Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, by Lawrence Miles (BBC novel)

The book in which the Doctor gets married, but not to River Song or the TARDIS!

The same day I began reading The Adventuress of Henrietta Street I re-watched Spearhead from Space, a story I first saw when I was eleven. It's strange to think that 19 years after that innocent Doctor Who experience I would be reading a Doctor Who novel partially set in a brothel which makes Tantric Sex a major theme.

Miles departs from all convention by writing this novel as a biographical account. All of the speech is reported, leaving very little dialogue. The identity of the narrator and biographer is never given and as with Dead Romance, there is the suggestion that he is not altogether reliable. This peculiar choice of style makes for a very distinctive experience of reading a Doctor Who novel, but it does make the whole story a lot more difficult. The reader has to work a lot harder to understand what is going on.

As surprising as it might seem, we see hints of the Moffat era in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. In The Wedding of River Song, we had the Doctor getting married, a marriage that had cosmic significance in that it repaired a breach in space and time. In The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, we have the Doctor getting married in order to establish a cosmic connection with Earth and it's fate. Scarlette, the woman that the Doctor marries has been compared to Iris Wildthyme, but she actually reminds me of River Song much more. Sadly, her character fails in exactly the same way that River Song fails. Both characters are portrayed as strong and intelligent, with a very blazen sexuality. Both characters seem to be created to appear an equal match for the Doctor. Yet in the end neither character quite lives up to the promise. We expect them to be amazing, but they end up just joining a list of strong, intelligent female characters. In fairness to Lawrence Miles, Scarlette does not fail nearly as badly as River Song because she is just a one-off character in a novel. Moffat made disaster inevitable by deciding to centre the last season around the character of River Song. Miles also wisely keeps Scarlette fairly mysterious. Moffat on the other hand, kept dangling hints about the identity of River and then deliver a big revelation that most of the viewers had already guessed. If you want to find out where Moffat got his ideas, you really need to read this book, along with Alien Bodies. Then you will see just what a mess he made of his influences.

The other main character introduced in the novel, Sabbath also has a similar problem to Scarlette. Miles seems to want to present him as this really amazing interesting character, but with the limitations of the biographical narrative, he never quite succeeds in showing this.I can't help thinking that making Sabbath so much like a James Bond villain renders him a little silly. His only outstanding moment is when he steals the Doctor's second heart, something no villain has ever done before. This development bothered a lot of fans, as it renders the Doctor a good deal more human.

The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is set after the destruction of Gallifrey in The Ancestor Cell. Miles presents the notion that the Time Lords have not simply been destroyed, but removed from history altogether, a notion that seems rather problematic to me. Despite their loss, a good deal of the book is spent presenting Miles' brilliant conception of the Time Lords as cosmic forces or elemental beings. The Doctor and his two companions are continually described by the other characters as 'elementals.' It's a quite fascinating idea and you do see hints of this in the new series. As with other Lawrence Miles books the removal of the Time Lords to an higher plane of existence and their remoteness from the action makes them a far more impressive force, as they had been in The War Games. The Doctor provides a wonderful description of the Time Lords as being like a steady rock in the middle of a river, around which the rest of the universe flows; the consequence of the removal of this 'rock' being complete chaos.

This novel takes Doctor Who about as far away from science fiction as it can go. Like Survival, it is all about the mysticism of female sexuality and menstrual cycles, hence the suggestion that the Doctor's success in 'summoning' his companions resulted from the fact that the prostitutes in the brothel were in their period. The Doctor had initially planned to marry a teenager called Juliette as there was power tied up in her virginity. His plans of course changed and he eventually marries Scarlette. It seems to be the case that the loss of the Time Lords has resulted in the universe becoming more chaotic, allowing magical and irrational forces to take root. In this world, the Doctor is a force of good and order, yet at the same time a sort of god and his companions spiritual beings themselves. Miles does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying the Doctor in this way. In this story he must turn his back on the old order of Time Lord dominance and unite his elemental power with humanity through marriage to a human woman.

The magical arrival of Fitz and Anji is the most enjoyable moment of the book. They just appear out of nowhere and are at once taken by the inhabitants of the brothel to be elemental spirits. Like the Terminator, they arrive stark naked which adds to the amusement of this scene. Despite their glorious arrival, Fitz and Anji get almost nothing to do in the book. Fitz offers some welcome comic relief and Anji gets to do some sulking and complaining. Miles is on record for his dislike of the character of Anji, but he does alright writing for her in this book.

The monstrous apes are really disturbing. They are summoned through Tantric rituals, which seems to connect them to the sensual side of human nature. The way they appear everywhere is very similar to the Sphinxes in Dead Romance. The Kingdom of the Beasts to which they belong is a really creepy place. There is a very Lovecraftian feel to this side of the book.

The Master appears in this book, in the form of the Man with the Rosette. He makes a very clever comment about how the universe has changed so that his struggle to the death against the Doctor is no longer significant at all. On the subject of rosettes, one minor quibble I have is with the politics of the period. The Whigs are identified in this book as defenders of democracy. While the Whigs were closer to this than the Tories, I don't think they would have seen their ideology in exactly those terms. They would probably have seen themselves as the defenders of Parliament and Protestantism, but not democracy as such.

This is a novel that does some really radical things. As with other Lawrence Miles books, it is not so much interesting for the story itself as it is for the way it presents and develops the Doctor Who cosmos. Like every other book by this author (except perhaps This Town Will Never Let Us Go) it is about grand cosmic themes. It's not his best written or most enjoyable novel, but it is one the most daring.

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