Sunday 24 January 2021

WHO REVIEW: Forgotten Lives, ed. Philip Purser-Hallard


It's surprising that it's taken so long for a book like this to appear. We've had anthologies with unknown, invented and alternative Doctors before (such as Unbound and Walking in Eternity, and even to an extent with the BBC's Short Trips and Side Steps), but remarkably, no one has ever sat down and put together a collection revolving around the ever-controversial "Morbius Doctors" before.

Perhaps it's the controversial nature of these mysterious pre-Doctors that has prevented most fans from engaging with them. Fandom has had such a rigidly defined idea of who the Doctor is for so long that versions of the character that contradict this have been thrown out. Even before the eight faces of the Doctor appeared in the mind battle with Morbius, there were more versions of the Doctor than the official four incarnations played by Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Tom Baker. The introduction to Forgotten Lives chats happily about these extra versions, from Peter Cushing's eccentric inventor Dr. Who to Trevor Martin's theatrical incarnation, and goes on to say:

"When The Brain of Morbius episode four showed us (and it did so deliberately and, whatever the more conservative species of old-school Doctor Who fan may tell you, with no significant ambiguity) that Hartnell's 'first' Doctor had at least eight predecessors who'd never been on screen, it was really nothing revolutionary – just part of Doctor Who's long history of reinvention and revelation."

This is, of course, completely true. The eight faces seen in The Brain of Morbius were always and explicitly intended to be earlier faces of the Doctor, and while it's possible to interpret them as faces of Morbius or something more contrived, this requires deliberate misreading of the scene. Of course, this contradicted pretty much everything else on screen up to that point and beyond, besides very tiny hints at bits of the Doctor's life we hadn't seen. It was one of those oddities that exist in the series' continuity, which by 1976 was already full of curiosities and contradictions.

Aside from the lightest of touches and one inarguable cameo in Lance Parkin's Missing Adventure Cold Fusion twenty years later, these well-dressed gentlemen (being in actuality production team members in fancy dress) were forgotten about and dismissed by licensed fiction and mostly by fandom at large. Which was a crying shame, because the idea that there were some secret lives before Hartnell's Doctor is just so much fun that it's surely impossible not to want to play with it. Finally, Chris Chibnall's latest season of the revived TV series bombed continuity with the notion that the Doctor has had countless lives before, and explicitly included the Morbius Doctors in this by showing them in the Doctor's bombardment of memories. (Of course, if you wanted to be a real stick in the mud you could insist she was just remembering the mind battle and that they were still the faces of Morbius, but really, where's the fun in that? And would Morbius have such a fine selection of hats?)

So it's now quite right that Obverse Books presents us with a collection of full-fledged adventures for these Doctors, taking those tiny glimpses and extrapolating them into eight new versions of the character. These are timely children, indeed, and whether you're an old-school fan who's been pondering their existence since 1976 or a recent viewer who's desperate to know more about the Doctor's mysterious and ever-contradictory backstory, Forgotten Lives is a must. And nothing here, in The Brain of Morbius or The Timeless Children stops Hartnell from being the First Doctor. He always will be, no matter how many faces retroactively come before him.

Eight authors bring to life eight Doctors, in this beautiful volume illustrated by the uncomparable Paul Hanley, who I believe must have depicted more incarnations of the Doctor than anyone in his artwork. If there's one complaint to be had about the book it's that Hanley's artwork isn't given enough prominence inside, but I understand this is due to costs. Nonetheless, you're missing out if you only see the cover versions and the black-and-white prints at the back of the book, and must check out the full portraits on Hanely's Patreon. However, each of the plates in the book includes a wonderfully silly note on "The Changing Face of Doctor Who" which makes up for the lack of colour and clarity.

The collection kicks off with "The Knocking in the Mine Shaft," which puts the Christopher Barry Doctor, the earliest of these incarnations, in an adventure in historic Cornwall that involves spooky goings on down the tin mines. Drawing on the local folklore of the Knockers – mining goblins with a perfectly sensible name – who naturally turn out to be of a more extraterrestrial origin than expected. The Doctor here is very much a medical doctor, a practising one at that, who goes by the pseudonym of Doctor Medec and has very much assimilated into the local community by the time this adventure starts.

Each story presents a distinct era of the Doctor's life, and the feeling, in general, is that a very long time passes between each one. Collection editor Philip Purser-Hallard presents the next Doctor, portrayed by Robert Banks Stewart, who speaks with a distinct Scottish accent (I had in my head the voice of Bill Paterson as I read the dialogue). While still flitting about time, this Doctor has a base in WWII London where he acts as an observer for his superiors, while also being the most alchemical of this always mercurial character. The story is told by his secretary, the charming Miss Weston, who joins him on his investigation into what's essentially a vintage take on Terror of the Autons, but both funnier and more atmospheric than that implies. There's a fair bit of The Avengers (Steed and Peel, not Marvel) in there too. This Doctor has some of my favourite characterisation in the book, really coming alive on the page via the tellings of Miss Weston. His bow-tied far future self would be very disappointed in his lack of knowledge when it comes to silent comedy, though.

