The Black Archive: Marco Polo – Dene October & The Black Archive: The Eleventh Hour – Jon Arnold (Obverse Books)

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Obverse Books’ Black Archive series is a little gem that has appeared recently in the Doctor Who universe, a series of book-length investigations that give single Doctor Who stories the attention rarely afforded them on an individual basis. Someone once said to me that Doctor Who is probably the most-examined show (from a behind-the-scenes perspective, that is) in television history. From the early success of Terrance Dicks’ and Malcolm Hulke’s The Making of Doctor Who to Peter Haining’s Doctor Who: A Celebration and the successive hardcovers in the 1980s to more academic investigations such as John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, the programme has been carefully deconstructed by experts in the fields of mass communications, history and science fiction, television production and many other related fields. So, the question is, do we really need another behind-the-scenes look at our favourite show?

The answer, in a nutshell, is a definite “yes”. Because – as previously mentioned – Obverse Books is doing something that no publisher has ever really done before: they are devoting an entire book to each story from Doctor Who’s almost-55-year history. There are many reasons why these 20,000-40,000-word texts are such unique contributions to the world of Doctor Who nonfiction. Obviously, by giving each story its own tome, range editors James Cooray Smith and Philip Purser-Hallard are giving their writers the space in which they can really flex their investigative muscles. In addition, by opening up the series to new writers, the editors not only have an opportunity to gather some of the best fiction and nonfiction writers in Doctor Who, but they also have a chance to give a voice to previously unpublished writers and experts who, in other circumstances, may not have been chosen by a publisher to write a complete book on their own. Case in point: this month we look at two very different individuals who bring very different skill sets to their texts. Dene October is editor of Doctor Who and History and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the Arts, London. Jon Arnold, on the other hand, has written two previous Black Archives, has edited collections as diverse as Shooty Dog Thing: 2th and Claw and Me and the Starman, and has written both essays and fiction for numerous fanzines and collections.

But, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the real thing that the Black Archive range has going for it is its elasticity of format. Rather than creating a series that follows a very strict set of headings and subheadings, Obverse Books has allowed its authors the opportunity to examine the source material through whatever lens they feel works best for them. Some Black Archives tend to progress through their stories (particularly in the case of the classic series) episode by episode, while others follow a more thematic approach. Authors appear to be encouraged to use whatever resources are available to them; they utilize interviews, examinations of story formats (the “base under siege“ is scrutinized in the archive for Scream of the Shalka and the idea of the “pure historical“ is appraised in the Black Orchid archive), script excerpts (including those from deleted scenes), flow charts, examinations of published synopses of missing episodes (identifying several errors, probably taken from the same source in The Evil of the Daleks archive), fan accounts, literary connections (John Toon examines Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West in his Black Archive for Full Circle), previously unpublished versions of episodes (such as Eric Saward‘s version of Part 14 of The Trial of a Time Lord), previous versions of stories (such as the novel Human Nature in the Human Nature/The Family of Blood Black Archive), film and television influences (such as the Mummy movies for the Pyramids of Mars archive), essays on various subjects, such as the crucial elements of story genres (such as “The Psychology of Terror“ in the archive for The God Complex), as well as reams of other tools. It’s a very refreshing method of editing a series like this; authors are able to not only play to their strengths, but also to their resources – should they have contacts in a particular community, for example (a script writer, an actor, a critic from days gone by), they have every opportunity to use them. No two Black Archives follow the same structure or pattern; each is uniquely bound to the story it deconstructs.

Marco Polo by Dene October

From the very beginning, Black Archive writer Dene October makes the decision to approach his source material from a very literary direction. “Marco Polo is all about writing,” he says. “It’s what Tegana – the Mongol war lord secretly working against Kublai Khan – complains about, drawing his sword in frustration as Marco sits about writing his journal. What Tegana means is there’s too much talk and not enough sword fights (cue episode seven spoilers!). But his comment might equally be one about the serial itself, which has an unfair reputation for discursive storytelling. Except that’s not how I remember the serial at all…and I’ve been lucky enough to see it, not once but twice.”

Marco Polo occupies a fairly unique spot in Doctor Who fan lore, as it represents the earliest serial (it was story number four of Doctor Who’s very first season) to be completely deleted by the BBC. Although many photographs exist, which seem to depict an extremely lavish historical production, no video clips survive. As a result, it is very difficult to tell whether or not the photographic evidence is indicative of the way the production actually looked. Obviously, it was in the range’s best interests to find a reviewer who had actually seen Marco Polo when it was first broadcast, rather than someone whose exposure to the serial was based primarily on the soundtrack and telesnaps. They are able to go one step further with Dene October: not only did he see the story twice (once during its terrestrial broadcast and once when he saw its broadcast in Australia), but he also claims a kind of “special relationship” with this story. Likening the Black Archive first to a “black star”, and then simply to a “black space”, October recognizes that, in the absence of the original source material, it is his job to fill this space with the only thing he can – the products of his own relationship and memories of this story:

“A black archive is surely an opportunity to reflect on the space before us, but rather than being consumed with despair, fill the void with our own imagined stories. In this sense, the black archive is, like a television screen, both immersive and reflective, one we sometimes catch sight of ourselves in. This is what I want to assert throughout this book, my relationship with the black space, which includes exploring many critical and personal themes, including my own memory of the serial.”

