Time is running out

DW mag arrived yesterday and I spent less than 20 minutes on it. And I’ve no particular desire to revisit it, though normally it’s a highlight of my month. Reason is simple – lack of Tennant. There’s barely a single picture of him other than the ones from TND which have already been done to death.

Maybe this will be the shape of things to come – if so, I can’t see myself paying £35 a year for a sub. Yeah, I know some of the classic Who stuff is interesting, and they certainly do it well – theoretically, I do want to watch the E-space trilogy – but it’s a bit like reading "Paradise Lost" – there always seems to be plenty of time to get around to it without it happening today.

Talking of running out of time, I’ve been reading Nevil Shute’s "On the Beach", rather to my own surprise. It’s a post-apocolyptic Cold War tale set in Melbourne just after a devastating nuclear war. There’s no-one left alive in the Northern hemisphere and the radiation is drifting south, eventually to wipe out humanity altogether. There’s a few months left at least. I can’t think of any book I’ve read before in which every single character dies. I’m rather surprised it isn’t more bleak than it is. In fact, in many ways it’s a celebration of ordinary life and how very precious it is, and the way people cope with the unimaginable. One couple of characters continue to plan a garden they won’t live to see, right down to buying a garden seat as they’re dying of radiation poisoning. An American submarine commander who escaped the war by being submerged is an extremely solid, command-and-control guy but still buys a fishing rod for the little boy he can’t accept is dead.

How do you begin to convey the emotions people would have in such a situation? It’s not an entirely unfamiliar problem for writers of DW fanfic. The answer, back in 1957 was, you didn’t. You write about people not talking about it, and Nevil Shute was extremely skilled at doing exactly that. He describes things like going into a completely deserted San Francisco without entering into his characters’ inner life at all. He doesn’t need to. It’s all done through dialogue and what they do (or don’t do). And you wind up having a grudging respect for the morality of the period, that stoical, no-use-grumbling adherence to routine as a bulwark against terror and chaos that anyone whose parents or grandparents lived through the Second World War will recognise. This isn’t a David Tennant world, it’s a Gregory Peck one. This isn’t a world where you regard it as a breakthrough when someone falls apart and says how he really feels. Quite the reverse – if you invite someone over whose entire family has perished horribly, you get a few people in to stop him brooding.

And Doctor Who has one foot in this world. It smacked us all in the face in Doomsday because suddenly, after all the Tennant emo, Mr Stiff-Upper-Lip was back, doing the terribly decent thing for the sake of humanity and jolly well not discussing how it made him feel, because what good would it do if he fell apart? In fact, if he could bear to read it given his backstory, I think the Doctor would love On The Beach, because it is a hymn to the beauty and preciousness of carrying on, right to the very end, with ordinary life. That’s what it’s about – people going to work, figuring out how to get the milk when there’s no petrol any more, and discussing whether to grow veggies next summer – and then, suddenly, in the middle of all that, you have a nice young couple discussing how to inject their baby daughter to spare her the agony of a slow death from radiation sickness. Bloody hell.

I found myself thinking, what if the Doctor and Donna had landed in the middle of all that, knowing they could save everyone – take them off to one of those new planets where they could start over, or start injecting people with the Gallifreyan antidote to radiation sickness and cleaning up the atmosphere…and all the moral dilemmas. It would be a fascinating, incredibly moving story, but somehow to do a crossover with such a book shows a lack of respect. And yet the Cold War is just as possible a place for the TARDIS to visit as London in 1599 or the day Vesuvius erupted. But perhaps a little too close to home.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


3 thoughts on “Time is running out

  1. I’ve thought a bit about that sense we have of what historical settings it is fitting to inject the Doctor into, and what settings it is not. I read a story in which the Doctor and Rose arrive in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. They wind up in a boat with some other people and make their way through the city, with the Doctor using his superior hearing to detect where survivors in the attics of flooded houses are trying to break through the roof. It was a respectful, even reverent story, but it upset me.
    Placing Nine at the scene of the Kennedy assassination worked. I’ve read a humor story in which he was just one of many time travelers there that day, and that worked. I’m not sure why, though — maybe it’s because that event has already been worked through the pop cultural mill many times. I’ve also read ‘s Of More Value Than Many Sparrows, which (spoiler!) places Rose and Nine at the foot of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11/2001, but I admired that rather than being disturbed by it.
    Maybe it all has to do with whether the Doctor is depicted as playing a role in events as opposed to witnessing them. I think that may be it.

  2. I read On The Beach as a teenager and I thought it was amazing. Afterward I felt so keenly how sad it was, but I was amazed at how well it was written – the people’s lives were written so strong and simple in the midst of all this horror. They were so mater-of-fact. That stuff with the baby made me feel like crying. I had’t thought of it but a DW/Cold War story would be fascinating.

  3. I think the best way around any taste issues like the Katrina ones in the story you mention is probably to parallel the situation on an alien world and have the Doctor visit that. That’s been the Classic DW strategy all along, from fighting WW2 with the Daleks as Nazis to referencing the Seventies conflicts with trades unions and the EEC in the Baker era.
    I’ve had him and Martha discuss 9/11 as a theoretical moral problem, but I’d feel uneasy about taking him to New York at that particular time.
    Incidentally, I know the British SF writer Stephen Baxter wrote a (non-Who) novel for young people about the Cuban Missile Crisis with a timeline plot – it’s called “The H-Bomb Girl.”
    I get the feeling that for anybody under 25 or so, Cold War Earth feels like an alien planet in any case. What struck me as particularly perceptive about Shute’s war scenario was that it started with a couple of volatile Central Asian countries getting hold of the Bomb, which then escalated into a Russian/Chinese conflict – and the US was drawn in because Egypt started bombing from Russian planes – by the time America found out it had erroneously nuked a string of Russian cities things had reached the point of no return and there were no statesmen left to negotiate.

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