Monday, 20 June 2016

Main Range 091. Circular Time by Paul Cornell and Mike Maddox (January 2007)

Consisting of Spring by Mike Maddox from a story by Paul Cornell, Summer by Mike Maddox from an idea by Paul Cornell, Autumn by Paul Cornell, and Winter by Paul Cornell

Introduction: The regular passing of the seasons, and their associated symbolism, has always had a special place in literature: spring with those “darling buds of May” of Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet, the joyous rebirth at the start of the year; summer, full-blooded, vivacious and full of life, in which the eponymous protagonist of The Great Gatsby reaches his apotheosis; autumn, that slow descent into middle age immortalised in Keats’ “mists and mellow fruitfulness”; and winter, age of frozen blood and eventual death, the darkness of days in John Updike’s “January”, the iron fist of Jadis ruling over Narnia eternally with no sign of any approaching spring. One of the most interesting expressions of this phenomenon is Northrop Frye’s 1957 essay “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths” in Anatomy of Criticism; Frye juggles apocalypse and anarchy with unification and fulfilment, and along the way he illustrates the cyclical nature of myth and its many archetypes – from birth through growth and maturity and decline to death, then on to resurrection and rebirth, ad nauseam – and suggests the four seasons are embodied by four mythoi: comedy, romance, tragedy/fall/death, and post-death/out-of-time satire or irony. We all know Paul Cornell is your go-to guy if you want “season mythos in Doctor Who”; his first four novels in the New Adventures line famously each end with “long ago in an English spring/summer/autumn/winter” (delete as appropriate), and, you know, he actually wrote a story called Seasons of Fear. The degree to which this unique and rather majestic Doctor Who release, Circular Time, fits the aforementioned model (split as the work is into four full-cast audio short stories, all overseen by Cornell with the help of Mike Maddox) is especially fascinating.

Spring: This opening segment opens, appropriately enough, on a lush verdant world of rainforests – the home planet of bird-people called the Avians, birds being one of the first harbingers of spring, of course, and this lot specifically drawing on Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules – and is a pleasant enough little escapade on an alien world, with some effective and tantalising touches detailing the Avian civilisation. Of these, the most notable are Lois Baxter’s great performance as the elder Carrion, the Avian canopy-cities and the Yoke of Darts, the great squawks they give as trumpet-calls, and their abhorrent practise of punishing wrongdoers by inflicting violence on their beloved nearest-and-dearest (said chicks’ wailing is rather haunting). If we are to draw parallels with Christianity (as we may find ourselves doing from time to time in this release), Carrion rather reminds me of a crueller Solomon: just but cruel. The focus on primitive, violent justice also makes for a nice way of launching a series of stories about growth and flowering to maturity – as does, with a diametrically opposed tone, the story’s interest in birdsong and Ovidian myths about Syrinx, Pan and regeneration.

The plot itself revolves mostly around another Time Lord of the Prydonian Chapter, the rebellious Cardinal Zero, who has become the Avians’ leader; the whiff of British Empire/Heart of Darkness is strong here, with the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ performance of Hugh Fraser as Zero adding to the sense of colonialist swagger in the tropics. Maddox’s treatment of Nyssa is rather good (setting the standard for the rest of the release), a nobler figure than the Doctor in a way: Zero’s and the Doctor’s Gallifreyan origins are specifically rebuked by the Trakenite as “not a very civilised society” and it is she who makes the most principled objections to Avian cruelty. But Maddox also convincingly weaves both the Heart of Darkness overtones and Nyssa’s objections together in the challenge to our response: would we prefer the old colonialist buck Zero to do more to interfere with the Avians’ brutal ways, or less? The story ends with Northrop Frye’s traditional schematic of rebirth: an old way has passed on, and a Time Lord “adapts” to his new culture, rising out of the ashes with wings outstretched like a phoenix. While it’s never especially funny, it’s a comedy in the traditional sense, focusing on arbitrary laws and humorous societies which need reforming, concluding with a social judgment of the absurd (all elements of Frye’s “spring” mythos). All told: slight, but succinct, witty, and packed full of rather lovely detail.

