Planet of the Spiders
The Scarlet Empress
The Compassion/TARDIS arc
The Blue Angel
|Authors|| Paul Magrs
|ISBN||0 563 55581 5|
|Synopsis: Iris Wildthyme is rescuing old ladies from a shopping mall attacked by savage owls, the Doctor becomes embroiled in the doings of a Federation Starship and in a cat's cradle of dimensions, a king awaits the return of his Angel son. This is a book about Winter...|
A Review by Finn Clark 30/8/99
Warning: I liked The Scarlet Empress. In fact I loved it, adored it and wanted to have its children. I thought it was the best thing to happen to Doctor Who fiction since... well, ever. If you, however, thought Paul Magrs's last opus was a complete heap of dino-poo then I would suggest that you apply a bucket of salt to the following opinions. I'll try to give you an objective picture of The Blue Angel, but yet again fandom's opinions will differ...
The first thing to say is that The Blue Angel is not simply a rewrite of The Scarlet Empress. It plays by the same narrative rules - fantasy good, explanations bad - but it introduces plenty more. Critics said many things about The Scarlet Empress, but no one accused it of being incomprehensible. It was joyful in its simplicity, nothing more than an onrushing tidal wave of imagination. Plot, coherence and everything else gave way to glorious imagery.
The Blue Angel ain't that. Unlike its predecessor, it has multiple plot strands and gratuitous cleverness. Different chapters appear to contradict each other. A venomously accurate Star Trek parody gives way to an ultra-prosaic trip by old ladies to a shopping mall. The first fifty pages left me without a bloody clue to what was going on.
Gradually the dizzying changes of perspective resolved themselves into discernable narratives. Yes, we had a story! A plot! The Blue Angel is a psychedelic, mind-expanding, imagination-pummelling sensory near-overload, but in a far more literary sense than The Scarlet Empress. Much more is going on, at many more levels. Lawrence Miles talks about television stimulating the brain more than a book, but this novel presents the counter-argument. We have fantasy, parody, direct commentary on Doctor Who itself...
Let's be more specific.
In these old ladies' presence we leave the world of Who, which only makes it more shocking when fantastical elements come crashing in. That's one story element.
It's very much a novel, using the forms and conventions of that medium. It's not an adapted screenplay, or a movie being played inside your eyeballs. The Scarlet Empress simply stuck the TARDIS crew into a fantasy novel, but The Blue Angel reinvents our favourite series just as thoroughly as Phil Segal reinvented it for US TV. We have versions of the Daleks and the Time Lords, though they soon expand beyond such a restrictive definition.
By contrast, there are some sublime jokes about the limitations of the television format, which incidentally I think is why we have the Star Trek parody. Doctor Who has been parodied to death over the past decade under Virgin and the BBC, both intentionally and otherwise. Introducing Star Trek to the equation allows commentary about television that would hardly have been noticed had it been about Doctor Who.
But most obviously, there are a couple of chapters which explicitly discuss novels, canonicity and all that. Here the authors really show their hand. It's as explicit as the Scarlet Empress epilogue but part of the novel itself, which as much as anything should be an indication of how experimental The Blue Angel is.
Did I like it? Yes, I think so. It's wonderful, in every sense. It's weirder and more confusing than Scarlet Empress, but I think paradoxically it might appeal to a wider audience. The Scarlet Empress was what it was, no more and no less. If you didn't like it, tough. This book is far more eclectic.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed this book less than The Scarlet Empress. That book was a joy. This one feels a little insubstantial, even incomplete. The whole is perhaps less than the sum of its cleverness. Admittedly this fits in with its theme - see the discussion of fugue - but I still think I'd have liked it more with a proper resolution. As it stands it feels like an improvisation in which various plot threads coalesce into a story for a while before separating again for an enigmatic puzzle of an ending. It presents a million arguments and concepts, but doesn't wrap them up neatly for the hard of thinking.
It's thought-provoking. Upon finishing it, I wanted to reread it straight away - which is something I normally never do. As an aside, this 8DA arc started by Interference is looking every bit as big and interesting as the Benny arc started by Where Angels Fear.
I'd recommend The Blue Angel, but mainly to people who like that sort of thing. Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad aren't at all interested in the usual rules of action-adventure. Be warned. It's very literary, but if you're prepared to meet the authors halfway then you'll find a great deal of pleasure and thought therein.
"Another in the continuing series of Iris Wildthyme books...." by Matthew Watson 18/10/99
I was willing to give this book a try on the strength of previous reviews. I really did dislike Scarlet Empress especially the authors note. In any case, the book was the next in the story arc, (I'm always a sucker for arcs). It's not an easy book to explain, which is surprising since not much happens. It's also hard to explain how much this book frustrated me.
For the most part is the book within a book. Our usual team on some bleak earth type village, presumably recovering from the events of Interference. (I needed a rest after Interference too...). Here the Doctor is being treated by his "private doctor", and quite a bit of self questioning. This is by far the best bit of the book in my opinion.
Here, one of the Doctor's friends there starts to write a book.... this is the rest of the novel. (Though this relationship isn't clearly explained.)
Now the book within a book....
It is Iris Wildthymes story. The new Barbarella regeneration, has turned her from bumbling canny old lady to superbabe. As for the companions, Fitz is Iris's love interest. Seven of Nine (Compassion) is still a new character waiting to be fleshed out. As for the Doctor - he fact that I can't think of anything to write about this characterisation says a lot in itself I think.
We meet many, many more people and races. The Old Ladies are great. But far too many new races and people, who are described in depth, then aren't utilised. On the other hand time was wasted showing how much of a bimbo Belinda was.
Great a Star Trek piss take. About time too... This was a sitting target to parody. But we know the clich?, it's a well worn stereotype, so I expected something a bit more cutting / interesting from it.
At the end of the book is a list of questions, unfortunately none come near to the million questions I was asking., which were more along the lines of "Why did Icarus need the old ladies?", "Why persuade the old ladies to go to the metro centre?", and man y, many more whys.
The latter Virgin NAs philosophy was, "This is how it could have happened, now make up your own mind", this book goes for the "What on earth happened, did it happen at all?" The buck could be passed by saying it was a book within a book, and it was supposed to be like that, but all it seems is that someone is trying to show me how clever they are.
Trying to do far too much at once, the authors seemed to be like the characters, running about, touching on this, developing that, forgetting about it and running onto the next thing. A lot of chasing about, we meet far too many people, and so many questions on the book's plot rather than the unfolding arc. I found it very frustrating, like Eternity Weeps, it could have been so much. Unfortunately it joins Scarlet Empress as the most thrown-against-wall book.
A Review by Mike Morris 3/11/99
First of all, an admission. I seem to be one of the few intelligent lifeforms with an interest in Doctor Who who hasn't read The Scarlet Empress. I mention this merely because the general consensus about this book is "if you liked The Scarlet Empress, read it; if you didn't, don't".
Well if, like me, you haven't read the damn thing at all, what do you do?
I'd advise you to read it. The Blue Angel is great. In my opinion. Having said that, I'm sure that there'll be a fair few people who think it's a load of donkey turd. So I'll temper my advice by saying, if you thought the Virgin NA's were a bit too weird, if your favourite book is Illegal Alienor Placebo Effect, then this might not be up your alley. However if you like your Who to be experimental and dangerous, then this is perfect. This book is mad.
We open with three distinct plot threads. Little old ladies going to the supermarket, one of whom has a son who's decidedly odd; someone who seems to be the Doctor, living in a house with Fitz and Compassion, doing decidedly banal (yet odd) things; and Captain Blandish's Starship Nepotist, a not-altogether-subtle parody of Star Trek. As the book progresses, they come together. Sort of. Or maybe they don't... maybe one of them isn't a real plot thread at all, or then again maybe it is. And, if some of it's made up, which bit isn't real, anyway?
I'm reminded of a comment by Paul Magrs in DWM, when he wondered what it would be like if all the stuff about Time Lords and whatnot was made up by a guy who was really just someone's "dotty old grandfather". Similarly, here a lot of stuff might just be in someone's head... I think one of the authors must have read a bit too much Flann O'Brien, but the results are great.
I like this kind of stuff. It's playful, it's very challenging. What's more, it's beautifully written, in a style which borders on the simplistic, with short sentences and chapters, and the narrative leaping about like a deranged gazelle on amphetamines. However it's highly successful; just read the two pages that comprise Chapter Seven, which I think is quite possibly the most beautiful bit of prose I've ever read in the range.
But - and I feel like a school bully saying this - The Blue Angel is flawed. Worse than that, a lot of the flaws are minor niggles which could have been edited out in a couple of days; I'll come to those in a moment. However, there was one element of this book that I really, really didn't like.
It's the Star Trek bit. Funny in places, yes; particularly the first couple of hundred words. However, it struck me as rather unnecessary and not a little hackneyed. I mean, come on, a Star Trek piss-take? Anyone can write a Star Trek piss-take. So, yeah, Star Trek is crap, full of straight-laced characters, everyone's nice, it's pro-authoritarian, yadda yadda yadda. I know all this already. Yes, I love telling Trekkies how crap it is in the pub, yes, I get a cosy feeling knowing that my program is so much better. But putting it all in a book? Why? The authors clearly aren't short of ideas, which is the only reason I can think of. Perhaps if it was done a bit more subtly... but no, this is a self-proclaimed Federation Starship, and the narrative opens with a "Captain's Log" narrative. About as subtle as a punch in the face. The shock value wears off pretty quick, I'm afraid.
Now, the minor problems. First of all, there's an incredibly large amount of alien races in this book. That's not a problem in itself; in fact, I rather like it. After all, the authors are trying to evoke an entire mini-universe here, so it seems only logical. It's the names... early on, we're intorduced to men made out of glass, and they're called Glass Men. A race of giant owls are called Owls. The simplicity of this is terrific, and fits in perfectly with the prose style. So quite why other races have to be given the most ridiculous, unprononceable names is beyond me. It makes it incredibly difficult to remember what race of aliens you're actually reading about, who they are, whether they're good or bad or indifferent... and that's a shame.
Second; there's two references to homosexuality in this book (which is fine as far as I'm concerned). One is nicely handled, intelligent, and gives us a good insight into a certain character. The other is brought up at the end for no reason at all other than to surprise the reader. It's mentioned once, for no apparent reason, then left completely undeveloped. It smacked a little of a meaningless "shock tactic", and I didn't like it. Quite simply, the authors are too good to bother with that sort of thing.
There were other little things which annoyed me, but I'm not going to bring them up, mainly because they might give the impression that I didn't like this book. I'll restate again that I loved it. And here's some further good points that I don't have time for; Iris, Fitz's characterisation, Daedalus, the descriptive passages, the "Twenty Questions" bit at the end which completely mess with your mind, the bit where (spoiler protected) turns into a (spoiler protected), the bit with the Doctor and the religious cult, the...
Well, chapters one to forty-three inclusive, actually.
This book is experimental, imaginative, and really tries to do something new. It's not perfect, maybe, but it's still wonderful, and is another symptom of the continuing improvement of the BBC range.
