Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Ribos Operation (1)

Deadly Assassin debunked the Time Lords: the once god-like aliens are now silly old men with robing rooms and TV interviews and alarms that go arooga-arooga when there is an intruder. Invasion of Time debunked the TARDIS: the once miraculous machine is literally a facade, and if you take one step out of the gleaming white control room what you will find is not even-more wondrous technology, but brick lined tunnels and obsolete office equipment.

The Ribos Operation goes one step further. It debunks the Doctor. And then it debunks the whole idea of Doctor Who. And then it puts them back together again.

The Guardian of Time has stepped into the space vacated by the Time Lords. He summonses the Doctor and tells him he has chosen him to perform an important mission. The Doctor chafes and complains and sulks but takes on the quest. He can't very well not. The Guardian is a plot device: the voice of the authorial fiat. If the main character in the story doesn't do what the Author tells him to do, then it is literally true that nothing will happen to him: ever again.

The living embodiment of the Plot looks like an ex-pat from the Raj. You can rationalise this kind of thing if rationalising things is your bag: maybe Guardians change their appearances to fit in with their surroundings, like the TARDIS; or maybe everyone perceives them differently, like Galactus and Santa Claus. But I think we just happen to be in the kind of Universe where the higher power is an old duffer in a white suit. The universe may be threatened with eternal chaos; the cosmic cube may have been split into six easily managed monthly instalments: but the TARDIS is still a phone box and God is quite definitely an Englishman.

The Doctor is reduced to a self-conscious school-boy; calling the Guardian "Sir" with a distinct trace of sarcasm. It's the sort of thing that Tom does so well: acting, darling. His relationship with God is very much like his relationship with his old college tutor. The Doctor is very much still the Doctor.

But when Romana appears, it all gets a bit uncomfortable.

Fans talk about "companions"; journalists talk about "assistants". When the Guardian tells the Doctor that he is going to have a new "assistant" he is speaking from outside the story; talking about the format rather than the universe. The audience knows that Louise Jameson has quit and that the first story has to introduce the "new girl"; so having the voice of the author simply impose one on the Doctor is a nice post-modern penetration of the fourth wall. When the Doctor responds that "in my experience, assistants mean trouble; I have to protect them and show them and teach them..." he's pretty much calling into question the entire premise of Doctor Who. And he is surely speaking for the lead actor -- and some of the fans -- when he says "I'd rather work alone". Later he tells Romana "to stay out of my way and keep out of trouble" and to "stick close to me and do as you're told". If companions always did that, there wouldn't be many stories. (James Goss's novelisation of the Pirate Planet pushes the metafictional element much harder: the Doctor requires a companion who "likes country walks through quarries" and has "sturdy ankles.")

Romana doesn't accept the companion role. It's not that she complains that the Doctor is sexist and patronising. Jo Grant occasionally did that. (Sarah was more self-confident and therefore more subtle about it.) But Romana tells the Doctor directly that he is not as clever as he pretends to be; and she is repeatedly proved right. She -- it turns out -- has a first class degree in Time Lording from the University of Time Lord, where the Doctor barely scraped a pass-mark on the second attempt.

Information about the Doctor's past has always been rationed: William Hartnell was a pioneer among his own people; Jon Pertwee had a mysterious mentor; Patrick Troughton has a family who he sometimes thinks about. But Tom, it seems, was a bad, second rate student. It undermines the Doctorness of the Doctor for the sake of a cheap gag.

In earlier drafts, Romana was going to be an undergraduate Time Lord: one who was still learning and therefore knew less than the Doctor; although possibly more inclined to stick to the rules. This would have been much less of an attack on the show's format: and therefore much less fun.

There would be nothing very surprising about the pairing of a veteran hero with an academically brilliant young turk. Knowledge versus experience is a perfectly good narrative set-up. The young Captain can bring the old Admiral up to speed about recent developments in antimatter imbalance without necessarily undermining the Kirkness of Kirk.

But in her initial interaction with the Doctor, Romana consistently maintains the upper hand; and the Doctor ends up looking ridiculous. She rightly points out that he is childishly sulking. He petulantly makes fun of her name, and she doesn't take the bait. She cleverly catches him out with reverse psychology. (The Doctor forbids her from returning to Gallifrey, even though he really wants her to leave.) She accurately claims that he has "massive compensation syndrome" -- he wants to appear competent to make up for his relatively poor academic record. And when he histrionically warns her to watch where she is going and expect the unexpected he literally walks into a bear trap.

It's funny enough, in a Crackerjack kind of way. But if the Doctor is a bit of a fraud then he has always been a bit of a fraud. Ian and Barbara and Jamie and Sarah and six million viewers were taken in: but this new lady can see right through him.

The Doctor was introduced to us as a kind of Flying Dutchmen figure -- a stranger with a Ship he couldn't steer making landfall in mysterious places with no particular purpose or motivation. The uncontrolled TARDIS is one part of the story-generating engine. The Doctor's innate curiosity and moral compass provides the other half. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke explained the set-up very clearly to me when I was eight:

"Having thought of all that, Newman and Wilson had to consider an important question of logic: why should the Doctor travel about through Time and Space? You will remember what was said about television series to do with detectives, policemen, and doctors. In their jobs, they are called to where something is happening. There could be no logical reason for the Doctor to be called, say, to the Planet Skaro to help the Thals against the Daleks, nor why he should be called back into Earth's history to the time of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. So there had to be another reason for the Doctor's travels. The answer was that something had gone wrong with the steering of the TARDIS. It was decided that on each journey the Doctor would try to make the TARDIS go where he wanted, but always the TARDIS would be out of control. However, this would not greatly displease the Doctor. Built into his character was a scientific curiosity about everything and everywhere."

