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...


NickF said...

So, does Linx's appearance in The Time Warrior indicate that the Sontaran/Rutan war stretches back to medieval England somewhere between 1189 and 1199, or has the hapless Sontaran fallen backwards through time? Hmmm, then we next here of the war in Fang Rock at the beginning of the 20th century, if memory serves, yes? So, assuming the former instance in the first example is correct it's interesting to think of the conflict playing out over the course of human history, rather than just imagining some indeterminate far-future setting.

I'm not rteally making a point here, by the way. Just rambling. But you'd realised that already.

Oh, oh, my friend Leon's Doctor Who videos are all over the place. No kind of logical order to their shelf-placing at all. I don't understand how he can allow this, though.

Andrew Kearley said...

Then again, the Sontaran Experiment is set many thousands of years in the future, and the war is still going on. Linx has a limited time travel capability (or at least time-scooping capability) - but the evidence in other stories doesn't suggest that they possess properly controllable time travel. I think the Sontaran story is a perfect case in point of what I was saying - our encounters with them are few and far between and set so ludicrously far apart, there's no way we can know the history of their species. They may not even perceive the passage of time in the same way we do, so many millennia of warfare might not seem as long to them. Has it been a single continuous conflict, or have there been long periods of relative calm in between? We don't know...

Anonymous said...

i think the sontaran are slightly more attractive than most of my friends, and the rutan,s should just
apologize to Leela for messing hers eyes up.

My entire who collection is hidden in a large collection of cardboard box,s

Most of it came from boot sales some from Oxfam nearly all of it is VHS and i don't have a video player.
he main reason my post are a bit odd is large quantity's of alcohol.

I once had them all in order on a series of shelf,s
I have way to many target books all 40+ weekly s

and one of your chums picture i found on a link whilst drunk looks very similar to a bloke in swanage i borrowed an audio cassette from whilst at school - yup he recorded television sound tracks to cassette
and if it is him sorry i lost it about 25 years ago blame stephen icke.

i can get more random -- scares the hell out of me sometimes