The editors of Time, Unincorporated asked whether they could reprint some of my Doctor Who book reviews in one of their volumes. Which was nice. Unfortunately, the articles were scheduled for Volume IV, and the publishers have cancelled that. Which is a shame.
So here’s one of the articles. It’s a review of Paul Magrs’ The Scarlet Empress. I wrote it in September 1998, and it first appeared on an internet newsgroup.
There’s much to enjoy about The Scarlet Empress, and as others have suggested here [in the newsgroup], its discursive and picaresque nature mean that it ends up as more than the sum of its parts. Much of the discussion has been about its difference to the rest of the BBC Books – indeed, its difference to much of the rest of published Doctor Who fiction. And while you can argue that it isn’t a particularly radical piece of new fiction qua fiction, it is still the most stylistically innovative Doctor Who book since Sky Pirates!
At the time, of course, I seem to recall I said that I didn’t on the whole enjoy Sky Pirates! I’ve revised my view since then, because (a) I recognise it tried to make a difference, (b) Dave Stone reads the newsgroup, (c) Dave Stone is bigger than I am, and (d) there is no (d).
The Scarlet Empress is a melange of styles, much more so than a book like The Left-Handed Hummingbird with that book’s occasional experimental sections in different tones or voices. This narrative variance encompasses video diary (p22), non-sequential narrative (p 129 and following), first person narration (p275), third person omnipotent narration (p45), third person internal monologue (p 31), reported diary (p32), third person within one POV (for example, Sam’s on p97 and p257), folk tale (p 98), and mock heroic verse p242). At one point (p241), there’s a juxtaposition of the same story told by two narrators (Bearded Lady Angela and the Mock Turtle) as they recall how they explored the Scarlet Empress’s rooms, with a jarring novelistic intrusion (“Back to the narrative at hand”) joining the two. There’s even that familiar element (well, familiar from some of the more studiously avant garde Virgin novels), the one-page chapter.
I’m not sure what the motivation is for many of these changes of tone, but they are diverting and amusing. I suppose they reflect the way in which much of the story is composed of discursive set pieces, ad hoc narratives, or narrative exemplars. So if you’re looking for a densely-plotted, character-driven book you’ll be disappointed. Settle down instead for a pot pourri of events which blow kisses to various Doctor Who pasts — or, if you’re more pedantic about your canon, blow big raspberries at the accepted wisdom of the BBC range to date.
Now that’s not to say that there is no plot or characterisation in the book. The quest to find the Beaded Lady, the Cyborg Duchess, the Alligator Man, and the Mock Turtle is the thin line throughout, while a secondary thought about Iris’s desire to be healed from her disease by the Scarlet Empress is another thread. And while it’s characteristic of the book’s cheerfully casual adoption of Doctor Who history and continuity that the Mock Turtle turns out to be part-Chelonian (reference to Virgin continuity), we never feel the need to question why Iris would undergo such a complex and arduous quest. Plausibility in the book is (acceptably) secondary to the meandering nature of the narrative.
So we don’t ask ourselves why Iris, whose life matches the Doctor’s in so many ways, wouldn’t go to Karn to use the Elixir (she has, after all, met Morbius, and knows the Doctor’s life better than he does). Nor do we feel it necessary to ponder, for example, why Iris drives her TARDIS bus around Hyspero instead of vworp-vworping her vehicle in a wheezing-and-groaning fashion directly to the venues.
Both descriptions of the TARDIS noise appear, of course — the book is an eclectic mix. You can find the televised series (myriad punning references and paraphrased summaries), the TV Movie (Puccini), Virgin (Chelonians), comics (Kroton the Cyberman), Target (several people have capacious pockets) and the metalanguage of the programme’s production history itself (JN-T’s “Memory always cheats”).
So internal continuity is less important than the references to Doctor Who. On a couple of occasions, Iris’s TARDIS is used to speed the story along, and it makes a helpful reappearance after being conveniently absent for a period of time — but it’s a narrative device, not a piece of plausible technology. Otherwise, we’d worry about why it appears to allow the wind and cold in (and has a broken window) at one point, but then turns out to be completely watertight later in the book.
Internal logic is secondary to the set pieces, too. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation about the book’s style. In fact, where there are a couple of continuity items (the bee djinn reappearing to helping the Doctor with the fresh honey, and the Kestheven birds’ attack on the Kristeva), it’s unexpected and actually rather odd.