But the Tracer/Core changes the dynamic. The voice of authorial fiat has given the Doctor a literal plot device: a device that points him towards the plot. The Doctor will now be directed to a specific planet; and on that planet he will look for a particular thing;  and when he finds that thing he will move on. Where the Doctor's whole personality inclines him to get involved; the Guardian's mission actively requires him not to.

If the Key to Time saga is about anything, it is this. The central conflict is not between black and white or between order and chaos. It is between plot and anti-plot.

Everything about the Ribos Operation seems to be off-kilter. It looks like a costume drama; but it keeps insisting that it's a space-opera. Every character is a broad, comedic caricature: but the story keeps demanding that we should feel empathy for them. The character who is structurally in a heroic role -- the usurped prince on a quest to restore his throne -- is a psychopath and all our sympathies lie with a pair of crooks who should logically be bad guys. The Doctor and Romana are pushed to the edge of the narrative, and the con-men act as if it is their show. It is perpetually trying to become a Doctor Who story, but the Key to Time actively prevents it from doing so.

Imagine a Ruritanian romance set in space. A King goes off to war and returns home to find that his half-brother has usurped his throne. (Perhaps their names are Richard and John.) In exile with a loyal general and a handful of guards, the rightful King plans to establish a new base of operations, raise an army and reclaim his throne. He says things like "Do you think that I can rest for one moment until I've won back the Levithian Crown which is mine by right?" In such a scenario you'd expect the Doctor to side with the exiles against the usurper.

But the expected set up is reversed. Graf Vynda-K, the rightful king, is a thug and a tyrant; the throne-stealing half-brother, by all accounts, a jolly good fellow. We are on the edge of a massive space opera: we hear about star cruisers and space marines and a galaxy-wide empire, but it's all kept entirely off-stage. The action takes place in the environs of a single medieval castle.

The Graf seems unsure what kind of a character he is meant to be. He speaks fluent technobabble mixed with fluent villain; but he keeps lapsing into old fashioned ("why think you of those caves?") He can't pronounce the name of his henchman Sholakh without lingering on the K: and he keeps doing that Laurence Olivier thing of unexpectedly. Pausing half way through a line. At first he is merely a very arrogant nobleman: two of the three cliffhangers end with him talking about himself in the third person. "No one makes a fool of the Graff Vynda-K and lives";"No one will ever know how you tried to trick the Graff Vynda-K" By episode three, he's adopted the language of colonialism ("I flatter myself I know how to get the best out of natives") and is shooting prisoners as if they were grouse. But in episode four, he modulates back into being a space-marine action figure and there is something slightly heroic about him. You can't completely hate someone who reminisces about "So many battles, Skarrn, the Freytus labyrinth, Crestus Min..." He actually kisses Sholakh when the latter is killed. Perhaps, like Corialanus, he was a good soldier who was forced to become a bad politician.

There is a very old joke, possibly made by Robert Holmes himself, that if the BBC remade Michael Caine's Zulu, the thousands of extras would be replaced by one man in a pith-helmet sticking his head out of a tent and crying "there are thousands of them out there!" Certainly, Doctor Who always relied on showing it small and telling it big: taking viewers to the periphery or the aftermath of some large scale conflict and coming up with good reasons why universe-shaking events are played out in a quarry, a space ship or an Edwardian country house.

This is perhaps a harder stunt to pull of in 1978 than it would have been a decade earlier; you can't carry on claiming that the pictures are better on the radio when Industrial Light and Magic is blowing up planets twice a night on Screen 2 of the Barnet Odeon. But Robert Holmes remains the master of the poetry of allusion; of giving characters jargon laden gibberish which seems to have eons and continents of meaning behind them.

Ribos is a primitive planet "three light centuries from the magellanic clouds" with seventeenth century technology but  no knowledge of the wider universe. The inhabitants believe that their world is flat and that the stars are ice-crystals suspended in the sky. The planet experiences four-year long winters followed by equally long summers. If there is a parallel between the people's superstitious belief in an endless war between the sun gods and the ice gods and the endless cosmic war between the Guardians, Holmes doesn't point it out.

It looks like any number of historical dramas: we could almost be over on BBC2 watching the Television Shakespeare season. As a matter of fact, the sets and the costumes were liberated from a dramatisation of Anna Karenina. In Episode 3, we see fur-clad actors, lost in BBC caverns, having mannered, theatrical conversations in extreme close up. If you switched off the colour and squinted, you might almost think that it was 1964, William Hartnell was in the TARDIS, and all was right with the world.

The action takes place in a castle: the castle has a strong room; and the crown jewels are on display in a glass case. They are guarded by a monster, the shrivenzale, part frog and part dragon; which rather reinforces the sense that we are looking at something that quacks like science fiction but is really fantasy under the bonnet. The shrivenzale is obviously a puppet, but it's a pretty impressive one. It's never very frightening but it's never actively ludicrous.

Ribos is an anagram of Boris. Shrivenzale is probably an anagram of something very rude indeed.

The Graf's backstory never completely settles down: he is trying to regain the "Levithian crown"; he participated in something called "the Frontier war"; the planet Ribos falls within the "Greater Cyrrhenic Empire"; and something called "the Alliance" has the power to adjudicate the succession. We don't know what "Pontonese ships" or "Shalankie mercenaries" are: but don't they sound terrific? He could have said that only the Magellanic Mining Company has the authority to buy and sell planets, but he chose to go with Conglomerate instead. I don't think Douglas Adams was actively involved, but it all sounds terribly Hitchhikery.

