DW60: Too Broad, Too Deep, Too Far, Too Soon…? The New Adventures

Every generation has their own Doctor Who and for a certain subset of Generation X who came of age in the early 1990s, that is Doctor Who: The New Adventures. Not a television series, of course, but a series of high quality pulp novels from Virgin Publishing that took the tired old (and recently cancelled) TV series and dragged it kicking and screaming into the last decade of the 20th century, courting an adult audience, much to the chagrin of the BBC, and introducing many of the concepts and ‘feels’ that would go on to form the basis of the new series when it returned in 2005. Those who love The New Adventures do so with an almost carnal ferocity and sing the series’ praises with such high reverence that younger fans of the series hold the books as items of almost mythical worthiness and pay extraordinary prices to buy them online. But were the New Adventures really all that?

The sound you are hearing is the 1990s clientele of the Fitzroy Tavern (the infamous London hostelry where the über-clique of Doctor Who creatives went to hawk their wares and generally talk about how great they were) falling off their zimmer frames in abject horror. Steady on though, fellers; this isn’t one of those post-modern hatchet pieces trashing the sacred cattle of fandom, but more an attempt to put the era in perspective. Sure, a lot of the New Adventures were great and a few of them could even be described as classics (in the admittedly small pond of Doctor Who stories), but the series as a whole was not without its faults. It rapidly built up a whole bunch of its own clichés and a keenness on the part of some of the writers to be relevant means that they couldn’t be more mired in the 90s if they were wearing a bucket hat and listening to Oasis.

Let’s start with a bit of context, eh? Doctor Who on television was cancelled by the BBC in 1989. That’s a fact. Recent claims that they were ‘resting it’ and looking for a way to modernise the series are very fan-pleasing, but the truth is that the show was pretty much dead. If public interest in Doctor Who had quietly diminished, then it’s unlikely we’d have ever seen it again and it’d now be as much of a nostalgia piece as Blake’s 7 and Sapphire & Steel. But Doctor Who refused to go quietly. Target Books, who had been publishing successful novelisations of the TV episodes since the early 70s, had recently been bought out by Virgin Publishing, the now-defunct publishing arm of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, and they were keen to carry on publishing Doctor Who even after the last of the available un-novelised TV stories had dried up. The fact that the BBC agreed to grant a license to publish original fiction post-1989, when they had previously denied the request, goes further to demonstrate how little interest BBC television had in the show.

Virgin’s fiction editor Peter Darvill-Evans noted that the readership for the later Target novels was far more teen-to-adult than it was children, so it was decided to market the new series accordingly. Doctor Who’s audience was growing up, so the series must follow suit. Doctor Who: The New Adventures launched in 1991 with the 4-part Timewyrm series, consisting of Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel, Timewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks, Timewyrm: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson and Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell. In order to differentiate the series from what had gone before, the books featured a more stylised form of cover artwork by Andrew Skilleter, though this never really lasted beyond the initial quartet of releases. The books carried on from where the series had left off, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred’s Ace in the TARDIS, though tellingly, the covers very much favour Ace over the Doctor.

It was a big deal when The New Adventures were launched. I was a fully paid up fanboy by 1991 and I was under no illusion that Doctor Who would ever return to TV, so this was the future of the series. I bought my copy of Timewyrm: Genesys at Forbidden Planet in Newcastle and rather enjoyed reading it. It was a bit jarring to see a reference to Ace’s nipple, but I wasn’t shocked and accepted that this was something different from to Doctor Who I was used to. By the time Exodus came out, my cousin Neil, who edited the fanzine FanMail, had been sent his one and only care-package of free review copies from Virgin, so he loaned me the latest book to review (which I don’t think I ever did), so to this day I still don’t own a copy of the second Timewyrm book. I have a memory of being at a convention (Nebula ’91?) and my friend Andy rushing up to tell me one of the stalls had copies of Apocalypse, which I subsequently bought. Revelation was probably from Forbidden Planet again.

