Published on November 30th, 2010 | by James Colvin
The Coming of the Terraphiles
The Terraphiles are a club of Old Earth enthusiasts from the far future. Unsurprisingly, it transpires that the Doctor is a member.
Together with Amy, he is invited to participate in a tournament re-enacting ancient sporting events, the prize for the winner being the coveted Silver Arrow of Artemis, which the Doctor is pursuing for mysterious or unknown reasons. The adventure begins on the planet Peersâ„¢, where we meet the Banning-Cannons, planet moguls, Hari Agincourt and one Robin of Locksley, failing aristocrat. The latter two are old Etonian friends and rivals for the hand of the Banning-Cannon’s daughter.
A failed conspiracy leads to the unintentional uncovering of a conspiracy to steal one of Mrs. Banning-Cannon’s prized hats. The mystery unsolved, the Edwardian party traverse several universes, genres, and space opera dogfights in order to compete in the tournament and win the mysterious arrow.
Terraphiles is a very fun and very silly book, full of playful characterisation and world-building. Michael Moorcock seems to enjoy himself with the Judoon, shifting their role to intergalactic jocks, sporty, short-tempered, hot-headed, proud and immodest. A platoon of Judoon sing dirty songs in celebration of a victory in the games. There are passing references to the Daleks and the Time Lords (which I won’t spoil here) that are more creative and fun than entire stories about them. But there is much more of Moorcock’s own invention than play with the existing minutiae of the Doctor Who universe. A centaur houseguest is stood in a kitchen in his slippers eating a bowl of cereal whilst the guests receive an investigation debriefing.
One world has praying-mantis cabbies.
The space between the universes is populated by (among other things) cephalopodan spacecraft. A murderous, intergalactic villain is sent packing by the Doctor with an arrow to his fat arse. The language is self-consciously silly and celebratory of its pulp fiction origins. Uff Nuff O’Kay (a bipedal canine minor character) exclaims, “By the Medici stars!” A disreputable spaceship is “crewed by as slovenly a bunch of spacerats as ever sailed between the stars.” Dodgy personal translators struggle with tired old idioms, “I don’t want to be a duck in the mango. Or do I mean ‘mangey’?
But it’s not all silliness! True to the ethos of New Worlds magazine under his editorship, Moorcock’s novel aims high in literary terms, and the degree of its success in this is unmatched by any Doctor Who book to date. Prose style creates meaning in a way that couldn’t be done in another medium. Caught in a time storm, Amy experiences several possible pasts, presents and futures, separated by a forward stroke (“boarding the ship/flirting with Bingo”). This indicates separate events being experienced simultaneously, pinning multiple layers of time and reality together. The End of Time used a similar device, with events involving the Ood/Gallifrey/The Master on Earth all occurring at once. But there a linear narrative was mapped onto that, here narrative is disrupted.
The setting and scale of the multiverse itself is far from being empty-headed SF nonsense. It draws attention to the books artifice, its literariness. The closing chapter is particularly effective; the characters become aware of the implications of multiple versions of themselves existing in parallel universes. They realise the importance of the recurrence of mythic narrative and archetypes, and how they’ve been acting them out. In other words, they realise their fictive nature. Earlier on, Amy’s proximity to the Doctor gives her an early spike of awareness that anticipates the conclusion (more on the Doctor’s role shortly).
Amongst her visions is one of an alternate Amy as a soldier in Afghanistan. This sudden, jarring reference to now insists we apply this to ourselves. Amy’s self-realisation indicates a cosmic awareness of her larger role in events that we are invited to share. It is the moral core of the book: we are asked to consider the wider implications of how we act in our daily lives.
Moorock’s treatment of the Doctor is closely tied up with this. Plenty of criticism has been heaped onto his characterisation of Matt Smith’s Doctor which has been called a generic characterisation, likened more to Tom Baker’s portrayal. It has been suggested that it owes more to older conceptions of the Doctor, and that the book would be much better if Moorcock had been able to choose another incarnation, perhaps William Hartnell’s.
This is superficial.
Here, the Doctor is a mythic archetype. An elemental, he is bound to the nature and workings of Moorcock’s multiverse quite directly. With the nature of the Doctor’s narrative function being so explicitly stated, he is aware of what fictive modes he dips into. He’s aware of his melodramatic origins; he enjoys retreating into and Edwardian school story. Not only does this make perfect sense within the context of this story, it is also universally true of the Doctor, and of Doctor Who.
It is true of William Hartnell’s Doctor, moving from weird Radiophonic soundscapes of the Dalek homeworld, to historical adventures in Cathay, and it’s certainly true of everything after Robert Holmes and the early Tom Baker series, where the Doctor would move from pastiche to pastiche and knew damn well what was going on. With this in mind, the enjoyment the Doctor takes from playing terribly historically inaccurate pastiches of Earth games, derived from half-remembered myth, rumour and fiction, makes perfect sense.
This, mercifully, prevents the Doctor from becoming a godlike being. He remains fallible, and most important of all, silly.
Pastiche is another source of morality for Terraphiles. With this narrative device, P.G. Wodehouse and Edwardian nostalgia are problematised in the same way colonialism and Victoriana is in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The greatest threat to Wodehouse characters is an unwelcome visit from a distant relative or in-law. He would continue to write such fiction in such a setting after the World Wars. The Doctor eulogises on Edwardian complacency, “remembering Edwardian England, confident in her power to spread peace and justice across the world at the very moment the first Great War began.” This is not just a historical reference: it is an extension of the moral core of the book. Oh, and more is at stake.
It’s true that Moorcock’s Doctor does not match up with Matt Smith’s portrayal. But why the hell should it? This book enters into a tradition of spinoffs from the early days of the Doctor Who Weekly comic. That Doctor had nothing to do with what was on screen at the time (physical appearance aside), but by defining its own distinct interpretation, it was an enduring success. It is cited as an influence by writers of the current TV series and is still in print today. The same thing is happening here. Moorcock absolutely gets to the core of the character and gets it so right. If there is one weakness, it is that he didn’t go far enough in fleshing out his own version of Matt Smith’s Doctor: the superficial details and eccentricities, which some would argue are just as important to the character, are minimal.
An easy-going narrative voice and light prose style decorate a very witty, clever, original, joyous and damn fun piece of postmodernist SF. It’s easily the best Doctor Who book in at least a decade, and personally, I haven’t enjoyed a Doctor Who in any medium this much since Turn Left. Terraphiles, despite what is already becoming an inherited wisdom, is true to the spirit of invention and play that make Doctor Who such a good thing. It is very much a Doctor Who book, and written by one of the finest living British SF writers.
Laughably, DWM uses its limited review space to recommend Mark Gatiss’ The Last of the Gadarene ahead of this. If a checklist of Pertwee-era clichÃ©s is your idea of what Doctor Who should be, fine. But Terraphiles has a strong a grip on what Doctor Who means, a near-flawless interpretation of the Doctor, and is bold and original and unlike anything else, that Gadarene fans will want to avoid.
The hardback version of The Coming of the Terraphiles is available from Amazon for just Â£8.49, a saving of 50% on the cover price!