I am sure that it is possible to bind these phonemes together into some coherent campaign-setting: I am sure Big Finish or Cubicle 7 have done so. But it is better left unexplained and unexplored: the jumble of non-specific imagery underlines the important point that Space is Big. The Graf and his remnant represent the tip of a narrative iceberg protruding into this one tiny story; a single space marine on a board we will never see.

And he isn't even the person the story is about.

Read: The Ribos Operation Part 2

Read: The Pirate Planet Parts 1 and 2 

Read: Andrew's opinions on Doctor Who's Sixtieth Buy Beautiful Shiny PDF booklets of Andrew's reviews of Tom Baker's first four seasons.

Buy Beautiful Shiny PDF booklets of Andrew's reviews of Doctor Who's sixtieth Join Andrew's Patreon and get beautiful shiny PDF booklets for free. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Key To Time


He that is not busy being born is busy dying.

Doctor Who has always been in a death spiral; undermining it's own credibility and trampling it's own legacy. But equally it has always been struggling to come into being; edging toward the moment when it has finally become Doctor Who.

But what is Doctor Who? 

We think we know. Pseudo-science, corridors, second rate Equity members over-acting in the general direction of extras in rubber suits. And no one can say that that version of Doctor Who never existed. But the crock of gold at the end of the corridor is always receding. We think we've arrived at the definitive Doctor-Who-as-it-always-was: and we find that what we're watching is a clever costume drama on left-over sets from Anna Karenina.

The Doctor has to retrieve a powerful object referred to as the Key to Time. It has been split into Six Segments and scattered across the Universe. Since there are six stories in a season of Doctor Who, the artificiality of the device pretty much screams at you from the first synopsis.

The term "story arc" was not quite current in 1978: the production team were inclined to talk about "the umbrella theme" or "the blanket story line". But we could all see that the Key to Time was a McGuffin hunt: a trek across time and space searching for what Nick Lowe memorably called "plot coupons".

There are two extant documents which explore the idea behind the saga. One is written by incumbent producer Graham Williams; the other by incoming script editor Douglas Adams. Two writers, thinking on paper, trying to sort out in their heads what the Key to Time saga could possibly be about.

Williams is interested in cosmology and lore. He's interested in what kind of universe the Doctor inhabits. I have said in the past that most Doctor Who backstory amounts to "lore-babble": stuff that sounds good but which has no real "sub-creation" behind it. However, the Williams memo does seem to envisage a self-consistent Whoniverse: even if he is ad libbing it in the very act of typing the words.

There are writers who can't write the big sex scene unless they know what kind of handles there are on the bedroom door and the colour of the wallpaper. And there are writers who don't give the hero a name unless and until it becomes relevant to the plot. Douglas Adams seems to have been in the second camp. When someone asked him if Arthur Dent used an Apple Mac, Adams said it was a silly question because Arthur Dent didn't exist, and there had never been a scene in which we saw him typing. Graham Williams is more like the actor who can't say "My lord, your carriage awaits" unless he knows what the footman had for breakfast. The Guardians have to have a purpose and the Key to Time has to have an origin even if he has no intention of sharing them with the audience.

Tolkien worked out elvish rates of fertility to a hundred decimal places as a kind of displacement activity before writing some of the most beautiful mythic prose any human being has ever composed. Williams is similarly doodling on the page, trying to get a head of steam up before working on his story. But his ideas barely impact on the actual TV show.

The memo keeps dissolving into gibberish. Elisabeth Sandifer memorably called it the most spectacularly incoherent thing she had ever read. There are three forces in physics, right? Gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear? And some theories require there to be a fourth force, which might be space-time? And humans can control gravity and electromagnetism? So maybe the Time Lords control the fourth force? 

Come on. It was 1978. Of course it was going to involve the Force.

But the Time Lords are corrupt, right? So mustn't there necessarily be a power that is as far above the Time Lords as the Time Lords are above us humans? But the higher force can't be purely good; because then the universe would be good, which it obviously isn't. So there must be two higher forces; a good one and an evil one.

Voila: the Black and White Guardian Show.

"Eternity and Infinity, as concepts, do not by their very nature, allow for an absolute Authority -- the Pyramidical Hierarchy stretches through time and space and can have no apex... But the next step is logical. The balance must be kept by someone..."

If "must" is a moral imperative ("you must be home by tea-time") then this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Who or what made the rule that there "must" be a balance? But if it's an inductive "must" ("he must have been home by tea-time because the kitchen light was on") I think we can see what Williams is driving at. If Time and Space are infinite there can't be any supreme being. A pyramid with infinitely long sides never comes to a point. If the Time Lords are above the humans and the Guardians are above the Time Lords, there must be Something Else above the Guardians, and Something Else above the Something Else. It's turtles all the way down. (Williams literally quotes Jonathan Swift's poem about fleas.) But if the next in line above the Time Lords were good then we'd expect goodness to be running the whole show: which obviously it isn't. So it follows that there "must" be both a good and an evil force, in some kind of balance.

It's the old, old question. If the supreme being is good, then how do you account for the existence of haemorrhoids and Sir Kier Starmer?

There is some pretty weird moral philosophy in the memo:

"Must responsibility and objectivity lie solely in the hands of the good influence? Demonstrably not so. Of our recent history there is no account nor any evidence that Hitler believed his principles less sincerely than Churchill believed in his. Where were Nuremburg, had Hitler won."