A Review by Kristan Johnson 25/11/99
This one was certainly different. It was good enough I suppose, but now things are wearing a bit thin, as they say. The strangeness of the book wasn't to daunting for me actually, what really got to me was the short chapters.
A 279 page book SHOULD NOT have 43 chapters!!! Well, 44 if you count the Twenty Questions. This is not right. When you have chapters that are 2-5 pages, you get this start and stop feeling. There's too many places to take a break. Once or twice, the unforgivable happens, we get a little recap of what is going on. The result is that progress is slow, paper is wasted, and it is a struggle to feel forward momentum. There is enough story here to fill one of Terrance's Target novelizations; this might have been better as a short story for the next anthology. Think I'm joking?
The story doesn't answer anything, it's hinted revelations are nothing near the caliber that Alien Bodies achieved, and they get little more than throw away treatment.
As a follow up to Interference it works okay, I wouldn't exactly call this one uneventful, though. Odd that we get some extremes of the spectrum side by side. The gritty realism and brutality, next this fantastic, messy, totally obsurd nonsense. It's relevence to the ongoing story arc is not clear, anything it forshadows cannot be recognized, the authors seems more interested in their own story agenda.
Characterization. The Doctor: < Hands thrown up in frustration > I can't tell if this is acceptable characteriztion or not. The Eighth Doctor is often generic; sometimes coming across as a generic Tom Baker, other times I can't stop myself hearing Peter Davison's voice. I won't penalize the author for this because I can't tell how well he's done, I don't care; except to say that there have been a couple of EDA's that I definitely pictured McGann. This isn't one of them.
Compassion is well done, I like the way she is developed, with the exception of the authors' physical discription. We get a nice glimpse into the nature of her presence as a member of the TARDIS team. Certain things about her are established. A course of action is suggested on how the Doctor will deal with her, I'm am interested to see how this plays out. She says "Obviously" in a gratuitously unnecessary way, I liked that even though it was silly.
Fitz is okay, he gets one or two good moments, we get some insight into his thoughts, which I believe are in character. He doesn't do much, he just follows others around.
I'm not thrilled to death by Iris, but she is a really grey character, which is okay, and she doesn't hate the Doctor. I'll be fine with her as long as she doesn't become one more of a worn out pedigree that includes the Master, the Rani, the Monk, Ruath...you get the picture. I don't want to see her become evil, the Doctor doesn't need a metaphorical Catwoman-type character to trouble him.
The whole thing with the Nepotist and crew, yes it is a parody of a certain show (I actually like that show, but I like Doctor Who better) and it didn't bother me. It came close to being to much, but didn't cross the line. Too far. One thing I would like to say though: never again, please.
I know I'm coming down pretty hard on the book, please don't get the wrong idea. It isn't a bad book, not by a long shot. What makes it good are lot of little things, which balance out the big, irritating aspects.
What I really like was the blurring of fiction and reality. This book was also very clever about connecting The Scarlet Empress and The Blue Angel, making them part of each other; without any needless, alienating continuity.
I could imagine a person wanting to go back and reading SE, rather than feeling they've missed out on something and feeling they have to read it. Fortunately, I've already read Paul Magrs previous DW novel, I like that one a lot better.
The conclusion of The Blue Angel and Interference really leave a lot of things dangling, but BA even more so. If this is going to be the trend through the rest of this story arc, I really hope the finale makes up for it. A little more resolution is not a bad thing. 2 1/2 out of 4. Like Iris, it is too self important for it's own good.
A Review by Sean Gaffney 19/1/00
Well, I knew it was gonna be weird, and I was right. And I'd heard that it wasn't really a direct follow-up to Interference, and that's true too, sort of. And I definitely knew it'd have Iris Wildthyme in it, and I hadn't been impressed with Old Flames and hadn't read The Scarlet Empress. So, I was ready to be totally lost and confused.
But wait. It's not hopeless. Things are clearer than they seem.
The Blue Angel is a novel. If you understand that, you'll get into it a lot more. It's not a novelisation, or a script brought to prose. This could NOT happen anywhere but in a book. And so therefore there are literary devices, devices that don't make sense if you try to sort through continuity.
Speaking of continuity, boy, does it get a kicking here. Not that The Blue Angel has any more paradoxes such as Interference. No, it's a lot subtler than that. It has the Doctor (mostly the one in the small English town) directly contemplating his adventures, his past with Virgin and future, while being removed from it.
I'm babbling, aren't I? Let's get to the usual brass tacks:
THE DOCTOR: Well, he certainly gets to run around a lot and feel useless, just like the 5th. And he babbles on and on when trying to think of a plan, like the 4th. And the way that he contemplates rewiring Compassion to make her more friendly was disturbingly 7th Doctor-ish. However, those are external things. The way he reacts to things, especially the feelings of loss and hopelessness towards the end of both realities, is very 8th. Very much the McGann.
FITZ: This is really my first impression of Fitz, as Interference didn't really give him that many pages. He's perhaps a tad more back to normal than I'd have liked, but it is acknowledged a few times that he's deliberately acting overly Fitz-ish because he's still groping to find his identity. However, I really like his personality, I'll admit. The 60s flirting rogue, with a dose of patheticness.
COMPASSION: This is Compassion's Transit novel. No, I don't mean as in transition, I mean that where Benny got Transit, Compassion gets Blue Angel. She doesn't have a lot to do. However, what I saw I liked. She gets frustrated very easily, and seems to be deliberately written as annoying at times (as opposed to Sam, who was annoying without it being intentional). There's also a lovely scene where the Doctor succeeds in disconcerting Compassion. Her arc is looking great. She will stay with the crew past February, right? I mean the potential for a TARDIS threesome has never been higher. :-D
IRIS: I didn't care for the older Iris in Paul's short story, and still haven't read Scarlet Empress. Therefore I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one. This is really her book, where she not only gets to behave like an action heroine, but gets to hold all the secret cards and not show them to the Doctor. And despite her supposed ambivalence, her love for him is still pretty damn obvious.
OTHERS: Daedalus didn't really register with me, oddly enough, mostly as he seemed very typical old-school villain. If Brian Blessed were an elephant, he'd be Daedalus. On the other hand, Sue and Maddy were wonderfully real, touching characters, who came to a creepy conclusion, even if they didn't die as such. The crew of the Nepotist were amusing, but not as amusing as I thought they'd be. Blandish's revelation was a hoot, though.
STYLE: Magnificent. This book has so many passages that sing it's incredible. In addition, the way that the plots interweave and dovetail, then crash together at the end is extremely well-paced. We also get less of the 'alternate' Doctor's life as the book goes on, which is good, as this book is still a Who novel, and we get more and more interested in the 'book' plot as the book plot moves on. Ow, metatext hurts. ^^;;;
OVERALL: Asking whether this book is canon or not is like kicking a puppy. Ignore canonicity. Try to let the book just roll right over you, and you'll be surprised how much of it is totally understandable in the end.
A Review by Loann West 19/2/00
I've thought about it for a while, and I have to say it; I really hate this book. I want to justify that opinion though, by saying that I am one of the few people who loved Transit (I danced around my living room when I read it, that's how much I liked it). I like books that push the envelope -- both in the Dr. Who universe and in regular novels. I read Calvino, Kundera, Lem, and all I can say is that I think Mr. Magrs should go back and read them to see how it's done.
When I first started The Scarlet Empress I thought, "Wow, what an amazing style. I wonder where he's going with it,"? and then, of course, by the end of the novel he hadn't gone anywhere with it. It's like he's so in love with his own cleverness that he forgets that he was supposed to be telling some sort of story. He thinks Iris is such a brilliant creation that he doesn't have to have the Doctor at all and that is my main objection. These books are not Iris Wildthyme novels; they are Doctor Who Novels. The show wasn't about Iris Wildthyme; it was about the Doctor. Yes, yes, I got his little send-up of Star Trek just like I got his little send-up of The Avengers in Old Flames. I got it the first time -- I didn't need it drawn out over the entire length of the book. I like a good parody, I really do, but I think that good parodies are short and concise, and have a certain respect for the original material. I'm not going to defend Star Trek, because I really do like Dr. Who better, but it's a little easy to target -- look at Galaxy Quest or any of the parodies done on Reboot. Short and sweet AND original. Don't insult our intelligence, Mr Magrs.
I think what bothers me the most about The Blue Angel and all of the Iris stories, is the sense that they are sending up Dr. Who. I read the quote from a different review where Magrs was quoted as saying, (What if the Doctor really was somebody's) 'dotty old grandfather'? So what does that make the loyal fans. Fans of a pompous idiot -- 37 years of watching and reading about a Baron Munchausen figure, a loon who makes it all up? Did Mr. Magrs enjoy the show at all? In his world the Doctor really needs Iris to save him, or to even tell him what his adventures have been. Or, for that matter, did Iris have the adventures and the Doctor appropriated them?. For years when people said to me, "Oh, yeah, that show with the wobbly sets -- you love that show?" And I always defended myself by saying, "Oh, but the science fiction stories are wonderful -- it's the writing." I'm sorry, call me old fashioned, but I want the stories to be about the Doctor. I want the Doctor to save the day, or at least if he can't save the day to be the one leading the action. If Magrs thinks that isn't good enough, then he should go off and write his own adventures with Iris and without the Doctor. Maybe Virgin will pick them up now that they aren't doing the Benny stories.
The one and only thing I did agree with was the statement about the ridiculousness of fans arguing the validity of one piece of fiction over another piece of fiction. I do agree with the idea that the Doctor can be anything, have any past, that we want -- I've played the what-if game too -- what if the Doctor went to Oz? Even what if the Doctor landed on the bridge of the Enterprise? That's the joy, and the lasting power of Doctor Who, the thing that takes it out of the realm of Star Trek. However, my efforts remain safely locked in my computer in the realm of fan fiction. Gee, if I'd only known that the BBC was looking to publish them.
And as a final note, was I the only person who noticed the other incarnations of the Doctor wandering through the sideline universe?
A Review by John Seavey 3/4/00
Took me a while to get to this...Divided Loyalties kinda shattered my belief in the worth of the English language for a while. :)
The three-letter review: ICK.
The longer review: Well, I'm not going to bother with spoiler space, because quite frankly, there's no plot to spoil. A third of the novel is an entirely disconnected stream of narrative about what things would be like if the Doctor lived in a little British village, and drugged himself to avoid thinking about the universe...or something like that, at least. The rest is the wacky adventures of Iris Wildthyme and her latest companion, the Doctor, as she struggles to...um...no, wait, don't tell me, it has something to do with this guy who's possibly evil, or not, and he's doing something involving starting a war or something, and at the end everybody dies. Or doesn't. The book doesn't actually finish, see...it just sort of trails off at the end. There are no worthwhile, interesting characters (indeed, no real "characters" at all, it seems...just a collection of names jerked about by the incoherent plot) and the story seems merely to exemplify the disastrous direction the series has taken up to this point--the Doctor has been reduced to an incidental character in his own series. This wouldn't be a hideously bad thing, perhaps, if it wasn't for the fact that the main character is Iris Wildthyme, who grates more on the nerves with each passing appearance. (I'm in some ways reminded of Chris Claremont's recent writing stint on the Fantastic Four, in which so many new characters were introduced, the FF were reduced to minor figures...and, as with Blue Angel, the new people were only interesting to the writer himself.)