Summer: the second story in this anthology probably fits Frye’s season cycle the least, with its knockabout farcical tone (complete with a pair of comedy jailers) at odds with summer’s apotheosis quest/romance narrative of righteous hero versus demonic villain. Indeed, the story’s own connection with summer appears rather strained at first; we get reference to the fact that this particular afternoon at some point late in the 17th century is “so hot I can hardly breathe”, but that’s not everything - this is the halcyon age of the great British Empire, its apotheosis, the age in which giants like Newton strode the Earth, a far cry from the savagery in Spring (and so the "great revolving permanence of humankind" rumbles on and on, the wheel ever turning; thank you, Simon Armitage). The Doctor’s fascination with alchemy (the fascination which distracted him enough to get them into trouble in the first place) is of great interest, especially given the time-period, as is his eventual turn from scientific debate to magical theatre, turning leaden coins into gold; according to Frye, the summer mythos is notable for Eiron, an old wise man and magician who affects action (the Doctor’s alchemy act), and Alazon, the enemy who guards a hoard of gold which represents power and wisdom (Newton and the coins). So it’s oddly apt in some ways.

No matter though, because the story itself is terribly enjoyable; the Doctor and Nyssa being thrown into the Tower of London for the crime of forgery by the Director of the Royal Mint – none other than Sir Isaac Newton, masterfully played by David Warner – is a killer premise, and as much fun as you’d expect, taking a typical farce route of allowing everything to spin out of a tiny error. Allowing the less obvious aspect of Newton’s life (his numismatics rather than his principles of mathematics or discovery of gravity) to flourish gives the story a pleasantly quirky feel, enhanced by offsetting his rather gruff demeanour with Nyssa’s insistence that this isn’t how proper scientists behave. There are welcome shades of The Kingmaker here, and not just in the reuse of the Tower of London; the farcical treatment of history and its multifarious loops is relatively similar. Although it’s often self-consciously silly, this is a lyrical little story (I particularly like Nyssa’s telling the truth to Isaac; “the Doctor walks through time as easily as you sail the seas”, indeed), and most enjoyable.

Autumn: it’s here in the collection – in fact, probably here in his Big Finish career – that we reach peak Cornell: the soft, easy-going nostalgia of an autumn afternoon in a picturesque Hampshire village, as Nyssa writes a novel and falls in love and the Doctor speaks Estonian and plays cricket. There’s something quietly genius about Nyssa writing a novel; ever the watchful observer, she has more of a writer’s air about her than one might initially think, and writing to a deadline is a bittersweet metaphor for a doomed romance. Her idea speaks of the Book of Genesis and Albion before the Fall and Blake’s Jerusalem, and is yet another beautiful instance of weaving her Trakenite past into the narrative: a world where everyone is very kind to one another and all are ruled over by a good king. Andrew’s suggestion that this Paradiso scenario would benefit from a snake in the garden (or a Melkur in the courtyard!) is something I have long pondered: is it possible to write stories about people who are simply happy, or does the nature of drama necessitate conflict? Can we ever conceive of a state of actual fulfilment, or is that, as Andrew suggests, a mere “fantasy”? Cornell has written an engrossing Nyssa-centric tale, and Sutton gives one of her best ever performances; the melancholic moment where she points out where Traken used to be over the shoulder of the Orion nebula, and that the time its light takes to reach to Earth means everyone on Traken is still alive, is an iconic Nyssa moment.

This autumnal character piece must be one of the quietest, most understated “tragedies” there’s ever been, and a tragedy that already looks forward to the next sequence of “circular time”, to inevitable rebirth and being written into history. But a tragedy it is, after its own fashion, with both the Doctor and Nyssa “raging against the dying of the light”, and mortality rearing its ugly head in the form of poor old Don. The Doctor can only ever stay in one place for a brief time; the team won’t always have his dab hand with a cricket ball on tap, and he’ll never fit in with their narrow-minded parochialism. Nyssa cannot remain in Stockbridge with Andrew; they will have to part. Britain slowly declines into a quiet backwater. Autumn moves on to winter, and everything dies… but it dies so beautifully, and with such grace. As in all tragedies, love has to end.