This is monstrously confused -- we're looking over Williams' shoulder as he vomits ideas into a notebook. But I think we can see the thought he is trying to have. He's contrasting a monotheist universe in which good is good and all alone and ever more shall be so with a dualist world where good and evil are two equal and opposed forces.

In a strictly dualist universe there is no particular reason why you ought to choose to be good rather than evil. They are just two teams, like the Arsenal and the Spurs. Dungeons & Dragons conceptualises "good" and "evil" as antagonistic clubs you choose to join, not meaningful descriptions of codes of conduct or ways of life."You ought to follow the light rather than the dark" implies that there is a third force, over and above the light side and the dark side that approves the Jedi and deprecates the Sith. That's why orthodox Christians have always been very clear that Satan is not an evil god; he's merely a very naughty angel. I believe that even so-called dualistic systems like Zorastrianism and Manicheism say, under their breath and off mic, that the good force came first and will beat the bad one in the end. You ought to back the winner.

What Williams appears to be blurting out is that Hitler believed himself to be good and the allies to be evil and that there is no absolute perspective from which one can say that he is wrong. Cosmically speaking, murdering six million Jews and not murdering six million Jews are equally neutral acts. It's a fortunate quirk of history that we happen to have been educated on the non-genocidal side of the line.

But "Hitler thought that doing evil was good, so maybe doing good is evil" is not meaningful or helpful, even as a thought experiment. The relevant insight would have to be something like "Suppose you honestly thought that monstrous aliens dedicated to the destruction of humanity were dispersed through your population: might genocide be one of the solutions which would occur even to a good person?" We stopped executing witches, not because we changed our mind about executions, but because we stopped believing in witchcraft.

But that's exactly the kind of thinking which the Doctor rejects. There would be a contradiction in wiping out the whole Dalek species because the Daleks are genocidal monsters. The Daleks are bad and if the Doctor acts as they do he would be as bad as them.

The second half of the Williams memo attempts to connect all this back to Doctor Who. It proposes that the President of the Time Lords is told about the higher authority when he assumes office. (The Doctor must therefore have learned about them in Invasion of Time -- or would have done if he had not had his memory erased at the end of the story.) The two Guardians are representatives of the Higher Power within the Cluster -- the section of the universe the Time Lords are in charge of. The Key to Time is a neutral source of power for both the White and the Black Guardians. In Williams' original conception, the Black Guardian has already stolen the Key and scattered it through Time and Space; the Universe is already descending into chaos. He seems to entertain the thought that the Doctor has always been resisting the chaos and his enemies have always been agents of the Black Guardian. He wonders if perhaps Time Lords are periodically promoted to being Guardians, and that the Doctor might be rewarded for completing the quest by being offered the chance to level up.

But none of this makes its way into the actual episodes. Neither does the attractive idea of a magic candle which burns dimmer and dimmer as the Black Guardian's power waxes. And Williams philosophical doodle entirely fails to answer the big question. How will a season of Doctor Who in which the Doctor is searching for the six segments of the Key to Time be distinguishable from a season in which he isn't?

In this respect, Douglas Adams' notes are a lot more interesting; albeit only as a counterfactual -- a brief premonition of a more interesting Key to Time which might have existed, but never did. Adams isn't interested in higher powers, moral relativism, or infinitely large pyramids. He's truthfully not that interested in Doctor Who. He's interested in scripts. The producer has determined that the Doctor is going to spend Season 16 collecting party favours for a cosmic scavenger hunt: so how can a writer use that idea to generate some interesting TV?

Adams zeroes in on one crucial fact. Each of the segments is disguised as a random object. So in each story, one object must be of exceptional significance. The important thing is to think of interesting and surprising objects and to think of interesting and surprising reasons why some character might want to stop the Doctor getting his hands on them.

"The problem in each case is that the object plays some significant role in the life of the planet on which it is located, either for good or evil, and the Doctor has to consider how its removal will affect life on [that planet]."

Being Douglas Adams, he tries to think of far-fetched and ridiculous things for the segments to be disguised as. The Moon and the Sun. Stonehenge. A person: Romana, maybe, or even the Doctor himself. Imagine a story in which the Doctor arrived in a future London and was required to ask the King (recognisably descended from Prince Charles) if he could please remove Buckingham Palace because he needed it to save the universe.

Adams was finishing up the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at the same time he was working on what became the Pirate Planet and there is a certain familial wackiness between the two stories. What if the second segment turned out to be, er, Africa? What if the Doctor already knew this, and had the original continent in storage in his infinitely large TARDIS?

Adams' essay is not always very easy to follow. His mind worked very quickly but didn't stay in one place for long. But it is the idea of disguise which seems to fascinate him. He envisages characters being mistaken, or directly lying, about which object will turn out to be that episode's plot coupon. Maybe the Doctor pretends that he has found the segment to impress Romana? Maybe he lies about what the segment is to give him a pretext to take away some alien object he wants to possess for some unfathomable reason of his own? Maybe the segment is a weapon and the Doctor has to make a morally ambiguous pact with a supervillain to get his hands on it?

Williams' introduction of the tracer/core in Episode One pretty much closes off most of these interesting avenues: the Doctor has an infallible wand that flashes "this way to the plot" at the beginning of each episode. (Several times, the Doctor loses the tracer, but that simply turns the McGuffin detector into a temporary McGuffin.)

