Tomorrow is the anniversary of Doctor Who. 50 years old. Or young. Or something. It’s REALLY VERY EXCITING! We’ve not been around for a while, and while we’re gearing up for a big event and our own return to recording shows, I thought I’d get the ball rolling, with a book review.
There are hundreds of books out there about the series. Absolutely blooming loads. And sometimes it’s really hard to see what’s good and what’s just opinionated and uninformed twaddle – I’ve been burned by that before. Can you tell?
But Who’s 50 looked different to me – written by a couple of authors who have produced a guide to Doctor Who before (Who Is The Doctor), but that was a guide to the new series, whereas this seems intended to be a starting place, and an attempt to add some context to finding your way into the WHOLE of Doctor Who – across all 50 of the years.
And the difference is that there was a need for this book. In their introduction, Graeme Burk and Robert Smith? point out that there are 3 questions they were asked over and over again at launches and conventions when promoting their previous book: Which classic series Doctor Who should I watch if I’ve never seen it before? What stories would you suggest to people who have never seen Doctor Who? What Doctor Who stories would you suggest I get on DVD? The book is their way of answering those questions.
The authors have chosen 50 stories (my increasingly addled geek brain still refuses to call them “episodes”) to reflect the best, and worst, of the series – talking points and a true reflection rather than a blinkered best-of collection.
And this is a large part of the book’s success, for me. Doctor Who fandom isn’t a group of people blindly agreeing and universally loving everything that appears on the screen, and the authors don’t flinch from that. There are differences of opinion between them, and you’ll disagree with some selections they make and arguments they put forward too. But that’s OK – they make no pretence that this is some kind of definitive guide to the stories, and I seem warm to people the moment I detect a complete lack of arrogance about them – so let’s just say I got off on the right foot with this book.
What they do try to do though, is help you understand the context in which the stories were made – and even (in the case of the Key to Time season) point to what the programme was trying to achieve, and suggest reasons why perhaps it didn’t quite work.
The “tips for newbies” sections are a neat idea and makes a few good suggestions on how to appreciate the older stories – like taking it one episode at a time (despite the remarkable temptation). That’s advice I should really take too – it’s way too easy to press Play All and be exhausted by it by episode 3! It does give good hints on how to enjoy and adjust between different eras and evolutions of the series.
Each story is discussed at some length – there’s a broad summary of plot, then a list of references and influences (which I thought was particularly great – a nice little reminder that no element is ever new, just recycled) and then some historical context in terms of the show. There’s a section on continuity, and a little check on where the characters of the Doctor and his companions are at too. There’s a celebration of the joyous moments, acknowledgment of the cringe worthy and the nonsensical too, as well as (of course, no Doctor Who book is complete without it) trivia. Then there’s opinion, which, as always, is subjective, but both authors have a say, and while that does inevitably lead to some conflict, it also means we get a more rounded picture of the story, it’s impact and meanings.
Extra context is added through the little vignettes peppered throughout – side-tracks which look at wider subjects that affected the making of the series, such as what the shooting conditions were like in Lime Grove Studio 4, The Doctor’s Name and background on the actors.
In style, I suppose this falls somewhere between the classic Target guide, The Making of Doctor Who and Virgin’s The Discontinuity Guide – it’s a serious guide to these stories, well worth paying attention to, but it’s irreverent too. And on top of that, I think they make a good job of explaining what Ghost Light is all about – by unpicking the relationship between the central characters, which is a sizeable achievement in itself, some would say.
So, in short: I’m off out to buy this. Yes, I have a preview copy, but I want a proper one. It’s worth it. Particularly if you have someone in your life who keeps asking you the questions that prompted the book, or you’ve been asking them yourself…
Chris Alpha (@alphaood)