WhoniverseBookmark and Share

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.





You and Who ElseBookmark and Share

Monday, 4 January 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
You and Who Else
You and Who Else.
Edited by J.R. Southall
Published by Watching Books, 20 November 2015
Proceeds to the Terence Higgins Trust

This is the first time I’ve encountered one of the essay anthologies edited by J.R. Southall. After the Doctor Who-mulling of two You and Who volumes Southall and his contributors have now widened their horizons and assembled a (largely British) television canon over which to chew, from The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in 2015, with a bias towards telefantasy but also including examples from other genres. The works of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin or Gordon Murray rub film cans with A for Andromeda or obscure (at least, to me) pre-school programmes such as Bizzy Lizzy. Later, My Parents are Aliens is filed near The Mighty Boosh and Strange. With such eclectic tastes to be served, the tome is a heavy one, almost reaching eight hundred pages. The number of contributors and essays also runs into the hundreds. Writers include familiar names from professional commissions to prolific forum contributors, bloggers and podcasters as well as less well-known people. It’s difficult therefore to generalize about the book’s content.

Several strains of fandom rely on nostalgia and this is well represented here, but the lessons of the past and our emotional relations with it are not always learned. Tales of admiration for television series are too often told with regret for what might have been, or as assertions of identity and individuality which use similar language in each case and rely too much on reflections of the author’s present condition back into a reimagined history. It’s therefore a relief when one reaches an essay based on diary entries or other evidence where the writer makes a serious attempt to recover and assess their past self.

There is so much creativity and imagination in fandom and it’s a pity that too often in the earlier stages of the book a writer’s reaction to or memories of a particular programme is expressed through unconstructive self-criticism or even dismissive self-loathing which rejects or fails to understand the admirable qualities shown by their younger selves. It would be unfair to say that this tendency dominates the entire book. There are always examples of snappy journalistic writing and arguments with which one might disagree, but which are nevertheless built on individual experience. This is a book expressing the identity of two or three television-viewing generations, and identity can be tricksy and intensely felt. Perhaps that’s why among the most successful pieces is one which distills memoir into abstract short fiction.

Contributors come from many different careers. Several have professional experience in broadcasting, and while there are several witty and perhaps even indiscreet memoirs here there are also reminders that even people with what might appear to be a string of enviable production credits have their own moments of self-doubt. The most uplifting essays are often by those who come from outside Britain or from those who are assessing a programme they are too young to have viewed at the time; these might offer a more distinctive account of the author’s personal development, away from the familiar narrative of school and bullying, a foreign interpretation on the way a culture might present itself to itself, or even surprising parallels between a British 1960s play and the American workplace of the 1990s and 2000s.

You and Who Else never claims to be a reference work in any conventional sense. Even if it did, there are too many errors of fact or underappreciations of context for that. The essays which attempt to tell a history of a series at the expense of crowding out its personal impact disappoint, particularly when they tantalize with a couple of sentences of unfulfilled insight. However, it is work for pleasure with the intention of raising money for charity rather than an entry in the broad commercial marketplace; and as a broad-based assembly of the views of a worldwide community of literate commentators, all writing somewhere in a tradition of self-improvement and in celebration and defence of a populist creative form, You and Who Else is a worthy addition to the bookshelf even if a more readable book might have been achieved by removing some of the material and concentrating on the most imaginative responses to the brief. 





The Man Behind The MasterBookmark and Share

Thursday, 24 September 2015 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster
The Man Behind The Master (Credit: Fantom Publishing)
The Man Behind The Master - The biography of Anthony Ainley
Written by Karen Louise Hollis
Published by Fantom Publishing, September 2015
"I am usually referred to as the Master..."

In many ways we probably know more about the mysterious figure from the Doctor's past than we do of the man who played him throughout the 1980s, Anthony Ainley. A man who fiercely protected his privacy, we knew little of him other than the persona he chose to play at conventions and the like. In her biography of the actor, Karen Hollis attempts to bring us a better perspective of "The Man behind the Master".

