Dr Who: Eternal Champion

My forthcoming book, THE LAW OF CHAOS: THE MULTIVERSE OF MICHAEL MOORCOCK, evaluates the majority of Moorcock’s major works, but of course there are obvious omissions, so here is the first of what might become an irregular feature of late reviews of some significant MM books missed out in my study of his multiverse.

The Coming of the Terraphiles (BBC Books, 2010) is Michael Moorock’s contribution to the Doctor Who shareworld (known in-house as the ‘Whoniverse’). The novel is an eccentric mix of P.G Wodehouse and Douglas Adams, whose main two characters will be familiar to those fans of the long-running BBC science fiction soap-opera. It does a good job of reminding us just how British Doctor Who is. Moorcock throws in versions of many of his own characters (names like Cornelius, Quelch, Morphail, Begg and Renark are scattered generously through the novel) and the text includes lots of Moorcockian in-jokes, such as an invisible thief called Lady Steele (Moorcock is married to Linda Steele). Miggea is an anagram of Maggie (Thatcher) and the name has been used previously as a name for a demented god of law in his Elric books.

If you come to the book as a Doctor Who fan then you may find yourself bewildered by the large cast of new characters and the constant references to the multiverse. If you read this as a Moorcock fan with little knowledge of the television series, then there is plenty here to entertain and amuse you. However, I would doubt that this would be an ideal starting place for someone wanting to explore the Doctor Who mythos. The subtitle ‘Pirates of the Second Aether!!’ connects this book with Moorcock’s own ‘Second Ether’ series beginning with Blood, which plays riffs on similar themes of entropy, time and metaphysics, whilst employing the metaphor of life as a game to be played.

The plot is a pretty thin and silly one (albeit leading to the possible destruction of space and time itself!), but the settings and contexts are as imaginative as you’d expect from the author. The Doctor and his assistant Amy are in the distant future, involved in a tournament of games based on a misguided impression of a world very similar to ours: hence the Terraphiles – “Earth-nerds … They’ve got Terraphilia, yes, but based on what people in 51007 thought old Terra was like.” One game the Doctor plays is a hilarious composite of cricket and archery, called Whackawotsit, whose arcane rules are beyond most ordinary minds. The tournament also involves games such as “Skipping the Landlord” and “Hanging the Serf”. The lengthy description of the Hammer and Nut game is delightful as are the various animal hybrid and mythical minor characters involved.

The adventure begins with the theft of a grotesque hat and a competition to win the Arrow of Law, the Maguffin needed to save the multiverse. This makes the opening of the novel a Sexton Blake/Sherlock Holmes pastiche with the eponymous hero as the detective. Thereafter it transforms into a comic science fiction tale – so when the doctor arrives in the far future he logs on to his laptop to find he has “eighty two million new mails”. Moorcock cleverly intertwines the role of the Time Lords with those of the Eternal Champion, as the Doctor uses guile, luck and sportsmanship to keep the Cosmic Balance in equilibrium. Dark tides of antimatter threaten to destroy time and space by producing “a totally chaotic effect swiftly followed by a collapse into permanent stasis”.

Moorcock adds new subtleties to the main protagonist’s character: “Only a few were blessed or damned with the Doctor’s power to see the multiverse in all its vast beautiful, bountiful, exotically coloured aspects, its glamouring glory … That was why the Doctor could be so apparently nonchalant on occasions, frustratingly enjoying his insouciance, when other people were going mad with terror”. The Doctor’s wit is insatiable. He refers to the much feared and iron-masked pirate, Captain Cornelius, as “the phantom of the space opera”.

Moorcock explained how he felt attracted to the idea of writing this book because of the enigmatic Doctor himself. “I like the character mostly because he remains largely unrationalised and ambiguous” (The Guardian, Saturday 21 November 2009). Some reviews have criticised his handling of the Doctor suggesting the mannerisms seemed more appropriate to Tom Baker’s interpretation. Whether the experiment works is down, in the end, to personal taste. The author has made a brave move and produced a delightful and witty treat.

The Doctor expresses his answer to life: “We’re living in a permanent melodrama”. These could easily be the words of Jerry Cornelius or Jherek Carnelian. In The Coming of the Terraphiles, Moorcock once again shows that whilst life consists of a series of bafflingly complex games, at best our individual participation in these games can lead to heroic and meaningful acts.