To close, I recently read the Sandman Companion, which had, among other things, Neil Gaiman's definiton of a story: "Anything that keeps the reader turning the pages without making them feel cheated at the end." The Blue Angel fulfills one-half of this definition.
Postmoderism Is Such A Dirty Word by Graeme Burk 8/4/00
I read this book in October. It took me until April to review it. I've had to sit with this book for a very long time and work out my feelings about it... make of that what you will.
Doctor Who fans online like bandying about words like "postmodern" Postmodernity is actually a quite complex and nuanced form of critical theory. I did some web browsing in search for a decent definition of postmodernism. A University professor by the name of Dr Mary Klages has put up a site about postmodernism and gives a pretty decent definition: "Postmodernism, like modernism, follows most of these same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness. Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject."
A trifle dry, I admit. But pretty damned servicable. And in the fullest extent of this potted definition, The Blue Angel truly stands as the first and only postmodern Doctor Who novel.
Most fan critics when they talk about postmodernism in Doctor Who books are really speaking of a sort of watered-down form of metafiction. It's essentially a clever party trick involving self-referential fiction. Conundrum is both a Virgin Doctor Who novel and a self-reflexive parody of an NA right down to a skewering of their house style. The Infinity Doctors uses page number references that are concurrent to a plot device within the narrative and the actual page numbers of the novel itself. No Future playfully features the Doctor -- a character most celebrated on British television during the 1970s -- alongside other British television characters from the 1970s. Interference has characters from a television series spinoff in a plot about how television has affected our politics. It's clever and playful -- and maddening to those who would rather see the Doctor wallop the monster -- and continues a long tradition of breaking down the fourth wall from the TV series.
But as I said, postmodernity is much broader than that. Which brings us to The Blue Angel.
Postmodernism "reject[s] boundaries between high and low forms of art, reject[s] rigid genre distinctions, emphasiz[es] pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness." The Blue Angel could almost put this on the back cover blurb, except it would sound only slightly more pretentious than what is already there. Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad eschew almost all genre traditions and put together, less a novel, but more a patchwork quilt of different stories coming from vastly different genres and literary styles. The book is at one point a brooding little character novel, then a horror novel, then a Star Trek novel, then something resembling a Doctor Who TV story, and then magic realism, and then something in between these points. I'm not convinced it's handled with particular deftness (the Star Trek parody is particularly leaden) but it does playfully engage in pastiche and mixes genres from low and high forms of art.
"Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity..." And here is what I think has disquieted so many readers about The Blue Angel. For in the midst of this genre tripping there is no committment to any of the realities stated. Particularly anal-retentive fans have an escape hatch with this story -- the Doctor, Fitz, Compassion and Iris that we know had the adventure, other plotlines can simply be relegated to the maguffin plot device of The Obverse. But I haven't spoiled anything, because ultimately, I don't think Magrs and Hoad have committed themselves to this view. As far as they're concerned, any plotline is possible, any version of the story could be true, like a Choose-your-own-adventure novel on acid.
What they're essentially saying is what I think a lot of authors have tried to say to us for a while-- it doesn't really matter what canon is. Ultimately its whatever we pick, but anything really is possible. Unnatural History tried this with an enuii-inducing plot device of personal biodata. The Blue Angel uses the whole novel as its case. Don't get me wrong, I agree this is maddening as a fan, but it's also fascinating as a literary statement in a TV tie-in novel.
And the form of reflexiveness and self-consciousness isn't just Ace saying "so when you said in Chapter two...". The whole ending of the novel is perhaps the most brazenly self-reflexive stunt ever performed under the Doctor Who banner. How does the story end? Well, you have 20 opporuntities to figure it out. Or not.
Lastly Postmodernism gives "...an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject." And it's here where we see the problem with The Blue Angel. All that Magrs and Hoad have done is intellectually inspired, but does it work within the context of Doctor Who? Doctor Who inhabits a particular corner of fiction which I harbour little prententions about. It works because it's structured, centred and, ultimately humanized (which I agree is odd to say of a character which is an alien). This book is incredibly clever and is breathtaking in some of the things it proposes, but it feels clinical and doesn't have one heart, let alone two. And part of the problem is that Doctor Who is part of a literary tradition that favoured certain definitions and assumptions. Take away those definitions, and you have something that may be quite staggering, but it also doesn't feel like the original thing. As Dr Klages puts it: "Postmodernism...doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that." Doctor Who may simply be too modernist in its conception to sustain such a reading.
This is a Doctor Who novel which has genuine literary pretentions, if not literary ambitions. Which isn't going to sit well with people whose experience of reading is primarily in pulpier writing. That's not snobbery, but rather a statement that this book isn't everyone's cup of tea. It's rare to see a Doctor Who novel that tries to emulate the works of Milan Kundera, Timothy Findley, instead of emulating Robert Holmes or Stephen Baxter. And I applaud that achievement.
However, at the same time, I find the novel deficient in many other areas: I can't decide if their Star Trek parody is deliberately bad or actually quite terrible. If it's the former, they probably tried too hard. If it's the latter, it's a sad day when it can be said that David McIntee did something better. And Iris Wildthyme is very unlikeable this time out, which is a bit of a detraction in a novel where she tends to feature more than the Doctor.
At it's best this novel could deserve a 10, and at it's worst I would give it a 6. So I'm going halfway to give it an 8 It's a rarity that Doctor Who would drive me to discuss semiotics and literary theory, and even more of a rarity that a book would leave me so perplexed for months after. It's a sign that perhaps Magrs and Hoad are on to something.
A Short Discourse on Why People Don't Really Like Magical Realism by Thomas Jefferson 18/7/00
I'd like to hijack this review, if I may, with a few observation on a field Paul Magrs (and presumably Jeremy Hoad) knows very well.
A great puzzle of our age is why magical realism, as a truly populist formula, has never really taken off. There aren't many successful magical realist films, and magical realist authors have never crossed over into the mainstream in the same way that, say, Jeffrey Archer or Tom Clancy has. Ask the average bod in the street what the Satanic Verses (arguably the most successful magical realist book) is about and they'll more than likely just say "blasphemy".
Magical realism is very similar to children's fiction yet very different. True magical realism is founded on illogic: what it presents couldn't possibly happen in real life. A lot of children's fiction does the same thing, but in that case it's a trade-off between illogic and wish-fulfillment. Basically, kids -- who are not as tolerant of the illogical as is widely supposed -- will accept certain stretches of the imagination as long as it's 'worth it': the premise is sufficiently in line with a kid's imagination and desires to over-ride the logical stupidity of there being a whole other world at the back of the wardrobe, or a tornado whisking one away over the rainbow, or, indeed, a Police Box being capable of travelling through time and space.
Growing up, you are not as able to accept these illogical leaps quite so easily. The real world has bitten; sex has reared its embarrassing head; it's safe to assume that no wardrobe in the world contains a Narnia; Oz doesn't exist, except as a nickname for an altogether less magical place; and police boxes are not exactly common anymore. But there is still pure nostalgia tied to these things. You may not be able to watch Children's TV or the latest animated films anymore, but you still got a sheer buzz from remembering watching or reading these stories as a child. Sometimes we cling on to this nostalgia -- sometimes we actively try and re-capture it (arguably, what we are doing with this whole continued fascination with Doctor Who thing).
Magical realism is, to put it with almost insulting simplicity, children's stories for adults. Angela Carter's retelling of various nursery rhymes is a good example. As is the 'unreal' storytelling of Salman Rushdie. But the large majority of adults have a long history of barely tolerating it. Terry Gilliam's film The Fisher King may well be the most successful foray into this avenue amongst what I laughably call the 'mainstream' and that's a love/redemption story well ahead of being a magically realist one.
And, deep down, the majority of people like logic in their stories. Which is why magical realism has so often smashed itself to bits on the police road block of wide scale acceptance. Many attempts have been made to transfer it to the mainstream. Dennis Potter, with his characters suddenly bursting into song, often tried to turn his critical acceptance into big box office, and he failed every time. Cop Rock, the Steve Martin Pennies From Heaven and Magnolia - very much influenced by Potter - are merely American versions of this (and Magnolia works far better as straight drama than magical realism - and still didn't succeed very well in the mainstream considering the talent involved).
Neil Jordan's decidedly wobbly career can be broadly traced to his habitual forays into magical realism (why was Julia Robert's shaky Irish accent in Michael Collins so much more acceptable than her shaky Irish accent in Mary Reilly?). The X Files is magical realism, but its success has more to do with smothering its magical elements under an all-enveloping pillow of realism: there's a good reason why Mulder and Scully work for the real-life FBI and not any fictional organisation. Sci-fi only became acceptable with the very logical extrapolations of our future that feature in the likes of 2001, Alien and the Terminator. A possible exception is Star Wars, although that exists on a foundation of logic as well as being primarily wish-fulfillment for the kids. The TV adaptation of Gormenghast was probably the latest in a long line of magically realist assaults on the mainstream, and those two million viewers who turned off after the first episode all probably saw the 'not quite our world' setting of it and uttered the same condemnation: "I don't get it".
Gormenghast was the latest, but it probably won't be the last. The problem with magical realism is that its mainstream failure is exactly balanced by its critical lauding. It's the perfect vehicle for critics when they want to condemn the pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator: a windmill they are often tilting against. Almost all the most celebrated authors of the modern age have been magical realist to some degree or other: Rushdie, Marquez, Amis (Martin, not Kingsley although the old boy had a fondness for it as well), Ian McEwan, Attwood, Winterson, Pynchon, etc. All work in this heightened reality, which is praised for its sweeping metaphor by critics and damned for its illogicality by the general public.
The thing is, neither of these parties are working from a false premise. There is nothing actively wrong with logic in storytelling, and some of the greatest stories ever told have been perfectly logical. The greatest storytelling medium of our times -- soaps -- are all, give or take the odd bout of exciting barminess, perfectly logical. Nobody should be condemned for liking consistency in their stories, but it often happens when an artist or critic sees the latest attempt at illogical magical realism being soundly avoided by those decapitated, but greatly sought after, bums on seats. Conversely, the audience who "don't get" such works are often guilty of reverse snobbery and, while tolerating the likes of the Wizard of Oz or the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, deride similar things which are guilty only of not being a part of their childhoods.
Indeed, the return of Doctor Who to mass-acceptance (via TV or Film, the only truly mainstream media around these days) is hamstrung by this general revilement of magical realism. But in the books, and to its nostalgia-tinged audience, it can succeed. The great revelation of the books since, er, Revelation, has been that remarkable convergence of the show's Children's Story origins with the magical realism that it's always abided by (the time machine in the junkyard) which has been largely free of alienating pseudo-intellectualism.