On the other hand, the motivations of the characters is interesting and consistent, particularly the Doctor and Iris. However, Sam is largely unrecognisable from any other novel, and we have little insight into her until the end – but see later on. We trust Iris’s insights when she’s talking to us directly, rather than to other characters, but I do wonder why she tells the Doctor that the Aia’ib is very important to the Scarlet Empress, but then find this is never mentioned again. Like much of [this newsgroup], perhaps, this is a thread which is not adequately explored later — indeed, it’s ignored in the finale.
On the other hand, Iris is finally motivated to release her current incarnation and regenerate because of her interaction with the eighth Doctor — she argues with him, she tricks him, she blames him, she still loves him. He is younger, more carefree, less organised and intense than she remembers him (and she has met all of his previous incarnations). And since she knows what her own next incarnation will be (because of a Five Doctors style adventure of her own), she knows she too will become a younger model. (And in what I suppose could be a nod to The Power of the Daleks, Castrovalva, and Destiny of the Daleks, her clothes appear to regenerate at the same time!)
A propos of this jokey allusion to continuity, Iris observes (p234): “If you don’t mess up your own continuity, there’s always some other bugger who’ll do it for you… I don’t even pretend to be consistent.” This seems to me to be a declaration of intent for much of the book.
Things I enjoyed a lot: the Doctor listening politely when the Mock Turtles says things like “If you stay inside here long enough, you could even meet yourself. Imagine that!” I enjoyed the Steigertrude creature (but wish that several pages later there hadn’t then been a recollected story about Gertrude Stein). I love the idiosyncratic descriptive flourishes (in the Fortalician section, you can even hear the authentic voice of Tom Baker, from his autobiography, narrating the story of Our Lady the gardener who has “a particular talent for pomegranates”. And I enjoy the fact that the chapter titles are almost invariably lifted from characters’ dialogue, but that’s a personal thing I suppose. Back to the review in hand.
Sometimes the metatextuality of the narration becomes awkward and overt. After the deaths of the Fortalician Executioner and Librarian, for example, they “would have to find their own way out of this particular ontological and epistemological rubble.” (Many of the casual readers of the EDAs will have to find their own way through that sentence’s etymological and circumlocutory rubble, I think.) There’s another mouthful on p233: “It forces you to keep yourself in line. In an epistemological sense, at least.” Well, up to a point, Mock Turtle.
There a lovely description of Our Lady’s “scandalously ripe” fruit (p99), so the repetition of this striking word on p233 (“scandalously long neck”) makes you wonder: am I supposed to imagine the Mock Turtle (speaking on p233) was narrating the section on p99? You may guess this, since he’s supposed to be observing everything using his low-level telepathy while trapped in the ice for most of the book. Or is it just a coincidence of wording? (In any other book, mind you, one would not be attempting to deconstruct the text on such flimsy evidence — so make of that what you will.)
There is a short section which amused me, and which sounds like snippets from a conversation in a Doctor Who convention bar at a table where Martin Wiggins, Thomas Noonan, Alec Charles and Tat Wood are all talking. The Doctor and Iris are arguing about the Seventh Doctor’s compulsion for setting universal wrongs to right, policing the timelines in a plot-driven male way. “Time’s Champion my arse,” she sneers. The Doctor retorts that Iris wants to be “the great feminist reinterpreter of patriarchal Gallifrey” who pleads “the endless polymorphous perversity of time and possibility”. Early twentieth century psychological allusions to infantile sexual tendencies aside, we do get a great insult in response from Iris as she characterises the Master as the embodiment of the male ago: “that pitiful, deluded, phallocentric dope.” Makes you look at the Tissue Compression Eliminator in a whole new light, doesn’t it?
Now, much as I enjoyed The Scarlet Empress, I did have quite a struggle at times with the way that point of view (POV) seemed to meander. Maybe it’s for a reason, but I can’t discern why it happens. For example, a section which is explicitly (and characteristically) narrated by Iris on p200, and which discusses her Gallifreyan nature after about a page, by p202 contains a line “Iris looked thoughtful” and then ” ‘So Do I,’ put in Iris.” (In other words, we’ve left her first-person narration and entered third person.) Later in the same section, we discover we’re now in Sam’s POV: “She saw that Iris…” Or is it Iris, because after a line of her dialogue we start a paragraph “She was staring at the alligator man…” Then the same paragraph ends with omniscient third person narration “all of them had their private suspicions”.
