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Content Starts The New Adventures: Why Both Traditional and Radical Stories Have Their Merits

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Virgin’s New Adventure novels have been proudly keeping Doctor Who’s fanbase enthralled since the release of Timewyrm: Genesys in June of 1991, providing all-new stories “too broad and deep for the small screen.” However, there is a growing debate amongst fans as to just how “broad and deep” those stories should be and at what point the novels actually stop being Doctor Who. This debate amongst fans has been growing for some time and only been exacerbated since the publication of the divisive Transit.

In many ways, Timewyrm: Genesys set the tone of much of what was to come, with its more adult-orientated approach drawing controversy on publication, by the end of the Timewyrm cycle and the publication of Paul Cornell’s Revelation, the development was truly underway. The New Adventures have since become noted for their occasional use of sex, violence and bad language. But the changes are much deeper, with the tone of the novels both darker than the parent show and far more willing to play with the standard conventions of the series.

In many ways, the novels serve as a direct continuation of the so-called Cartmel Masterplan and certainly in-keeping with the likes of Ghost Light and Survival. Yet, are those changes “too much”? 

“I Am Far More Than Just Another Timelord” – Remembrance of the Daleks

With Doctor Who off the air and not likely to be returning to television soon, the traditional audience of the show has changed from being family entertainment to being an audience almost exclusively of hardcore adult fans. Few outside the niche will be queuing to buy missing stories cassettes and full-length novels. Yet, Doctor Who’s image in the public consciousness has not changed. Much like the furore over 1992’s Mortal Kombat through the public perception that video games were “for kids”, so-too Doctor Who suffers from the “for kids” tag, with any suggestion at sex and violence met with hostility. 

Here, however, lays a trap for authors, for while such themes can often add value to a plot or even be an essential focus, it is too easy to believe that their addition is what makes a work “adult”, thus creating genuine gratuitousness. While Doctor Who certainly still retains that public perception of being a “kids show”, it is not hard to believe that some authors, embarrassed by the tag, wish to escape from allegations of childishness, lack of gravitas and not being “real sci-fi”.

In that vein, many of the novels have been criticised by fans for being generic cyberpunk and high science fiction with Doctor Who characters tacked on, others criticising their step away from the traditional conventions of the series such as the historical, the gothic horror and the Earth-based telefantasy. Others, yet still, highlight the separate ethos of the novels, many feeling downbeat and pessimistic as opposed to a more hopeful and optimistic outlook to the TV series. Yet more question the direction of the Doctor himself, moved on from being a nondescript academy dropout into being an all-important trickster or even messiah-like figure. 

It is easy to see both sides of the traditionalist and radical argument, with there being an accessible comfort in stories of the good Doctor triumphing against the total evils of the universe. These stories, available to all ages, are the backbone of the Doctor Who house. Mostly free of continuity, traditional stories are dip-in and read. Yet, they can become stagnant. While the quality of Patrick Troughton’s era as the Doctor some say is unsurpassed, just how many bases in the universe need to be under siege by an alien menace? Traditionalism can all too often stifle development and growth, casting aside new ideas in favour of the tried and tested. Without new ideas, there would have been no Tenth Planet, no Spearhead from Space and no Deadly Assassin.

On the other hand, radicalism can bring all new energy and ideas to a worn formula. It can bring forth all-new conventions, either replacing or sitting alongside those that already exist. It can bring new eyes and ears to a product and question audience expectations of what they can expect from Doctor Who. While traditionalism brings comfort, radicalism brings the opposite, challenging the viewer or reader. Equally, however, these new ideas are not always guaranteed to work and, if made abruptly, can be frequently rejected by the audience. Too many changes to a product risks the audience no longer identifying it as the original product, most having ideas about what “makes” something what it is. For Star Trek, that might be the Enterprise, “boldly going” and the optimistic Roddenberry outlook of the future. Note how many have already rejected the all-new Deep Space Nine series for subverting these conventions.

The old adage of the wooden broom rings true. If you have a broom and you replace first the head and then, after a time, you replace the handle, do you still have the same broom? While you may say no, the fact is that you were never without a broom. While you may say yes, you have changed all the parts, so how can it be?

There are no easy answers to the debate of traditionalism and radicalism, with fans set to be divided for a long time to come and some fans likely to be alienated by the product. Yet, this has always been the way and should Doctor Who ever return to TV screens, it’s almost certain that fans will be as divided as ever over whatever radical direction the series progresses in. Lest we forget the reception Colin Baker received as the Doctor, or indeed Sylvester McCoy. While one set of fans may be disappointed, however, another will be delighted, and fans should remember that the New Adventures are far from absolute and there is more than enough Doctor Who in the galaxy for everyone to enjoy.

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