War! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?
Well, that rather depends on your point of view. If you’re one of the bodies doing the actual fighting of it, up to your neck in mud, blood, bullets and dysentery, then probably absolutely nothing, as advertised.
If you’re safe at home, guiding the destiny of a nation from a reinforced bunker or a safe stronghold, it could be argued that war is good for all sorts of things – standing up to offensive ideologies, grabbing land and resources previously belonging to the Not-We, removing infrastructure and human obstacles from a pathway to what you yourself consider a superior outcome… So long as you regard the people who fight the wars as a resource worth spending, and their deaths as the operational cost of victory, war can be highly useful in a whole multitude of ways. Quite apart from which, war is like adrenaline to human cleverness. Absolutely, people will invent clever things, discover new breakthroughs in peace time. But nothing gives an appetite to research and technological development like the thought that someone else is being cleverer than you, and they’re your enemy. And of course, nothing opens up the floodgates of imagination and crucially funding for research, development and technological advancement like that paranoia being played out on a governmental level.
All of which is fairly horrible, but has the depressing advantage of also probably being true.
Now here’s the thing.
If you’re safe at home, you have the luxury of viewing a far-away war as advantageous in all of these ways.
If you’re divorced from the action by time, instead of space, the effect is the same. The soldiers who died in the First World War, the Second World War – to us, their deaths are historical fact, and so are the technological developments that were created to help them. The world we know has been revolutionised in very many ways by the wars they fought, and we are the products of the people who either went to fight but reproduced, or who didn’t go to fight, and passed on their genes. If peace, instead of war, had happened, things would be different, in some ways subtly, but in other ways hugely.
That sort of philosophical argument is at the heart of Peace In Our Time, by Una McCormack.
The First Doctor and Steven arrive in London in time to investigate the seeming theft of the plans for the Dreadnought – for the non-history-fans, a class of ironclad ship that fuelled an arms race which was to ultimately erupt in the First World War. Are the plans set to be sent to Germany, or is there something darker and more twisted afoot?
Ruby Watkins, maid to the Gledhill family, doesn’t know the answer to that, but she does know something’s not right with her family upstairs. They don’t have the right number of servants for the house they live in, for one thing, putting extra pressure on Ruby to fulfil the duties of any number of servants. Then there are the silences, and the odd stops that shouldn’t be there, when they go still as statues without, it seems to Ruby, any business to do so.
When the Tardis team’s mission to investigate the theft of the Dreadnought plans and Ruby Watkins’ mission to find out about the oddness of her employers collide, a deeper truth is revealed. Yes, the plans have been stolen, but it’s not the Germans who are due to get their hands on them. Someone somewhere has found out quite how useful war can be, and intends to put a stop to it for their own nefarious purposes.
As a premise for a Doctor Who story, there’s something intrinsically modern about Una McCormack’s idea here – it resonates somewhat with the likes of Rosa, where the Doctor and their companions are out to stop history from being radically perverted from the course they know, but where time at the point when they interfere or don’t is still in flux, happening in its moment. If the Dreadnought arms race doesn’t happen, the major elastic-twist of history that leads to the explosion of the First World War probably won’t happen. Possibly, just possibly, peace will prevail. The difference here of course is that the Doctor and Steven are acting as agents for the war that will come in their version of accepted history. Arguably, by thwarting the plans of the temporal profiteers in the early 20th century, they’re the ones at least tangentially condemning all the soldiers to die in the trenches of France in World War I. The settlement at the end of World War I was such that it stoked resentment and anti-European feeling in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, allowing the Nazis a populist cause to ride into power. Without World War I, it’s questionable – and historians love questioning this kind of temporal tipping-point – whether there would have been the thing we know as World War II. So the Doctor and Steven and the clever and brave Ruby Watkins (with a little help from her feminist friends), by aiming to ensure the Dreadnought plans are retained in England and returned to the proper authorities, are at least arguably making themselves responsible for all of the carnage that resulted.
The difference is, when dealing with the First Doctor, there’s much less trepidation, much less web of time carefulness to contend with – certainly, he’s the Doctor who said that not one line of history must be re-written, which gives him a gung-ho sense of action here, but he’s also the Doctor who didn’t hesitate that long before designing the Trojan Horse, and who accidentally set Nero’s Rome on fire, the Doctor prepared to impersonate a leading figure in revolutionary France and who ultimately nailed the defeat of Mondas by Earth into the web of time personally by bringing his Tardis crew to the Snowcap Base. He’s altogether more certain of the rightness of his actions than any 21st century Doctor would be, so there’s little time spent weighing the moral rights and wrongs of the situation – a person or persons unknown wants to meddle with established history as the Doctor knows it. They must be stopped. As such, Una McCormack welds a story together with the philosophical core of 21st century Who, and the charge-ahead storytelling focus of the early days. The result is pacy, punchy, and makes a lot of Classsic Who sense, spending little time examining its philosophical navel, but cracking on to try and defeat the twisters of history. Without spoiling too much of the story for you, there’s something deliciously Upstairs, Downstairs about the story too, and the conclusion is wrought not so much by the amazing time traveller and his space pilot friend, but by Ruby bloomin’ Watkins, than you very much, and others like her who want to make their own fundamental change to history and society.
All in all, Peace In Our Time is a fabulously conceived little gem of a story, polished by the gumption of its telling, and the race towards its conclusion. It’ll feel shorter than it is, because Peter Purves understands the pacing of the storytelling and pushes right ahead with it, garnering the energy it needs to make it feel like a real race to retrieve the plans and defeat the forces who want to use them for their own ends. Ultimately, you’ll enjoy it for the pacing, the world-building and the characters, with Ruby Watkins coming across as absolutely a proto-companion who never was. It’s only really afterward, as you sit reminiscing about how much of an adventure you’ve just had, that the philosophical implications of a timeline without the First World War really hit you. Fortunately, the story makes clear that while the specific people who suffer and die will be different, doing nothing and letting the time meddling go unchecked will ultimately result in a bigger, darker destiny for the whole of humankind. It’s by no means a competition, but it does weigh the wars we know in the balance and compare them with the whole of humanity for generations, which is a slick way to exonerate the Doctor and Steven from any of the actual consequences of keeping time on track here. They ultimately act for the greater good, and by the time the story ends, they more or less understand as much, rather than simply doing what they do and stopping people messing about with time. They’re explicitly saving the Earth by forcing it to stay on course and fight the wars it needs to fight to deliver for instance the world that we know.
Check out Peace In Our Time now – and prepare for war… Tony Fyler