...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, December 21, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 05 Alien Bodies


The Doctor is the lonely god, the last highest authority in the universe, meting out justice to Weeping Angels and Prime Ministers. And there was a War…


The Time War.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the books written in the Doctor's wilderness years between "Survival" and "Rose". Often dismissed as the rantings of angsty teenage fanboys – and there is a fair old bit of that – they were also a hothouse of ideas, taking on the Cartmel Era's impetus to try out new and daring directions. And the biggest idea was that the Doctor's homeworld Gallifrey was heading into a war that would see it destroyed.

The Virgin New Adventures saw the Doctor's seventh incarnation (the one who looked like Sylvester McCoy) taking on – and taking down – various gods and monsters from "the Dark Time" in Gallifrey's deep past. With the arrival of an official TV eighth Doctor (however short-lived that revival proved to be) BBC books took the franchise back in house and started their own line and wanted to go in a different direction. The first few books were… not a total success with a readership that had become used to Virgin's more mature angle. But then, almost by chance, Lawrence Miles delivered an idea that would shape the entire arc of the BBC books, and – to everyone's total amazement – the TV series itself.

Ten Reasons to Read "Alien Bodies" (warning: spoilers)

  1. The Time War – Actually, it's just referred to as "the war" by everyone involved. It's only referred to it as the "War in Heaven" with capital letters by the "ignorant locals" of the Planet Drornid (aka Dronid – Douglas Adams reference; not the only one: on page 134, the Doctor finds fairy cake in his ever-useful Zen-tailored pockets!). The Doctor accidentally-on-purpose crashes an auction that turns out to be between representatives of a bunch of time-travelling super-powers – including the Time Lords – from a period somewhere in his own personal future. Not wanting to transgress the laws of time (too much) the Doctor keeps shushing people every time they try to tell him about it, but it's still possible to pick up a lot of hints. E.g….

  2. The future of Time Lords – doesn't look too bright at this point. The war has been going on for five-hundred years from their point of view and everyone, including their own Celestial Intervention Agency, thinks they're losing.

    (That's retconned to just fifty years in "The Book of the War", but here Cousin Justine notes (p 256) that "half a millennium of warfare" has turned the Time Lords' preferred accommodation from opulence to military Spartan. But Five-hundred is more in keeping with a John Hurt War Doctor who ages from young Caligula-esque to his present distinguished craggles.)

    Their TARDISes have evolved into looking like, well, people (Time Lord Mr Homunculette's companion here is Marie, a Type 103, who chooses to look like a Brazilian supermodel to fit in with the locale, but defaults to the form of a 1960's policewoman. Ha ha.). But they've managed to lose all of their "big guns" in a pre-emptive strike by the enemy at the start of the war, hence their grubbing around in this unedifying auction to try and get hold of a (to begin with) unspecified weapon of great power.

  3. The enemy – are never named. But they're not the Daleks. "Alien Bodies" goes out of its way to suggest that the enemy are not the Daleks. Homunculette visits post-Dalek Invasion Earth (and not noticing that he's walking under the Thames like a Dalek!) and considers the humans lucky only to have been invaded by the Daleks. And there's the fact that the enemy and the Daleks both have invites to the auction. Except retrospectively, the enemy has to be the Daleks. And it still works.

  4. The Shadow of the Daleks – because we were, when "Alien Bodies" was published, well used to the idea of the Daleks as an enemy that remains unnamed. The usual complications with licencing from the Terry Nation estate (see "Dalek"), meant that the New Adventures had not been able to feature the deadly dustbins. Sometimes this meant coming up with faux-Daleks to fill the monster slot – e.g. flying armoured spheres, the Phractons (basically the Toclafane with an even sillier name). But mostly it meant very cleverly playing up the threat of the Daleks while keeping the metal menaces off-screen (as it were). Which also makes them seem vastly more powerful.

    Not to mention all those Episode One circumlocutions where the Space Marines/Thals/Doctor refer only to "them" (until it's time for the cliffhanger reveal that the anonymous adversaries in "Guess Who of the Daleks" are… oh, you guessed.)

