The pervasively magical stories of Neil Gaiman are everywhere these days, which often makes us wonder if hundreds of years from now he won’t be regarded in mythical, legendary tones, like Hans Christian Andersen, or the Grimm Brothers. Just like those guys, Neil Gaiman was inspired by existing stories, too, but interestingly enough, when Gaiman plays in other sandboxes, he frequently employs a kind of “bubble universe” where his unique sensibilities are free to roam, relatively unconstrained by the rules of the world he’s visiting.
Here are four instances of Gaiman setting up shop in a familiar world and making it his own.
Sherlock Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft: “A Study in Emerald”
In this very early Neil Gaiman short story, H.P. Lovecraft collides with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a tricky reimagined version of the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. The primary ingredient is the setting of the tale: an alternate Victorian England ruled by the many-tentacled Cthulhu and, I must admit, the main twist of this story fooled me when I first read it several years ago. I believed the narrator to be a bizarro-world John Watson, but in fact, it’s subtly written by Sebastian Moran and concerns him and Moriarty.
Here, John Watson and a thinly disguised Sherlock Holmes are villains, and Moran and Moriarty are the good guys. “A Study in Emerald” is packed with nerdy inside references to Conan Doyle’s stories even as it recasts the Sherlock Holmes universe with unspeakable monsters. This particular story is also fascinating not only because of the mash-up of story elements, but because Gaiman makes an effort to write the tale in the prose style of both Conan Doyle and Lovecraft. Though thoroughly Gaiman-esque, this story doesn’t sound like Gaiman. In this case that was entirely the point, as the author admits in the introduction to the story in his short fiction collection Smoke and Mirrors. Although Gaiman also states that he was not entirely satisfied that he successfully hid his voice or accomplished a true mingling of the Lovecraft and Conan Doyle mythos. Gaiman’s efforts in other universes are arguably more Gaiman-esque. Perhaps his lack of satisfaction with “A Study in Emerald” is the culprit? (Download it for free on Neil Gaiman’s site.)
Babylon 5: “Day of the Dead”
With devoted fans and a crazy prolific writer/creator in the form of J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 is often spoken about in reverent tones and praised for being “real” science fiction for television. By its fifth and final season, Straczynski was writing every single episode, so it seems strange that Neil Gaiman would pen an episode of the show, especially since the author is not exactly known for the hard science fiction that defines Babylon 5.
Odder still is that Gaiman’s episode debuted while the show was neck-deep in its ongoing story arcs. “Day of the Dead” gets around this by literally severing a piece of the station and sending it elsewhere so that the characters can experience the events of the episode without affecting the ongoing plot.
In this episode, a section of Babylon 5 is sent to the homeworld of an alien race called the Brakiri, who are celebrating a religious holiday. This special night involves the return of those long dead, turning B5 into ghostville as people who had died previously on the show came back to have chats with those still alive.
Gaiman walks an interesting line here, because while some of this is continuity porn, it’s mostly just exploring the notion of being able to gab with someone who is back from the dead for one night. In fact, Gaiman’s writing is best showcased when characters are talking with ghosts who have absolutely no bearing on the larger storyline of the show. Captain Lochley (a new character to B5 at that point) gets the best storyline of all, as she tries to make peace with what is essentially the ghost of her college roommate. Darker still, this roommate had committed suicide, and Captain Lochley still harbors guilt over the whole thing. Here, a really, really great character piece plays out like a cathartic short story, and somehow it’s smack dab in the middle of a science fiction epic. Gaiman navigates these very personal and touching spooky tales expertly, as you’d imagine he would, but by the end of the episode you still feel like you’ve taken a bit of a break from the show itself. You’re dreaming now, but don’t worry, you’ll have woken up by the next episode.
In the early 2000s Marvel Comics practically burst out of its skin proclaiming that Neil Gaiman was writing something in their comics universe, and reader anticipation for the project was high, helped by the fact that Marvel refused to reveal what characters would be involved or what the story would be about.