The memo may contain the germ of what became the Armageddon Factor. But very few of Adams' ideas ever see the light of day. It is hard to avoid the feeling that in many of the Key to Time stories, the quest was being retrofitted into stories which would have worked perfectly well without it.

Four seasons ago, the Doctor was sent on a quest: not by the Guardians but by the Time Lords. The TARDIS could, I suppose, have randomly dumped him on Skaro at the precise moment when Davros was about to activate his new range of outer space robot people. And the Doctor might have decided that this provided him with an opportunity to abort his enemy at the moment of their conception. And he might even have had moral qualms at the last minute. But that would have all been a bit of a stretch even by Doctor Who standards. The prologue to Genesis of the Daleks justifies the contrivance; and sets up the moral dilemma in the final episode. The Doctor questions whether he ought (that word again) to destroy the Daleks even though the Time Lords have told him to.

And that's the question that neither Williams nor Adams successfully answers. What narrative effect will the Guardian's sending the Doctor on a cosmic treasure hunt have on the six stories that make up Season 16?

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Norwegian Blue

The Wolves of Eternity by
Karl-Ove Knausgaard

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. - Trad.

Some years ago, there was a TV series called Heroes. The first episodes followed the apparently unrelated life-stories of several super-powered characters. Gradually, over slightly too many episodes, we started to see how their lives were connected; until by the final instalment, they all turned out to have been part of a single story. Someone certainly had to save the cheerleader. Because it was about a network of overlapping relationships it was called the first popular drama of the Facebook era. By me, if by no-one else.

Social media makes a difference. Past Lives, a film which somehow didn't excite me quite as much as it excited everyone else depends on Facebook for its central premise. It would have been quite impossible, prior to 2005, for two people on two different continents who were sweethearts at the age of twelve to reestablish contact at the age of twenty four. Not without private detectives, or a gigantic coincidence involving handbags and strawberry marks. You may remember how Rustum (a father who long ago lost contact with his son) and Sorhab (a son who was raised entirely in ignorance of his father's identity) inadvertently killed each other in single combat. That sort of thing used to happen all the time in the days before Twitter.

Alan Moore's Watchmen, which came out as early as 1986, is another story in which multiple narratives about disparate characters gradually converge, until we perceive that, from a certain point of view, everything is connected to everything else. Moore's Ozymandias sits in front of a huge bank of television screens, randomly changing channels, in the belief that this will somehow enable him to perceive the Big Picture. Nowadays he would spend all day on Twitter. Come to think of it, he would probably own Twitter.

Conspiracy theory thrives online; and conspiracy theory, almost by definition, involves drawing lines between things which are not connected. Until 2022, the titular head of the United Kingdom was called the Queen. One of the Queen's children is alleged to have links to Jeffrey Epstein. Jeffrey Epstein was accused of sexual offences. Men who wear extravagangtly feminine clothes as part of a theatrical performance are sometimes referred to as Drag Queens. This proves...

But Alan Moore came to believe that ritual magic and creative writing were both equally about creating new connections between unconnected things.  All stories are true.

I wonder if the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- and the various franchises which have so far entirely failed to emulate its success -- are knock-on results of the ubiquity of Twitter? We're disinclined to see stories as lines and more inclined to see them as webs.


In 2012, someone called Helge listens to a record that they used to like when they were eleven.

"The cover alone sent a tingle down my spine. The image of the world, shining in the darkest firmament, the band name in electric lettering and the album title underneath in computer script–wow! But it didn’t really knock me out until I pressed play and started listening. I remembered all the songs, it was as if the melodies and riffs hidden in my subconscious came welling up to reconnect with their origins, their parents, those old Status Quo songs to which they belonged. But it wasn’t only that. With them came shoals of memories, a teeming swathe of tastes, smells, visions, occurrences, moods, atmospheres, whatever. My emotions couldn’t handle so much information all at once, the only thing I could do was sit there trembling for three-quarters of an hour as the album played.”

Well, quite. Frenchmen often have that kind of experience when they dip little cakes in their tea. One thought leads to another and suddenly Helge remembers something very odd that happened to him in 1977. It's all over and done with in six pages and I don't think we hear another peep out of him for the rest of the very long book. 

The second section, amounting to a longish novel in its own right, is about a second character, named Syvert. It's 1987 and Syvert has just come home from his national service (which is, or was then, a thing in Norway). He was a cook in the Navy and is rather good at it, although he doesn't want to go into the restaurant trade as a career. He doesn't know what he does want. Gradually, some facts about his life unfold. He lost his father a decade ago; his mother is seriously ill (he finds blood in the washbasin and then a bloody tissue in the bin). He has a younger brother who has been having vivid dreams about Dad. Almost without us noticing, a plot starts to happen. Syvert finds some of his father's old papers, which include letters written in Russian. He didn't know his Dad spoke Russian. He becomes curious, and gets them translated. Meanwhile and in passing he visits the local Vicar. It seems that everyone is automatically confirmed in the Church of Norway by default, and has to pay tax to the church: they need a signature from a clergyman if they want to opt out. The Vicar is very nice about it, but half-seriously asks Syvert to return the favour by reading Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky is the most Christian of writers, he says, more Christian than Jesus. Syvert is not only an atheist, but quite right-wing, although this only manifests as occasionally having unkind thoughts about people he assumes to be leftists. When he finds the only Russian speaker in the village to translate his dad's letters, they recommend Dostoyevsky to him as well. He rejoins a football team, develops a crush on a girl he has never met, unwisely gives an interview to a local newspaper and finds a temporary job -- as an undertaker's assistant.

