Friday 7 September 2012

Canon and Conundrum

I absolutely love the New Adventure novel, Conundrum by Steve Lyons. I think it is among the best of the Virgin New Adventures. The sequel, Head Games is also a great book. Steve Lyons is a great Doctor Who writer. Yet I find it really hard to forgive him for a clever meta-textual trick he pulls in Conundrum and repeats in Head Games.

In Conundrum, we learn that a new Master of the Land of Fiction has created a fictional counterpart of the Doctor, who is called Dr. Who (and the real one is not?) and who has two grandchildren, John and Gillian. In the sequel, Head Games, we meet Dr. Who. Although he looks like the Sylvester McCoy Doctor, his personality is quite different, having a very superficial and naive view of good and evil. His answer to monsters is to wipe them out. Dr. Who references several TV Comic stories. The clear meta-textual implication is that the TV Comic stories did not feature our Doctor, but this Land of Fiction creation.

I realize very well that Steve Lyons meant all this in good humour, but I can't help seeing a certain literary snobbery in the idea of relegating all the TV Comic stories to the Land of Fiction. This is basically an attempt to create some sort of Doctor Who canon and to define the boundaries of what is Doctor Who and what is not.

Doctor Who has no canon. The BBC licences products, but it makes no attempt to define what material is part of the Doctor Who mythos. Doctor Who has no Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas who can make pronouncements about canon. I'm very glad it does not. I grew up with the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. I actually have a much fonder place in my heart for them than I do for the original Star Wars trilogy. When George Lucas changes things in the Expanded Universe, it really annoys me. I totally agree with Paul Cornell's claim that canon is just another form of bullying. To exclude a story from the canon is to say "No matter how much you might love this story, it doesen't count. So there."

There is a certain incongruity about a spin-off novel trying to exclude another spin-off from an hypothetical canon. I am a New Adventures fanatic, but there are plenty of fans who hate them. There are fans who hate the manipulative Doctor in the NAs and the bitter and violent Ace. There are fans who like the idea planned for Season 27 of Ace going to Gallifrey to become a Time Lord. Steve Lyons seemed to think that the TV Comic did not count. Plenty of fans think the New Adventures don't count and only the televised stories are genuine Doctor Who.

It is often pointed out that the TV Comic stories give the Doctor a somewhat different personality to the televised Doctors. The TV Comic version of the First Doctor uses magic and its Second Doctor invents things to make money, appears on a television chat show and carries a ray gun. Yet it ought to be apparent to a fan that even the televised show does not always get the Doctor quite right or achieve a consistent tone. Take the Seeds of Doom. I'm sure that Seeds of Doom went through a much more rigorous editorial process than Martha the Mechanical Housemaid, but there are still some oddities about that story. Seeds of Doom is a very enjoyable story, but in some ways it does not feel like Doctor Who. The tone of it comes closer to a spy thriller at times and in the end, the monster is destroyed not by the Doctor, but by an airstrike. Furthermore, the fourth Doctor does not quite feel the same as in other Fourth Doctor stories. He seems more of an establishment figure and much more ready to deal out violence. Robert Banks Stewart had not spent hours studying past episodes to make sure he got every detail right (as a fan would do); he just wrote it to commission. That is why the tone of the story is different and that is exactly why the TV Comic strips feel different to most Doctor Who stories. We would not exclude Seeds of Doom from the 'canon' because it is a bit different and neither should we exclude the Sixties comic strips.

Steve Lyons makes a really interesting point in Head Games about the TV Comic version of the Doctor having a naive view of good and evil and being ready to destroy anything that looks like a monster. While this is true of the Doctor in the TV Comic, it is also true of much of the televised show, especially in the Second Doctor era. The Doctor wipes out the Macra without knowing anything about them, he cheerfully blows up the Dominators with a bomb and he destroys the entire Martian fleet, even though they are a dying race. This is the sort of gung-ho attitude that Robert Holmes so brilliantly satirized in The Two Doctors.

There is another irony in the idea of the TV Comic being relegated to the Land of Fiction, that is that the whole idea of the Land of Fiction is a bizarre concept in itself and might just as easily have been something from the TV Comic strips. The Mind Robber might be part of an hypothetical canon, but there is no way that story would have been made in any period other than the Sixties era of Doctor Who. There is just as much a stretch to say that The Mind Robber and Terminus occurred in the same universe as to say that The Challenge of the Piper occurred in the same universe as Pyramids of Mars.


  1. Just saw this. The strangest thing of all is that The Mind Robber is itself a dream. The Invasion starts where The Dominators ends, and The Mind Robber has dream logic. So if the New Adventures Doctor is interacting with the Land of Fiction, the New Adventures are thus all a dream.

    While people may criticise the TV Comics, the thing is at the time they were just as real as the television show. Most of what people today consider to be the "facts" of Doctor Who hadn't been "established" yet. Certainly in the Hartnell Era Doctor Who could be anything and everything. Stories like Planet of Giants and The Space Museum could never have been made in a later era. It's very stupid to criticise stories from the 60's for "errors", when the stories that claimed they were 'wrong' wouldn't be released for years, or even decades, later. Certainly, if anything, the later stories aren't "canon" as they contradict established Who lore?

    Also Cornell is a hypocrite. He claims that making claims about canon is bullying. But then his stories are little more than his personal canon and fanboy viewpoints strung together. There are certain 'themes' and 'facts' that he crowbars into nearly every story he writes, just to make a point.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      Have you commented here before? There are a few people who comment anonymously