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Wednesday, 6 January 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Whoniverse
Whoniverse
Written by Lance Parkin
Published by Aurum Press
Released on 29 October 2015

In an age when Doctor Who book licenses are almost entirely held within the behemoth of the publishing world that is Penguin Random House, it is a brave mainstream publisher that ventures into the Doctor Who world with an unlicensed title. The inconveniences are many and the rewards uncertain. Aurum, part of popular history to DIY to children's books to gardening (and much else) combine Quarto, have released this ambitious work written by Lance Parkin which seeks to present the storytelling and narrative philosophy he has expressed in more narrowly-targeted works such as the various editions of Ahistory to a wider audience, with the benefits of illustrations and infographics. The book is produced by design and photography publisher RotoVision who intriguingly retain the copyright.

Whoniverse’s title appeals to a pedigree beyond those shared by books official or otherwise which draw from recent memories of Doctor Who: I first came across the term ‘Whoniverse’ as the title of the second volume of Jean-Marc Lofficier’s The Doctor Who Programme Guide (1981) The written content and the concept are sound. Parkin takes the reader through the cosmology of Doctor Who – not just a universe but universes, through galaxies and across worlds. There are examinations of phenomena such as the migrations of the Cybermen or human colonies. As expected given his previous work, Parkin doesn’t confine himself to the Doctor’s televised adventures but pulls together evidence from across multiple sources: comic strips and text fiction from many (licensed) sources and of course audio stories. The result is an outlook on the imagined world of Doctor Who far removed from that presented by most accounts where in practice evidence from what is still sometimes dismissed as ‘spinoffery’ bends to that drawn from the television series, especially the current one.

The execution leaves something to be desired, however. The range of images drawn upon – research credited to the author himself – is impressive but not without reservations. Several alien designs are represented not by photographs of actors in make-up and costume but of reduced-scale models or dummies from exhibitions sometimes looking like unfortunate examples of taxidermy. The non-BBC agency photographs are a variable trove use to mixed effect. There is some very good artwork, some specially commissioned for the book from artists known and unknown, and others reprinted from earlier publications, often deployed in ways which demonstrate Parkin’s catholic attitude towards sources. However, much of it is printed at a resolution which doesn’t flatter the detail or where more care was needed with colour calibration. The standard vortex pattern which provides the base for the infographics which appear on many of the right-hand pages is similarly uninvolving. There are some factual errors in the picture captions and at least one persistent misspelling of the name of a real-life person.

These weaknesses are to be regretted as Parkin approaches the exercise with a deadpan tone with strong precedent in works which treat fictional shared worlds as if they are coherent unified creations. Anywhere which treats the planets of the Nimon (used both as singular and plural here) on the same basis as Kastria, Logopolis, Sontar or the Shadow Proclamation is entertaining; adding the Robotov Empire from the BBC Audio Serpent Crest series is audacious but carried off. The point is not the primacy of a particular canon, but whether a concept has gained enough weight to support a double-spread of text and image.

Whoniverse isn’t the essential purchase its publisher hoped it would be. The concept deserved more investment, better deployment of its eclectic art resources and perhaps also more text or even better-deployed text; as it is the impression is given on some layouts of more white space than there actually is. Sometimes it's curiously old-fashioned, as if using illustrations from the World Distributors Doctor Who annuals had transferred some of their spirit. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining experiment which might yet set both a precedent and a challenge for future commissions.