This rollercoaster through different POVs could partly be rescued if we assume a typo on p202, and that Sam’s POV is assumed to start after Iris’s line “A terrible sailor, me.” But it isn’t the only place in the novel where this odd change between POVs seems to occur. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy- duddy to expect consistency. Check out the section starting on p207 in the Bearded Lady’s POV. It becomes a sort of omniscient (or at least distanced) POV with “It had been Angela the Bearded Lady who…”, which is quite a nice stylistic device. But then by p209, “suddenly she looked very small (someone else’s POV of her), and then on p210 we learn “The ten eyes of the Duchess surmounted the original faceted eyes of the spider like a cluster of bright jewels” which must be someone else’s POV because Angela is blind — which the next paragraph reminds us of: “Even without being able to see this new being, the Bearded Lady knew exactly what had happened.” This whole section ends with the internal thoughts (POV) of the new creature hearing the Scarlet Empress’s instructions.
Well, maybe this is all the free-indirect narrative that the Doctor tells us (personally) in the following chapter — albeit by using the first-person narrative mode. I suppose I have to accept that Paul Magrs will reply, like Iris (on p131): “I can write exactly what I want.” And I will have to accept, like the Doctor immediately after this: “He could see that he wouldn’t get any further with this one.”
Ah, the Doctor. What fun the novel has with him. I think my conception of the eighth Doctor is very much like Paul Magrs’, which is “engaging simplicity… no more all-knowing prophet- like… content to blunder into things, and let himself meet fabulous characters in that sweetly picaresque, eighteenth- century way of his” (p282).
The “Afterword” aside, however, there’s a smashing pen portrait of the McGann Doctor on p123 — which you may think sounds closer to the kind of wording you’d expect from a set of BBC guidelines, but which in the specific context on the narration is entirely appropriate here: it’s an analysis by Iris, confiding in us, and after all she knows all the Doctors and, in the novel, therefore has a uniquely informed POV. Indeed, as it’s established that the Doctor can’t remember his previous lives with any great precision, she has the unfair advantage of knowing him better than himself. Just like a fangirl asking awkward questions of her favourite actor at an interview panel — no wonder Paul McGann’s afraid to go to conventions, eh?
Elsewhere in the book, I’m delighted to hear the Eighth Doctor confirm my belief about his character’s view on life: “Ordinary life is where everything is a struggle and muddle and you can only do your best.” We’re still offered a bit of mystery (he doesn’t reply to the statement about him and Iris that they are “both Gallifreyans”. And there’s a nice nod to the Sam/Doctor backstory when new Empress Cassandra says to the Doctor “No wonder she loves you” and the Doctor explains to Sam that Cassandra is referring to Iris loving him (implication: not Sam loving him). And in his first-person conclusion to the book, the Doctor confides in us that he loves… the sight of the vortex.
A central metaphor in the book appears on p236, where the Doctor gives an account of himself. It does start with an observation which is dangerously close to Pseud’s Corner (or Novelist Luvvies): “My job is rather like a doctor in a hospital, or a novelist’s… in that I try to keep people alive.” But it develops a little more plausibly: Life is not like a plotted book, not tidy, not genre. The Doctor’s job is to avoid “the trap of genre-death”. To him, the interesting parts are “the parts where life just goes on. It’s just to the sides of the big adventure. The bits that overstep the boundaries of convention.” A bit like this book, you’re saying, no doubt fumbling with phrases like “objective correlative”. When the Doctor says this, Paul Magrs observes: “He seemed pleased with that.” Well, I suppose Paul Magrs was, too.
The Doctor describes his adventures as a “bricolage. A large and teeming compendium with all sorts of alternatives.” And that seems to be a sound aspiration for the BBC Books series, particularly when there has been so much discussion on the newsgroup about whether the books should be all like this or all like that, rather than a splendid variety of styles. On page 236: ” ‘If we had a bottle of something,’ said the Doctor, ‘we might have a toast. To the picaresque life.’ ”
I’ll drink to that.