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Coming of the Terraphiles cover

Two obvious questions. What on Earth is one of the major post-war writers in any genre—Mother London, Behold the Man, and the Pyat Quartet alone would secure him that position—doing writing a Doctor Who tie-in? And, from the other side, why on Earth is a brand as closely managed as Doctor Who putting itself in the hands of someone as ferociously revisionist as Moorcock? Funnily enough, the book itself provides one answer to both those questions: this is where Moorcock's career has been pointing for a long while, because his concerns and Doctor Who's have a great deal in common.

Though it features the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, The Coming of the Terraphiles feels like an installment of "classic"—that is, 1963-89—Doctor Who. It has an arch, slightly archaic setting, a plot driven by a McGuffin rather than a character's emotional dilemma, and a truly terrible title. Its premise is that, far in the future, some of humanity's descendants will be the Terraphiles of the title. The Terraphiles have a particular fondness for early twentieth century Earth culture, especially British culture, so they reconstruct it in not-entirely-understood ways. The overarching plot is set out early on: "The Society of Terraphiles held a Grand Tourney, currently the most exclusive game in the universe, every two and a half centuries, playing for the Silver Arrow of Artemis (the Big Arrer), whose origins were lost in the mists of time" (p. 33). It'll surprise no-one that the Silver Arrow turns out to have more than merely symbolic properties, and that the competition for it is accordingly serious.

The book is divided into three parts. The first sees the Doctor and Amy relaxing on a Terraphile-inhabited planet, amiably playing some of the games that are seen at the Grand Tourney. Soon enough, they get inveigled into an Agatha Christie/P. G. Wodehouse country-house mystery and become part of a team that will compete for the Silver Arrow. The second part covers their journey to the Grand Tourney, and the last the contest for the Arrow itself.

So we're in pastiche territory, where Moorcock can lift plots, scenery, and mood from his chosen genres and mix them up playfully. It's far from the first time he's done this, of course, but here he has a venue that is, quite literally, constructed from pastiche. A sample:

The players consisted of more chaps in glaring Lincoln Green, their trousers, where they had any, held up by old school ties, shooting blunted wooden arrows at two other chaps, one of them a rhinocerid Judoon and the other a canine Pilparque, in heavily padded armour, helmet and gloves, situated at either end of the field and holding large whackits in their hands. These two attempted to stop the 'shooters' from hitting the 'wotsit' or board (three legs supporting a round, straw-filled object divided into many numbered sections) behind which stood 'wotsit keepers', whose job appeared to be to catch the arrows which missed. Whoever scored 380 first would, Mrs Banning-Cannon understood, be declared the winner. (p. 31)

It's all huge fun, but there's a sense that a passage like this is a holding action: busy with detail, but not actually taking the story forward. In fact, I've picked a pretty mild example, both in terms of Moorcock's jokes and its length. His description or dialogue can do this kind of delightful pootling around for several pages without getting down to business. The whole book, though especially the first part, is studded with the Terraphiles' misunderstood references back to Earth culture. It's not a huge leap to suggest that the Terraphiles' favorites are Moorcock's favorites: P. G. Wodehouse and Sexton Blake, for instance, are both Moorcock enthusuiasms evoked prominently here.

On the other hand, The Coming of the Terraphiles doesn't particularly wrestle with the whole armature of backstory that Doctor Who has generated. So many Doctor Who spin-offs do this, feeling the need to fill the tinest crack in continuity with some explanatory story. That's not to say there are no back references at all. As in the extract above, Judoon are prominent (and Moorcock gets rather too fond of the word "rhinocerid"), and there a couple of passing mentions of aspects of the 2010 season such as the Doctor being "a madman with a box." Moorcock has more general points to make about the series, but to get to them you first have to get through the middle-volume trudge of Part Two. The trudge in this case is a journey to the Miggea system, where the Grand Tourney is taking place. Part Two does at least clarify what's at stake: the arrow must not fall into the hands of "General Frank/Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men," whose "malign influence" would disrupt the cosmic balance. As the Doctor explains:

'Life and death will become indistinguishable. Matter and antimatter, law and chaos, good and evil, become indistinguishable. All the opposing qualities which at present are in balance, which give meaning to existence, will disappear.' (p. 235)

So this is what Moorcock's Doctor needs to fight against: not one extreme or another, but uniformity. Moorcock devotees will note that these terms map closely to the schema of the various Eternal Champion books. There's also a cameo from a certain Captain Cornelius and plenty of references to the "multiverse" being at stake in this story. The Coming of the Terraphiles doesn't go so far as to argue that the Doctor is just another aspect of Moorcock's Eternal Champion. It does, however, argue that the Doctor is the kind of hero that he's been talking about all these years: an enthusiast, a talker, a polymath, ready to enfold all experience in his arms. (I found myself thinking particularly of Joseph Kiss from Mother London.)

Throughout, Moorcock inhabits the Eleventh Doctor's persona pretty convincingly. He's especially good at capturing his halting, abrupt way of speaking, with thoughts running into each other like stop-start traffic. Amy, on the other hand, ends up being thoroughly inauthentic. In fact, for most of the book she ends up being a facsimile of the sort of 1960s or 70s companion who only exists to ask questions and is stripped of any agency except so far as it enables her to bumble into trouble. This is so far from the spiky, mysterious, assured/insecure Amy from the 2010 series that it's very difficult to picture her as anything but a cipher. (At one point, a character is "beginning to find Amy's company relaxing. Not that she wasn't already the easiest girl in the world to get on with" (p. 185). "Easy to get on with" is not a description readily applicable to Amy.)

The third part of the book, the final contest for the Silver Arrow, gets down to business as you'd expect. The arrow is fought over and won, its true nature is explained, and the mutiverse is saved. A villain is unmasked, a heroic sacrifice is made, difference is preserved. Once again, the book resembles classic Who in how it closes down the story so completely. There may or may not be sequels—Captain Cornelius surely has more to say—but this tournament is over.

To be clear, this is not a book that Moorcock devotees or Who devotees have to read. If there's a single idea it's organised around, it's the idea of play: play as a kind of performance, a way of combining the old and the new, of letting one's imagination range within bounds. And The Coming of the Terraphiles is itself a game, a game played with genres. In the end, rather winningly, it has the Doctor pledge allegiance to games or genres no matter how arbitrary they might be:

That's why these rituals are so important, see? Why we have to play the game or do the dance or say the prayers or whatever it is, yeah? . . . Of course, there are the games to play. They're important. No, really, they are. Play the game. Win the prize. Do what we have to do. (p. 287)

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He is editor of Foundation, and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Locus, and Science Fiction Studies.



3 comments on “Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles by Michael Moorcock”
Steve

Is it the silver arrow from "Silver Nemesis"?

Dennis Henley

I read somewhere that Moorock felt that his Doctor Who novel was the perfect starting point for those who are puzzled by his Second Ether trilogy (Blood, Fabulous Harbors, War Amongst the Angels).
He suggested that those who are going to read the trilogy should read the Doctor Who book first.

Good review, I wasn't previously aware of your site. I also review this here: http://helmstone.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/terraphiles/ and having read your piece it looks like I need to get back into reading Moorcock!

 

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