  5. Except it's the Krotons – The BBC books "big thing" was supposed to be that they had the proper licence to use the Daleks. Indeed, they had just made their literary debut in the book immediately preceding "Alien Bodies": John Peel's truly execrable "War of the Daleks" (which will not be making the Doctor Who 52) the big event book with the fewest new ideas in it ever published, instantly overshadowed by the "ordinary" book that followed it. Lawrence Miles teases us at length that he might have sneakily brought them straight back without fanfare…

    And then he has them "peeled and eaten" by a notoriously rubbish monster from a silly, trippy story at the dog end of Patrick Troughton's reign as the Second Doctor. Somehow he manages to take one of the most notoriously botched attempts at creating "the new Daleks" (something the BBC tried every year or so, once they'd realised the full ramifications of Nation's contractual hold) and makes them into a credible, threatening Tellurium-based lifeform… who are still hilariously rubbish.

    Single-minded and monotone, Kroton representative E-Kobalt is not taken remotely seriously by the other representatives or the Doctor, even has he blunders about spraying deadly jets of acid. And when he decides to take out a whole cohort of Raston Robot Lap Dancers… Suffice to say, Mr Miles is very funny.

  6. Lawrence Miles – ah yes, Lawrence Miles. Bête noir of the fan-author scene, because of some crushing honesty about some of his fellow writers. And yet he deserves to be recognised alongside Whitaker, Dicks, Holmes, Davies and Moffat as one of the great creative contributors to Doctor Who. The writing here is as sharp and darkly funny as anything you'll read in the "tie-in" books range, with as many ideas to the page as Douglas Adams, but in a way – like a Robert Holmes story – amounts to a sketch of a much, much wider world. In fact, so much wider that it spawned its own spin-off.

  7. Faction Paradox – a self-titled Voodoo Cult who steal TARDIS technology from the Time Lords, use it to tie their precious laws of time in paradoxical knots, and dress it up in death fetishes just to piss off the immortals. What could be a better metaphor for fan-authors who file off the serial numbers of the Doctor Who universe write to guerrilla fiction in the undergrowth? You know that bit in "Before the Flood" where Toby Whithouse has the Doctor do a to-camera to explain the Ontological ("Bootstrap") Paradox? Well, Lawrence Miles does it first with the Grandfather Paradox, only better and as a gag. The members of the Faction "family" are titled "Little Brothers" or "Little Sisters", "Cousins" and "Mothers" and "Fathers". Because the head of the whole caboose is the Grandfather, Paradox.

  8. Sam Jones, proto Clara – blonde and perky, notionally created by Terrance Dicks in the execrable "The Eight Doctors" (yes, that's two execrables in six books – the early BBC Books had real problems, that "Alien Bodies" only began to turn around and Lawrence writes several responses to The Eight Doctors in particular here, including making it tie in with Paradox), Sam was written as "bland generic companion" because Uncle Terry didn't really have much of an idea what her character was supposed to be. Troublingly, neither did several of the subsequent authors either, although Kate Orman and Jon Blum's "Vampire Science" does put some flesh on her. But Lawrence Miles ingeniously turns this annoying goody-two-shoes-ness into a plot point. Sam is given a vision of an alternative timeline, perhaps her true timeline, in which she has dark hair, drugs troubles and never left Shoreditch and most immortally never met the Doctor. The suggestion arises that something, some enormously powerful space-time event (perhaps even the Doctor himself) has done something a bit Faction Paradox on her timeline and rewired her biodata to make her the perfect travelling companion.

    Orman and Blum will come back to this in "Business Unusual", with the explanation that the Doctor's regeneration (and near TARDIS implosion) on New Year's Eve 1999 (the TV movie in case you've purged that from your memory) left a scar on the fabric of the Universe and when Sam – the "real timeline" dark haired Sam – falls into this it turns her into this impossibly perfect girl. Just sayin'.

  9. Intelligent ideas – which of course the whole book is full of. But the particular one I draw your attention to is that of "conceptual entities". Meet Mr Shift (as in a shift in your perceptions) who lives in your perceptions and communicates by altering the way you read words in any text lying around. But he's merely the beginning.

    Other examples that we meet in passing are the "anarchitects", conceptual entities that live in architecture able to make floors vanish or turn corridors into Mobius loops.

    In the Eleventh Doctor story "The Time of Angels", it is revealed that the Angels are ideas that can think for themselves that inhabit statues. Just sayin'.

    But beyond them, there are the Celestis: god-memes that live in the fiction-hell of Mictlan. When the Celestial Intervention Agency saw which way the wind of the war was blowing, they erased themselves from history, jumping before they were retroactively putsched, but turning themselves into ideas. Because you cannot kill an idea. Obviously the whole process has driven them ferociously insane.