I really enjoyed the first four books, but reviews were mixed. Genesys came in for a lot of criticism for its sexual content, which is nothing compared to what came later, but Terrance Dicks’ tale of alternative history Nazism and mysticism Exodus was much more warmly received. Apocalypse received a mixed reception too. There’s a palpable sense that fans were favouring the familiar, comfortable bosom on Uncle Terrance over these upstarts to begin with, but the enfant terrible of Doctor Who fiction was just around the corner to mix it all up in a way that would arguably change the series’ storytelling forever. Paul Cornell was a prolific fanzine writer and Timewyrm: Revelation was his first full novel. Although it followed on from the work of three more established authors, Revelation tore up the rulebook and demonstrated exactly what could be achieved with stories that were ‘too broad and deep for television’.

In retrospect, it was a double-edged sword. Cornell’s Revelation is a magnificent puzzle-box of a story and he’s easily my favourite of all the New Adventures authors (though I think both Love and War and Human Nature are better books), but his mind-bending style inspired a lot of other authors to follow suit… and they just weren’t as good at it. When Paul Cornell was commissioned to write the climax to the Timewyrm series, it was unusual for a ‘fan writer’ to be involved in such an authorised capacity, but by the end of the series, around 80% of the books were written by authors who had started out in the fan arena. It was a sea change and one which eventually led to the situation where established writers who started out as fans – Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, Rob Shearman and indeed Paul Cornell himself – becoming creative cornerstones on the TV series in the 21st century.

The success of Timewyrm led to a second series of linked books, Cat’s Cradle, before the linking concept was scrapped altogether and all the subsequent books stood in their own right. Cat’s Cradle introduced Mark Platt and Andrew Cartmel to the series, bringing with them some of the ideas from the TV series’ so-called ‘Cartmel Masterplan’. The books were published bi-monthly until 1993, at which point they started to hit the shelves on a monthly basis. Many familiar names start to appear as authors; a pre-fame Mark Gatiss wrote the excellent Quatermass homage Nightshade and Gareth Roberts wrote the first of many entries into the series, The Highest Science. Other writers came and went like a summer breeze, contributing only one book to the series and in some cases never being heard of again.

TV writer Ben Aaronovitch stirred up trouble with his novel Transit by being the first to include the word ‘f**k’. It was used very sparingly by Aaronovitch, but it opened the floodgates that led to actor and Cyberleader David Banks letting fly with a torrent of profanity in his much-anticipated but ultimately disappointing novel Iceberg. As license-holders, the BBC still held the reins and they weren’t happy about some of the excesses of The New Adventures, so an edict came down from on high to clean up their act or risk losing their license. The BBC weren’t shy in letting Virgin know that they could refuse to renew the license at any opportunity and that is indeed what eventually happened, but more on that later.

Transit was very heavily influenced by William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that introduced the world to ‘cyberpunk’ and was very much the zeitgeist of science fiction in the late 80s and early 90s. Gibson’s mixture of grimy futures and computer interaction ran through The New Adventures like a computer virus and the series very rapidly began to establish its own set of clichés, cyberpunk being one of them and another being an obsession with Aliens. James Cameron’s sequel to the 1979 sci-fi shocker Alien achieved an almost cultish popularity amongst hip (predominantly male) movie fans in the 1980s and well into the 1990s. Its boot print can be seen all over The New Adventures, with brusque Space Marine types cropping up with alarming regularity and the panicky stand-off against an overwhelming onslaught of animalistic aliens becoming a regular occurrence.

It wasn’t all manly spacewank though; 1993’s The Left-Handed Hummingbird introduced Kate Orman to the fold, bringing with her a much-needed female perspective to the range. The way in which Ace was written by the male authors (basically ALL of the other NA authors apart from Kate) varied from book to book and ‘new’ companion Bernice ‘Benny’ Summerfield seemed to function much better in the hands of her creator Paul Cornell. Kate Orman understood where the female companions were coming from, so their actions always seemed a lot more authentic in her narratives. Which is not to say that she’s not also fantastic at writing the Seventh Doctor, perfectly capturing the nuances of this most complex of incarnations. Kate would go on to write four more solo New Adventures; Set Piece, Sleepy, Return of the Living Dad and The Room With No Doors, as well as co-authoring So Vile a Sin with Ben Aaronovitch. She’s definitely my next favourite author of the series after Paul Cornell (and that’s only because he got there first).