Another feature of magical realism's failure to reach an audience is -- for all its professions of being silly and playful -- the fact that it's the most humourless of artforms. It's all about significance, you see. The reason why there's fairies at the bottom of the protagonist's garden is because it's representative of something or other: the character's mindset, the government, the conformity of modern perceptions, etc, etc.
At the beginning of the Satanic Verses, with the two guys falling from the bombed-out plane and discussing this and that, this is representative of all sorts of things: terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, a whole load of significant stuff. The same with Angela Carter's deconstruction of Little Red Riding Hood in Company of Wolves, which is really about sex, periods, desire and all that gubbins. A magical realist writer may look at something in a humorous way -- poking fun at something, for example -- but the actual act of looking must be serious: the writer can't be seen to be silly or it would deflate the message. You really can't be magical realist, which is riddled with significance, and silly, which has a habit of deflating significance, at the same time.
It must be remembered that the term magical realist is not a natural product, but a genetically created one: cultivated by writers and critics with an active interest in fostering a pure and heightened enclave of their own that is separate from the hurly-burly of natural -- and base -- evolution.
A magical realist writer is usually incapable of self-mockery. They are too busy chastising the world with their metaphors to turn that focus upon themselves. So while they can happily mock and poke at the very storytelling medium they are working within, they are incapable of looking at their own world -- an author spewing so many thousands of unasked for words onto a page -- with the same tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. So when they approach a subject -- usually an archetypally kitsch one with an image the mass of people can recognise -- they are unable to appreciate that their iconoclasm also reflects on themselves.
But readers can't help empathise with writers, particularly when writers are taking this unavoidably post-modern approach to a work which the audience finds instantly familiar. They have to ask why the writer wrote this, what they were thinking of as they were writing, and how stupid to they think the audience is? It's like the Sex Pistols: when they arrived their whole stance was one of iconoclasm: everything you know is wrong. But people inevitably asked why they felt this way. Johnny Rotten had all the best answers -- he was a disaffected youth who felt he had been swindled by the pretensions of music at the time and that the one true attitude was to do what you want to do and sod the consequences. Malcolm McLaren had all the wrong answers -- he felt that what he was doing was a swindle, people are gullible sheep and that the Sex Pistols could carry on with Ronnie Biggs singing. Needless to say, as the recent Filth and the Fury documentary proves, John Lydon is still worshipped today and Talcy Malcy is generally thought of as a pretentious and laughable parasite.
People do like to be shocked and challenged in their loves, but ultimately it's the proponents of those original loves which will always earn our respect. People who come up with genuinely new ideas -- or at least combinations of ideas which pass for new -- are those who sell books and garner critical respect. Just kicking at the pricks can provide a short term thrill, but does not garner true respect: indeed, it's usually cynicism answered with cynicism as people are just as likely to question the kicker as the kickee. With those who operate in the world of magical realism, they are taking what is known and putting it through a filter that is entirely slanted to the author's intentions. And when those intentions don't match the validity of the original vision, you're f*cked.
What has all this to do with The Blue Angel? Er, nothing... nothing at all. Why do you ask?
A sumptuous delight by Robert Smith? 29/8/00
"No more episodes for me!
But even then there's a kind of implied adventure, isn't there? And it would be about how I inveigle myself back into the functions of story. How I break out of a crippling stasis. And I can see it all now.
But - horrors - the thought of this forever.
Me, merely gracing an endless title sequence.
As if archived, canonised. A dead Cultural Artefact in a museum of flotsam, jetsam, trash. Unreinventable.
Stories all ravelled up and done with. As if novelty were the key! And I were not free just to rewrite, remake, replay, repeat! Ha!
Gracing an endless title theme, though - end credits, title sequence - never to impeach again.
Safe for ever! What if that's how I've ended up?" (pages 227-228)
impeach: to accuse of a crime to challenge or question to entangle
Following up Interference is no easy task. That book was huge and the ripples coming out from it are enough to change the EDAs forever. The two previous 'important' books (Alien Bodies and Seeing I) were both followed up by woefully inadequate tales that effectively hit the reset button, ensuring that the line as a whole stayed in the range of mediocre-at-best. The Blue Angel is a very, very different book to Interference, but it actually keeps the momentum going and deals with a number of repercussions. It can't, and shouldn't, deal with them all, but it provides a very adequate follow-up.
The most important aspect is the Doctor's recuperation. He's suffered a blow that he can't quite define, so he needs a similar method of recovery. The stuff with the mermaid mother and his personal physician and Sally's dream seems to be way out-there... except that it's written in a haunting, creepy manner that feels far more real than the rest of the novel. There are hints here that this might be the 'true' reality and the exciting adventure series might be a dream (and of course, there's no way to disprove that!) I love the sense we get that the events from Interference have truly disturbed the Doctor... even more so because the creepiness comes not so much from what happens, but just the language and tone used. OTOH, we have a perfectly simple explanation for all of this within the book itself. I like Magrs' style: he always leaves enough for the reader who wants to take things literally to do so, but he makes it clear that there's a lot more interesting stuff to be had than simple linear plotting and storytelling.
The other sections, complete with their lame Star Trek parody, are written in a playful, mocking style that keeps telling you not to take the whole thing too seriously. The Glass Men seem like they might be alternate universe Daleks, but they're nothing so mundane. Their descriptions alter like fluid, depending on your perspective. The reference to Planet of the Spiders is very welcome. I suspect that the Star Trekky stuff was Jeremy's and the recuperation was Paul's, but I wouldn't swear to it.
Fitz isn't given terribly much to do. There's a lot of mileage in his post-Interference identity, but we don't scratch the surface. Compassion also seems rather characterless, although this is a bit more devious. It's a shame we don't learn much about her here, or have a sense of who she is, but it's possible that her joining surprised the authors as much as it did the readers.
Iris is quite fun. I like her Barbarella persona a lot more than her previous one (although I'd come to enjoy that too, by the end of TSE). She's only had a couple of previous appearances (one novel and one short story), but already she's one of the great recurring characters of the BBC books. Definitely a love-her-or-hate-her character, she's got a depth that's just plain absent in most supporting characters. I think this has to do with Magrs having used her elsewhere, so he's much more aware of what makes her tick by now. This is my theory on why the Doctor and companions work reasonably well in these books, where the original characters never do: they've simply got a lot of history behind them, so the authors have seen what's been done and had time to think about consequences and where they could take these characters (as well as being better equipped to know what they'd say etc). Iris is definitely more fun in this persona - although paradoxically her motives are less focussed on her infatuation with the Doctor now. Her status as 'defender of the Obverse' helps a lot to make her heroic. It's a bit of a shame that she replaces the Doctor in this role, but what do you expect from a story with Paul Magrs' name on it?
The Doctor in the Star Trek plot seems like he's running along fine. It builds towards an interesting climax... but then he's taken out of time by Iris because his interfering would cause more harm than good. This is a bit too Mindwarpy for me. It's a nice idea in many ways (although it's the sort of thing you can only do once), but it comes too close to a) Interference's similar theme of the Doctor being inadequately equipped to deal with the real world and b) all the other EDAs and their habitual sidelining of the useless eighth Doctor. However, the twenty questions go a long way to redeeming it. Ultimately, it's just funny, which helps a great deal. Well, I laughed, anyway.
The book has things to say about storytelling conventions, continuity and post-modernism. The lack of ending has no real effect on the continuing adventures of the Doctor (or at least, any way in which it does is dealt with in The Shadows of Avalon) or even Iris, so it's 'only' the original characters who are affected by this. And given that we plow through two of these books a month, rarely to return, I think Magrs and Hoad are asking us just how important (or not) some of the traditional story-telling techniques are to us. Does it really matter to us what happens to a bunch of faceless nobodies we'll never see again anyway? Even if you accept that DW is really fiction, surely the Doctor and companions (and maybe recurring characters and villains) are on a higher 'reality' level than the supporting cast. Does it make any difference whatsoever to the continuing story of Doctor Who what the answers to those twenty questions are?
The Star Trek parody, on the other hand, is just lame. Anyone could have written this, IMO, and written it a lot better indeed. Now, I don't have degrees in literature, so maybe I'm not getting it on as deep a level as I'm meant to, so maybe the authors are having a go at fan-fiction (the bit about the captain and his alien officer being lovers seems a bit of a signal there), but it's neither good enough to be entertaining nor over-the-top enough to be amusing parody. I'm sure I'm missing something here and this was deliberately written in as lame a manner as possible, but that still doesn't make for either entertaining or informative reading. In truth, it seems a lot like the authors have just been lazy, but have dressed everything up so that any criticisms can be dismissed with 'Oh, it's High Literature. I wouldn't expect you potato-eaters to understand.' (The much better Tomorrow People stuff in Verdigris lends credence to this theory.)
OTOH, it does avoid some of the more obvious Star Trek jokes (there's nothing about red shirts, for example) and Belinda has some welcome depth. Sadly, even if there's a great reason behind it, the parody is still not much fun to read. I realise that entertaining the reader isn't necessarily one of Magrs priorities, but it's not particularly clever or original, as far as I can see.
The first part of the book -- rarely for a Doctor Who novel -- is surprisingly entertaining and means that the book gets off to a great start. The old ladies are great and the owl attack is surprisingly scary. There's a vividness here that's extremely welcome. I flew through this book, which made a really nice change from the worthy slog that was The Scarlet Empress.
Daedalus is a bit too ranting to be interesting. There are some hints that he might be a future Doctor, but by this point I'm well and truly bored with that particular cliche, so I'm choosing to ignore the hints. The angel himself doesn't really add much, but that doesn't seem to matter.
The back cover blurb must be the shortest in history (Autumn Mist tried hard, but this beats it). And yet, the layout makes it look like poetry. Page 113 is perhaps the most striking and eloquent description of the Doctor I've ever read. I think Paul Magrs is one of the few people to realise just how much potential our little series actually has -- and he never once underestimates our intelligence.
Ultimately, while The Blue Angel has a lot to say to us about the series, continuity, our interpretation of fiction and the conventions of telling a standalone story as part of a broader tale, it's actually lots of fun. It's playful and gentle and doesn't scare us off (no, really!) The Star Trek parody is the only major fault, but since most of us have survived fanfic, we can survive this. It could be a touch more amusing in a few places and give some of the characters more to do, but it's an astonishing book in many ways. It's lyrical, poetic and gorgeously written in places. I can understand why some people don't like it, but I think it's truly something to be savoured. I like it a lot.
A Review by Rob Matthews 19/5/01
Looking back at my review of The Scarlet Empress, you may get get the impression I don't like Paul Magrs' Doctor Who novels. In fact, I think he's probably the best - and, next to Dave Stone, the funniest - author in the BBC line. Granted, he can be obtuse and didactic, but I'm starting to think that that's just part of his charm. Reading The Blue Angel, there were a couple of occasions upon which I simply smiled, rolled my eyes, and thought "Paul's off on one again".
