That line is such a joke running throughout the entire history of the show. Someone asks who that mysterious man* was, hears the answer “The Doctor!” then responds, “Well, yeah, but Doctor who?” Rose Tyler said it in Rose back in 2005, because 42 years in, you can lampshade that joke.
* Or perhaps soon, mysterious woman.
But as we’ve said in the new series, it’s more than just a question, isn’t it? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was literally an essential question and problem at the heart of Doctor Who. The vision of what Doctor Who should be was increasingly a matter of division and conflict, pulling the official continuation of the show apart from the newly legitimate fan-made media.
In 1997, the licence for Virgin Publishing to release Doctor Who books expired, and the absolutely awful TV Movie starring Paul McGann prompted the BBC to take the publication of the series into their own hands.
Actually, let’s talk about that movie for a second. Just a second. It doesn’t deserve much more. I said last week that the legacy of the Virgin Publishing years was preserving the inventive spirit of Andrew Cartmel’s tenure as Doctor Who’s script editor while Sylvester McCoy played him on TV.
Those Doctor Who novels, especially under Rebecca Levene’s editorship, were creative, inventive, and playful in a similar way as the televised McCoy stories. The TV Movie wasn’t any of that at all. Its plot was threadbare and it required a huge amount of pre-existing knowledge of Doctor Who to understand any of the characters’ motives.
And this was supposed to sell Doctor Who to mainstream America – a society that had largely never heard of the show except as an odd curiosity on PBS. On top of the story’s heavy dependence on dreaded continuity, so much of the movie focussed on setting up McCoy’s regeneration and Paul McGann’s amnesia that he barely even got to play his take on the Doctor. The Doctor Who TV Movie didn’t even really have a Doctor.
|After the flop of the TV Movie, the writers at BBC Books
were left with a Doctor Who had even less personality
than these terrible publicity photos. That's not even Paul
McGann's real hair – he's wearing a wig!
So it tanked. It tanked and BBC Books was stuck with a line focussed on a Doctor that didn’t even have a personality of his own. The editors developed a persona that was based, essentially, on the one single moment in the story where the Doctor’s dialogue wasn’t filled with technobabble or pure plot advancement.
The Doctor looks down at his shoes, part of a costume he stole from the hospital changing room where he woke up, and exclaims to his de facto companion Grace, “These shoes! They fit perfectly!”
So the first era of the Eighth Doctor** novels began with this very broad outline of the character as this manic, madcap, zany adventurer. Accordingly the line drifted around for quite a bit, until a single creative voice among the novelists became prominent.
** Why do I call him the Eighth Doctor when I’ve said before that I’m switching to naming the Doctors after their actor? Because the BBC Books Eighth Doctor departs so radically from what Paul McGann himself actually wanted to do with the character. You’ll see why.
Lawrence Miles, with his debut novel Alien Bodies, in my opinion the best of his books in the whole range, created basically all the ideas that would go on to provide the aesthetic and narrative elements of the entire BBC Books era of the Eighth Doctor.
He developed Faction Paradox, the cult of Gallifreyans who sought to upend the order of the universe through the anarchic destabilization of history. The notion of the War, a cataclysm where a terrible conflict with an unnameable enemy would destroy the Time Lords. Where have I heard of that before?
|The BBC Books line placed their irrepressibly bubbly
Doctor in horrifyingly violent situations, even though
it rendered the character a mute block of depression.
Just because no one had any better ideas. Wait,
though. Something's different here.
Faction Paradox and the War were Miles’ main story ideas, and he continues to develop Faction Paradox fiction and comics today. But they dominated the BBC Books line, basically, because he was the only writer there who had any ambition to do genuinely new creative things with Doctor Who.
Miles’ concepts were thoroughly pessimistic, however. Faction Paradox’s imagery was pulled from Lovecraftian terror and voodoo ritual. And the influence of Alien Bodies on the rest of the BBC Books range was evident in the darkness of its storyline.
The Doctor confronted the literal event of his own death – the alien body at the centre of the novel’s conflict was his own. Miles’ epic two-part novel Interference saw the Doctor’s timeline made paradoxical: time travel shenanigans involving the Eighth Doctor and Faction Paradox saw Jon Pertwee’s Doctor killed by gunshot at the culmination of a storyline that relentlessly mocked his era’s campy spirit.
