‘Nice Guy or Utter Bastard?’ Continuity Errors by Steven Moffat

The RTD and the Moff and Me

Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: Steven Moffat

By James Ashworth

As we approach the end of Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who, it’s about time to go back to the first. Published in a Doctor Who Anthology, Decalog 3, in 1996, its name was Continuity Errors, and it featured the Doctor visiting a library. Mundane enough, it seems. But from here, a series of events would occur that will change the future of the Doctor himself! The most immediate is the ability for the Doctor to end a war and save a species, but the more major consequence for us is that the ideas featured in this book would come back to the fore once he became showrunner, particularly in the form of his flagship character, River Song.

The book is framed in the form of a lecture at Luna University on The Doctor, interspersed with the story itself. As was previously mentioned, the Doctor visits a library, as like many library visitors, he wishes to read a book. However, the Librarian, Andrea Talwinning, is unwilling to let him have this book. As such, he begins to influence her life using time travel, subtly at first, and then making more and more dramatic changes as the world changes around them. At first, he just doubles as one of her teachers, before the changes really start. He convinces her husband not to abandon her, and then intervenes to save her daughter from an alien attack. But while they are now good friends, her principles still prevent her from lending the book. So he goes back to her days when she was being augmented to be a librarian, and now the two strands of the story come together, with The Doctor taking over from the lecturer (Professor Candy) in order to convince the crowd of the benefits of lending books to your friends, rather than the dangers of himself. It’s a nice idea, one that is interesting yet not too complicated as some of his later stories would become. It also does a great job of showing the character of the 7thDoctor at the peak of his manipulative abilities. What could you possibly do to stop someone who can change you into a form that suits them without you realising? Perhaps the title of the lecture sums it up best. ‘Doctor Who-Nice Guy or Utter Bastard?’

The story is very Adams-esque in this, and other respects, in that it takes an everyday, mundane object or activity and makes it extraordinary. In this case, it is the simple act of loaning a book from a library that becomes the Herculean task that must be overcome for the greater good. The library itself, grown to the size of a planet, is also warped into a place that can both save and destroy, as seen through the Doctor’s attempts to stop genocide. This would later reappear in Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead, where the home of learning becomes a house of horror at the hands, for want of a better word, of the Vashta Nerada. The institution behind it is also a beast, making treaties with other species in order to maintain their supply of books, and the careful censoring of texts that don’t match up with these agreements. This library, while a repository for all the books of the universe, does not make them available for all, but only allows access to what benefits itself. With the Librarian as the Dictator, it’s a corrupt system all the way down, with bribes of beaches and books providing further enticement for the Library to repress the more ‘unfortunate’ moments of history.

As can be seen, the seeds of ideas that would later resurface on television have already been formulated. A Christmas Carol is heavily indebted to this story, with the clear symmetry of the 11th Doctor changing Sardick’s views with the 7th Doctor changing Andrea’s. While there is a bit of sprucing up around the edges, particularly the influence of Sardick’s father, and the increased role of the romantic relationship, the stories follow the same lines. The Doctor, in order to save the day, must go back in time to change someone into a person who will be friends with him in the present, with a relationship and giving someone a life they would never have had along the way, in the form of Andrea’s husband and daughter for Continuity Errors, and through Abigail in A Christmas Carol. As for River Song, her backstory, featuring Professor Candy and Luna University, is already partly in place, becoming a more timeywimey version of Bernice Summerfield in many respects. The relationship with the Doctor, inextricably linked by time travel, also echoes Andrea’s, though they diverge in quite different directions. It also references another Andrea, admittedly not created by Steven Moffat. She is Andrea Yates, Sarah Jane’s childhood friend who died after falling from a pier. She too had time changed around her after the intervention of The Trickster.

When I first read Continuity Errors, I was confused. Titles of books changed, characters acted differently, history was warped. Then I understood that Continuity Errors is not just a good title, but the raison d’etre, the DNA of this story. And it makes you realise just how time travel can affect things, how the whole of The Doctor’s life is just one continuity error after another, as people are changed by the effects of his interventions. Would I recommend you read Continuity Errors? Certainly. And when you want to read it, it’ll be waiting in the WhoSoc library for you.

The rest of Tides 40 can be found online here

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