Monday, 10 April 2017

The Sequels Within

Last week all my reading was about the wonderful world of tie-ins and side-steps. Both books grew out of a movie and a TV show, but they did so in an unusual way. Neither were novelizations or comic strip adaptations, and neither were simple, ‘original’ continuations of those stories. They were new tales that grew out of the source material… stories nestled within the original story, expanding and accreting new layers of detail and meaning.

I don’t even know what to call them? Interpolated tales? Further stories-within-stories? Arabesques?

I read ‘Doctor Who – Supremacy of the Cybermen’ by George Mann and Cavan Scott – a graphic novel collected up in one handsome, colourful volume by Titan. And I also read ‘Beauty and the Beast – Lost in a Book’ by Jennifer Donnelly. Both books are absolutely set within the canonical continuity of both franchises, but both are about what we might call The Sequels Within. They are stories that happen within a tiny glitch of a moment within the original story – and, rather wittily and paradoxically – the story secreted inside the original is made to seem epic and colossal. It’s like Athena sprouting fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. Or Pandora’s Box opening. It’s the reassuringly infinite nature of story-telling – reminding us that even something as nailed-down as a multi-million pound franchise can have hidden layers.

Jennifer Donnelly’s novel takes place within the fairy tale / the cartoon / the live action movie / the novelisation of such. It hinges upon Belle’s exploring the Beast’s library and finding a certain book, ‘Nevermore’, which has been placed there by Death in order to lure her away from her destiny. A whole sub-plot and secondary fantasy world is beautifully evoked – with duplicitous gentlewomen, clockwork people and talking insects. Belle is drawn into a trap, but she keeps on interacting with the major plot beats of the film she was originally starring in, while being literally dragged into a different book. It’s all written very lusciously and sparklingly. While it’s a pleasure to venture back into the Beast’s castle and spend more time with his familiar staff, there’s a definite thrill to the slightly macabre shadow-story that Donnelly presents.

Doctor Who is always about time travel and other dimensions and so hidden stories and missing tales have always been part of its fabric. Going back to 1973, when Doctor Two gets plucked from 1967 to co-star in a new adventure in the present day, the show has always reveled in mucking about in these side-steps and arabesques. This latest saga from Titan really goes for it on that score – with an anchor narrative continuing the confusing on-screen climax of season nine to do with Gallifrey (Rassillon survives and starts fraternizing with Cybermen) but also drawing in previous Doctors  in a bewildering and generous array of sub-plots.

All of them are grounded and real and ‘happening’ in their own private time streams: and it’s lovely to have a tale of Nine and Jackie Tyler zooming about in an alternate London (another one!) circa 2005, battling Cybermen. Even though, if we stop to think about it, the actual crystallizing of this storyline into ‘fact’ within the fiction would destabilize other parts of the bigger story (playing havoc with various bits of continuity.) However, of course, it’s in the nature of comic strips to be, well… comic strippy. We are allowed to ditch the continuity qualms in favour of the zippy and outrageous fun of it all – Captain Jack and Rose getting converted and explosions going off and everything seeming so desperate. And, elsewhere in the galaxy, the Tenth Doctor finds himself appointed king of the Sontarans, and the Eleventh tangles (that very comic strippy word!) with Cyber-converted Silurians. It’s reckless, breathless and highly-organised fun.

And, of course, by the ending of it all, the toys are put back into their boxes and the timelines are shoogled back into place quite neatly, due to some apocalyptic and cosmic shenanigans courtesy of the current day Doctor. It’s fitting that all the Gallifrey and Rassillon stuff at the climax feels so much like Bronze Age Marvel Comics – those eternity-shattering adventures in the Forbidden Zone with Galactus and the Silver Surfer. A very Jack Kirby and Stan Lee sort of galaxy. What a great place for Dr Who to be having adventures in. On TV when they conjured cosmic beings we tended to get an old character actor sipping a cocktail at a wickerwork table, and we had to take it on trust that he was the Guardian of Light in Time. In comics we can get the whole cosmic hullaballoo, with spinning vortices and lightning bolts and multi-coloured knobs on. And, of course, it was Marvel Comics and DC comics that taught me, back when I was a kid, that franchises could be rewritten and rebooted in a flash. Remember The Secret Wars, back in the early 80s? When Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were dragged off for just a flicker of an instant in the plodding chonology of Earth? But in their own subjective superhero time they were kidnapped for months – for a whole fabulous mini-series of pulse-pounding new adventures in space…

That’s what the Sequels Within should always feel like. You thought the story was over and you find that – not only does it continue… there are still stories to be unpacked from within the heart of the original. And I love it when the new stories become extravagant and grand, as do both these books I read last week.

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