Winter: and so on to the last story, or, as I’m sure both Cornell and the Doctor would want us to see it, the last until the next one; it’s just a shame the next one is The Twin Dilemma. This, too, has a kind of checklist of Cornell traits – its continuity obsession (he classifies it as a “weird fanservice thing”), the Doctor yearning after a domestic life, and its taking place entirely within the Doctor’s mind (Timewyrm: Revelation, The Shadow of the Scourge) are only the most notable aspects. It’s far and away the most ambitious and high-concept of these four pieces, dreamscape of illusions and mental projections that it is, and takes place within the tightest ever continuity gap for any BF audio (surely!). As you’d expect, Peter Davison is excellent as the world-weary Fifth Doctor on his way out (he gives a lovely reading of the line “how many children have I lost?”); the dreamscape allows him to play an ‘older’ Doctor than usual, a Doctor who is “too old to play” cricket anymore, though the wife he has in this dream tells him he “won’t be saying that come summer”, a Doctor who regrets not having played more seasons and notched up a better batting average. The many references to his first story (TS Eliot: “in my end is my beginning”; the Seventh Doctor: “this act will be the beginning of your end”) – particularly the Zero Cabinet from Castrovalva like a coffin being paralleled with him carrying Peri’s dying body – coalesce so beautifully, making this a brilliantly done, intimate character study of the “old man in a young man’s body”. Cornell also has time to serve Nyssa well though; now years after leaving the Doctor in Terminus, she’s married and with children, and is looking back on how she grew up during her time with the Doctor. We get the Master’s laugh, “is this death?”, and the visions of past companions, and even a rather inspired use of Kamelion: it all fits so perfectly.

Northrop Frye’s final season myth sees the defeat of the hero and adoption of a “dark” genre, in which dissolution prevails and chaos is come again. The hero may be mocked for their flaws, or satirised, and ultimately passes on. The bitter chill and harsh winds of winter surrounds him as he reaches his final moments. But already the spring is here too, coming round again as the next spoke of the wheel. While Winter draws on Cornell’s own Anglicanism and its motif of resurrection, there’s also distinct whiffs of Doctor Who’s love affair with Buddhism – regeneration as reincarnation, including Snakedance’s strong Buddhist motif, once more a nod to TS Eliot (“at the still point there the dance is”). Circular time and no time: where everything and nothing happen at once, where the Doctor’s life flashes before his eyes and age and youth fold in and out of one another simultaneously. I imagine that next time I watch it, the already-marvellous ending of The Caves of Androzani will be enhanced immeasurably by having heard this. Winter does what all the best Doctor Who stories do – takes the past as a palimpsest, and writes on it at will, such that we may still see what lies beneath, but illuminated by newer letters, newer calligraphy: his friends help him through his regeneration, stop him from dying outright and send him on his merry way, and this is how they did it. Even the useless robot.

Now that’s a story worth making myths out of: the man for all seasons.

