Thursday, 30 August 2007

Making History

Ten or twelve years ago, I was watching a police series on BBC 1. I don't remember much about it, but there was a scene where a nasty piece of work (drug dealer, I think) was threatening his girlfriend whom he believed had grassed him up. She was terrified, backing away from him as he came towards her with murderous intent. Why does this scene stick in my mind? Because in their wisdom, the set dresser had seen fit to place a couple of shelves of Doctor Who videos behind the actors. Now, I have a finely-trained eye that can spot the Doctor Who logo instantly, no matter how small or far away. (This has served me well at car-boot and jumble sales over the years of course...) From this point on, all I could focus on were those videos. Aside from briefly wondering why the BBC was depicting a Doctor Who fan as a violent drug dealer, the thing that kept bugging me was this: once the action got close enough that I could read some of the titles, I could see the videos weren't arranged in series order! Which was simply unthinkable...

Seriously, it simply wouldn't have even occurred to me to shelve my videos in anything but series order - same with DVDs, same with the books - all the Target novels in series order with the Missing Adventures slotted in at the appropriate points. It just wouldn't make sense otherwise. And I think this desire to put things in order is a symptom of being a fan. Pretty obviously, it's an obsession that drives me. (That set dresser really didn't do their research...)

But you know, I've really got it easy with The Complete Adventures. Sorting everything into series order is relatively simple. Sure, there are some major headaches along the way and a lot of uncertainty in the margins (and I suppose that's where the fun's to be had...) but the groundwork is all there - we know what order the tv episodes are in - we know which Doctor follows which, which companions were around when, and so on... That gives us a good start, and enables us to find the clues and make educated guesses (and sometimes barmy guesses). The other, more difficult, way of trying to order things is to put Doctor Who stories into an historical chronology. That way lies madness...

Now that's not to knock the industry of people like Lance Parkin (indeed, I take my hat off to him). There's a lot of fun to be had reading between the lines - interpolating a possible sequence of events from the known facts is an interesting intellectual exercise. But ultimately that's all it is, a joining of the dots - Who chronologies can never hope to be definitive, especially when a new story might come along next year and throw an enormous spanner into your previously-estimated sequence of events. And they can never hope to be histories either, merely a list of events. Real history is about cause and effect, about the development of cultures and civilizations. Take The Aztecs for example - most fan chronologies only mention the events of the tv story itself, and any past incidents that might be referenced by it. Nothing about the rise of the Aztec culture, or the coming of the Conquistadors. No sense of the historical context. And that's the past, something we already know about - what chance is there of constructing any meaningful future history?

To a certain extent, Doctor Who has depicted a broadly consistent future timeline for Earth and the human race - there's scope there for the intellectual jigsaw puzzle of synthesizing a suggested chronology, as long as you're prepared to abandon it when the next tv series contradicts all your guesswork. What's less certain are those other fan favourites - chronologies of the main alien races, especially the Daleks and the Cybermen. The Doctor spends most of his time with humans, so we've been given a lot to go on. Despite their seeming ubiquity, we really know very little about the Daleks. Out of a history that spans thousands of years, the Doctor has had just a handful of encounters with them - usually just battles and other violent incidents. That's not enough to conjure up a proper history.

Here's an analogy: take one hundred battles fought by British forces in the last thousand years. You've got only accounts of the fighting, and maybe a few background details on who's fighting whom and for what. None of the historical, cultural and political context. Then put those accounts together in a random order, often without dates attached. From that, could you accurately construct the history of the British nation? Of course not, you just don't have the information - nothing about how the monarch or the government has changed, about what alliances and treaties have come and gone in the periods between. Dalek timelines always tend to assume that nothing significant happens between the stories we know about. The history of a real civilization is far, far more complex than that...

Monday, 27 August 2007

It's All in the Game

First off, a big thank you for the comments. It's nice to know that someone is actually reading this, and might even be moved to say something about it - even if I have no idea what Neil is talking about most of the time!

NickF however raises an interesting point, with which I would agree wholeheartedly. The question of Decide Your Destiny books came up recently during one of the interminable debates on Outpost Gallifrey over what does or does not constitute "canon" - (the correct answer of course being everything and nothing - but I will write here about the futility of canon debates some other time...) One of my correspondents had decided that only broadcast Doctor Who performed with live actors could be considered canon - but later decided to add an exclusion clause for Attack of the Graske, because it was "only a game", even though it fit all his other previously-stated criteria. But that's canon debates all over - arguments are continually fudged to fit an individual's preferences.

For the purposes of The Complete Adventures, I had no problem at all accepting Graske, the Decide Your Destiny books, nor any of the earlier Find Your Fate volumes as bona fide Doctor Who stories. The major argument against their inclusion (the "only a game" gambit) is that they depend on the input of the viewer/reader to decide their outcome. My answer is that the game aspect is something of an illusion. The outcome (or outcomes) is a given, provided in the text of the book, and the reader is guided through a series of choices to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion. In the case of some of the books (and indeed Attack of the Graske) the choices are very narrow indeed, leading you via a few diversionary paths to a very limited set of outcomes. So, the complete adventure is there - it just has a few variations. As NickF says, this is the very definition of the quantum universe hypothesis I've proposed.

There's a flipside to this of course, which is that some things really are "only a game". I would place things like Destiny of the Doctors and earlier computer games, role playing game modules, and even those "paper counters and dice" board games that used to appear in Doctor Who Annuals (some of which have quite elaborate backstories) as adventures that might have happened to the Doctor, but which have been inadequately recorded. Their narrative and conclusion, being defined solely by player involvement, makes them a sort of "potential reality", and for that reason they haven't been included in The Complete Adventures.

I was also recently asked about some of the more extreme additions to Doctor Who - educational books like the Doctor Who Discovers series or the Quiz Book of Dinosaurs, and whether they ought to have been included. My main reason for ignoring them is for the sake of my sanity. My get-out is that they're not actually adventures, and so don't fall under the remit of my site. I suppose they too come under the category of "potential reality", things the Doctor might have got up to (setting vaguely educational quizzes for his companions during the time they weren't busy having adventures and saving the universe and so on...) Rather usefully, the Doctor Who Discovers series was ret-conned by the Big Finish play The Kingmaker into a series of educational texts penned by the Doctor himself during his fourth incarnation - so it's quite possible he continued this writing career subsequently, and the Quiz Books are the result.