After four hundred pages of this, we switch to Russia, where a lorry driver named Yeygeny Pavlovich is robbed by thugs and then wrongly arrested by the police. And then a new, long section about Alevitina, a Russian academic. She's lecturing in biology and becomes quite irritated by a student who tries to quote Intelligent Design texts at her. 

"The kind of reductionist materialism you all stand for can only point to physical and chemical laws, but there’s nothing in those laws that can explain how life arose out of non-life. Is that science? And as for the theory of evolution, is it able to explain how the genetic code emerged, not to mention how it’s actually read? The theory has to be able to do that in order to be valid. Only it can’t. Is that science? Or is it orthodox faith?"

There is a very long flashback to when she was an graduate student; she was briefly interested in "biosemiotics"; the idea that if trees can at some level pass information to other trees, and if there are extensive networks (networks!) of fungi beneath the earth, forests could be complex enough to possess something analogous to consciousness. This led her into thinking about shamanism, and a brief experiment with magic mushrooms. 

And thence to a whole chapter of a work in progress by her friend Vasilisa. It deals with similar themes and is, of course, entitled The Wolves of Eternity. 

The starting point of Fyodorov’s philosophy is that death belongs to nature and life belongs to humans. Nature is a destructive force we permit to control us. Death is a result of our passivity towards nature: we allow nature to kill us. But this is by no means a necessary outcome. Whereas the forces of nature that tear everything asunder are blind processes taking place according to laws and systems of which nature itself is unknowing, we human beings possess consciousness, will and emotions.


How does Karl-Ove Knausgaard do it?

This is the sort of eight hundred page novel which you devour in hundred page chunks. It's the sort of book which leaves you breathlessly on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out if Syvert and his kid brother Joar will have a nice time at the swimming pool; or if Syvert is going to extricate himself from talking to a couple of over-chatty tourists without undue embarrassment. It's the kind of book you find yourself reading, if not quite from behind a sofa, then at any rate with mounting nervousness, almost afraid to get to the end of the chapter. If Syvert goes on the date with the girl he's been obsessing about for the past hundred pages, and leaves Joar home alone, will something terrible happen? Will his mother look at him in a judgemental way? Will he say exactly the wrong thing and ruin the date?

In fact, the answer to these kinds of questions is almost always "no".  A really, really bad thing did indeed happen in Syvert's family before the book started; and if the book has a single theme, it's Syvert's gradual realisation of what that bad thing was. But the bad thing happened a very long time ago, and the repercussions are not especially dramatic. But we keep reading. Karl-Ove's books grip us like nothing else. We apply words like "compelling" and "addictive" to them. One reviewer said correctly "even when he is boring, he is interesting." 

How does Karl-Ove Knausgaard do it? 

Some people might say that the question is really: how does Karl-Ove Knausgaard get away with it?


Knausgaard's fame chiefly rests on having written a four thousand page fictionalised autobiography, from the point of view of a writer whose chief claim to fame is having written a four thousand page autobiography. Naturally, it was entitled My Struggle. The book is quite aware of its own cheek, or provocation: a book about the trivia of daily life comparing itself with the most infamous and egotistical autobiography of the twentieth century. If I'd been doing it, I'd have probably gone with The Greatest Story Ever Told, which wouldn't have been nearly so clever. There is a three hundred page digression about Hitler in the final volume, which, treated as a sub-book in its own right, is genuinely interesting and informative.

My Struggle ended with Knausgaard declaring that he was no longer a writer; but in fact he followed his huge autobiography with a huge work of fiction. The Morning Star was a montage of first person narratives connected by the fact that a new star has inexplicably appeared in the sky; and that dead people are equally inexplicably coming back to life. When you have written four thousand pages about the minutiae of your own life, I suppose there is nothing much to do but write about the minutiae of other people's. 

The Wolves of Eternity is a sequel to the Morning Star, although even saying that amounts to a kind of spoiler. Two more connected volumes have already been published in Norwegian: the title of the third book in the series, Det Tredje Riket arguably translates as The Third Reich.


It would be misleading to say that the Wolves of Eternity reads like a soap-opera; but the Wolves of Eternity does read a little like a soap-opera. It would also be unfair to say that it reads like a writers' workshop exercise or an RPG scenario; but it does somewhat resemble both of those things. Here are two major characters and three minor ones: can you think up reasons, thematic or narrative, that their lives are connected? 

In a sense, it would be better to go into the book not knowing that it is a sequel to the Morning Star -- or perhaps we should say, that it is part of the Morning Star Extended Universe. The ideal reader would be following the ins and outs of Syvert's and Alevitina's lives and be surprised on page 700 (or thereabouts) when the grown-up Joar, now an astrophysicist, appears on TV trying to explain the sudden appearance of the new star.  "Aha, they would say: not only are the five characters in the Wolves of Eternity obliquely connected; but they are obliquely connected to the seven or eight we met in the previous volume."

I am, though, trying to avoid spoilers. The book doesn't contain a particular Astonishing and Surprising twist. But I would say that when I spotted the connection between Syvert and Alevitina -- and the reader works it out slightly before the characters do -- I said "Aha!" Syvert and Alevitina's meeting also reveals how Helge of the first chapter is linked to Syvert, albeit in an indirect way that neither of them are likely to ever discover. That also made me go "Aha!" "Aha!" is probably the correct reaction to the works of Karl-Ove Knausgaard.

But the book isn't about the characters or their interconnections. Beneath all the trivia, Knausgaard is really interested in huge philosophical questions. He gets through the entire book without saying "quotidian" once.