I mean that as a compliment. When you have affection for something you can forgive it an awful lot. And I like the niche Magrs has carved out for himself in the Whoniverse - The Adventures of Iris Wildthyme co-starring the Doctor. Plus, I think Magrs has given the eigth Doctor a very distinctive personality - the only Doctor who'd search through Iris' tapes for Dusty Springfield or have a console readout involving the phrase 'brass monkeys'.
The Blue Angel, more so than his other two DW books, is a defiant mix of the mundane and the mythical. On a purely personal level, the opening scenes set around Marsden Rock and the Gateshead Metrocentre (oh sorry, 'a shopping mall in Gateshead') caused me some nice sparks of recognition ('Oooh, that's only ten minute's drive from my family's home!'). I work five minutes walk from Buckingham "Hello, I'm a living archaism" Palace now, but London landmarks have a kind of dual existence, one in reality, one in fiction, so that they don't really denote real life to you in fiction even when they're part of your everyday life. Unlike a banal lump of eroded rock in the northeast.
So, The Blue Angel. A Star Trek parody, regenerated-Iris adventure, deconstruct-the-Doctor essay, Winter-themed brainstorm, attack on the Time's Champion concept, Scarlet Empress-follow-up, Compassion story-arc carrier, running around ironically in tunnels adventure. Hmm...
It's worth reading, but probably the least satisfactory of Magrs' Who novels. The main reason is that deconstructing a story while you're in the middle of telling it is like removing the meat and scraping the butter from a sandwich and then giving it to someone to eat. There's not much left for them to bite into. The only thing that really stands out is the Star Trek spoof, but that just doesn't go in for the kill enough.
Magrs isn't an author you should entrust an ongoing story arc too. He's too indiosyncratic. All the Compassion stuff (which I had to ignore anyway) is perfunctory and adds one layer of confusion too many to an already confusing text. It just gets lost in all the other never-to-be-resolved plotlines, and you wouldn't particularly expect it to be followed up if you hadn't learned as much from this here Ratings Guide. I assumed most of it was added in by Jeremy Hoad.
Again we have Magrs arguing for the equal validity of mutually contradictory stories. And again - as mentioned -, we see him laying into the 'Time's Champion' idea from the Virgin NA's. He does it more articulately here, but it's still hypocritical and Paul Cornell must still want to punch him. I wonder about the wisdom of the BBC authors referring so much to the unavailable Virgin NAs. It's not very accommodating to new readers, is it? And, though he doesn't seem to realise it, Magrs' introduction of 'the Obverse dimension' also undoes all his work. Anyone struggling with the more challenging passages now has a get-out clause - 'Oh, it's just Obverse'. Iris' sudden mystique at the end, whether intended seriously or as a joke, falls utterly flat on its face. You can't spend a whole novel reminding us that this is just a ridiculous story and then expect us to care about Iris' secrets or believe that they matter.
So, nice to spend some time with the sarky, sexy female Doctor that is Iris, but again this is a case of Magrs trying too hard. I'd say he got it right with Verdigris.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 7/12/01
The Blue Angel is a dance into the world of weirdness and collision of opposite elements to see what happens. The team of Magrs and Hoad attempt to carry out an experiment on what constitutes Doctor Who, what is canon, what is continuity and how can a DW story be told in a new, fresh and daring way.
The Blue Angel could also be seen as the results of two guys smoking huge amounts of pot, putting in a copy of Horns of Nimon and deciding they could do much better without checking the results when they came back to reality the next morning.
I haven't read The Scarlet Empress. My first exposure with Magrs was Verdigris -- I?ll refrain from comment here, except to say I wasn't a fan. Willing to give him another chance, I found TBA and gave it a go.
The book is not lacking ideas. The book is filled with them. However, the problem is that the ideas overrun everything else in the book, characterization, plot, motive. The ideas are tossed against the wall, with some sticking, others sliding down. I likened it to reading Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, where ideas and concepts are machine gunned at you for it's whole 900+ page length. Due to BBC page limits, the Magrs/Hoad ideas come off as lost stoner thoughts that didn't make it into the brilliant conversations of the night. More pages might have actually helped TBA.
The regulars are off. Whether it's because of the events of Interference, or because Magrs and Hoad think the characters' way of acting limit their ideas is hard to say. The only moment any of them shine is when Fitz is off gallivanting with Iris in the obverse, as Fitz' everyman thoughts come out.
Which leads us to Iris. I found her less annoying here than in Verdigris. But, towards the end, I didn't care about her or her nonstop stream of opinions, comments and diatribes. I just wanted her to fuck off and leave.
The writing is gorgeous, and the pages do cruise by, which in any book is a plus. The styles are seamless here, unlike in other team efforts that have jarring transitions -- see The Ancestor Cell for a good example of that.
Is it recommended?
By the time I got to the 20 Questions at the end, I didn't care. And that is never a good sign. Hating a book is much better than not giving a shit. The 20 Questions at the end is a prime example of this. It came across to me as the authors saying: "We don't know how to end this, so lets just come up with as many outrageous ideas we can think of, and let the reader sort it out, if they want." It's not a mindfuck, it's a cop out.
In all good conscience, I can't recommend this.
2 out of 10
Distance yields perspective, as does understanding.
When I first read The Blue Angel, it was through the biased eyes of someone who thought Verdigris was a spiteful book designed to trash the Pertwee Era of Who in a bratty way. So, it was easy to perceive The Blue Angel as bratty as well. Months later, I read The Scarlet Empress, which had me howling out loud and gaining an understanding as to how Magrs's writing works. It was as if I was finally let in on the joke.
It was inevitable that I'd come back to The Blue Angel. Even with my first reading, I wanted to enjoy it, although -- as previously mentioned -- I was biased.
So, what does The Blue Angel offer for an objective reader? The Blue Angel is another variation on the nature of storytelling, which is a common theme in all of Magrs's works. The Blue Angel is the most extreme version of this. We are treated to two versions of the TARDIS crew and Iris Wildthyme. One version of these characters are having wild, surreal adventures in a place called the Enclave, which is part of the Obverse. The other is dealing with the little things in life in a snowbound English town. It is implied, by the end of the book that the events in the Enclave take place first. There is also the implication that the events in the Enclave are made up by Sally, a writer friend and former companion of the Doctor. Events contradict themselves from chapter to chapter. And, The Blue Angel ends with a list of twenty questions that suggest even more possibilities.
But does it work?
In the end, no. The Blue Angel's downfall is lack of any limits. It's probably the point that Pauls Magrs and his writing (and life) partner Jeremy Hoad wanted to make -- that there are no limits in terms of storytelling, be it Doctor Who or otherwise. However, having any sort of limits/rules would allow Magrs and Hoad to push the limits they've set and create the freewheeling atmosphere they want. The reason The Scarlet Empress works is that there is an implied structure, the quest story. Verdigris is limited by the locale of 1970's UNIT.
By being thematically driven, The Blue Angel ignores things like plot, characterization, etc. So, we are given two version of the Doctor, a very human one who is disturbed by his lack of memories, and the spiky adventurer who was in The Scarlet Empress that confronts the crew of the Nepotist and Daedelus in the Enclave. Go ahead and take your pick as to which is the real version. (Note: according to Magrs commentary at his website, the Doctor in the town is gay. If this is true, it's done with enough subtlety to not be noticable at all.) Fitz and Compassion are generic, although there is a fascinating scene where the Fitz comments about the nature of Time Lords and sexuality. To be blunt, Fitz wants to sleep with a Time Lord and is willing to do it with either Iris or the Doctor, which say more to the charisma of Time Lords than anything else.
I suppose I should talk about the Star Trek parody. Firts thought: Jackhammer subtle. Second thought: funny, but overkilled. Red shirts are mentioned. Our first meeting with the crew of the Nepotist begins with the chapter called Captain's Log. Stardate etc. etc.... The engineer screams about the engines not being able to take any more. Blandish is Kirk taken to extremes of the hero role (and stupidity to boot). Garrett is Spock. That Magrs and Hoad have Blandish and Garrett be secret lovers is a joke, and an unsubtle one about male buddies in action/adventure stories. Parody in itself is not supposed to be subtle, and, to be honest, there would be no point of doing a parody if you're going to be low key about it. By the latter chapters of The Blue Angel, it becomes a parody of a parody, and lame.
Magrs and Hoad throw in all sorts of weird references and ideas, just to add more levels of confusion and in-jokes. Two Enclave races are named after Gertrude Stein and Samuel Becket. The Doctor in the town has a private Doctor who dresses and acts like the Third Doctor and visits a church where the pastor is the Second Doctor. The Doctor's best friend is Sally, a writer and has a scruffy dog she talks to called Canine (Gee, I wonder who they could be?). We get a Shirley Bassey clone for Iris and meet the Doctor's mother, a mermaid (weirdness for the hell of it?). There's a cameo from an unknown, Pirate Doctor who fights a war in the enclave. Both Iris and Daedelus claim to be Time's Champion; I assume another way for Magrs to trash that idea. (It was done better with one line in The Scarlet Empress.) The Doctor's mother makes an appearance as a Louise Brooks clone with Marlene Dietrich's accent and a Mermiad's tail. (WTFO!?!). Believe me, I've only skimmed the surface of the weirdness in The Blue Angel.
The prose in itself is brilliant. Magrs's and Hoad's are indistinguishable. Despite its density, The Blue Angel is a quick read.
Anyhoo, I'm no longer apathetic about The Blue Angel. It's a fascinating read, one that challenges the reader about the nature of storytelling. I think the big problem is the lack of any limits, which causes the whole story to collapse on itself by the end. I have a feeling this was intentional by Magrs and Hoad. However, I thought it knocked what could have been a classic down a few pegs.
Metamorphoses by Macrus Salisbury 4/9/02
The Blue Angel blew me away, in the worst possible fashion. I've read it, re-read it, and ploughed through it again... and each time, I find smaller and smaller pieces of information that completely alter the overall meaning of the text. Magrs and Hoad are playing some serious head games here. In literary-theoretical terms, Rumours of the Death of the Author have been greatly exaggerated.
There are more layers to The Blue Angel than the proverbial onion. Or ogre. Or whatever passes for either in the Obverse. I laughed countless times when I read this book. I got quite sentimental at the end (page 275 is poetic, in the best sense of the word), and I threw it across the room at least a half-dozen times. What better praise can there be?
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Here, it's downright bloody lethal. Much comment has been made by reviewers of The Blue Angel's dense web of allusion, its incorporation of vast chunks of Who-lore and bits and pieces of a dazzling array of high- and low-culture texts. More than anything, this book reminds me of Ovid's Metamorphoses: a virtuoso reworking of timeless legend into a witty, sophisticated, but ultimately impenetrable text. Belinda's transformation into a squid and Dedalus's current incarnation (if that is the right word?) as an elephant are strongly reminiscent of Scylla's metamorphosis into a sea-monster girt with drooling hounds, or Narcissus's becoming a flower while falling in love with his own reflection. We even have Icarus/Pentheus ripped apart by "the Bacchae". And, as befits a (possible) reworking of classical myth, there are loads of gay subtexts. This is Lawrence Miles rewritten by Ronald Firbank.
