This adventure was going to require a serious frock.
— Paul Cornell, Human Nature, Chapter 1
It’s 18 February 1995. My friends and I are attending Tri(c)on, a Doctor Who convention which is being held at the Parramatta Travelodge in a suburb of Sydney called Rosehill. Mark Strickson is the special guest: he has made the 500-kilometre journey from Armidale, where he is currently studying at the University of New England. He has hilarious things to say about how stunts were performed in the studios at the BBC Television Centre.
One of the items on the programme has already been cancelled. It was called Companion Makeover, presumably in honour of Strickson, but no one is really sure who is running it or what it is supposed to be about. So the organisers have decided to replace it with an intereactive panel called DonaWho, in honour of The Phil Donahue Show, which will end its 26-year run some time later in the year. Like its near namesake, this panel will feature a compere with a radio mic who will wander around the room, soliciting bracing contributions from the audience and creating entertaining conflicts among its members.
Twenty years later, I can’t remember why I was the one given that microphone.
I have already planned what I want to do. I may have worked it out on the train on the way up, if I caught the train, or perhaps the night before if I was driving there in my sprightly yellow roadster known as Carol. In any case, I have a plan. “Ladies and gentlemen”, I probably say, “today I intend to create to set fan against fan, to create a rift in Doctor Who fandom that will echo throughout the ages.”
And I mean it. Today, I will split the audience into two irreconcilable warring factions — not Rills and Drahvins, not Savants and Deons, not Daleks and Thals. This time the factions will be called Guns and Frocks.
The ‘Guns and Frocks’ thing dates back a few years now. I think it’s [Doctor Who novelist] Gareth Roberts who said that Doctor Who needs less guns and more frocks. And it became a very quick shorthand for two rough schools of writing in the Doctor Who novels: one of which was militaristic space opera books that were very serious, and took themselves very seriously; and then at completely the other end of the spectrum, very camp ones that did not take themselves seriously….
— Interview with Kate Orman, 2005.
By the begining of February 1995, Virgin Publishing had released 22 original novels in its New Adventures range. The range had started in June 1991, two years after the soft cancellation of the TV series, and one month before the publication of the long-delayed novelisation of the last available Doctor Who story, Battlefield.
The New Adventures were explicitly intended to be the official continuation of the Doctor Who story. They starred Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, reconceived as the dark and mysterious arch-manipulator we barely glimpsed in Remembrance of the Daleks, along with his companion Ace, whose soft-left politics and fascination with chemistry was inexplicably transformed into a hard-right obsession with military hardware and a fascination with killing things.
I remember being disappointed by the New Adventures at the time. Reading a New Adventure took many times longer than watching a Doctor Who story. And it wasn’t something you could enjoy drunkenly with friends. More than that, though: the New Adventures were grim and dark. They introduced uninteresting plot elements early on that demanded the reader’s memory and attention until they were unimpressively slotted into place towards the end of the novel. And they were heavy with continuity. Not fun Hand-of-Sutekh continuity: dull, leaden continuity involving Arc of Infinity or the history of the Earth Empire as established in the Pertwee Era.
There were a few exceptions. My friend Kate Orman had written a book called The Left-Handed Hummingbird, an immensely clever and well-written piece of science fiction. Paul Cornell had written two novels: Timewyrm: Revelation, which had featured a sentient church and a weird mindscape redolent of nostalgia and love for the television programme we had lost, and Love and War, which had introduced the incomparably clever, knowing and hilarious Professor Bernice Summerfield. And Gareth Roberts — who had loved Tom Baker’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana nearly as much as I had — whose novel The Highest Science had featured hilarious turtle-shaped aliens, and which would, a million years later, form the basis of the brilliantly entertaining 2009 Easter Special, Planet of the Dead.
Benny grinned at her. ‘My dear Roslyn, frocks are the purpose of life.’ She twirled, her skirt flying out around her, grabbing at her hat. ‘Frocks are what it is all about. Do try to remember that.’
— Kate Orman, SLEEPY, Chapter 22.
”I’m going to ask you five yes/no questions, and I want you keep count of how many questions where your answer is yes. Ready?“
They are ready, and so I ask them these questions:
- Has your enjoyment of a Doctor Who story ever been spoiled by what one of the major characters was wearing?
- Have you ever as an adult had to stop yourself from crying while watching a companion’s departure scene?
- Do you prefer a companion wearing high heels to one wearing combat boots?
- Do you think Delta and the Bannermen is seriously underrated?
- Have you ever, in public, in a mixed gathering, impersonated one of the following: Lady Adrasta, Helen A, Count Scarlioni, Harrison Chase, Lady Peinforte or President and Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation Servalan?
”Now I want you to get up and change seats. If you answered yes to zero, one or two of these questions, I want you to sit on this side of the room. You guys are the Guns. But you answered yes to three or more questions, I want you to sit over here. You are the Frocks.“
Fortunately, the audience splits into roughly two equal groups. Here they are, sitting in rows, staring uncomprehendingly at each other across the aisle.
[Nathan] then asked a whole bunch of Who-related questions, trying to determine if there were any real dividing factors. Most factors had people on both sides both agreeing and disagreeing, but some were dividing (opinion on Mel was amazing — the Frocks loved her and the Guns hated her).
The debate was really, really fun and there was no animosity on either side, due to the fun approach.
— Robert Smith? The Frock Homepage, with Gun
Doctor Who is over fifty years old now. And I love it to death. As my friend and fellow-podcaster Richard once said, it can be anything, any story. An elegiac history lesson about sectarian murder. A ludicrous space opera featuring robot monsters and a megalomaniacal Bond villain. A love story across dimensions. An allegory about racism, a rollicking adventure story featuring racism, a story — many stories — in which the Doctor fights against exploitation, oppression, and villains without any sense of humour.
But there are things about Doctor Who that leave me cold. The history of the Time Lords. Harmonising the ridiculously inconsistent stories of the various Dalek factions. Explaining why the Cybermen in Attack look so much like the centuries-later Cybermen of Earthshock. And believing that watching people with guns attacking other people with guns is adult, serious and entertaining.
Here’s what I love. Billy’s sadness when he remembers how little his friends loved and understood him. Tobias Vaughn’s laughter as Zoë destroys his receptionist computer by talking to it in ALGOL. Pertwee’s time flow analogue, made of forks and corks and tea leaves. The Hand of Sutekh. Tom and Lalla effortlessly outshining the dull, unimaginative forces of evil. Beryl Reid’s tango hairdo. Melanie Bush trapped under a crocheted throw-rug, screaming at an advancing toasting fork. Sylv dancing awkwardly with Ray in Wales in 1959. And a Doctor who would “make the villains fall into their own traps, and trick the monsters, and outwit the men with guns. He’d save everybody’s life and find a way to win.”
That’s what I mean by Guns and Frocks.