Sunday, 12 April 2009

If - "Song of the Space Whale"

Another instalment of "If" from Peter Adamson. This entry is posted to tie in with the announcement that Big Finish are adapting some tales from the abandoned Season 23. This "If" comes from the second series of "If" where, instead of examining what impact the story would have had on the series had it been made, it asks what medium would it be best adapted to today (in part already possibly answered by the Big Finish announcement!).

The Fifth Doctor adventure: The Song of the Space Whale/[The] Space-Whale

Writers: Pat Mills [and John Wagner]
Characters: Fourth Doctor/ Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough / Sixth Doctor [and Peri?]
Episodes: Four (according to a 1980 scene breakdown)
Pitched: 1978 (to Anthony Read), 1980 (the Christopher Bidmead), thereafter to Eric saward
Scheduled: Season Twenty, Twenty-One, Twenty-Two (as story 6V)
Final Stage: Abandoned after negotiations between Mills and Saward broke down

Scenario: The TARDIS arrives aboard the Orkas, Multi-Global’s industrial whaling space ship, hunting a Ghaleen, the titular creature. Inside the Ghaleen the Doctor and Nyssa meet a community of humans, among them a recent arrival, the male Turlough. In an attempt to rescue the time-traveling creature’s slaughter they also discover the Ghaleen’s ancestral hunter, the humanoid Thuthon, Krakos. Fleeing time damage from the crippled creature, the Doctor aids in the overthrow of the ship’s corrupt captain and ultimately the Ghaleen’s survival and reunion with its pod. The colony leave the creature, and a restless Turlough asks to join the TARDIS crew.

‘Death is instant. Product loss minimal. Everything will be used’
‘-Everything but the song.’

The story ...

This is it - the mother lode of early '80s unmade-Whodom. A story so far reaching that it reverberated in succeeding years in multimedia, from a punningly-titled d├ębut from proto-Big Finishers AudioVisuals, to yet another of Mike Tucker's endless visual frippery, a TARDIS-Cam Easter egg for, of all things, the Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD. Even in more recent years DWM's eighth Doctor strip has given it a passing nod, in Scott Gray's Leviathan, set inside a giant snake-shaped organic space vessel. In the curious tale that rides this Whale, it would seem that of all the unmade stories, this has made it or at least inspired the most varied incarnations without ever fully being made.

It's a simple idea - a colony of Jonahs in a whale, in space, which is among a species being hunted to extinction by ruthless pirates. If any of this sounds ... I don't know, derivative and heavy-handed, then it may comes as no surprise to some readers that one of its creators was Pat Mills of UK comics fame. I don't mean to sound entirely disingenuous - on paper Space Whale is a gem of an idea - wonderful images that could have been at least as technically challenging as a Wembley-sized stadium filled with extras dressed as cats. It also boasted some intriguing characters and ideas, many of which reappear in Mills' non-Who work; Mills himself being something of a recycler.

This thing may well be though, that as much as it would have liked to have been one, Space Whale isn't really a Doctor Who story, and may not have originated as one either, given the enormous output of both Mills and John (Judge Dredd) Wagner in the late 1970s. The idea that Turlough may have originated from a community living inside a giant space creature just jars with what we know of his character - even if he had been planted there by the Black Guardian (oddly, putting him in an English public school enhances his alienness, although presumably this was deliberate).

The story itself is fine, if a little by-the-numbers. Mills is a great concepts man, capable of some stunning conceits (outside of 2000AD he is perhaps best known for ultra-violent anti-superhero series Marshal Law), but his plots don't always challenge the reader, and of the two, Wagner is very much the master story teller, actually getting better yet as the ages condemn. Perhaps the first sign that this Whale was to be harpooned was when Wagner went overboard and left the project. The rest can probably be summed up in shorthand thus: Mills, deadlines, Saward, the end. Mills himself has a reputation for being proprietary with his creations, and has clashed with editors, having been one himself. He is fiercely protective of his creations, reserving the right to combine their histories into a vague and vast Mills-verse (in 2000AD a wobbly line of continuity can be drawn from prehistoric dino-hunting ripper Flesh through twenty-seconds in the future urban warfare thriller Invasion 1999 (later Savage), through robot trouble-shooters Ro-Busters, through 'mek-nificent seven on Mars' ABC Warriors, through Judge Dredd, and more recently but probably not last, future Earth alien inquisition parable Nemesis the Warlock). One can only imagine a writer with this level of propriety clashing with the likes of Eric Saward and, God help him, JN-T
The conclusion was perhaps more inevitable than anyone imagined - Space-Whale would never work for television.

‘Look at it, Nyssa. A miracle of nature. It took the best brains on Gallifrey a millennium to develop time technology. The Ghaleen has succeeded on its own.’

As ... a comic strip?

So why not take it back to its roots as a comic strip? Let Mills develop it in the medium to which he clearly relates and work best in, edit the script of course, have a sure voice of Who-continuity nearby and assign an artist up to the challenge of realising Mill' vision. And staying faithful to the likenesses of Season Twenty's regulars, of course.

But there's a further tragedy that has yet to be revealed. This almost happened, although without the Who element. In the early 90s Mills in fact attempted to work up a Doctor-less version of the story and failed each time. Lack of interest from a fickle US market and the collapse of adult comic title Toxic! which began but never completed the story's last incarnation, saw the demise of the story's last incarnation, the oddly-titled space biker yarn Mutomaniac. This was to be illustrated by 2000AD (and DWM) alumnus Mike McMahon, but slow progress in this area (only 30 pages were completed for the comic’s limited run of seven issues) combined with a tight schedule meant a cancelled strip.

In an ideal world though, the comic strip is where Song of the Space Whale should be sung. Let Scott Gray rein its writer in, and Martin Geraghty (doing his best Dave Gibbons imitation) bring it to visual life. I'd buy it.

- Peter Adamson

References: Doctor Who Magazine