Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Who Are The Real Cybermen? Reading the Ruptures in Doctor Who Novel Made of Steel

Pulling together the arguments of Tania Modleski (Loving With a Vengeance) and Janice Radway (Reading the Romance), I contend that the Doctor Who series of novels creates for the sci-fi geek what the Harlequin romance is for the (predominantly) women who read them.  Like Harlequins, these books are not taken seriously as “literature” but understood to be simply “fun” (read: not important or worth thinking about).  Eminently consumable, Doctor Who novels follow a known formula (The Doctor faces down monsters and/or aliens and he wins in the end) that has been popular enough to keep both the television series and accompanying books in production for nearly fifty years.  Through examining a recent “Quick Reads” Doctor Who novel, Made of Steel, as one star in a constellation of texts that I read across (Felski 512) I attempt to pinpoint what ruptures are allowed by this formula.

The mass market paperback: cheaply bound, 100-250 pages, fast paced stories meant to attract and satisfy as wide an audience as possible; a model championed and mastered by the Harlequin company (Modleski).  The appeal may already be obvious; such novels are easy to pick up and set down and do not require a huge commitment of time, and there is a known emotional “pay off” at the end because of several common formulas, of which readers may choose their favorite.  Similarly, such books are easy to produce cheaply, making even a very low sell-price profitable for the publisher.  Couple these elements with a wide readership and you have hit pay dirt; a highly consumable book form perfectly suited to the needs and desires of both a capitalist market and industrial society (During 193). 

Thus it should be no real surprise that in 2006, after the BBC’s “reboot” of British sci-fi classic Doctor Who was proving to pull in the ratings like few other television shows on the UK airwaves, they decided to continue the now common strategy of “branding across formats” (During 199) and re-mobilize their literature section in the production of Doctor Who themed novels.  Yet, this time around the BBC was not satisfied with producing only the standard 250 page versions of these books, opting to also begin a new line of all-original “quick reads” meant to “promote reading” by being an even more manageable 100-150 pages  (TARDIS Index File).  In addition to their shorter length, the production and distribution of these novels follows in the footsteps of Harlequin romances: they are only ever produced in mass market paperback (or ebook) forms and carry a price tag of just £1.99, making them incredibly affordable for both producer and consumer (Radway 13)

Stylistically, the advantage of this format for these particular books is that it more closely mimics the feel of watching an episode of the television show – taking the formulaic element of this iteration of the adventure novel to a new (and perhaps more comfortable to the non-reader) level.  It is difficult to ascertain if these novels are as successful as their longer counterparts, a ubiquitous feature in any major bookstore’s “sci-fi/fantasy” section.  In general, while it is easy to find Doctor Who novels on bookshelves it is less obvious how much time the BBC devotes to actually promoting them or whether they assume fans of the show will simply know to seek them out.  In this way the Doctor Who novels follow in the footsteps of other formulaic genres in that (in theory anyway) they are fundamentally interchangeable.  This interchangeability is part of the appeal of such texts because the reader knows what to expect, and it is a desire for that particular experience which leads them to seek such entertainment out.

For example, as with the Harlequin romances examined by Tania Modleski (1980, 2008), the reader of the Doctor Who novel is always more well-informed than the protagonist(s).  We know, always, that The Doctor will win the day by the end of the story and so, like laughing at the character in a horror movie who says “I’ll be right back” (because we know that means they are about to die), when The Doctor lays out plans of innocent sight-seeing or a picnic we smirk at his persistent (willful?) naivety and wait with anticipation for the “big bad” of the story to reveal itself.  There are, of course, small variations on this pattern. 