While what I've just written may very well be an almighty wank, it kind of fits. Let's face it... The Blue Angel is itself a colossal piece of self-abuse. Or it would be if the authors didn't play an elaborate come-on game with the reader. We are asked to accept more and more off-the-wall ideas, more and more unlikeable (or just plain incomprehensible) characters and plot developments, and as for the Doctor's supposed East European, Louise Brooks-lookalike mermaid mother...
Either everything in The Blue Angel is a red herring, or none of it is. The quote about the book being "a story about Winter", for instance, is either an allusion to Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale, or a frustratingly obscure metaphor. Given that The Winter's Tale is a romance play based around exile, loss, family reunions and places which don't exist (the "coasts of Bohemia" to be exact), the former explanation makes more sense. Except that for these broad themes, there really are no further points of intersection between Magrs and Hoad and Shakespeare. Or maybe they meant Wallace Stevens and not Shakespeare?
The actual plot of The Blue Angel is a paint-by-numbers Who scenario: intergalactic tyrant ensconced in suitably baroque setting plots an interdimensional incident while the Doctor attempts to stop him, ably assisted by some convenient assistants/cannon fodder. The off-the-wall parts involve the involvement of Iris Wildthyme, and the way the book plays on our preconceptions and expectations, and blows them apart in spectacular fashion.
The Glass Men of Valcea and their city, for instance, are a flat-out reworking of Terry Nation's original Daleks: mobility-challenged, timorous, and utterly dependant on static electricity. They even have an organic core, not quite a "living, bubbling lump of hate" but the potential, it is hinted, is there. Their king, Dedalus, is a bit trickier to figure... he aspires to be a "man with many enemies", a la the Doctor, but has been rendered sort-of hard to take seriously by the fact that he has been transformed into a Large Green Elephant. I suppose a pink one would have been pushing it, but Who baddies are not usually pachyderms. (Niven and Pournelle's Footfall has evil extraterrestrial elephants, but only Magrs and Hoad have been brave enough, it seems, to continue in this vein. (Cuddly animals don't make good villains... imagine Planet of the Spiders had the Great One been a gigantic, murderous koala bent on universal domination).
Things really get moving with the arrival of the Starship Nepotist and its Federation crew. While this element of the story has generated some controversy, I think the satire of the Star Trek Mark 1 series was entirely justified. Anyone conversant with Leonard Nimoy's memoirs, for instance, would know that sexual fantasising about the main characters forms a substantial portion of Star Trek fan fiction. (And the same applies to Who fanfic also, especially when Peri Brown joins the party).
The whole over-the-top machismo of Captain Kirk gets a well-deserved razzing, as does the whole Roddenberry ethos of non-confrontation, Prime Directives, and so on. The marginalised ramifications and subtexts of Star Trek are foregrounded here with great wit and panache. After reading The Blue Angel, you'll never watch Amok Time in quite the same way again.
Amok Time was written, but the way, by the late US sci-fi novelist Theodore Sturgeon. Along with Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and so on, Sturgeon was one of the gods of '60s Science Fantasy. His novel More than Human has not a few themes in common with The Blue Angel... family, reality, identity, selfhood, and various other niggling concerns. The Blue Angel fits neatly into the Science Fantasy mode. It doesn't have the epic, overloaded quality of Interference or the physics tutorial-with-the-Terminator feel of Taking of Planet 5, but The Blue Angel has the manic, kinetic, quality of the work of Sturgeon, or contemporaries such as AE van Vogt or Alfred Bester. And that's why I like it. There's a mercifully scant level of (extra-mural) continuity, although the nudge-nudge stuff about Iris Wildthyme left me a little cold. I can see what Magrs and Hoad are trying to do here: setting up Iris as a campy alternative-Doctor while marginalising the real thing. The Doctor is still very much up for grabs as a character at this stage, although Chapter 34 gives us a fair idea that all the existential angst is there for a (plot arc) reason. Doctor-wise, things get better from here.
The Blue Angel proves convincingly that Doctor Who, as an ongoing franchise, is strong enough to take the occasional genuinely innovative instalment. Surely this is preferable to writers sticking to tired old formulae and treating continuity as Holy Writ (as in the various rehashes of Dalek/Five Doctors cliche in the 8DAs). As an intellectual experience, The Blue Angel is quite fascinating. It is not so much an action-adventure as a commentary on that genre, and taken on these terms The Blue Angel is one of the best three or four 8DAs to date. Yes, it's sometimes frustrating, it doesn't make sense the first time you read it (and it makes less sense the more you read it). As a strikingly bold entry in an increasingly experimental Who canon, however, this book is a success on all fronts.
What was the story again? by Jamas Enright 10/1/04
Having re-read The Blue Angel (and not having reviewed it before), how did my original impressions weigh up against the actual experience? Actually, although it still remained irksome, it came out a lot better than I thought.
I thought there was a lot more Doctor stuck on the (pseudo?) Earth, and a lot more Iris. Also, I had pretty much forgotten all about Blandish and crew. What I found was a book that paced well, carried the story well, and didn't over-emphasise the Iris scenes (although the same couldn't be said for over-emphasising Iris' influence). Yes, once again Paul Magrs' personal goddess comes out better than anyone else, and she does get on our nerves, but it's more restrained than I remembered.
The story is more of a set-up for a larger piece that we don't get to see. We are introduced to Daedalus who is masterminding the entire operation, and his role is the one driving all events. Him and Iris. As the story plays out, it is evident that Iris is also helping to pull the strings, especially with regard to the Doctor's involvement, although the questions at the end throw different lights onto her motives. How the story could progress after the end of the book is only hinted at by the questions, but instead the authors try to focus on the Doctor when swinging the story about face.
Throughout the whole Valcea plot line is the story of the Doctor being on Earth. He isn't Gallifreyan, but the seventh son of a seventh son, born to a mermaid. Compassion and Fitz are still companions, in that they live with him, but don't seem to have had adventures with him. As, in fact, neither has the Doctor had his adventures or 'episodes' as they are called. But he has been having some kind of adventures, with his companion Sarah-Jane Smith and K9... I mean, Sally and Canine. However, now Sally has written a novel, about Valcea and Glass Men, with heroes based part on the Doctor and also her neighbour, Iris. The really irritating part about this aspect of the story, which does have potential, is that it is also left unresolved. Do these authors just have no idea how to end a story?
The Doctor is made entirely ineffectual here, taken out of action by either Daedalus or Iris as their needs demand. He does get a few moments to show his capability, but is otherwise frustrated at every turn. Compassion and Fitz are also taken out of the story, made one-dimensional and playing very much as second bananas.
Iris gets to be... not so much the hero, but certainly the protagonist. There's an interest point here I entirely missed in my memories of this book about just where Iris comes from, but this looks to have been completely ignored in every other appearance of Iris. Daedalus is the other protagonist, but is in many ways too powerful, making it too easy for the story to be developed around him. It just becomes a cheat to use him.
The rest of the characters are pretty much just pawns, either for the characters or the authors, moved around to get the other elements going. Their presence is also largely ineffectual, used merely to move the story. It's hard to care about any of them when the authors don't seem to.
Whilst the story plays out well, the characters are subsumed by the presence of Iris and Daedalus. The book's end leads to frustration, but could have been so much better if the authors had just decided on one aspect of the story and concentrated on that.
Magic... by Joe Ford 22/1/04
I shouldn't like this book. It takes ages for anything significant to happen, it delights in adding more and more plotlines and takes yonks to explain how they all tie together. It splits up the Doctor, Compassion and Fitz for almost the entire book and they aren't anywhere near the most important characters in the book.
But I love it; I adore this book for one HUGE reason.
This is a bloody amazing piece of writing. The book is so well written, stuffed to the gills with astonishing, vivid scenes. It takes you on a journey to experience the best of the English language. So many pages left me shaking my head with delight at how amazingly Magrs and Hoad capture the story.
Is it too experimental? Possibly, probably, I don't think I'm in much of a place to say because I don't think there is such a thing as too experimental (unless it's called Zagreus). The Blue Angel is different, very different from any other Doctor Who book and its unique identity separates it from all the others. There are books like Interference, books like The Fall of Yquatine, but there are no books like The Blue Angel, not even Magrs' other stuff.
Let's start with the GREAT stuff, the ideas. There are so many wonderful, creative ideas in this story and they just keep on coming, so much so it almost felt as though Magrs/Hoad were making it up as they go along and going "oh wouldn't it be cool if..." and " lets put in a..." but I'm not complaining. I would rather have a book full of ideas than one lacking them. And when they are as format breaking as this I am a very happy bunny indeed.
The Glass Men are fabulously conceived and I would love to see them on screen. The chapter depicting the destruction of their city through the Doctor's eyes is one of the most devastatingly beautiful things I've ever read. And then there are the giant owls, swooping through a shopping mall and attacking the patrons, typical Magrs, it's ridiculous, unbelievable but somehow he and Hoad make it work. And better than that he makes it terrifying and page turningly exciting. The scenes with them depositing Fitz and Iris inside a volcano and their subsequent escape, being menaced by the owls through a maze of molten lava, are breathlessly exhilarating. The fact that they are simply misguided despite their frightening actions is another great turn of events.
Once again we have that wonderful strength of Doctor Who, the mundane rubbing shoulders with the fantastic. In this case Maddy, a normal Earth woman adopting an alien son who proves to be pivotal to the separate plot strands in the story. Ian (or Icarus) is another thoughtful character and treated to some lovely scenes, especially when he plays the piano in the mall and brings the shoppers to a halt. I love how they met, Maddy off exploring some caves and finding him, the perfect son she has always wished for sitting on a rock waiting for her. It's enough to make you think that dreams really can come true.
And what of Dadaelus, the complete bastard who is manipulating events just for the fun of it! His fate as a giant green elephant after his exploits on Hyspero is more than justified! Chapter Nineteen beautifully sets up his character, giving you all the information you ever need to understand him. The very same chapter offers up an amazing piece on the Doctor's place in the universe.
Ah yes, the Doctor, still reeling from the catastrophic events in Interference. This story is like extended therapy for the guy and the story refuses to compromise or avoid the effects. Every scene with the Doctor beams with melancholy, a certain unreal distance that proves this time he was really affected by what happened. There is a disturbing sense that things will never be the same again, we will never see that jolly (but a bit bland) adventurer of the past twenty or so books. Some brilliantly timed mentions of Planet of Spiders, his stuttering, faulting memory reveals a series of books that refuses to forget its tinkering with continuity.
Some terrific Doctor moments crop up. His waning relationship with Compassion is touched upon and for a change it seems the Doctor really doesn't know how to deal with a companion. The moment he quite bluntly tells her "your manners are appalling" is a telling sign of how their relationship is going to continue. There is an amazing moment when Magrs suggest the Doctor has lost the ability to help people, losing Fitz, Compassion, the TARDIS, Belinda, Marn and the whole City of Glass. It is quite uplifting to see him pull up his socks and decide it's time to start pulling the situation around!
