Happy Birthday Doctor, Part Two!

So to briefly summarise the intervening years: Doctor Who disappeared from our screens. I discovered The Hobbit and Watership Down and became a reader of fat fantasy trilogies, though high school. When I went to Uni, I largely stopped reading for pleasure; I was reading a lot of classics as part of my course, and I found less and less desire to read in my free time. For a few years, most of my reading was books like The Scarlet Letter and To the Lighthouse. Some good books, no doubt about it. But very few of them SF or fantasy.

It was around third year that I found myself longing for something light to read for pleasure in between these weightier tomes, and I found myself looking for something less time-intensive than fantasy trilogies, which I no longer had the spare time to commit to. That’s when I discovered, in Mack Campbell’s bookstore in Toowoomba, a bunch of books called The New Adventures, which carried on after the place where the tv show ended, with Sylvester McCoy’s doctor and Ace as his companion. I picked two at random; Nightshade by Mark Gatiss and Conundrum by Steven Lyons. If I had picked two other books then things might have been different, but as luck would have it I picked two books that were not only well written but also representative of the range at the time. 

Originally, I wasn’t looking for anything more than a little light reading and nostalgia. I didn’t want or expect great writing. I even allocated half-hour sessions per day to read these books, to recreate the “feeling” of watching the show. That quickly changed, though, because the books were both well written and involving. Nightshade was a great “traditional” Who story, with an added metaphorical edge of talking about Doctor Who itself, and some nice characterisation of the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. Conundrum was a wonderful, playful post-modern novel that riffed off a lot of the same popular culture I’d grown up with, while still having some depth and characterisation. I’m not a big fan of tie-in novels, generally, because they’re often doomed by their nature to hit a reset switch; they can’t change the characters too much. The New Adventures didn’t have that limitation. The series was off air and frankly, none of us really thought it would ever be back. And so the writers were free to experiment, to play with the universe, and to comment on the show itself, as well as to develop the characters in lasting and meaningful ways.

I dipped into the books some more and then became a regular reader. New companion Bernice helped cement my readership; a smart, funny, older woman who felt like a real person and who was eminently relatable, Bernice (“Benny”) was kind of like the archetypal grown up former Who fan; a little alternative, academic, wry, left-leaning, a bit of a drunk, a bit self-aware. If Adric and Nyssa were the primary school Ben going for a ride in the TARDIS, Bernice was Uni Ben doing the same.

I don’t want to talk too much about the New Adventures here; I could write a lot about them (and indeed my final unit in Literature at Uni consisted of a lengthy mini-thesis which I wrote about the New Adventures.) But suffice to say I become a fan. This was at a time where I was drifting away from SF and fantasy, generally. And indeed, for the next few years, Doctor Who books would become my main form of culture. It’s not too far a stretch to suggest that they made reading fun for me again, after Uni, and that they brought me back into the genre.

They also rekindled the writer in me. I’d written bits and pieces at Uni, but had kind of drifted. The first couple of short stories I wrote I sent to literary magazines, and it seemed likely that if I did write, it would be to aim at becoming the new Iain Banks (with no M), not a genre writer. But then I found out that The New Adventures not only were open to new writers, with unsolicited manuscripts; they encouraged them! A lot of the New Adventures authors were first time writers. And they were writing in a world that I knew and they were having fun engaging with it, in a smart way. And so I started writing my Who novel, which was not so much a rip off of Who as it was a rip off of Kurt Vonnegut, one of the few other authors I regularly read and enjoyed. And the less said about my Who novel the better, other than that I never finished it. But it made me write again. And it gave me hope.

And it was literally through reading the new adventures that I re-engaged with SF, a genre I hadn’t read much of for years because I found most SF too dry and sciencey. The New Adventures showed that SF could actually be fun, and could be about people and emotions rather than physics. Of course now I know that there are a lot of awesome SF books out there that do this, but I would never have found them because I wouldn’t have looked.

And so it was that I started, in the mid-nineties, to discover the Australian speculative fiction small press scene, and that began a whole other chapter in my life.

The New Adventures wound up when the Paul McGann tele movie came out and the BBC took back the rights to the universe from Virgin, who were publishing them up until that point. The BBC elected to continue the range, but, expecting or hoping an influx of new readers from the potential new tv series that never happened, they tried to remove some of the long-term continuity and make the books more standalone. This didn’t actually happen, entirely, but it did mean that there was a little more focus on solid adventure stories and, with honourable exceptions, the braver, more interesting books weren’t as common, and the long-term character arcs weren’t as central.

I kept reading them on and off, but my era had ended, and after a few years I bought fewer and fewer and Who and I again parted ways, to some extent.

We all know what happened after that, I guess. The series returned to TV. After the TV movie my expectations were low. I expected a dummed-down, Americanized version that would be much less interesting than the books. But that expectation changed when I found out that the new series would be produced by New Adventures author and author of the somewhat offbeat series Queer as Folk, Russell T Davies.

And so Doctor Who and I began our third marriage. The TV series is much better than I ever dared to hope for. And what’s better, it’s made it possible for me to talk about Doctor Who without people assuming I must be some stereotypical SF geek. Which I am. 

So Happy Birthday, Doctor Who! So much of who I am is bound up with who you are. 

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