Often enough, as in Made of Steel, the antagonists of the story have already had a revealing moment.  In such a case the anticipation is in wondering how long it will take The Doctor to figure out what the audience already knows (in this case, that the Cybermen, against all odds, are back on Earth).  This superior knowledge of the audience is exploited right from the start with an opening scene of an overconfident security guard relaxing on the job with the knowledge that:
“MegaTech was protected by the finest alarm system in the world. If anyone so much as breathed hard on any of the outer doors and windows, bells would ring, sirens would howl, lights would flash and linked alarms would go off in the local cop shop”  (Dicks 1) 
Such nonchalance at his guarding duties indicates a disposable character, functioning in the plot solely to reveal the enemy of the story.  And indeed, by the next page of the novel the guard is dead at the hands of the Cybermen.  Similarly, when The Doctor says it is impossible for any Cybermen to be on Earth, and dismisses the evidence to the contrary, we experience one of “those [pleasurable] episodes which further the desired and expected ending” (Modleski 42) as the anticipation of a readership wondering “how will The Doctor get out of this one?” is prolonged.

And The Doctor does always make it out alive; even when he doesn’t.  Time Lords (his alien race) can regenerate their bodies when they are dying.  As a result, even when the events of the plot go horribly awry and one incarnation of The Doctor dies, another rises to take his place.  Thus the reader is safe in the knowledge that good always triumphs in the end.  However, like the Harlequin novel, this pre-set ending means that what happens in the middle of the plot is where possibility exists.  It is within that space that The Doctor can be wrong, that we can question whether his decisions are the right ones, and whether his responses to power actually perpetuate (or even create) the problems he faces.  It is here where we are able to (and often do) interrogate “the savior of the human race,” along with those humans who try to aid or thwart him.

In Made of Steel this interrogation comes via an interesting juxtaposition of the Cybermen (large, metallic, approximately human shaped beings constructed to erase emotion and facilitate immortality through conversion of living beings) with the military personnel trying to fight them.  In several places in the novel, the individual member of the military used to represent the whole in our interactions with them (Captain Sheila Sarandon) is shown to be eerily similar to the Cybermen.  Take this scene:
“She looked down at Major Burton’s body. ‘Is he dead?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
She nodded, accepting the loss as soldiers do. ‘He was very brave. Posthumous VC, I shouldn’t wonder.’”  (Dicks 79)
While it is unclear precisely what kind of relationship Major Burton and Captain Sarandon had (whether friendly or strictly professional) it is pointed out earlier in the text that Sarandon is his second in command.  Therefore it is safe to assume they have worked closely together for some time.  Yet she does not really react to his death; “as soldiers do.”  Similarly, when one of their own is cut down the Cybermen do not respond at all as part of their construction (part of what has made them “evil”) is to purge themselves of all emotion (a running theme in classic Who villains).  In such a story, where our emotions are stated to be what “makes us human,” of why it is humans fight so hard not to be “converted” into Cybermen, this scene is jarring.  It begs the question: are we also turning ourselves into Cybermen?

Like “the women who seek out ideal [romance] novels in order to construct such a vision again and again are reading not out of contentment but out of dissatisfaction, longing, and protest” (Radway 213) the reader of the Doctor Who novel is facing again and again the dangers of our own culture, of our very social order.  And while The Doctor will always solve our problems by the end of the story, in between the thrill of the start of a new adventure and the happy ending we must grapple with the possibility that The Doctor will not come, or will fail.  We face the prospect that perhaps we will have to fix what comes all by ourselves and by so grappling we hopefully prepare ourselves to face the Cybermen of the real world; who might end up being us.

Works Cited

Dicks, Terrence. Doctor Who: Made of Steel. Ebury Publishing, 2007. 
During, Simon. "Culture high and low." Cultural studies: a critical introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 193-207. 
Felski, Rita. "Modernist Studies and Cultural Studies: Reflection on Method." Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003): 501-517. 
Modleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance. New York and London: Routledge, 1980; 2008. 
Radway, Janice. "Conclusion." Reading the Romance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 209-222. 
Radway, Janice. "Introduction." Reading the Romance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 3-18. 
TARDIS Index File. "Quick Reads." The TARDIS Index File - a Doctor Who Wiki. 4 October 2011 <>.