Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 059. The Roof of the World by Adrian Rigelsford (July 2004)

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
– HP Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Adrian Rigelsford’s The Roof of the World does not appear to have a great reputation, but I was much more impressed than I thought I would be. It’s overlong and clunkily plotted at times, but it raises a lot to think about, and for that we must give it a lot of credit. Although it possesses a dash of Black Orchid, it seems most indebted to The Abominable Snowmen, with which it superficially shares the same Tibetan setting and a not-all-that-dissimilar time period (1917 as opposed to 1935). We’ve seen Big Finish do stories exploring non-Western cultures before – Rio de Janeiro, the Galapagos, Singapore – and I’m pleased that this one takes us away from the programme’s more familiar locales to explore Northern India and Tibet.

It’s a cricket-heavy outing for the Fifth Doctor, as he’s keen to catch a game at the Grand Imperial Hotel at Darjeeling. Cricket is a useful metaphor here – one of many obvious historical links between Britain and India – and in Peri’s sardonic terms, “Occasionally, the colonial spirit bug bites him hard and he has to go and play at being the Edwardian sportsman.” He’s textually associated with General Alexander Bruce, too, both of them fussing at similar points in the audio about the kind of entrance they’re going to make; indeed, he’s unusually at home, almost proprietorial in the British Raj, “all pith helmets and iced tea”, satisfied to be drawn along in a hand-drawn cab while beggars raise their eyes to him, happy to give Peri orders and bribe Sherpas with jelly babies; as Davey says to him, “it’s instinctive for aristocracy to recognise similar bloodlines.” And, of course, it is he who wakes up in the dreamscape that is the story’s one real jaunt to the heart of the British Empire, the Belvedere Club off Pall Mall, surrounded by the spoils of imperialism (“a style to which I assumed you’d be accustomed”). However, he’s also compared by Peri and Erimem to the nameless, absent-minded Baker from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1876), itself a semi-colonial, Victorian-era bit of nonsense prose that sees a crew trying to hunt an exotic creature (backed up by another Carroll favourite starring a wise fool: You Are Old, Father William). So he’s a stuffy Edwardian like most Time Lords, but crucially the foolish, bumbling, mercurial one who forgets all his equipment and goods.

Many of the characters have inevitably strong colonialist elements – Bruce the Boer War veteran with his insistence that journalist Matthews “make him sound regal” because of the connections to the Royal Geographical Society. There’s still a very tangible pride and joy in the monarchy, one worth distorting the truth for (and the man then has the temerity to preach “you should learn the art of humility, Matthews!”): it’s all about finding the choice word, crafting the noble painting to capture the moment and perpetuate the myth. The British Empire is even compared to that of the Romans, with a funeral oration proudly championing the glorious dead in the manner of Pericles or even the Gettysburg Address, the rhetorical and stylistic links between which have been well-established. It’s all a lot of bluster, of course, as we see when Bruce tearfully struggles over his last will and testament: (“Promise me one thing – if this is the end, the last campaign, no matter how ignominious a demise I may meet, please make my last words heroic. I dread to go out with a whimper”). It’s a cracking moment which blows open colonialism’s faults with the tiny flicker of the human story underneath.

The British Raj is only one of the two major aesthetics at work in The Roof of the World – the other is the Cthulhu Mythos. Doctor Who has been Lovecraftian before, particularly in the late 80s (other, more Lovecraft-minded posters, feel free to correct me on this), and I’m led to believe certain novels in the 90s retroactively placed Fenric (Hastur the Unspeakable), the Gods of Ragnarok, the Great Intelligence (Yog-Sothoth), the Animus, and others among the pantheon of Great Old Ones. Rigelsford makes a decent stab at Lovecraftian horror here – vast, unknowable forces of darkness in the universe of which we can scarcely be conscious (“no words shall be spoken of them, no thought be brought to light, no memories will hold them. If no man knows they are sleeping, then none shall wake”). The babble of whispering voices, the business with the black cloud and Erimem’s childhood nightmares of “the white pyramid, where all evil was meant to sleep” are effective, even if the “key to make darkness all-powerful” repetition gets a tad plodding and pedestrian in comparison to Lovecraft and other masters. Inevitably for a story set in the mountains of Tibet that boasts the Great Old Ones, it’s a kind of ascension story: we all know the characters are going to end up on the roof of the world, and the threat will get worse the closer to the unknown heavens they are. The mountain itself is a mythical figure, its Tibetan name Chomolungma meaning “Goddess, Mother of the Earth”.

Just as the Doctor parallels colonial-era England, so too does he parallel these cosmic horrors (note that it’s Possessed-Davey who says the line about “similar bloodlines”, giving it a nice double meaning). Both aspects are powerful forces that “hide behind their words”, whether that’s jingoistic propaganda or Davey’s whispering subtleties. Erimem gets a great moment comparing the beggars of Darjeeling to those she would have seen swept out of the royals’ sight back in Ancient Thebes, and again with her “deceased flash-back” to the world she comes from (particularly the implication that her father Pharaoh Amenhotep’s astrologers disposed of astral scrolls when they feared their true meaning, and the surreal reappearance of the Pharaoh in a British gentleman’s club). It’s a clever nod to the way Cthulhu and imperialist colonialism intersect – that we ignore colossal horrors of which we are scarcely cognisant (see Lovecraft’s prefacing quote). In this context, civilisation’s veneer is thin and fractured indeed.

