Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Plans of a Future War

Tim Callahan's watching Doctor Who and naturally one of the first things he's noticed is a connection to Final Crisis. He's not the first though. That'd be Grant Morrison, who had the odd experience of getting back from America to find that over here we'd already seen his comic on the telly...

"[W]atch the end of DOCTOR WHO which Kristan taped for me while I was away. More wonderful, inspirational pop art pulp madness, and what intrigues me most are the numerous, absolutely coincidental, similarities to my comic FINAL CRISIS (the machine made of worlds, the conquered Earth with its network of freedom fighters linked by a secret communications system, the reality-wiping weapon, the frantic scene changes, etc etc) which leads me to believe that creative people, particularly those writing or recording with a mass or populist audience in mind, have all begun to tell a very similar, very post-9/11 (call it ‘post Cycle 23’) story"
- Mozza.

We're talking here about Russell T. Davies' two-part finale for Doctor Who's fourth Welsh season, The Stolen Earth and Journey's End, but the coincidences may not be as uncanny as all that. The story is essentially a 'crossover' between Doctor Who and its sister shows, Torchwood and The Sarah-Jane Adventures, and Davies choice of template for a multiverse-bothering epic crossover seems to have been the obvious one; Crisis on Infinite Earths, the same story Morrsion was ostensibly sequelising. Not that Morrison really was, but nevertheless both Final Crisis and The Stolen Earth both belong in that 'Crisis subgenre' as snugly as the bit in Top Ten where the Ultra-Mice go mental.

In my personal experience there were other, more striking, connections between the two. They were both by my favourite writers in their respective mediums. They were both conclusions to plotlines in which I'd been invested for a number of years. They were both really disapointing.

But what do I know? That "mass populist audience" gave The Stolen Earth an Appreciation Index of 91, making it the best-received Doctor Who episode ever and one of the most highly rated telly-box shows OF ALL TIME. I'm sure Final Crisis was also universally loved by the popular target audience for Big Two Summer Events, though I can't seem to find numbers on that.

Putting aside my repeated failure to manage my fanboy expections, and the question of whether The Stolen Earth is like Final Crisis because of 9/11 and the end of Cycle 23 or because both their authors are referencing Marv Wolfman, there's still a lot of milage in reading Final Crisis next to Doctor Who.

Some of this is in random pattern spotting (The Monitors' have 5555 words for "nothing" and in Marvel continuity then the Doctor Who universe is Earth-5556!). Some is in finding the bits in FC's later issues where Morrison is responding to The Stolen Earth by cheerfully alluding to it (The Lanterns and Supermen dragging the Earth back into position) . Some is in geekdreaming a narative connection (Does the Final Crisis cause the events of The Stolen Earth in the same way it causes the Time Crisis on Earth-5 and the Secret Civil Invasion-War on Earth-6? Does it? DOES IT?).

One thing though is genuinely quite telling, the way they both use Wars in Heaven.

Doctor Who never had a 'creator' in the Roddenbury/Whedon sense. So, rather than venerate a commitee, Who fandom redirected its genuflection towards one of the series' most important writers, Robert Holmes. Holmes' stories, especially those produced by Hinchcliffe, became established as the Untouchable Classics of old school fandom. A while ago a tape-recorded interview turned up of Steven Moffat (writer of the Untouchable Classics of new school fandom) drunk in a pub and conversationally offering the opinion that Holmes was a hack. Many fans decided that they no longer liked the Untouchable Classics of Steven Moffat. They really did.

Holmes is important, to the extent that the mythology he introduced to the show in Season 14 of the English series still gets treated by many fans as if it were the foundational precepts of the whole show. It's not a million miles away from the "Frank Miller invented Batman" error.

Where he becomes relevant to Final Crisis is with1975's Pyramids of Mars. The story's only really got one pyramid, but it is on Mars and it contains... the interred corpse of J'onn J'onzz! Oh alright, no it doesn't. It contains the mechanism by which the Eygptian God Sutekh is bound on Earth.

It turns out that there was a war in the far future between Sutekh/Set and the rest of his pantheon. He destroyed their homeworld, but ended up trapped and diminished in Earth's past, plotting his restitution and his ruination of the world.

Two stories later in the same season, Holmes pseudonymously put the same structure to use in The Brain of Morbius. Again the plot starts with an off-screen War in Heaven, but this time its between the Time Lords and one of their own. The role of the Time Lords was traditionally the Monitoring of the universe (hmm...we may come back to that) but Morbius, one of thier leaders, fancied a bit of galactic conquest for a change. So ends up trapped and diminished. Sadly not in Earth's past this time, but as a brain in a jar, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a brain in a jar must be in want of a new body with which to effect the ruination of the world.

