Friday, May 18, 2007

The Nature of the infection

There are too many introductions to things on my hard drive, and I thought I'd pull a few of the uncollected ones out, mostly for books that are now out of print.

I'm off today to Holly's graduation. It wasn't that long ago as these things go that I was blogging about how she was going to college and what we did the week before.

Anyway, a few introductions in the weeks to come. This is from an introduction to a Paul McCauley Dr Who novella that Telos published in 2003, "Eye of the Tyger", a few years before the current team revived Dr Who so very well.

The Nature of the Infection

The years pass, and the arguments go back and forth over whether watched fiction actually has an effect on the reader or the viewer. Does violent fiction make a reader violent? Does frightening fiction create a watcher who is frightened, or desensitised to fear?

It’s not a yes, or a no. It’s a yes but.

The complaint about Dr Who from adults was always, when I was small, that it was too frightening. This missed, I think, the much more dangerous effect of Dr Who: that it was viral.

Of course it was frightening. More or less. I watched the good bits from behind the sofa, and was always angry and cheated and creeped out by the cliffhanger in the final moments. But that had, as far as I can tell, no effect on me at all, as I grew, the fear. The real complaint, the thing that the adults should have been afraid of and complaining about was what it did to the inside of my head. How it painted my interior landscape.

When I was three, making Daleks out of the little school milk bottles, with the rest of the kids at Mrs Pepper’s Nursery School, I was in trouble and I didn’t know it. The virus was already at work.

Yes, I was scared of the Daleks and the Zarbi and the rest. But I was taking other, stranger, more important lessons away from my Saturday tea-time serial.

For a start, I had become infected by the idea that there are an infinite number of worlds, only a footstep away.

And another part of the meme was this: some things are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. And, perhaps, some people are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, as well.

And that was only the start of it. The books helped with the infection – the Dalek World one, and the various hardcovered Dr Who Annuals. They contained the first written SF stories I had encountered. They left me wondering if there was anything else like that out there...

But the greatest damage was still to come.

It’s this: the shape of reality – the way I perceive the world – exists only because of Dr Who. Specifically, from The War Games in 1969, the multipart series that was to be Patrick Troughton’s swan song.

This is what remains to me of The War Games as I look back on it, over three decades after I saw it: The Doctor and his assistants find themselves in a place where armies fight: an interminable World War One battlefield, in which armies from the whole of time have been stolen from their original spatio-temporal location and made to fight each other. Strange mists divide the armies and the time zones. Travel between the time zones is possible, using a white, boxlike structure approximately the same size and shape as a smallish lift, or, even more prosaically, a public toilet: you get in in 1970, you come out in Troy or Mons or Waterloo. Only you don’t come out in Waterloo, as you’re really on an eternal plane, and behind it all or beyond it all is an evil genius who has taken the armies, placed them here, and is using the white boxes to move guards and agents from place to place, through the mists of time.

The boxes were called SIDRATs. Even at the age of eight I figured that one out.

Finally, having no other option, and unable to resolve the story in any other way, the Doctor – who we learned now was a fugitive – summoned the Time Lords, his people, to sort the whole thing out. And was, himself, captured and punished.

It was a great ending for an eight-year old. There were ironies I relished.
It would, I have no doubt at all, be a bad thing for me to try and go back and watch The War Games now. It’s too late anyway; the damage has been done. It redefined reality. The virus was now solidly in place.

These days, as a middle-aged and respectable author, I still feel a sense of indeterminate but infinite possibility on entering a lift, particularly a small one with white walls. That to date the doors that have opened have always done so in the same time, and world, and even the same building in which I started out seems merely fortuitous – evidence only of a lack of imagination on the part of the rest of the universe.

I do not confuse what has not happened with what cannot happen, and in my heart, Time and Space are endlessly malleable, permeable, frangible.

Let me make some more admissions.

In my head, William Hartnell was the Doctor, and so was Patrick Troughton. All the other Doctors were actors, although Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were actors playing real Doctors. The rest of them, even Peter Cushing, were faking it.

In my head the Time Lords exist, and are unknowable - primal forces who cannot be named, only described: The Master, the Doctor, and so on. All depictions of the home of the Time Lords are, in my head, utterly non-canonical. The place in which they exist cannot be depicted because it is beyond imagining: a cold place that only exists in black and white.

It’s probably a good thing that I’ve never actually got my hands on the Doctor. I would have unhappened so much.

A final Dr Who connection – again, from the baggy-trousered Troughton era, when some things were more than true for me – showed itself, in retrospect, in my BBC TV series, Neverwhere.

Not in the obvious places – the BBC decision that Neverwhere had to be shot on video, in episodes half an hour long, for example. Not even in the character of the Marquis de Carabas, who I wrote – and Paterson Joseph performed – as if I were creating a Doctor from scratch, and wanted to make him someone as mysterious, as unreliable, and as quirky as the William Hartnell incarnation. But in the idea that there are worlds under this one, and that London itself is magical, and dangerous, and that the underground tunnels are every bit as remote and mysterious and likely to contain Yeti as the distant Himalayas was something, author and critic Kim Newman pointed out to me, while Neverwhere was screening, that I probably took from a Troughton-era story called “The Web of Death”.

And as he said it, I knew he was spot on, remembering people with torches exploring the underground, beams breaking the darkness. The knowledge that there were worlds underneath... yes, that was where I got it, all right.

Having caught the virus, I was now, I realised with horror, infecting others.

Which is, perhaps, one of the glories of Dr Who. It doesn’t die, no matter what. It’s still serious, and it’s still dangerous. The virus is out there, just hidden, and buried, like a plague pit.

You don’t have to believe me. Not now. But I’ll tell you this. The next time you get into a lift, in a shabby office building, and jerk up several floors, then, in that moment before the doors open, you’ll wonder, even if only for a moment, if they’re going to open on a Jurassic jungle, or the moons of Pluto, or a full service pleasure dome at the galactic core...

That’s when you’ll discover that you’re infected too.

And then the doors will open, with a grinding noise like a universe in pain, and you’ll squint at the light of distant suns, and understand...

August 19, 2003

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