It's breathtakingly erudite, although there are some signs of authorial contrivance. The central four hundred pages we spend with Syvert only cover a few days of his life: but when we rejoin him thirty-five years later, we find that all the important things in his life depended on those four days. He married the girl he had the crush on, stayed with the undertaking firm (and now runs a chain of four funeral homes) and is still concerned about the context of Dad's letters. 

The Wolves of Eternity, like all Karl-Ove's books, is about Death. (I think of the interviewer who asked William Golding why all his books were about the Fall of Man. "That's a bit like saying all my books are about people.") Both volumes carry epigrams from the book of Revelation. The Russian lorry driver, who doesn't otherwise intersect with the story, is sent to a remote location to pick up what appear to be very large fuel tanks. When he delivers them, he learns that they actually contain...cryogenically frozen heads and bodies. At the end of his chapter, he mysteriously hears banging -- from inside the tanks! Towards the end of Syvert's second narrative chunk, he is getting confused messages from the staff of his funeral parlours saying that, so far as they can tell, no-one has died in Norway for the past three days. 

While Alevitina was researching the consciousness of forests, she became interested in a (real) Russian philosopher, Fyodorov, who believed that it was possible, and indeed imperative, to resurrect dead people. He believed that Science! ought to be able to reassemble the actual atoms that the deceased were originally made up of and reconnect them with their souls, which must logically still exist somewhere. He also believed in aliens. Big Name Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky took him seriously. Fyodorov's "cosmism" naturally makes one think of contemporary theories about transhumanism and the singularity which flourish because social media has made it so easy for crackpots to link up with other crackpots.

So perhaps, while praising the book for its erudition and fractal complexity, we need to lightly chastise it for its slightly clunky artifice. Syvert gets a job in the death industry while finding out about his dead father and confronting the mortality of his mother; meanwhile other characters discourse on the philosophical nature of death and the plot arc carried over from the previous volume suggests that death may literally be coming to an end. Or perhaps we are merely gob-smacked that the poet laureate of  prawn sandwiches is telling something with the general shape of a story?


There's no doubt that the writing style is odd: even Knausgaard's advocates smile at the endless cups of coffee and showers. A reviewer in, I think, the Washington Post prefaced his positive remarks with "if Knausgaard is your thing..."

The characters all speak in the same register: it always sounds to me, slightly, as if a patient primary school teacher is addressing a bright but obstinate child. 

‘Have you got any music?’
‘My record player’s in my room. I don’t think you’ll like my records much, though.’
‘Don’t underestimate me, thank you very much. What do you listen to?’
‘Heavy metal.’
'Is that all'
'You don't look the type if you ask me.'


‘Listen,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry for being so presumptuous. I’m a bit drunk, you see. Well, more than a bit, actually. I’m very drunk.’
‘Some people get happy when they’re drunk,’ I said.
‘I know. I do sometimes as well. Only not tonight, it seems.’
‘That’s OK. I accept you as you are,’ I said. She laughed. I laughed too.

There is a sometimes self-conscious frankness; characters are a little too inclined to say things like "I put the beers and cokes in the fridge, the crisps in the cupboard, then went to the toilet for a shit, only there was someone in there". It isn't entirely clear who these detailed first person narratives are spoken to: perhaps everyone in Norway now writes incredibly detailed auto-fiction. Christos Tsiolkas also has a tendency to follow his characters into the bathroom: it may be the price we pay for living inside their heads. And, of course, we're reading a translation; it may be that Norwegian has a formality that doesn't quite have an English equivalent. When Syvert (Norwegian) and Alevitina (Russian) finally meet, it isn't immediately clear that they are conversing in English. A couple of times, I wondered what Norwegian quirk the English was representing: for example, when Syvert's girl-friend is surprised by his use of the word "flabbergasted".  Everyone uses "loo" for "toilet".

Knausgaard's second book, A Time For Everything, included a huge long section about a relatively normal family doing relatively normal Knausgaardian things, but as the section rolls on, we realise that they are contemporaries of Noah, and the point of the section is to imagine what a literal global flood would be like, and how it might have been perceived by its victims. (Which, come to think of it, recalls Jesus' words about people carrying on living normal lives right up to the moment when Noah went into the Ark.) My guess is that the Morning Star quartet is going to turn out to be Knausgaard's take on a literal, Biblical apocalypse -- Lucifer and the resurrection of the dead and all -- from the point of view of ordinary people on the edge of it.  A secularised Left Behind, if you will.

One could imagine Ray Bradbury, say, dispensing with the rising of Lucifer and the resurrection of the dead in three florid pages. Someone like Salman Rushdie would have taken six hundred pages in three languages, implied that the whole thing is a metaphor and offended two major religions in the process. Knausgaard just tells it, takes it for granted; as if it's not even the most important thing that happened. (I often imagine how the news media would cope if there ever was contact with aliens or a major nuclear exchange. "But now, in other news...") It's not magical realism, but it's not really science fiction, either. It's happening in a world where you have to change babies' nappies and check with the hospital morgue about the paperwork and decide what you're having for dinner. A world where a cancer diagnosis is necessarily followed by a discussion of whether it's better to take the train or the coach to the hospital. Syvert realises that he has promised to visit his maybe terminally ill mother on the same day that the girl he has developed the obsessive crush on has asked him for a date. Which is very much how life is. The big stuff is enmeshed in the small stuff; the small stuff is what we see the big stuff through.

