Picture the scene: it’s 1995 and I’ve just turned 16. A fan of Doctor Who literally since as long as I can remember (my first memory is of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison), I’ve graduated from the novelisations to the Virgin New Adventures just as they’re at their creative peak – a brief golden age before the Paul McGann movie landed and the BBC decided to bring the books in-house. But I have no inkling of this as yet – for me, the New Adventures are all I have. And they’re brilliant. Not that I can talk to anyone about them, obviously – no-one else in my school admits to reading them, and there is no show to discuss.
Two years later. The TV Movie has aired, and Virgin are having to wrap up their line of books with the long-awaited publication of Lungbarrow: the novel that promises to reveal the secrets of the hallowed “Cartmel Masterplan”, which I know is going to be massive largely because that’s what the trails for Lungbarrow tell me to think. I read the book, and it’s great, even if I don’t get all the references. The big reveal is, briefly, that the Doctor is in some sense a reincarnation of a mysterious and ancient “Other” who formed the third in a triumvirate with Rassilon and Omega, responsible for the apotheosis of Gallifreyans to Time Lords.
But that’s in essence the big secret behind the Cartmel Masterplan: the Doctor is a Time Lord, but with the memories of another, very important Time Lord from Gallifrey’s past. And so an exercise whose original objective was supposedly to reintroduce some mystery and doubt into the Doctor and the Time Lords is comprehensively explained by laying out the answers for us.
Put like that, the “Cartmel Masterplan” seems slightly disappointing. “Masterplan” implies something more coherent than a couple of vague suggestions in the 25th anniversary season and the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks. On paper, what does the “Cartmel Masterplan” amount to? The Doctor makes a slip of the tongue talking about the Hand of Omega, Lady Peinforte implies he has a dark secret, and there’s a shadowy third presence behind Omega and Rassilon in Marc Platt and Ben Aaronovitch’s early books. In reality, even the New Adventures barely dwelt on this “Masterplan” beyond about 1993, preferring to develop Peter Darvill-Evans’ future history to create a dirty, “lived-in” shared universe of down-at-heel colonies, cyberspace and Lovecraftian ancients somewhat in line with contemporary sci-fi like Babylon 5. In that sense, Lungbarrow was a climax about four years too late.
That misses the whole point, though. The Cartmel Masterplan was actually about reinventing Doctor Who with the aesthetics of a comic strip. In the early 1980s some of the most intelligent and creative Doctor Who storytelling was found in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine – The Tides of Time, The Moderator, Voyager and The World Shapers frequently point the way to a more fantastic universe than the violent, sterile worlds offered on TV. When Cartmel took over as script editor he pushed the TV show to catch up with the comics, even asking Alan Moore to write for the series. So we have epic, universe-spanning fantasies; final showdowns; alien gods, and hints of an even bigger mythology lurking behind it all. And just as DC were exploding their own continuity and clearing the decks in Crisis on Infinite Earths, so we get a sense that Cartmel is cutting the Gordian Knot of Doctor Who continuity by giving us the final end of Skaro, and the wipeout of the Cybermen. Plus, of course, Lady Peinforte’s dark hints about the answer to the eponymous question – which perhaps makes her just another incarnation of River Song.
Dropping Lungbarrow into Season 26 as planned, as a kind of origin story for the Doctor, is therefore understandable in the context of various classic and long-running comic heroes getting revamped origin stories – for example, Superman in The Man of Steel series: going back to the beginning to start afresh. Cartmel instinctively recognised that to thrive again, Doctor Who needed to adopt the kind of reinvention seen in contemporary comics, with the Doctor recast as a dark and troubled character with a disturbing past. In that respect, the New Adventures are vastly influenced by the Cartmel Masterplan as filtered through the lens of Paul Cornell’s early novels, which successfully marry the Marvel comics approach with the style of the best Doctor Who novelisations. And similarities to shows like Babylon 5 become explicable because both series draw from the same source of 1980s comic books, with J. Michael Straczynski, Cornell, Cartmel, Aaronovitch and others all inspired by the creativity of people like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman – the latter having written episodes for both B5 and Doctor Who.
Claiming Russell T Davies was influenced by the New Adventures is a no-brainer – but he’s equally influenced by their ur-texts, the 1980s comics. The influence is normally felt in a tone that’s similar to the Cartmel Masterplan: a troubled and damaged Doctor and a new, mythic background of the Time War complete with references to the Could’ve-Been King and the Nightmare Child, coupled with a comic artist’s sensibility to what the show should look like. The most New Adventures-ish episode of the 21st Century series is The Long Game, which riffs on most of the central tenets of the NAs – cyberspace, media manipulation, cynical humanity, grungy space backdrops and kronk burgers – and features a monster that might as well have oozed out of the pages of DWM: Eccleston versus Ectoslime.
Despite focusing more on the time-travel possibilities of the show, Steven Moffat’s hewn closely to Davies’ inspirations, with monster team-ups; a fetishised, gun-toting archaeologist hybrid of the NAs’ Ace and Benny, and complex multi-issue story arcs. And, like Cartmel, he’s returned to the idea of the mystery of the Doctor as a central theme of the show. Under Moffat, the Doctor has gone from the lonely god of the Davies run to the answer to the oldest question in the universe. He has picked up on Cornell’s line that the Doctor is what monsters have nightmares about, and, as he normally does, explored the idea from multiple angles. What we’re seeing now will be known by fans of the future as the “Moffat Masterplan”: at the time what seems important are the answers to the questions. Who is River Song? What is the Silence? Why is the title of a 1960s TV show the oldest question in the universe? But in retrospect, we will see that it’s the tone of the show under Moffat that’s important.
In interviews, Moffat always seems keener to talk about his vision of the show as a kind of dark fairytale, and bats away questions about plot points with the indulgent tolerance of a man who knows that’s not really the point. You read interviews with Cartmel, and the same sense comes across: of a script editor whose vision of the show, whose “Masterplan” if we must, was never really about answering questions about the Doctor’s identity or delving into the reproductive oddities of the Time Lords (which, let’s face it, have both featured heavily in the last series), but about defining a new and fresh approach for a series rapidly approaching a milestone anniversary. At the time, and since, a large minority of fans have been deeply uncomfortable with this reinvention – the McCoy years remain unusually divisive, and the Moffat run is proving equally Marmite – but what can’t be argued is that this continual regeneration is what has made the show last 50 years. It’s what will make it immortal. Lady Peinforte and River Song may think they can answer “Doctor who?” So did the Time Lords, back in ’69. But they’re wrong, just like Light – by the time he’s defined it, the thing he’s defining has moved on, and changed, and is maddeningly out of sight again.