In many ways, this is a very innovative and refreshing methodology. So often in Doctor Who criticism, lost stories are treated as being no different from their existing counterparts. Perhaps one day we really will be lucky enough to possess every episode in the Doctor Who cannon, but until then, missing episodes should perhaps be looked at through a more…cerebral lens. In the end, an audio track – even when it includes linking narration – is not the same as a full visual episode. This realization has become abundantly clear on several occasions; when The Tomb of the Cybermen was discovered in 1991, those who had never seen the serial were very much in awe of how terrifying the metal giants actually appeared. The scene where the Cyberman awake and climb out of their massive tomb complex has since become one of those classic moments in Doctor Who history, something that never would have happened had the original episode never been discovered. Similarly, when The Enemy of the World was discovered in 2013, viewers were delighted to discover a totally unique serial in the Doctor Who canon, one more reminiscent of James Bond or The Avengers. Patrick Troughton’s brilliant portrayal of the doppelgänger Salamander was also an aspect of the production that had very much been hidden when only audio recordings of the episode existed. October’s decision to base his Black Archive very much around the memory of the serial takes into account this unique place that missing episodes still hold in the mindset of fans.

October’s Black Archive utilizes this lens as a vehicle to examine Marco Polo more as a piece of literature than a ‘60s science-fiction serial. The role o the trusted narrator is explored, as is media as a form of societal memory. Marco Polo can also very much be seen as a piece of travel literature; For the first time (and, indeed, one of the only times) times in the series’ history, one of the characters (in this case, Marco Polo himself) acts as a narrator, his voiceovers guiding the audience across Cathay and eventually to the den of Kublai Khan. Media as a form of virtual travel is also explored; the author dissects various camera angles and examines the camera’s affinity for some characters and its tendency to spur others. And the way the TARDIS is used as an actual plot point, rather than just as a vehicle to get the travellers from point A to point B, also marks a turning point in the program.

Because Marco Polo’s travels are best known through the stories supposedly told by Polo himself to French romance writer Rustichello da Pisa (the veracity of which has been long disputed), this literary approach is a fresh and vibrant way to explore one of Doctor Who’s most enigmatic historical stories. Ultimately, October’s examination and the way it deals with “the links between media, travel and personal transformation” is one of the more literary, and certainly one of the more mature Black Archives to be published. It’s a thoughtful, academic piece and a very welcome addition to Obverse’s library.

The Eleventh Hour by Jon Arnold

Although the concept of regeneration had been introduced as far back as the first season of the 2005 series of Doctor Who, it had been an understated affair; Christopher Eccleston’s decision to leave the series after only one season came as a surprise to many, and he was quickly written out and David Tennant was brought in. The regeneration was as dramatic as any that had preceded it, but as Eccleston was only just beginning to grow on many viewers, it wasn’t quite the emotional affair that other changeovers had been (or would be in the future). When David Tennant left the role four years later, however, it was obvious that he had presided over the most successful era of the program probably since the Tom Baker years.

In his Black Archive for The Eleventh Hour, Jon Arnold explores how Steven Moffat reinvented the show in order to take it in a completely new direction following the departure of showrunner Russell T. Davies and 10th Doctor David Tennant. Arnold argues that in casting Matt Smith, the youngest actor to ever play the part of the Doctor, Moffat may have been trying to emulate the success of the Peter Davison era, a period of the show’s history that he had a particular fondness for. In many ways, the casting of the young Matt Smith following the hugely popular David Tennant displayed many of the same characteristics of Peter Davison’s casting; whether this decision was conscious or subconscious is a matter for conjecture.

Arnold also takes the time to examine the unique way in which the character of Amy Pond was introduced. The Doctor first meets her as a little girl, then – through his accidental abandonment of her – gradually comes to discover that her parents have been “eaten” by the crack in time on her bedroom wall. This serves to establish one of the primary differences between the Davies and Moffat eras; whereas much of the companions’ relationships with the Doctor during the Russell T. Davies period was defined by a certain amount of conflict with the companion’s family (Jackie in the case of Rose, Martha’s dysfunctional family, and Donna’s mother, Sylvia, and her grandfather, Wilf). Amy, on the other hand, appears to have no relationship with her parents whatsoever (even after they are restored to this universe after the events of The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang).

This archive also examines the role of the fairy tale in the Moffat era of Doctor Who; Arnold compares the 11th Doctor’s arrival in Amelia Pond’s home to the arrival of Tigger in The House at Pooh Corner. Archetypes from other fairytales are also present – some from classic stories like The Secret Garden and some from modern retellings, like the Tim Burton versions of stories like Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.

The Eleventh Hour archive is a fairly straightforward affair, but provides an insightful and interesting look at the beginning of what was essentially Steven Moffat’s dream job: “As he said on the announcement of his taking over,“ Arnold writes, “[Moffat’s] career was ‘a secret plan to get the job’”. This archive in particular is a valuable resource when it comes to Steven Moffat’s career before Doctor Who; it dives into a number of his other successful projects, most notably Press Gang, a series on which Moffat would begin to hone certain skills, such as his penchant for non-linear storytelling. Other pre-Doctor Who series are also explored, such as Coupling and Chalk, as well as Moffat’s very early Doctor Who work – his short story “Continuity Errors“ in the Decalog 3 anthology and the renowned Curse of Fatal Death.

There’s a reason that John Arnold is the most prolific writer of Black Archive documents: his research is impeccable, and he makes highly imaginative connections to other areas of both literature, media and the real world. The Eleventh Hour is another success story and a very worthwhile read – particularly to those interested in exploring the beginnings of the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era. Peter McAlpine


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