The next season brings us The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This time it's not a cosmic war, just the consequences of the Supreme Alliance's fall to the Filipino Army during the 51st Century's Battle of Reykjavik. Eeeevil war criminal Magnus Greel ends up trapped in Earth's past and dependant on draining the life force out of young ladyfolk.

These three stories are the holy trinity of Doctor Who's so-called 'Gothic' era, and they all use the same set up; There's been an apocalyptic future war off-screen, and an Evil God-King has fallen down to Earth where he's parasitically restoring himself...

One place where the influence of this 'trilogy' can be seen is in the Welsh Doctor Who series, where the destruction of Gallifrey makes every single story a sequel to an off-screen War in Heaven.

Another place would be in 1980's State of Decay. In fact, the Doctor Who spin-offs written by Lawrence Miles sometimes refer to the backstory of that serial as 'The First War in Heaven.'

State of Decay tells us about the formative war fought by the Time Lords, the Science Gods who monitored the universe. It was against vampires.

3 comments:

  1. (Found your blog via your comments on my Grant Morrison thread at Newsarama. Clearly we have some interests in common.)

    To my mind one of the biggest changes both over the course of Doctor Who (mostly at the hands of John Nathan-Turner) and especially in the new series is the introduction of a controlling continuity. Really up until JNT takes over, Doctor Who can unabashedly do dozens of Wars in Heaven, and have them co-exist without difficulty. Because the series is, at its heart, a new show every time a new serial starts up. Even the UNIT years, which imposed the closest thing to a continuity that the show saw before JNT's continuity-fetishism, was really fairly amorphous.

    But the introduction of continuity, to my mind, fundamentally changes the nature of a War in Heaven. In old Doctor Who, every War in Heaven is just a sort of pseudo-Lovecraftian horror. And in proper Lovecraft, these horrors are a dime a dozen and interchangable. Cthulhu is just as god as Yog-Soggoth. It's not until Derleth rams continuity into the Lovecraft stories that suddenly Heaven becomes an orienting point for the whole thing. Unless you have the order of continuity, you don't have the order of Heaven. It lets you be more epic, but it also loses some of the manic flexibility - Doctor Who took a fundamental downward turn when JNT took over largely because of the introduction of continuity.

    I think both the new series (which is at once continuity-bound and completely willing to just sod off anything it doesn't like in favor of a better story) and Final Crisis have a real intelligence in this regard - they're fundamentally continuity stories, but continuity is fungible. The past is available to draw on, which allows big, epic mythological stories, but it's also mutable, ignorable, and fungible. Which is, I think, the smartest and most interesting view of continuity, and something that you just can't do in most fictional worlds. Comics and Doctor Who are among the few that have that kind of vast history. And it's why, I think, both are capable of being so very, very good.

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  2. Loving that thread, and fully intend to give it a shout-out in my next entry.

    I don't blame JNT for continuity-fetishism in quite the way you do. I think his error was a bigger one that just happened to involve that.

    JNT repositioned the show from being one that your mum and your gran and your kids and EVERYONE watched into being a 'cult' show aimed at a niche geek demographic. Mostly this was because he always had his eye on the American market, and Doctor Who is only ever going to be a cult show over there.

    So 80's Doctor Who became a fan-orientated show rather than one aimed at a mass audience, and that nescesarily meant the introduction of 'continuity', something the show had done just fine without up until then.

    (Something which, to be honest, the show had HAD to do without as most of Doctor Who was pre-home video. If it hadn't happened last week it hadn't happened)

    Ian Levine's the real villain of the peice here, I think. He's the 'fan guru' who JNT brought in to do the continuity thing. He's the reason we have stories like 'Attack of the Cybermen.'

    Still...happy ending. Davies has given the show back to a mass British audience, and the only downside is a gaggle of angry fans confused as to why it no longer functions like a niche show.

    Don't suppose you're familiar with the Who novel 'All-Consuming Fire', are you?

    Because your tying of Lovecraft to a totalising view of Who mythology is *uncanny* if you're not.

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  3. I'm aware of the novel, though I hadn't thought about it when I made the point.

    Your point about Levine is well-taken. Though to be fair, the biggest problem with Attack of the Cybermen is that Saward wrote an incoherent story without anything resembling a sympathetic character, a statement that includes the Doctor and Peri.

    I mean, I continue to be interested in superhero comics and Doctor Who precisely because of their vast histories and what that allows them to do with storytelling. The problem is when continuity becomes a restriction instead of a tool. Both Doctor Who and comics work best when the past is something that is riffed upon.

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