The plot point was a cheeky play at the sanctity of continuity that anal retentive nerds maintained in sci-fi culture of the 1990s and well before. But it was also horribly disturbing to the joyous spirit of Doctor Who that McGann’s original performance captured.
Miles’ central narrative structure was about putting this maniacally happy Doctor through hell. And most of the other authors in the range followed his lead. No one else among the writers was offering any ideas worth leading.
The rest of the BBC Books line continued in similar depressing territory. Miles left the line on bad terms (as tends to be the theme of his career) when The Ancestor Cell destroyed the Time Lords and all of his continuity in a horrifying apocalypse.
|Not only did Paul McGann finally play the Doctor as he'd
always wanted in Big Finish, they introduced a new look
for the character a few years ago that got rid of the
stupid Lord Byron wig he'd always disliked.
After that, the second half of the BBC Books era, despite the more optimistic and creative books of Lloyd Rose and the madcap mysteries of line editor Justin Richards, continued to plumb this dank narrative territory, as an amnesiac Doctor travelled the universe in dystopia after dystopia.
Meanwhile, a group of fans became good enough at making audio plays that they successfully petitioned the BBC for a licence to make actual new Doctor Who stories. And they hired all the living classic series Doctors. Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, along with most of their companion actors, joined the party.
And it really was a party. As with any fan-based medium, Big Finish’s audios held close to the aesthetic of the classic series. They even had episodic cliffhangers, even though you held the entire story on a CD in your hands. But they recaptured the spirit of their televised eras, and in McCoy’s case, even the darker territory of the Virgin years of novels.
They even had Benny Summerfield audio plays, and audio plays featuring McCoy’s Doctor, Ace, and Benny!
It was an ultimate coup when they actually landed Paul McGann – against the protests of his agent Janet Fielding. And he got to play his Doctor as he originally wanted. Less of the manic insanity of the “Shoes!” scene and the BBC Books portrayal.
|Pictured: How we all like to imagine Big Finish Doctor
Who audios are filmed.
Paul McGann’s Doctor retains the sense of happiness in travelling that he displayed in the TV Movie. And he pushes that forward into the deep bonds of loving friendship he forms with his companions. But he’s also sarcastic, sardonic, ironic, kind of a bitch sometimes, and a little bit of a subdued flamer.
That sharper edge to the character means that McGann’s Doctor is really the stronger character. When the BBC Books line grew solidly and irrepressibly dark – as with novels like the very ironically named Hope – the Eighth Doctor was positively depressed at the horror and hopelessness of the universe. McGann’s Doctor had a fight to him that the novels’ Eighth Doctor had lost.
Unless Justin Richards was writing, in which case we basically got McGann’s Doctor in a novel, as in The Gallifrey Chronicles.
I'm not about to say Big Finish was perfect. They’ve produced quite a few stinkers in their time – weighed down by fanwank, generic storylines, mistaking violence or excessive pessimism for actual drama. It happens in any multi-author medium that not everything is as brilliant as the best.
But the best is so brilliant! Paul Magrs’ The Stones of Venice was enchanting, and anything he’s written featuring Iris Wildthyme – whether in novel or audio where Katy Manning plays her – is positively lovely.
Rob Shearman’s claustrophobic chamber pieces, especially Jubilee and Chimes of Midnight, are brilliant uses of audio as a medium, and some of the best early performances of Colin Baker and Paul McGann in the Big Finish years. Those are only just my favourite two examples, as the line has continued to innovate while it’s begun running concurrently with the revived television series.
And finally getting Tom Baker is a crown jewel on a beautiful legacy. It was capped only by getting Lalla Ward to do audio plays with him again – I think the Big Finish studios might be the first place they’ve appeared together in real life since the divorce.
You know, as much as a case can be made for the influence of Lawrence Miles on some of the ideas Steven Moffat brought to the new series, I think Big Finish has probably had the more lasting impact.
Because they were the ones who showed, during those bleak wilderness years, that Doctor Who was about the joy, optimism, and wonder of unrestrained storytelling through all of space and time. That's what Doctor Who really is.