Other things:
The Doctor borrowed George Mallory’s gloves, despite warning him never to lose gloves on a mountaineering trip… a touch awkward.
“Alien invasion or mad scientist?” – that feels like a Cornell line, the kind of knowing poke at Terrance Dicks’ formula for the series he does so well; the same for the quoting of Who Is The Doctor in the following story.
Carrion to Nyssa: “You would know of [civilisation], would you, given the chaos, the destruction, in the wake of your companion’s wings?”
Rather nice touches on Gallifreyan society – the “Council of the Great Mother, specialising in the politics of regeneration: class politics, gender politics, species politics” is my particular favourite, though I also like “if he were from any other chapter, I wouldn’t worry; an Arcalian cardinal would stay in his TARDIS, a Patraxes would start cataloguing droppings, but Prydonians are cunning – you can’t take your eyes off them for a second.”/“I thought you were a Prydonian?”/“Nobody’s perfect, Nyssa.”
“A murder. The first in six years. Can you imagine?”/“Yes,” Nyssa says quietly, pensively.
“Two birds, one stone.” (A quip repurposed with shocking callousness here).
“Halt! Friend or foe?”/“The King of Spain, wearing a dress!”
“I do not like fools, forgers or Catholics. Which are you?”
“Orthodox, perhaps?”/“Not a word I’d use to describe [the Doctor].”
“Ravens don’t like toenails. Toes, maybe.”
Mars winning the Ashes? The horror!
“I take it Catholics are a political faction?”/“Religious.”/“On Traken they were the same thing.”/“They are in most places.”
“He’s a Prydonian.”/“Ah, free thinkers?”/“They’re usually anything but.”
“I have to make sure this food’s not poisoned.”/“But your wife made it!”/“You can never be too careful.”
“You know, sometimes not thinking is very relaxing…?”
“All this from a handful of coins?”/“I’m so glad you didn’t pay by debit card.”
Nice hint that another incarnation of the Doctor was incarcerated recently.
“Something is added to cricket by the angle of the sun as it stands at four o’clock in early September. The shadows are longer – there’s a suggestion of colder days approaching, of circular time, of aspects of our lives dying away, returning. The other sort of time is called linear time – life is hard and then one dies, if that’s the sort of thing one is liable to do. Cricket, to me, seems to stand for the former and against the latter. It’s something that dies but returns and writes mortals into history, in stories and statistics. Perhaps that’s why it appeals to me. I also die and return, like a hardy perennial.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t need commenting on, but I liked the roles played here: that Nyssa is the writer and Andrew the waiter rather awed by her presence.
We will allow the obvious fiction that there is a village called Traken in Hampshire, because it’s a beautiful fiction.
“I’ve been in-spired. ‘Breathed into!’ That’s funny.”
“Oh! Doctor! We were just…stargazing.”/“That must’ve taken considerable skill through the branches of the trees.”
“I don’t think anyone who’s going to die ever really gets detached from consequences.”
“He doesn’t have to be there for the ending. He wrote it.”
“It almost feels like I’m carrying someone” – the first hint that the Doctor here is in the final moments of The Caves of Androzani, and the appearance of the Watcher is another big clue. By the time you can hear the (excellent impression of) Anthony Ainley’s Master laugh, it’s clear what’s going on.
“This is a dream I’m having!”/“It most certainly is not! This is a dream I’m having!”
“You really are an odd apparition – you seem to think I’m the one doing the appearing!”
Fascinating that the Doctor’s subconscious places the Master in the role of silly jackanapes who has foolish antics on telly.
“This is all getting rather philosophical; would you perhaps care for some cheese, then at least we can dream on the same wavelength?”
Ghosts are “probably just memories”.
Although it’s not the funniest story, Winter gets the funniest moment by far: “[Tegan]’s asleep in the bed upstairs – with Adric.”/“Oh?!”
“My people are made in different ways for different things… each time we change, we change into something more comfortable, something appropriate to the conditions. I, this Me, Me, I was made for an existence in linear time, for births, marriages and deaths, for domestic bliss! I was made to be at rest – and I have been denied this!”
“This is a trap!”/“Real life is a trap.”
“He may fight the idea of living in time, but he does live in it.”
“The next person I’m going to be – and what a person I’m going to be: all those colours inside the white…”
“Each life creates the next: no wonder Time Lords and Buddhists get on so well.”
“He’s from both sorts of time. He pops up in human time, linear time, the time that gives us death and babies and old relatives and long-term illness, and yet there he is in mythological time, circular time, the time where the seasons die and resurrect, and so do gods and heroes, where people who are in stories live forever.”
“He still had someone to save in the real world, and he had a whole other self he had to be in order to do that.”
I don't know quite what inspired Briggs to do an anthology as his first release, but it worked wonders. I suspect future anthologies may never quite live up to the thematic coherence of this one - but I'm sure there'll be some good'ns along the way.
One more thing: it occurs to me that Cornell unintentionally pre-empts Moffat's "childhood barn of great import" here - in making it a farmhouse/barn that 5 creates as domestic bliss in his dreamscape world. We can now retroactively make the barn which influenced his vision the same one as the one where the Doctor learnt a great lesson about fear and carrying on anyway, and where he would later take the Moment on the last day of the Time War, and then return to when he arrived on Gallifrey post-Clara. Neat, eh?

Next: 092 Nocturne by Dan Abnett.

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