Books Just as The Blue Angel works as a kind of pepto-bismol to Interference, here’s another Paul Magrs novel straight after the indigestible The Adventuress of Henrietta Street to provide a slightly surreal antidote. Like that earlier novel, Mad Dogs and Englishmen features alternate dimensions, anthropomorphism, literary satire, the return of Iris Wydethyme and a commitment to camp which puts the whole Sixth Doctor’s era to shame and I loved, loved, loved it. If The Scarlett Empress is still my favourite of Paul’s novels, Mad Dogs comes pretty close and has the rare benefit in this imprint of knowing when to stop, clocking in at about a hundred and fifty pages with a decent sized font. Spoilers indeed ahead.
A basic synopsis: Prof Reginald Tyler, an affectionate satire on Tolkien spent much of his life writing his unfinished genre epic The True History of Planets as part of The Smudgelings, an affectionate satire on the Inkings, the informal literary discussion group which also included C. S. Lewis. The story should include elves and wizards and things, but at some point the timeline’s disrupted and instead becomes the story of dogworld, a planet populated by poodles with hands and its up to the Doctor and his friends to right what once went wrong by visiting for various reasons The Smudgelings in the 30s, Las Vegas in the 1060s and affectionate satires on Ray Harryhausen and George Lucas in the 70s.
Of course, this being a Magrs novel things are far more complicated than that, as thrown into the mix is the new incarnation of Iris who's an affectionate satire on Shirley Bassey and as the title might indicate Noel Coward, yes, the actual Noel Coward who thanks to a bit of technology is also a time traveller essentially able to Quantum Leap about his own lifetime. Frankly the only reaction to all this is agogness, just as I’m always agog when experiencing Magrs’s work, essentially the intellectual fallout from the moment in Aladdin Time when it becomes apparent the Doctor’s scarf’s become sentient and gained Andrew Sach’s voice, over and over and over again.
All of which could have gone terribly wrong. But in a Whedonesque move, Magrs heads his ideas off at the pass by lashing in layers of rich irony and sarcasm and a genuine affection for his characters even, and probably especially the ones who’re supposed to be on all fours and are instead as the cover suggests on the one hand brandishing lasers and the other cigarettes. Unlike similar animal aliens in nuWho, the author offers an affectionate satire on Pierre Boulle married with some rather pointed questioning on what right we have to keep animals as pets (which oddly prefigures Rise of the Planet of the Apes though there’s a weird psychosexual undercurrent which was one of the few things I couldn’t quite get a grip on).
The novel continues the thematic thread which runs through all of Magrs work about the nature of narrative and how Doctor Who fits within the wider pantheon of fiction. Perhaps because it’s the 100th BBC book, Magrs goes some way to producing a quintessential story at least with the Doctor at his most bouncy and benevolent aiding a revolution, the splitting up of his companions, a bit of romance for one, the other annoyed about how the TARDIS can be accurate when it wants to be and as is the case with the franchise’s meta-narrative, the writing and rewriting of the legend depending on whose in charge. At time of writing Justin Richards, Gary Russell and Alan Barnes had that honour, I suppose.
Actually now that I come to describe everything as “an affectionate satire” some of it is pretty vicious. The reaction of Tyler’s wife on the death of her husband being to publish what he finishes and mint it on selling the film and merchandising rights is a pointed commentary on how estates so rarely treat their properties with much in the way of artistic respect (though when he was writing this in 2001/02 Magrs truly believed The Lord of the Rings was being messed about with). There’s also some post-Phantom Menace byte to the portrayal of the Lucas analogue, John Fuchas (not least in his name), though he’s right to indicate that digital would ultimate supersede physical. Even after ten years, this is novel which is sitll relevant.
If one were to seek a single criticism, it is that apart from the beard, the novel ignores the existence of The Adventuress of Henrietta Street altogether. There’s no mention of his single heart status and the pain he went through, when he meets Iris it’s a revelation to him that he’s not alone despite having invited the Master to his wedding previously (albeit under a pseudonym) and none of the discussion you might expect in relation to such things, the kinds of threads which usually appear in the novels and would be such an obvious influence on the new series. A bit of a paradox given my enmity for Miles’s novel, but in terms of the wider narrative those are things which happened and even Time Flight bothers to mention Adric’s death before piling off a budgetary deep end.
Of course the other unacknowledged nuWho influence is Iris Wyldethyme and Mad Dogs provides a few more useful parallels. There’s a heartbreaking moment towards the end when the Doctor looks Iris in the eyes and thanks to his amnesia doesn’t know her which prefigures, for different reasons the first and last meeting in The Silence in the Library between his later incarnation and River Song. On this occasion Fitz is on hand to give her some moral support, but the timeline’s foggy and there’s a hint that she’s simply playing along knowing that she’s seeing the future of events which haven’t yet happened to her. There’s also the attitude, the moral ambiguity which suggests she has the best of intentions …
But what makes Mad Dogs and Englishmen so special is the characterisation. I’ve spoken before about the often inconsistent versions of the Eighth Doctor which appears in these novels and this is an occasion when he’s entirely in-character or at least character I expect him to be, wry and clever, witty and powerful with that great spirit of adventure, far away from the tragic totem of the previous novel. Anji and Fitz are also back to their City of the Dead best too, the former in her element in the world that Dave dreamt of. Yet, predictably, the best character’s his Noel Coward simply because he’s Noel Coward, exactly how you might expect Noel Coward to be. Except, well, a time traveller. How amazing is that?