Friday, December 18, 2015

Doctor, Doctor: Keith Topping's DOCTOR WHO: BYZANTIUM!

I feel more like I've read a really long homily on the trials and tribulations of the early Christians than like I've read a Doctor Who novel this time around, you guys. Indeed, I half-suspect that Byzantium! started out life as a religiously proselytizing historical novel, complete with portentous/pretentious chapter titles AND a Bible quote at the beginning of each chapter, and just got the TARDIS crew (in this case, the First Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Vicki) shoehorned in when it got no takers for its original market.

And no, I have no idea why the exclamation mark is there in the title.

But so, anyway, Byzantium. The city that will be called Constantinople during the rule of the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul when the Turks take over, started out life as a strategically placed dump of a Greek town when the Romans muscled in, and is still kind of a dump (according to its inhabitants) by the time the TARDIS has one of its messier landings there near the start of our story (I say "near" because we get quite a lot of background detail before the TARDIS shows up, including a pretty graphically described crucifixion of another one of those pesky Christians that are starting to be such a nuisance ca. 64 A.D.). A dump we shall explore in exhausting and somewhat repetitive detail as our four heroes... all pretty much enact the same plot four times over after they get separated by the Team Separating Crisis du Jour.

But so, the Doctor winds up hiding among a small but ultimately very important and influential band of early Christians (as in they're friends at just one or two removes from some of the original Disciples as well as of Saul/Paul etc -- and are in the process, as the Doctor encounters them, of writing what will become the Gospel of Mark); Barbara winds up in the home of a high-ranking Jewish priest, more or less at whose bidding a horde of violent Zealots occasionally raise hell at public events in Byzantium and at whose orders any Christians (er, sorry, Followers of the Nazarene; call them Christians in Barbara's host's presence and he gets psychotically angry) get crucified; Vicki winds up sheltering with a kindly but strict Greek family who is all about teaching her to behave like a properly meek and obedient first century teenager, even if they have to beat it into her; and as for Ian...

Oh, Ian. Ian lies his way into the household of the Prefect of the city, where he is constantly and unsubtly hit on by every female who lays eyes on him (and "hit on" is really too soft a term; it's practically sexual assault), leading him to participate a little too gladly in round after round of "who can make the most misogynist joke" with the men of the house, over and over and over again. But eventually he sort of gets sucked into a slightly more interesting plot, involving a conspiracy against the Prefect and a popular general. Anyway, by about halfway through the story I was pretty much hating Ian, though I knew that it was author Keith Topping that was really horking me off because he portrayed all the women Ian encountered as single-minded, one-dimensional narcissists who would fail the Bechdel test so hard that they'd spill over and wipe out the passing scores of 20 other novels and thus seeming like they justified the treatment they got. Ugh.

The book is not without virtues, however. It manages a very good portrait of the First Doctor, crotchety, old, tired, fragile, impatient, compassionate in only the gruffest of ways, and ticking all of the boxes that made him unique among the Doctors: He has pretty much no sense of humor. He has gadgets with the word "Year" in their names. He has unexplainable and detailed foreknowledge of the ultimate fate of one of his companions. He takes none of his companions' crap. He is super-unimpressed with the efforts of the dudes writing the Bible and basically calls them hacks.* He changes into period appropriate clothing. No, for reals. Dude dons a toga before leaving the TARDIS, yo.

Another thing this novel did well is something I've really got to admire. I mock "Doctor Who jeopardy"** quite a lot on this blog, with good reason, and, again with good reason, tend to extend that mockery to situations that seem to threaten his Companions. Somehow in Byzantium!, though, I found myself empathizing with the burden of unknowing with which all four members of the TARDIS crew were struggling following their split-up. Barbara's worries that her friends were all dead were especially moving (though I can't say the same for Vicki's; she got pretty much the same treatment that all the bitchy Roman and Jewish ladies did, though instead of being depicted as vain and rapacious or violently controlling, Vicki was just whiny. So whiny. The major turning point in her story is when she gets to sit down with a nice old man and whine out loud to him instead of internally to us. Sigh.). And hey, while I'm on Barbara again, yay Barbara, the only one of the four who extricates herself from her (icky) situation and actually goes looking for the others! Even though by that point in the story almost every one of them has received some kind of intelligence as to where the others can be found!

But so, this book is a bit of a hot mess, and I can certainly see why a lot of people have hated on it. It's not a gripping read, for all that it's weirdly full of sex and violence (yes, there are sex scenes in a Doctor Who story! Umm?), the TARDIS crew are all stuck in iterations of the "outsider has to try to gain the acceptance of a mistrustful and insular tribe" plot, and Ian's whole story will turn many stomachs and could make people come to hate Ian. But it's a great portrait of the First Doctor, contains some pretty good writing, and handles one of Doctor Who fiction's greatest difficulties -- overcoming Doctor Who jeopardy -- very well. It's no Roundheads, but as I knew going into this project, very few of these will be.


As for what this has done for my Arbitrary and Mercurial Doctor Rankings, well, it actually made me like the First Doctor a bit less, for all that it was slightly amusing watching him chew out the scribes compiling the Bible. He displays no sense of humor in this story (at least all the other Bastard Doctors who rank highly on my list are funny when they insult people), makes zero effort to find his lost companions when they're separated (yes, yes, concussion, he's suffering from a concussion, but ZERO EFFORT PEOPLE. If [REDACTED] hadn't fortuitously turned out to know pretty much everyone in Byzantium and put two and two together and said "hey, you know this chick?" the First Doctor might still be in a Byzantine cave to this day, arguing with the distant descendants of those poor scribes over their translations of St. Mark's terrible grammar and handwriting and the other three would have died by the turn of the second century) and, well it doesn't help that I'm not a huge fan of these companions of his, either. Especially not after Ian's Roman Romp.

So the A&MDR after Byzantium! is as follows:


A final note: I've been dared to rank the Companions as I've done the Doctors, but damn, there are so, so many of them (especially if you throw in the Big Finish Companions, which I would have to because I love me some Big Finish), some I haven't seen enough of to even remember if I've liked them or not. I will say, though, that for right now I do indeed have a least favorite Companion to balance out my for-sure favorite Companion (Evelyn Smythe), and until he somehow redeems himself, Ian, you're it. I hate you even more than Peri and Mel, right now. Dude, you suck.

*And no, I couldn't help thinking about River Tam grabbing Shepherd Book's Bible and "fixing" it for him, here. Was she fixing what the Doctor broke? Probably not, but it's an amusing thought, no?

**Simply put, the absurdity of any cliffhanger or other moment of danger in which the Doctor's life appears threatened, which absurdity is the result of the viewer/reader/listener knowing full well that the Doctor has had/will have/is in the midst of 13 lives (and counting) and so the question of his survival is not ever a question at all, especially not in NuWho, when we know exactly when a regeneration is coming, and even know what the next Doctor is going to look like months in advance.

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