never watch the last reel of a Hitchcock, never tune in for the season finale of a Russell Davies' Doctor Who. The Doctor finishes this book having rid himself of his angst about his own personal continuity. So should the reader.

It's also a story that has roots deep in the television series: from the McCoy era, the key texts are – obviously – "Remembrance of the Daleks", "Silver Nemesis", "The Curse of Fenric" and of course "Ghost Light" itself. And there are links going back to "An Unearthly Child" and to "Tomb of the Cybermen" and the Doctor's chat with Victoria about family. But equally important are Tom Baker era serials "The Brain of Morbius" and "The Invasion of Time". Because this book doesn't just seek to resolve the so-called Cartmel Master Plan; it also tries to tie up the (often forgotten) Hinchcliffe/Holmes Master Plan too.

Since you probably have forgotten, that is the one where the production team sought to reintroduce the element of mystery to the series, put the "Who?" back into Doctor Who, by suggesting that the central character had a past that was deeper and more unknown than the one the conventional viewer was familiar with… hang on, that's not pinning it down.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes used devices like the series of eight "additional" or "earlier" faces in the Doctor's mind battle with Morbius along with revealing a new wooden console room in "Masque of Mandragora" and calling it the "old" console room, fitted out with a costume we've never seen before but saying the Doctor used to wear it, and infamously the whole re-imagining of Gallifrey in "The Deadly Assassin" to make the Doctor's world less "understood", less "known", less "safe".

By Cartmel's time this Hinchcliffe revolution had itself become ossified under layers of mythology and "The Five Doctors".

(Actually, to be fair, "The Five Doctors" itself, for all its this-that-and-the-other of Rassilon, is trying to overturn our perspective of Rassilon as all-hero of Gallifrey; it's much more "Arc of Infinity" that kills Gallifrey as a place of majesty and wonder.)

Even mighty Russell Davies needed sixteen years of absence from our screens to "detoxify" the Gallifrey brand, and even then it wasn't until "The Runaway Bride" that he dared to use the word. Thanks to that gap, that chasm, the Time Lords have become a half-forgotten legend to the casual TV viewer, something powerful from the past, now lost. In many ways that was exactly what Cartmel was trying to realise – if only he'd known that getting the series cancelled for a decade-and-a-half was what would do the trick!

'Lungbarrow' doesn't just look backwards though, as – published after the McGann story was broadcast – it also completes the Virgin books' deliberate policy of leading in to the TV movie. The idea that this is the seventh Doctor's final "belly of the whale" journey to reach a state of liberated calm in which he can face the adventure that in fact kills him fills the book with inevitable melancholy and triumph in equal measure. And there is a near tear-jerking moment at the end when Romana gives the Doctor her sonic screwdriver – obviously the screwdriver we see in the movie – that completes his transformation from master player on a thousand boards to the humble traveller we see arrive in San Francisco.

The argument against 'Lungbarrow' being "canon" usually reduces to "…but it was only read by a few thousand people and you have to pay for it." The thing is, for many Doctor Who fans today, won over by the new series, the same is true of all of the first twenty-six seasons. "An Unearthly Child" for example, only available to watch on DVD as part of the "The Beginning" box set, or any Tom Baker story on whatever pay-channel UKGold is calling itself if they ever put it back on. Whereas 'Lungbarrow' is free to read from the BBC's own website.

"Ah ha," say the nay-sayers – actually, nay-sayers would say "nay"; these would be ah-ha-sayers… I'm drifting – "Ah ha, but 'Last of the Time Lords' shows us a Time Lord Child, probably the Master, whereas 'Lungbarrow' says Time Lords are born from these Loom things fully grown!"

Except, of course, 'Lungbarrow' also says that natural childbirth is restored to Gallifrey, and the planet will see children again. And if that boy is the Master, then isn't he the resurrected Master, born to fight the Time War? In fact, this seems very likely, since Professor Yana claims he was found "as a child". When the Doctor turned himself human in "Human Nature", he didn't change his appearance or apparent age; surely the implication must be that the Master, then, was a boy himself when he turned himself human.

That would be typical of the Time Lords, actually; all of the Master's knowledge and talent, but stuffed into the mind of child, exposed to the Time Vortex, shown the full horror of the Daleks' war machine… no wonder the poor lad went nuts. Better luck next time, Master…

…you know, I do harbour an idea for a story where the Doctor goes all Indiana Jones, Tomb Raiding a crumbling old stone Time Keep, tracking down a mysterious lost treasure that turns out to be an obsolete Gallifreyan {cough}Loom{cough} Genetic Engine (you know, you can even say that there are these relics hanging around in the universe because we've seen the technology being used in "The Doctor's Daughter"). Only the rival archaeological party – you've got to have a rival party if your pastiching Indy – gets there first and, what do you know, the femme fatale is Mrs Lucy Saxon and before you can say season cliff-hanger she's dropped the old Master's ring into the coin slot and out steps John Simm with a cheery: "did ya miss me?" An-y-way…

With even more hindsight, the Time Lords' interest, both Romana and that Ingmar Bergman-esque chap from "Genesis of the Daleks", in 'Lungbarrow' in recovering the Master's remains takes on an extra significance since we know they will ultimately want to resurrect him to fight the Time War.