The eight-issue mini-series 1602 would turn out to be the entire Marvel Universe As Imagined By Neil Gaiman. Rather than work with existing continuity, Gaiman took the established characters and imagined how existing circumstances at the dawn of the 17th century would bring them about. His interpretation, full of grand setpieces, high drama, a touch of the eldritch, and a fair bit of swashbuckle, would prove so popular that Marvel continued to tell tales in this alternate timeline for years afterwards. Near the end of Gaiman’s mini-series, the books themselves comment on the fact that they’re a bubble universe within a larger one.
Gaiman would return to play in the established Marvel universe a couple years later with a mini-series that re-established Jack Kirby’s Eternals characters and folded them back into the ongoing Marvel Comics universe. As opposed to the runaway success of 1602, the results of The Eternals were mixed, and the characters and elements that he introduced were barely ever heard from again.
Which begs the question of whether it’s even possible for Neil Gaiman to become part of a larger universe while asserting his unique style. With The Eternals, Gaiman’s attempts to conform to a specific continuity were rejected by readers already accustomed to it, which prompts the question: Should he have even tried in the first place?
Doctor Who: “The Doctor’s Wife”
Full of patchwork people and doll-like entities, “The Doctor’s Wife” feels like Neil Gaiman right off the bat. The Doctor, Amy, Rory, and the TARDIS even immediately travel to “a bubble universe” so the events of the episode can play out.
There’s a lot of fun sci-fi concepts in this one, particularly the notion that there is an interdimensional Bermuda triangle filled with lost spaceships. Despite wide vistas of a starship graveyard, Gaiman gives the episode a fairy tale quality, going so far as to personify the Doctor’s beloved TARDIS as a sci-fi fairy creature.
What’s notable about this, however, is that Gaiman’s personal style works extremely well within the parameters of the show. (Especially Moffat’s particular brand of Doctor Who, which delights in careening between dreamy fairy tales and manic sci-fi.) By personifying the Doctor’s space/time machine as the delightful Idris, Neil Gaiman changes Doctor Who forever while also staying true to its spirit. When Idris joyously yells “THIEF!!!” at the start of the episode, you know this is a Gaiman character through and through. (Shades of Delirium from Sandman?) And when Amy and Rory are trapped in the TARDIS by House, Gaiman’s particular brand of unseen horror seeps through.
But what’s really going on in this episode is what makes it great: a time traveler gets to meet his time machine as a living person. Again, it’s a personal story, about two people who wouldn’t normally meet, able to actually interact through what is basically magic. There’s something really classic about this premise, and considering how often Gaiman has reinterpreted classic stories, it comes as no surprise that the author would choose to do the same in Doctor Who.
In a way, this episode exists as self-commentary on the fact that Gaiman creates his own space within existing franchises and universes. Doctor Who is a very stretchable show, encompassing a variety of genres, and Gaiman didn’t literally have to take the characters into an entirely new universe to tell the story of “The Doctor’s Wife.” In a funny twist, though, the story works as well as it does because he did. We learned a great deal about the Eleventh Doctor and how he feels about his people. We learned even more about the TARDIS, how it makes decisions, its history, and how it feels about the Doctor (“my thief”). We learned just how deep Rory’s resentment towards Amy’s ambivalence goes. And it all happens during a high stakes race to prevent House from entering the “real” universe.
Gaiman had to do what he does best, take the show outside of itself, in order for us to learn more about its characters and concepts, which is an amazing trick to pull off. One wonders what we’re in for in his forthcoming episode, “Nightmare in Silver.”
These aren’t the only instances of Neil Gaiman creating his own universe inside of others. Sandman is the most obvious example, and you can make the argument that he did the same in his work on Miracleman, Batman, in songwriting projects that he’s been a part of, and in other worlds that he’s dipped into.
What’s intriguing is how well-suited Gaiman’s plots, themes, and style of prose are to this kind of storytelling. Most any other writer attempting the same would be jarring, or uncomfortable, but not Gaiman, despite the fact that the author’s style is readily apparent in his own universes or in others.
How does that work?
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is pretty sure his freshmen and sophomore year of high school were written by Neil Gaiman.