The Doctor's lives span long enough that we hear of multiple different families, but only in Andrew Hickey's "The Cross of Venus" do we actually see them. Featuring the Christopher Baker Doctor, this story feels rather like one from an old World Distributors annual, except that it's very good indeed. It's a clever extrapolation backwards (a backstrapolation?) to the 1940s, imagining how Doctor Who might have existed then, and sees the characters travel to the distant space year 1975 and the first manned mission to Venus. There's some clever playing with expectations when it comes to the nature of the villain, but the most striking element of the story is that the Doctor is travelling with his two precocious children Jilly and Cedric. They're wonderfully drawn characters, and I can't help but wonder... is one of them the parent of John and Gillian?

Based purely on the fleeting images of the Doctors, my favourite was always the fourth (or fifth in the reverse-order they were shown): Phillip Hinchcliffe's Cavalier incarnation. With so little to go on but their fabulous outfits, it's not surprising that many of these Doctors make a big deal of their clothes, and this flamboyant fancypants is no exception. He's only just regenerated, allowing for an age spent in the TARDIS fixing his look. This Doctor's wonderfully full of himself and I love him for it, sashaying onto a planet and immediately getting locked up, and naturally taking it upon himself to overturn the entire civilisation's corrupt legal system. Kara Dennison's "Gauntlet of Absolution" is a cracking adventure.

At the halfway point comes the only Morbius Doctor to have appeared in licenced print fiction before, the blond and bearded Douglas Camfield incarnation. This version always looked like a real charmer, but interestingly, Lance Parkin takes a darker, more serious view of him in "Past Lives." Parkin, of course, is the one writer who absolutely had to write for this collection without fail, and his story, while the briefest, is one of the most fitting thematically. Dealing with a Doctor seeking to secure justice against galactic war criminals, this story says a lot about retribution and responsbility with admirable restraint. I also feel that this is what Chibnall's version of the forgotten Doctor was trying to be, rather than what we got. However the Thirteenth Doctor complains about how harsh and ruthless Jo Martin's Fugitive Doctor is, her actions are no different to what we've seen various Doctors do before. The Camfield Doctor seems like he could genuinely take a step too far.

Aditia Bidikar has a unique voice within Obverse Books and Doctor Who fiction and it's always fascinating. "Valhalla Must Fall!" is a strange and intriguing tale that covers things from millennia-old virtual lives to a sentient mountain. In amongst these mind-bending concepts (careful, your brain case might explode) is the Graeme Harper Doctor, and the character has never seemed more otherwordly and mysterious. Each of these Doctors has their own parallel story in Hanley's illustrations, but with Harper's it's truly a whole adventure, as Hanley not only discovered a remarkable truth about the director's appearance in that odd costume but (with a nudge from Cody Schell) made this Doctor less gender-specific than we might have thought. Bidikar's story goes out of its way to never refer to the Doctor by any pronoun – they're always "the Doctor" – and so salt-of-the-earth bloke Harper becomes the face of a genderqueer incarnation.

Jay Eales provides the penultimate story, "The Other Side," and it's one of the best in the book, a storming adventure story which sees the Doctor land in a civilisation seemingly split in two by an alien forcefield. A rather Orwellian story of abuse of power, it sees the Robert Holmes Doctor, resplendent in his finery and chewing on his pipe, acting as a rather unwilling agent for the Time Lords. Rather like the Black Widow in The Avengers (Marvel, not Steed and Peel), this Doctor has red in his ledger and is only going along with these missions because he's trying to tip the balance back in the right direction. Plus, he's kind of kept on a lead. While he's perhaps the most troubled Doctor, he's also tremendously charismatic, forcing his way through the story on sheer personality. Things don't always go to plan for this incarnation though, and an unexpected encounter with his own future sees him at his most vulnerable.

Finally, the eighth of the pre-Doctors stars in Paul Driscoll's "Doctor Crocus and the Pages of Fear." George Gallaccio's Doctor always looked like the most fun travel with out of the eight, based more on the extra behind-the-scenes photos which showed him with a lovely, twinkling smile. Driscoll's jumped on that, with this dimpled Doctor revelling in his appearance as just "made for the 1880s." However, he arrives in what would be a contemporary adventure for an incarnation set before Hartnell and just starting out, so it's predominantly in the 1950s. The story deals with the notorious moral panic around comicbooks at that time, which is just like the moral panic around heavy metal in the 1990s and violent video games in the 2000s. It's quite right that the Doctor would be repelled by the idea that children can be warped by slightly dangerous adventure stories, games or music, but this is just the doorway into a ripping sci-fi adventure.

I really can't praise this collection enough. Each of the eight stories is a great success and each Doctor a bold and unique version of the character. It's an excellent set of stories and I recommend it heartily to any Doctor Who fan who's looking to broaden their horizons within the show. My only gripe is that I'm tremendously envious I wasn't involved.

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