With such a private man, this was always going to be quite a daunting task - for fandom, his own date of birth hadn't been confirmed for quite some time - other than it being the same day as his Doctor Who co-stars Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred - until it was realised that he had been registered under his mother's name and it wasn't until later in life that he adopted his famous father's surname. However, Hollis took on the challenge: "Using exhaustive interviews with friends and colleagues from every aspect of Anthony's life, including his best friend from school, fellow children from the Actor's Orphanage, cricketing friends, colleagues, and those who remained close to him until his death in 2004, this book aims to uncover the real Anthony Ainley."

As one might expect, his life is presented in broadly chronological order, forming some three phases: his childhood as Anthony Holmes in the Actor's Ophanage, evacuation to America in the Second World War and his own military service; into drama, and of course Doctor Who; and then his 'other' passion of sport and in particular, cricket.

However, what quickly becomes apparent is that even those who were close to him and might be called friends didn't seem to be able to pinpoint exactly what was going on inside the enigmatic Anthony, even as a child - in fact you'd be forgiven in thinking that the early part of the book was more about the likes of Granville Bantock and Judy Staber! What we really get here is context, the observations of those who were his contemporaries in the Orphanage of the life there, and on how Anthony would have fitted into those routines (or not!). This was par for the course for much of the book, as with the man himself keeping himself to himself we can only read anecdotal evidence of his life and ambitions.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to be said about Ainley. The book certainly serves to bring all the aspects of his life together in one volume, and whilst it might not be as in depth on the actor as I personally would have liked, it's testament to the reseach by Hollis that there is a lot I didn't know about his life to still discover, such as his pre-acting career, him knowing Tom Baker for a long time through his half-brother Richard, his relationships with Sarah Badel and Kate O'Mara, and the far-reaching influence of Noel Coward.

His acting career is also well-documented, though as one might expect Doctor Who dominates the book, and was his main passion thereafter - well, that and cricket! The book examines each of Ainley's stories and his interaction within them, and his later convention appearances and later return to the Master in the game Destiny Of the Doctors. In this area we are, of course, on firmer ground and so the chapters are far 'meatier' than the earlier ones. It's a shame in many ways that Hollis didn't draw more on his fan correspondence within the book - the author told me that she instead wanted to focus on friends, colleagues, and family, though she does reflect in the book that he did engage with a number of fans in this way, including herself! Fandom is of course covered in the book, and it was a nice surprise to find an unattributed quote of mine lurking within the text too!

As well as the prime "character" of the biography, his family are also covered, with his mother Clarice featuring quite prominently (he lived with her for much of his later life), plus a chapter devoted to his father, Henry (of which perhaps more is known than Anthony!).

The only real criticism of the book I have is that in many cases it seems like several pieces have been "cut'n'pasted" together rather than presenting a continuous narrative, for example where people's names can flick between full-, fore- or surname in consecutive paragraphs; there was also a case where the story over the Master/Tremas pseudonym becomes deja-vu as it is refered to again in consecutive paragraphs, an effect of the way quotes were presented. Having had to constantly re-assess, re-edit and reposition text in my literary efforts over time (including this review!), I know it is easy for things like these to get overlooked when ensuring that everything ends up where you want it to be, and it doesn't actually impact the facts being presented, only that I found it interrupted my own concentration when reading!

Overall, I think the book does a very reasonable job of patching together Ainley's life, and bringing the various facts and figures together. However, it does also hang a lot on the 'gossip' about him, which is the unfortunate effect of documenting somebody who took great pains not to be documented!