Particularly for a Brit and someone with practically every privilege in the book, the British Raj is an uncomfortable subject – in 1917, we’re only eight years off the Amritsar Massacre – but by aligning it with Cthulhu, Rigelsford illustrates that those horrors which we ignore can be mythical monsters, or they can just as well be human efforts to do awful things to other cultures, such that the most terrible thing is that we find it best simply not to know. And how does the Doctor beat that? “Because I know that there will always be shadows, darker places, far worse minds, far worse threats than anything you or your kind could even dream of!... Why fear something when you know that the worst is to come? That even in defeat, there is something to destroy the destroyer!”

And so they hide the dormant darkness in a Himalayan cave. It’s not a comforting victory.

Other things:
The TARDIS Wiki entry for The Roof of the World includes the following drily humorous sentence in its opening paragraph:  “it is notable for being the only licensed Doctor Who story to have been released while its author was in gaol”. Not that Adrian Rigelsford’s personal woes or misdemeanours should in any way interfere in our understanding of, or appreciation for, this particular tale – or indeed lack thereof.
The production here is better than it has been for the last few releases, with some lush sound work to set the tone of the Himalayas and a good Russell Stone score. Bravo.
Good continuity that Erimem’s still reading Carroll, and her plotline is excellent (even if precisely 0% of the audience were fooled by her “funeral” in Part Two, it’s still a great sombre moment, and the invisible Erimem trying to be noticed by her grieving friends a cool touch). Caroline Morris really anchors the surreal second episode, and delivers a great performance throughout. On a character level, this is her story – she is the focalising point of our fear of the Great Old Ones.
Erimem: “This ‘cricket’ still eludes me. What’s the point of it?”
“Call that a heroic entrance, do you, Matthews?”/ “Well, there’s not exactly much to be said that’s heroic about looking at a few tents and some rope.”
“Sherlock Holmes is a work of fiction. I’m trying to report clear and accurate fact.”/“Just because the name was changed, doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen.”
Cranleigh related to Davey? Nice little coincidence. Edward de Souza (himself of Anglo-Indian descent) gives a cracking turn as Davey too – definitely worthy of mention.
“Have you ever heard of a storm cloud trying to book a room?”
“History only forgets the cowards, and that is why these men will always be remembered.”
“How can you actually find the right [words] to express what you think and feel, when the last thing you ever expected them to do was to have to say goodbye?” The Fifth Doctor takes the (apparent) loss of Erimem particularly hard, so soon after Adric.
“The Doctor always said there are things we can’t stop, things we can’t control.”
Davey making Erimem helplessly watch Peri die in the burning TARDIS is grim.
“He saw certain powers, and because he didn’t understand them, his immediate reaction was to fear them.”
We go back into a companion’s childhood – is that only the first of that long trend? I suppose The Curse of Fenric set the precedent…
“But you dismissed those photographs as rubbish.”/“Well, they’ve been promoted!”
Matthews passing Peri his letter to wife & child is a good bit of quiet, sensitive characterisation.
“The Doctor and the General…great name for a variety act!”
There’s another Fifth-Doctor-switcheroo in Part Three, and though it’s hardly as mind-blowing as Omega, it’s cleverer than the one in The Axis of Insanity.
On others’ opposing views: “there comes a point where you begin to question whether there might not be some logic behind their words… just suppose, for a moment, there is some valid reason. Well, I promise you, it burrows into every thought until you begin to question your every move!”
“Might I suggest that you make peace with whatever Gods you believe in, Doctor, because you will shortly find out that they don’t exist.”
The Doctor owns all-purpose clothes that mould yourself around you? Nice.
Peri on the Doctor: “He worries about several things a minute, forgets an equal amount every hour, figures out the solution to a problem before he knows what the question is, and only realises things before it’s too late when he knows there’s enough time to fix them. Take it from me: trust him. He’s the only hope we’ve got.”
What is Erimem? I am the key to the end of infinity!
Parts of the final storyline do get a bit bogged down in clunky plotting – the cloud’s temperature, the liquid nitrogen skirmish, etc., which maybe stops this one reaching “classic” status.
“Unending images from every angle – wasn’t that one of the basic theories on enslaving creatures from the Dark Times? Of course. The racial memory of the entire species has preserved your kind as one of humanity’s most basic nightmares. You embody everything from the bogeyman to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!”
“I’ve been there [death] four times already – it tends to lose a novelty value after the first three.”
There might be worse to come, but Erimem is ready to face her fears: “Doctor? You can put the lights back on.”

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