So what do you need to know?

In ancient time, ten million years ago, before they were Time Lords, Gallifrey was ruled by a line of Priestess/Prophetesses called the Pythias. Then came Rassilon and Omega and an off-world stranger known only as the "Other". They used science to overthrow superstition, harnessed the power of a black hole, invented time travel and gave Gallifrey mastery over Time. But there was a price: the last Pythia cursed the planet and it became sterile. Rather than face extinction, though, Rassilon – on the Other's advice – created machines called "Looms" that would make new Gallifreyans. He set up these Looms each in a House with a set number of "Cousins", each of whom would have thirteen lives and when they finally died, be replaced by a new Cousin spun out of the Loom. But then Rassilon turned out to be a bit of a tyrant and ended up in the Black Tower, and the Other disappeared…

When Romana hints to the TARDIS that it should bring the Doctor home, it takes her suggestion a little too literally, and brings him back to the place where he hasn't been for six-hundred and seventy three years: the House of Lungbarrow, where he was born (or Loomed) as one of forty-five Cousins.

The head of the family, ambitious Ordinal-General Quences, had pushed to gain advancement for the Doctor, which he had turned down wanting to travel his own way, so furious Quences was persuaded by the Housekeeper Satthralope to disinherit the Doctor, taking away even his name, forbidding it to be used in the House. Going slightly too far, they tell the House that the Doctor is dead, so the Loom illegally generates a replacement for him. Dying, however, Quences repented of his decision, and summoned all of the Cousins – the Doctor included – to attend the reading of his will. (Being Gallifreyan, of course, he would read his own will before having his mind transferred to the Matrix and letting his body pass.)

Except the Doctor doesn't show, so Quences refuses to read the will, Cousin Glospin is so furious that he collapses with a double hearts-attack, and Satthralope declares that they will all wait in the House until Quences comes to his senses. What they don't know is that Glospin, taking it on himself to act as head of the Household, had received a written warning from the Capitol because someone (that would be the Doctor in a very first-Doctor fit of spite) tipped them off that the House had spun an illegal extra Cousin, and they have five days to appeal; Glospin has sent an appeal – on the grounds that Glospin's tests of the Doctor's genetics don't match the Lungbarrow Loom so he shouldn't count as a Cousin anyway. Unfortunately someone has trapped the messenger in the transmit booth. And then someone else – a figure in black with swept back white hair and a cane looking uncannily like… him murders Quences. Overcome with shame, the House buries itself. And no one has heard of it since.

There's a way in which this tragedy is everybody's fault: Quences for his bloody-mindedness; Satthralope for her spite; Glospin for his avarice; Innocet (not quite Innocent, you see) for her holier-than-thou interfering; Cousin Owis just for being, of which he shows no signs of deserving; the Doctor for never thinking that he should pop back; the Hand of Omega for its puppy-like devotion to the Doctor because it thinks he's someone it recognises…

But these details are superficial. Anyone reading that might think to dismiss the novel as a load of self-indulgent fanwank. And they'd still miss the point. As with real archaeology, you have to get down into the dirt; you have to read 'Lungbarrow' to experience the richness of the tapestries, even as the Drudges pull them from the mirrors.

It's the end, and this moment really has been prepared for, over long years of New Adventures story-arcing. If, as they say, you don't want to know the result, look away now.

When the Pythia fell, her priestesses fled to the neighbouring planet and became the Sisterhood of Karn. Romana, risking her Presidency to do so, heals the rift between Gallifrey and the Sisterhood. While Leela – yes this, not the TARDIS bathroom scene, is where "The Invasion of Time" really comes in – Leela becomes pregnant by Andred thus finally lifting the Pythia's curse.

And that's it, the conclusion of the Master Plan: the Doctor has finally saved Gallifrey from its own past and, by releasing his family (and himself) from where he'd locked them away, he gains his own redemption too.

Freed from the past, unburdened of all those layers, Gallifrey and the Doctor can go forward.

Sure, it kills them both, but in a way that's good too because it's all part of the metaphor of renewal, the new coming from the passing of the old.

So, surrounded by his family and by his friends, his real family, that's what the Doctor chooses to do, to go forward, to go to Skaro armed only with Romana's gift of a screwdriver. And it means that far from being the lonely-seeming figure seen at the start of the TV movie, this is actually a Doctor finally at peace.

So who is the Doctor? When the Other fell out with Rassilon, he couldn't leave Gallifrey so instead he stepped into the master Loom. He was taken to pieces and – we infer from all the evidence – eventually his DNA, or something like it, was spun out again from the Loom of the House of Lungbarrow as a forty-fifth Cousin, smarter less bonkers than the rest, teased and tormented by his Cousins and dumped on with a crushing weight of the Family's expectations until the Hand of Omega woke up and, by recharging an old Type Forty TARDIS, gave him a way out.

But who was the Other? Ahh…

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