It's compelling and gripping and several of the characters feel real in a way that fictional characters hardly ever do. It's eight hundred pages long and I wish I read Norwegian so I could plunge straight into volume three.

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Thursday, January 11, 2024

Nothing At The End of Lane [complete]

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


Doctor Who Sixtieth Anniversary....

I do understand that some people think that what I am doing is worthwhile but can't commit to a monthly Patreon Payment... so I've put all the recent Doctor Who essays (the ones about the Sixtieth Anniversary, and the extended piece on An Unearthly Child) into a little PDF book. It's available on the Ko Fi page. 

Patreon would have paid around £6 for these pieces, but I've set it to "pay what you like".

Much thanks for your ongoing interest. (The Tom Baker retrospective will go into a different book, at some stage.)

Nothing At The End of the Lane (Appendix)


While Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert may have come up with the word TARDIS; it appears that the writer of Unearthly Child came up with the idea of it standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It is not referenced again until the Time Meddler, by which time the word Dimension has been pluralised.

Susan says she coined the name: which would make a great deal more sense if we assume that "TARDIS" is the personal name of this particular vessel -- along the lines of "Enterprise" or "Liberator" or "Shippy McShipface".

For many years, Coal Hill School would have been a pub quiz answer for obsessives. Then Sylvester McCoy went back there for an anniversary story. More recently, wonderful Clara became a teacher there; and there was a pointless spin off about the place. An easter egg implies that Ian Chesterton is one of the governors.

In the pitch documents, fog was a significant plot device: Ian and Barbara walk Susan home because it is foggy; or else find her and her grandfather lost in the fog. It is still foggy at the beginning of the pilot episode; but the fog clears. In the transmitted episode it has been downgraded to potential fog.

Pilot episode

SUSAN: I rather like walking in the English fog. It's sort of mysterious.

BARBARA: You say that as if...

IAN: Then we won't deprive you of that romantic pleasure.

BARBARA: Well, hurry home, Susan. And be careful, the fog's getting thicker.


IAN: The fog's cleared. We're lucky.

Transmitted Episode

SUSAN: I like walking through the dark. It's mysterious.

BARBARA: Be careful, Susan, there'll probably be fog again tonight.


IAN: We're lucky there was no fog. I'd never have found this.

It may be that we are supposed to infer that the fog we see in the opening sequence (when the policeman is checking out the junkyard) is unnatural fog; fog produced by the Ship in order to disguise itself. By 1963 the clean air act would have meant that the thick London smogs you could get lost in were receding into folk memory.

Ian is usually said to be a chemistry teacher: so why is he setting a Fifth Form / Year 11 class elementary geometry? (The pitch says that "Cliff" taught applied science at a Secondary Modern.) Similarly, if Barbara is a history teacher, why has the subject of English currency come in one of her lessons?

In the pilot episode, the blackboard very clearly has a note on it that says:

America 100 c = 1 $

England 20 /- = 1 £

Which suggests that she must have reacted to Susan's error by writing the true state of affairs on the board; which wasn't a particularly kind thing to do.


The story opens with a policeman checking the gates of the junk yard. In the pilot episode; Barbara notices that there is a policeman standing outside Totters Lane, suggesting that their arrival follows straight on from the pre-cred and that the school scene is a slight flashback.

When the Doctor realises that Ian and Barbara are teachers, he says "not the police then..." as if he was concerned that the officer in the pre-cred was coming to ask him questions. Shortly after they enter the junk yard, Barbara says she is going to fetch a policeman; then Ian tells the Doctor that he is going to find one; and then the Doctor dares him, twice, to do so. But no policeman appears after the opening scene.

Note that they are referred to as "policemen" throughout as opposed to "the police", "coppers" or "cops."

In Episode 2, the Doctor and Susan express surprise that the TARDIS has not changed. This is not remarked on in Dead Planet or Marco Polo.

The image of the displaced Police Box at the end of Episode One brilliantly conveys the premise of the show: an ordinary thing ending up somewhere extraordinary.

It is sometimes said that the TARDIS being fixed in a single form was a late addition to the mythos, when it was realised that creating a new prop in each story would be too expensive; but this makes very little sense. But surely it would have been easier to say that some haystack or a postbox that would have been part of the setting in any case was this month's TARDIS?

The idea that the ship was some mundane object seems to have been part of the premise at quite an early stage: it is more likely that the "stuck camouflage device" was an after-the-fact rationalisation.

The TARDIS was police-box shaped in pitches and synopses prior to An Unearthly Child. It is sometimes said that Sydney Newman proposed that it should be night watchman's tent; but in fact, he gave that as an example of one of thing it definitely shouldn't be. But there is a persistent oral tradition that the author of the first story was the person who proposed the Police Box shape.

When Ian loses his torch, he says that he doesn't have any matches, which suggests that, unusually for the time, he is a non-smoker. ("I haven't got any" rather than "I just used my last".) The Doctor, smokes a big pipe, which may be why he keeps coughing.

Ian's lack of matches may be intended to foreshadow the storyline about the cave people who have forgotten how to make fire. 

The word "totter" can mean to stumble or collapse: however Totter is also an old English word for a trader; we still talk about "totting up" the days takings. There is an area of Bristol called Totterdown.

'76 was the year of the American revolution; Barbara of course gives Susan a book about the French Revolution of '89.

There is a real Totters Lane near Guildford and Basingstoke in Surrey.

If the Doctor wants to keep his existence secret, why has he allowed the school secretary to know the real address of the place he has hidden the TARDIS?