Mention of Bernice Summerfield brings me on to the issue of companions. Virgin never intended to carry on endlessly with the Doctor and the version of Ace as seen on TV. The witty archaeologist Bernice Summerfield arrives in Paul Cornell’s second novel Love and War, which also marks the (temporary) departure of Ace. When Ace returns four books later, she has been reinvented as a kick-ass space mercenary in black leather; it’s very much of its time and, dare I say it, a bit fetishistic. The new Ace works better in some stories than others; she’s fantastic in Jim Mortimore & Andy Lane’s Lucifer Rising, a hard sci-fi adventure, and David A. McIntee’s First Frontier, an exploration of 1950s ‘Red Planet Mars’ paranoia, but elsewhere she becomes a virtual clone of Sarah Connor from The Terminator (another 90s fanboy obsession). Later still, we get Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej, basically a pair of embittered space cops.

Late in the series, the novel Damaged Goods is written by a young writer called Russell T. Davies… whatever happened to him? Davies had yet to find acclaim as the writer of Queer as Folk, but he was known to Doctor Who fans as the writer of the children’s TV series Dark Season and Century Falls, both of which had a strong Doctor Who influence. There’s a lot in Damaged Goods that points towards what RTD would eventually do with the TV series; it’s set on a council estate and there are several gay characters. Doctor Who always had a strong gay following – in the 90s, proportionally possibly even more so than today – and it was only natural that such elements should become a part of the series. But of course, RTD was not the first to introduce this element to The New Adventures; if I remember rightly, there’s a gay character as far back as Mark Gatiss’s Nightshade.

By 1996, the BBC were well down the road towards bringing Doctor Who back to TV, in a co-production deal with Universal Television that would eventually lead to the Paul McGann TV Movie. They knew that if the show took off, there would be a lot of money to be made from merchandising, so they did not renew Virgin’s license to produce original Doctor Who novels, switching production instead to BBC Books and what would become known as the EDAs (Eighth Doctor Adventures). As their contract neared its end, Virgin rather naughtily reinvented Time Lord Mythology in Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow and utilised a copyright loophole to have the final New Adventures release, Lance Parkin’s The Dying Days, feature Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. There followed 23 further books that starred Bernice Summerfield, as an original character not held under BBC copyright, and although the range produced some strong books, such as Terrance Dicks’ Mean Streets and Kate Orman’s Walking to Babylon, fan interest had waned and the series was eventually cancelled.

Now, here’s the thing: The New Adventures are a vital part of the Doctor Who story. Would the TV Movie have happened without them? Yes. Would the 2005 revival have happened without them? Yes. Would Doctor Who be the series that we know today without them? No, because the blood of The New Adventures courses through every vein of the new series, to such an extent that Paul Cornell’s Human Nature was adapted for TV during the David Tennant era. What the TV series has done is to strip away the dated excesses of The New Adventures and keep only the progressive, interesting elements. So, by and large, gone are the Aliens rip-off gung-ho Space Marines and kick-ass gun-toting companions, but the emotional complexity of the stories remains, along with the willingness to explore the lives of the companions and how the travels with the Doctor affect them.

I read all of Doctor Who: The New Adventures (which is more than I can say for the EDAs, that I found to be increasingly disappearing up their own vortex) and I enjoyed all of them on varying levels, but they were pulp fiction, designed to entertain an audience in that moment. Elements that seemed terribly modern in 1993 now feel very dated, but the series mercifully managed to dodge the toxic ‘lad’ culture of the 90s and as such has aged a lot better than some other material from the same era (I’m looking at you, 2000ad). I don’t feel that they are timeless masterpieces and I would never describe them as ‘my’ Doctor Who, but they definitely don’t deserve to be overlooked in any self-respecting history of the series. I’ve gone back and re-read a couple of them, but I’ve been very selective and I think that my brain would dissolve if I ever set out to re-read the entire series. Still, I have nostalgia for the excited feeling I got when Andy ran up to me and told me copies of Timewyrm: Apocalypse were available or that buzz that I felt when I first read Love and War. The New Adventures might now be The Old Adventures, but their legacy lives on and that’s something nobody can take away from them.


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