Fitz is a regular joy in the EDAs but never more than when he is sniffing after some broad and his whacked out adventures with Iris provide some delicious belly laughs! She even slips him some tongue to keep him alert! In a gut wrenchingly funny moment, Fitz is riding away from a horde of rampaging Owls and considers what it would be like to get laid by Iris... and the Doctor! It is his fucked up brain in a crisis that makes him such a laugh.
Compassion has yet to explore her later developments but has certainly made her mark. Throughout she is selfish, opinioned, rude and snobby. In other words the exact opposite to Sam and considering that companion's horrific reputation you can only speculate that this was entirely deliberate. Her evolution into a TARDIS is hinted at but cleverly disguised, her familiarity with the controls and later, drawn to the Obverse, it is nice to be able to see how the writers were foreshadowing their huge upcoming twists.
I love the ending, a refusal to give any kind of conclusion to the Doctor, another off kilter aspect that drags the real bastard in him to the surface. His shocking admission that he wished he hadn't saved Iris on Hyspero proves that even in these times the 8th Doctor could be a right nasty piece of work. It just goes to prove how much he likes to be involved; Iris's refusal to let him return to the conflict in the Obverse conflict and see how it ends is homicidally frustrating.
The much discussed but never explained secondary plot was a step too far into the experimental for some fans. What's this? The Doctor leaves in a house with Fitz and Compassion, has a friend called Sally who has written The Scarlet Empress and her nosy neighbour Iris Wildthyme. What the hell? Are Magrs/Hoad trying to suggest this is the real Doctor, the one who visits a boat-like pub every Sunday, obsesses about his garden and has a mother is a wheelchair bound mermaid? One who dreams of more exciting things. It's a scary thought isn't it? That perhaps the dashing, romantic figure who roams time and space in a blue box is just a dream inside the head of an unsatisfied man. I am so happy they left this storyline indefinite; explanations would ruin a brilliantly daring exploration of existential thought. Isn't it refreshing to be left to work it out for yourself? To not have answers that would probably unsatisfy force-fed to you? All I can ay about the scenes in this maybe fantasy world is that they are always intriguing, often unnerving and certainly baffling. In other words, near perfect.
Hmm a Star Trek parody? I only have one question? Why? Star Trek is Star Trek and Doctor Who is Doctor Who. Aside from providing us with Belinda (an extremely appealing loser) and destroying the city of glass they are pretty redundant. The plot could have worked just as well without all the obvious trappings which amuse at first but start to grate after a while (one of my least favourite moments, and there are hardly any, is the unnecessary dig at the mirror universe episodes of Star Trek). It is amusing that the Starship Nepotist has to work to a budget and that Captain Blandish is a complete fool but honestly including all these digs suggest the story is dealing with lots of cheap shots when it is nothing of the sort.
But I refuse to moan for long about a book that kept me enthralled for three days. After a hard day's work (and at Christmas that is a given!) I was thoroughly rewarded by a few chapters of its gorgeous prose. The lyrical style of the blurb is a good indicator of the fairytale style you will experience in its pages.
And another reason The Blue Angel succeeds where other has failed was because it made me think. While I was trying to fit the secondary plot into the story I was also wondering how the seemingly endless additions to the plot would all tie up, it is a very cleverly designed story that really engages your brain. It gives you some suggestions and makes you do some of the work yourself. In terms of reflecting on a novel, The Blue Angel is one of the most rewarding Doctor Who books I have ever read.
Magic does exist in Doctor Who; it beams from every page of this book.
"Door's stiff. Frozen?" by Hugh Sturgess 11/7/11
Seriously, how great is this book? Perhaps due to the never-before and never-again intercession of Jeremy Hoad, this is far and away Paul Magrs's best Doctor Who book, a work of almost crystalline silence in places and something of beauty throughout. It's better than the rambling excuse for a story called The Scarlet Empress, and it blows his more comedic novels (as good as Verdigris and Mad Dogs and Englishmen are) out of the water. Unlike the two books on either side of it, The Blue Angel manages to pull itself out of the should-have-been-cut bits (I think you can guess which bits...) and become a genuinely GREAT book. Interference had a running theme of politics, of anarchism, and its coda was a political manifesto; The Blue Angel has motifs of glass, ice, translucency, silk, silence, and its own coda - a series of twenty questions about how the plot might have ended - is, astonishingly, more satisfying on the page than the all-action shoot-'em-up finale some people seemed to have wanted. It would be a weird book for a first-time reader, but if any New Series fans are looking for Doctor Who novels to read (or any Old School fans who haven't read them all), I heartily recommend this one. No, scratch that. GET THIS BOOK!
Yeah, right, sorry. Got a bit carried away there. But I mean it. This is a far better book than Interference. Interference was big, stumbling, half-finished and filled with things that should have been cut. It had moments - sometimes very long moments - of brilliance and plenty that was delightful. And it set off a chain of events that should have changed the EDAs far more than they did (just read Lawrence's ideas about a hypothetical "Beneath the Planet of the Spiders" to see what we missed). An author like Trevor Baxendale or Gary Russell might have gone the Placebo Effect route and been simply unable to write a follow-up that was at all good; Simon Bucher-Jones, you may be assured, would have tried to match Lawrence and the result, I think, would probably have been less effective than The Taking of Planet 5.
None of that matters to Messrs. Magrs and Hoad. This is better than most Doctor Who novels, because it really is a novel. This is pushed towards the limit of what Doctor Who for the printed page could be, and it manages to gloriously wrong-foot everyone. Lloyd Rose is a professional author and her books drip with detail, but The Blue Angel is far superior to Camera Obscura (and, of course, leaves City of the Dead broken and bleeding in an alley). It deals with multiple layers of reality, of adventures the Doctor hasn't had yet, of metatextual discussions of television, of canonicity, of Doctor Who itself. Reality goes out the window in places, and it isn't missed. I happen to think this is the best usage of Iris Wildthyme in the novels, and Magrs hasn't yet reached the more frivolous (but still fun) stage of criss-crossing Doctor Who continuity for purely amusement value; he tramples all over the Whoniverse in a multitude of different ways, but always for a purpose. Only Campaign comes this close to abandoning Doctor-Who-as-television and truly breaking through into a medium without sight or sound. Forget Interference, forget The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, this is truly experimental Doctor Who.
For all that it might seem to ignore or overlook Interference (even the references to giant spiders - followed by a hurried "oh, when was that, I forget?" - seem like Magrs was a bit thrown by the Doctor's regeneration on Dust in the last book), I quite liked the parallels in their discussions of continuity. Although it was just one little concept among many, Interference was interested in the different strands of "canon" in the Doctor Who world. Miles proscribed a nested series of bottle-universes as a cure, but neglected to show us it in detail because Lawrence normally doesn't hit us with his own theories without our permission, preferring instead to sidle us up to them; Magrs here actually shows us different nested layers of reality. He even managed to make me draw connections with Babushka dolls due to his comparison of the elderly, creepy, Obverse Iris with Baba Yaga. And it's left to Obverse Fitz and a talking German Shepherd named Canine to explain the book's conclusion: we're all stories in the end, and so either everything is real or everything is false. Which one would you choose?
I'm astonished that I have to explain this, but that's why the book ends with twenty possibilities about the conclusion. Some people have genuinely asserted that the book just gives up and goes home at the climax, as though Magrs couldn't be damned to think of an ending. That's like thinking that Lawrence Miles made an accidental continuity gaffe when he had Jon Pertwee die on Dust. For a book that works on multiple levels, that explicitly tells us that every story is as valid as any other, that tells us again and again that its setting - the Enclave, the Obverse - means that all bets are off... ending in a traditional, "satisfying" resolution would have been both thematically wrong and frankly missing the point. For the "merely eighth" Doctor, Fitz and Compassion, the entire novel is just a tiny peek into a world completely unlike theirs, where things don't play by their rules and there are dozens of different stories, different endings overlaid on each other like layers of filo pastry. That's another interesting parallel with Interference. That book had the third Doctor wander into a story from his future and found himself out of his depth. I've already criticised its execution in that story, so I won't repeat it here. This book has the eighth Doctor wander into an adventure that he isn't ready to have yet. The rules of the Obverse are designed for a future Doctor. Or are they? The book is smart enough to offer more than one explanation for almost everything.
This book is at its best when it's not playing it safe and is at its worst when it's following its lame Star Trek parody for shits and giggles. Robert Smith? suggested Paul wrote the good stuff and Jeremy wrote the adventures of Captain Blandish and co., but honestly I have no idea who did what. It's not as though Paul is incapable of writing trite shite.
The plotline in the bleak village with the Doctor as landlord and Fitz and Compassion as lodgers is obviously the best part of the whole damn book. In fact, it's incredibly spooky. It's like a ghost story. Never before has Iris ever been conceivably described as scary, but she is, in this strand of the book. She's described as being like Baba Yaga; she even scares the Doctor with her cackling. The only thing scarier than her is the Doctor's 'private doctor'. In a nice reference to Interference, he's obvious Pertwee, and he's giving the Doctor drugs to prevent him having any more "episodes". His scene with Compassion is fantastic; he's like a vampire! "No cuts, no sprained ankle?", he asks her, and if he can scare Compassion you realise how eerie he is. It's so evocatively written that you feel the cold of the village, the numbing frost sealing away the living things in the town piece by piece, even in the middle of an Australian summer. The writing is so intense it's almost hypnotic. It's a joy to read.
A lot of people seem to have got a bit angry at these segments for their total inexplicability. Some people even wondered whether Magrs's professed interest in the idea that the Doctor's adventures were made up by someone's "dotty old grandfather" meant that he hated the series. Yeah, in a sarcastic tone of voice, everyone writes gorgeous, sumptuous novels for series they don't like. I suppose fans don't like being told that they're wasting their time on a kids' show... but Magrs does nothing of the sort. He's written a mature, fascinating, gorgeous, difficult book about this "kids' show" and basically encourages his readers to do the same. Some people accused him of claiming that "it's all made up", with the implication that this made it worthless. Appropriately enough for a postmodern book, the text manages to come back at this criticism when Canine points out that... well, it IS all made up. Sorry if it comes as a shock to you. So why not stop worrying about it?
I was perfectly happy to accept an non-explanation for this strand of the story, but to my surprise Magrs and Hoad offer not one but two, and they're both fascinating. Like Interference, The Blue Angel is starting arcs, but these authors aren't intending to follow it up. Something The Blue Angel shares with The Scarlet Empress (ooh, aside from the thematically similar titles - I just noticed that); in the earlier book, the Doctor offers the birds a series of set pieces and scenarios from his adventures so they can make their own. That's been misinterpreted as a slight against the Pertwee era, but I think it's much the same message as this book's: since everything's just a story, why not make your own? Copy other stories to start with, if you like, it's good practice. The Blue Angel has the same message. The book ends on twenty potential loose threads, so the reader can tie them together into whatever shape they like. That's explicitly offered during the sequences of the Doctor wandering the corridors: you can either make something mad and twisted or linear and straight with these threads, but it's your decision. Never has a Doctor Who book so explicitly, articulately and joyfully encouraged audience participation.