  10. Who the hell is Mr Quixotl? Qixotl is in charge of the auction. Or at least thinks he's charge as he sets it up and sends the invites before things spiral rapidly out of his control. "Quixotl", the Doctor tells us (p107), is the name of the god of ludicrous profit on Golobus, so probably not his real name. Time Lords aren't supposed to recognise one other after regenerating (p 81) but it happens just the same… not that the Doctor is sure Qixotl is another Time Lord. When Qixotl panics and cries out: "get me out of here" (p216), the Doctor recognises his expression of utter horror as one he's seen before on another face. He then punches Qixotl in the head, on account of what he did to him last time. And the time before. Of course, Mr Shift is mixing up everyone's perceptions at this point, so the Doctor might be remembering wrong.

    Fan theories tend to suggest that he is probably either Drax ("The Armageddon Factor", probably because of his underworld connections, not-quite-Time Lord status and generally spivvy nature), or Mortimus the Meddling Monk (which seems to me the more satisfying explanation, given how much Qixotl loves his own cleverness with technology and plans and that Drax only accidentally put the Doctor in harm's way, whereas the Monk has been betraying him with cheerful abandon ever since "The Daleks' Master Plan", and featured prominently in an early arc of the New Adventures too!)

    For that matter, though, who the hell is Captain Trask?

What Else Should I Tell You About "Alien Bodies"?

Well, it's a book not a television episode.

Doctor Who never stopped being made. It was merely that in 1989, rather like the Celestis turning themselves into Conceptual Entities, the Doctor changed from being a television character to one who existed in books.
The Eighth Doctor has appeared twice on our TV screens – once in 1996 in "Time Waits for No Man" aka "The Sensational TV Movie Starring Paul McGann" aka "Grace 1999"; and once in 2013 in "The Night of the Doctor". Suffice it to say that one of these is a work of quiet genius.

However, in between, he has had countless adventures in print as books and comics and on CD from Big Finish.

Arguably this give him three contradictory timelines (with the entirely-not-serious possibility that while the TV and audio Eighth Doctor regenerates into John Hurt, the books Eighth regenerated into Richard E Grant – see "Scream of the Shalka", foreshadowed in "The Gallifrey Chronicles" – and the comic strip Eighth regenerated into Rowan Atkinson – "Curse of the Fatal Death").

But, if you will accept a little hand-waving, and thanks to Doctor Eight's frequent bouts of amnesia, you can just about place them into some kind of an order: probably books first, Big Finish last.
(To make this difficult, in the books, the Doctor witnesses the destruction of Gallifrey. This leaves him with amnesia (again) and experiencing adventures in a Universe without Time Lords. But you can – just about – explain this as the Doctor getting trapped in his own future, thwarting Faction Paradox's attempt to overturn the events of "The Day of the Doctor", and doing something very clever to resolve the situation either in the stories "Time Zero", "Timeless" and "Sometime Never" or sometime after the last book, "The Gallifrey Chronicles", where he reveals he's worked out what's going on.)

If you need one, my score:

This changed everything.

If You Like "Alien Bodies", Why Not Try…

"Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible" – Just as "Alien Bodies" set the template for the BBC Books with a war in the future; Marc Platt, another genius author and the person who wrote "Ghost Light", sets the tone for the New Adventures with tales of Gallifrey's deep past.

"The Book of the War" – guidebook, short story collection, source material for a home-made universe, retirement home for Mr Shift? You can't really describe it; you have to experience it. The Book of the War takes all of the ideas expressed in "Alien Bodies" and adds a whole lot – including the City of the Saved at the end of the Universe more to give you a comprehensive starter in the Miles-Universe.

Next Time…

It's Christmas. What could be more spirit of the season than a proper religious retreat. With snowmen…?


Sakyamuni said...

I loved Alien Bodies!

I'm still really gutted I lost my copy :(

To me it's up there my favourite NA Transit, also sadly lost :(

David Matthewman said...

Yes, Alien Bodies is brilliant, and well done for saying why without spoiling it. :-)

When I read it, it felt like a 'missing adventure' written 20-30 years in the future and retroactively slotted in to the timeline. Which it was probably meant to.

(I think you mean 'Unnatural History' rather than 'Business Unusual', by the way.)

Mike Taylor said...

Yes, a truly fascinating book. Would have been even more fascinating to read, I am sure, before the regeneration back onto TV in 2005, and the subsequent emergence of various of these ideas in different forms.

Speaking of weird-ass Doctor Who novels written by people better known for other Doctor Who stuff, I do hope you'll be getting around to Russell T. Davies' Damaged Goods, a book that I find fascinating, repellent and compelling all at once.