Which is why it's annoying when we get to the crap Star Trek parody. I emphasise the "parody" part. It's not a bad strand, per se. I quite liked Blandish's irritation at playing second fiddle to the Doctor, and - despite threatening to at virtually any given moment - he never quite slips into out-and-out caricature. What hamstrings this is that we're looking at it as a parody. We're expecting a joke, but it never comes. The first page left me bewildered, because it's so invincibly unfunny.
I think we can blame Finn Clark for this. There's a sentence you don't hear every day. But seriously, I went into the book expecting a piss-take because Finn had basically said it had been. A simple difference of opinion, but one that wrong-footed me. I kept thinking that Magrs was making some pretty stupid comments about Star Trek; it's not my favourite show by any means, but portraying the Spock-like character as a bean-counter and the Kirk character as an insecure, childish, bloodthirsty egomaniac was a bit low. It was only at the very end of the story, when Blandish crashes the Nepotist and all the threads of the story collide with an grisly off-camera crunch, that I got it. This isn't a piss-take, it isn't a parody. The revelation that Blandish and Garrett were lovers isn't a parody of slash fiction. It's doing it for real.
They're serious. Magrs and Hoad have changed names and so on to protect the copyrighted, inserted a reference to Peladon to put it in a Doctor Who context, made the characters a bit more petty for some slight amusement value (and standard Doctor Who cynicism for the future) and otherwise left the Star Trek set-up intact. It's the metatextual thing again, the story-worlds-in-collision theme. The point, I think, of using Star Trek here is that Magrs and Hoad are asking: Which one of Star Trek and Doctor Who is "real"? Both and neither, the authors decide. Robert B. Blandish and the Federation Starship Nepotist are heroes in their own "story", people with great adventures and daring-do and narrow escapes behind them. Blandish says, "We always get out of it," towards the end, and only a few pages later, when he decides to crash the Nepotist, he daren't think what he is doing to his beloved ship and crew.
Maybe I have a needlessly cheery impression of Paul Magrs, but I defy you to find an example in his books in which engineers dying horribly is presented as a comedy moment. Similarly, the Blandish/Garrett revelation isn't intended to be humourous, I think. It certainly isn't in practice. Paul Magrs is gay, of course, so I wondered whether it was more along the lines of wish-fulfillment, or 'reclaiming' the ultimate symbol of heterosexual masculinity - Kirk - for gay people. This is, after all, in a book that has Fitz realise how much he wants to bonk the Doctor, and stars Iris Wildthyme, a Time Lady who consistently regenerates into the form of gay icons like Shirley Bassey, Beryl Reid and Jane Fonda (presumably one of her later bodies is identical to Lady Gaga), officially making her the Fag-Hag of the Known Universe. Maybe I'm a big girl for thinking the end to the Nepotist storyline quite touching, but it was quite poignant, in my opinion, to imagine this grand story ending so ignominiously. Blandish may be manipulated by Daedalus, he may never stand the Doctor, he may appear buffoonish, but he never actually becomes a fool.
The other strand of the story, Barbarella Iris protecting old ladies being attacked by giant owls in a shopping mall, is far more satisfying, right from the beginning, as the concept is bizarre enough to be humourous on a cerebral level while still being reasonably serious. The watchword for this segment is "prosaic". It would be difficult to find a situation more mundane than a few old ladies having a day out at the local shopping centre. Then Magrs springs a nice in-joke on us by isolating the shopping centre and turning it, for a few pages, into a base-under-siege. The attack of the Owls of Ichor is lovely, as it's a ridiculous concept that could have been played for laughs, but it's done completely seriously (well, almost completely). I loved the Owls themselves, more than any of the other races of the Obverse, because they're such a simple, evocative concept: giant owls in space! It fitted the bleak wintry atmosphere of the rest of the story, particularly - appropriately enough - the "uppermost" level of reality, the one set in the village.
I like Iris Wildthyme, a lot, but I've always inclined towards the idea that she is really just a slightly batty old lady who believes she's done things that she hasn't done (the Katy Manning thesis). If you take her claims to have had the Doctor's adventures and that she's really Time's Champion seriously, you end up with a ghastly author-surrogate who Mary-Sues her way around the universe out-doing the Doctor and being loved by everyone. She comes perilously close to being so in this story, as she's stopped being the canny old lady and has regenerated in a pistol-backing superbabe. I managed to ignore it for most of the story, since she's paired either with some daft old ladies or Fitz, and the latter is so infatuated with her bust... sorry, bus, that she could easily be bullshitting out of her face throughout.
But, like so much in this book, Magrs and Hoad subvert this potential Mary-Sue by making her something much more interesting than she initially appears to be. Her offhand revelation that she is really from the Obverse and isn't who she claims to be is never picked up on again, and I guess it could have multiple meanings (for one, is she the real Iris?), but the best bit is that the Doctor hates her for taking him out of the story. He actually tells her he wishes he left her to die on Hyspero. As Sally says during the "village" segments, the hero of Magrs's first two books is Iris, and the Doctor's "there too". After this book, she just becomes comic relief, not as interesting a character as she is here.
As for these three other characters - the Doctor, Fitz and some bird called Compassion - well, they're a mixed bag. The Doctor's characterisation isn't bad, I suppose, but he seems a little bit faceless throughout, since he's constantly reacting. Daedalus and Iris are pushing the story forward and so all he's got to do is wander around, sound shocked at Daedalus and get lost in the Corridors. He really only gets interesting at the very end when he wishes Iris would die and goes mooching off back to the TARDIS. In the "village" strand, he's much more effective, as it's almost all from his perspective. Perhaps because of all the things that have happened to him, perhaps because Paul McGann has a track-record of playing creepy, pale little boys who know more than they should, it is very easy to hear the eighth Doctor speaking the words on the page and to accept the entire situation.
Fitz is a bit reactive too, but surprisingly Compassion is quite good, when she appears. She's such a minor presence that you have to think she was as much of a surprise for the authors as the readers, and there's a none-too-subtle air of dislike when writing about her. Iris tells her to shut up and the Doctor gets very huffy about how she's never polite to people. But they certainly make her one of the most distinctive characters in the story. Twice she picks up a gun and one of those times it's pointed at the Doctor. The Doctor can never trust her in this story. She gets into an argument with Iris and while no one is going to make Iris come off second best in a Paul Magrs story, it does give her one of her best lines, when she tells Fitz, "I could put her to sleep. We could take the bus ourselves." In fact, she's really, really funny here. When the Doctor tells her that she never says anything nice about anyone, she replies, "I'd agree with that." And when the Doctor says that he has undying optimism in his friends, she gets to have the best piece of dialogue in the novel: '"Then you, Doctor," said Compassion, "are a fool."' In this last sentence, she says what I wanted to say to him throughout Interference.
It's very funny on occasion. Nesta's venomous cry "get the bitch in the PVC!", Iris and Fitz's argument over double entendres, Blandish's wonderfully vulgar retort to the old Arthur C. Clarke maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic...
Magrs is known being irreverent with his continuity-busting. In The Scarlet Empress, Iris dines out on the Doctor's experiences and passes them off as her own, and the Aja'ib contains fantasy retellings of the Doctor's adventures. The Aja'ib features in this book too, but even that's a bit spooky. Here, in a sense, everything's a bit more serious. What is continuity? How can you have continuity in Doctor Who? Is the Doctor someone's dotty old grandfather? Is the village-based Doctor a decoy for the real one, as he wonders at one point? Is he the real Doctor, secreted away here for his own safety by Iris? Is Iris a Time Lady? Does the Doctor become involved later in the events of the Obverse? For all the jokey "twenty questions" title, the final set of possibilities are actually serious. And the ending... oh God, that ending. The final parting with the Barbarella Iris, the walk through skeletal trees and snow back to the TARDIS, followed by the "other" Doctor and the "other" Iris naked in the snow, the angel being sliced from his leg, it flying up into the night-sky, and then the twenty questions... One of the best endings to a Doctor Who story ever, in my opinion. This is the closest Magrs ever, ever gets to playing it straight, and it's spectacular.
The Blue Angel is fantastic. It's one of the most well-written, intelligent, experimental Doctor Who stories ever written. It never once tries to be a novelisation of an untelevised script; it's a novel through and though and it never insults us (unlike some people, Miles). Sometimes people say that so-and-so is too good an author (say, Lawrence Miles) or such-and-such is too good an actor (say, Derek Jacobi) for our little series, and I've always thought that sounded almost a bit masochistic or self-deprecating; believe in yourself, man! But, amazingly, at some point in this novel I thought "it's astonishing that this is a Doctor Who novel". Not because it was "too good" for the format of the series, but because leaves its compatriots for dead. Interference and even Alien Bodies, whatever you think of them, as still concerned with being Doctor Who stories, and deal in depth with Doctor Who issues and Doctor Who continuity. This book doesn't. It's something more. Something strange and delightful and complex. Something wonderful.
A Review by Charles Berman 22/8/13
Paul Magrs may be remembered for many reasons among Doctor Who fans. and one of the just ones is as the man who brought brash, exuberant postmodernism right through Doctor Who's doorstep. The Blue Angel is a triumph of formalism in a postmodern vein; it's not a victory of style over substance.
We have to plunge into the melange of narrators and sources and -- crucially -- decide for ourselves the relationship between events and what is relatively most "true", if anything. The sections with the parallel writer-Doctor are well-written and good character pieces, but they don't serve to much of a function relative to the "main plot" except to call these questions to our minds. The process of problematizing the legitimacy and supremacy of the narrative is given just as much primacy as the narrative itself.
Nonetheless, Magrs approaches that narrative with a characteristic sense of magic and whimsy, and concepts such as a large despotic rhinoceros and a city of glass men are dealt with in such a way that we can take them just seriously enough in a book filled with humour. What's more, they are simply great images: dreamlike and well-realized.
A large portion of the book is taken up by scenes involving a set of characters who are basically a broad Star Trek parody. The parody of the militaristic crew is on target and funny enough, but for me it doesn't work as well as it could. It's a fairly one-dimensional parody, taking mostly pretty easy shots at the subject material and that doesn't contrast very well with what is otherwise quite a subtle book.
The simple Star Trek parody suffers especially for being placed next to Iris Wildthyme, who of course is, among other things, a subtle and inspired Doctor Who parody. There's an uneven feeling, and I don't know how much to attribute that to the authorial collaboration.
Iris, though, is a delight. She succeeds here not just in making narrative points but actually in being more entertaining and magnetic than the Doctor. But it's part of the point that she should steal the show this way; it's significant that Fitz flirts with her, and flirts with the idea of leaving the Doctor to travel with her instead.
One of the thematic questions here is whether it is more interesting to ask what is entertaining or what is true. And one of the conclusions is that the only way to answer is to play as if everything is true. There are significant doses of magic, humour, fine prose, delightful characterization and interesting ideas. It isn't integrated or even enough to reach its potential, but it does well reward reading.