Changing the Face of Doctor WhoBookmark and Share

Thursday, 13 August 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Changing the face of Doctor Who
Changing the Face of Doctor Who
Designed by Colin Brockhurst
Additional illustrations by Steve Andrew
Published August 2015

Last year Colin Brockhurst’s portfolio The Day of Doctor Who was widely acclaimed for its presentation of a fifth anniversary special that might have been. There William Hartnell and Peter Cushing had joined Patrick Troughton in a story which – as the imagined Radio Times cover, listings and even telesnaps suggested – pseudo-anticipated The Day of the Doctor while tying in with 1960s stories from An Unearthly Child to The War Games as well as reconciling (for those who think it necessary) the cinematic and television versions of Doctor Who. The project looked less like something created than it did a series of artefacts which had somehow fallen through a wormhole from another universe, where Doctor Who had proceeded in a different but parallel direction to the one we know.

Colin has now returned with a second set, Changing the Face of Doctor Who, which explores an alternative past where a different succession of actors assumed the role of the Doctor. Again, this is an exercise in counterfactual history which draws on recognisable events, settings and products but shifts them slightly sideways so the audience is engaged with an alternate past just that little more out of reach than the one we know. Geoffrey Bayldon stares out of the Radio Times launch cover Doctor Who never had in 1963. We’d not have had discussions over what kind of hat the second Doctor wore in early photographs had he been wearing Brian Blessed’s bowler. Ron Moody appears on the cover of a Radio Times from the first week of January 1970 being menaced by a Yeti, recalling the photocall which revealed Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor; but opening the brown envelope printed ‘Radio Times listings’ discloses that in Colin’s projected universe the third Doctor’s era began with Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s Yeti tale The Laird of McCrimmon. How Ron Moody’s Doctor is exiled to twentieth-century Earth to take on Peter Cushing’s Master the following year in The Spray of Death must remain a subject for speculation. The Radio Times entries, inspired by unproduced tales which were abandoned in early stages of their development by the production office, are especially eerie because their phraseology and layout accurately recaptures the Radio Times of their pretended day. Colin is a master at sourcing and recreating typography from the days of hot metal composition and photogravure as he is at recapturing the house style of more recent periods, as shown by a glance at his material commemorating Rik Mayall’s eighth Doctor. Mayall’s screen life seems to have endured beyond one TV Movie, unlike his counterpart in our universe; I wonder if there is a range of Big Finish audios in Brockhurst-Earth’s mediasphere.

Frustratingly perhaps, this set only covers the first eight Doctors. There is no Radio Times cover featuring Hugh Grant and whichever recent graduate from Casualty or EastEnders was supposedly being considered to play Rose Tyler, no James Nesbitt and Robson Green staring out from opposite sides of a DVD box design, no Paterson Joseph and Aisling Loftus on the cover of Doctor Who Adventures… This decision might be regretted, but one (unhappy) consequence of the decision to end with the eighth Doctor (but not necessarily in 1996) is that most of the actors Colin has chosen as his alternative Doctors are dead, one very recently.  Both this and the set's otherwise very limited engagement with post-2005 Doctor Who (but it is recognised, subtly) means that the set doesn’t risk confusing ongoing careers with what could be misinterpreted as marketing materials.

The nature of this kind of work means that Colin has to manage faces which sometimes do not want to be changed and where the source material to effect the transformation has been difficult to obtain, but ultimately the signatures of his alternative Doctors always overwrite those of the ones we know. His collaborator on some items is Steve Andrew, well-known in many fan circles for his Target book pastiches, who provides the cover illustration for the novelisation of Doctor Who and the Robots and for the badge showing Ron Moody’s Doctor in the style of the 1971 Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks series. Again, one suddenly feels the weight of cereal eaten to acquire it, long ago but elsewhen.

The set is definitely of interest to those who like testing the elasticity of Doctor Who’s past as well as its present and future and who imagine how the story of the Doctor and his companions (there are some alternative casting ideas there too) could have been depicted had different choices been made. Excite the interest and comment of all your friends, as Target Books once had it of their badge, but with Richard O’Brien’s Doctor’s first Doctor Who Magazine cover on your wall. In the meantime, I’m off to watch Ken Campbell’s Doctor in Storm Over Avallion – I’m sure I left the disc somewhere…





City of Death (Novelisation/AudioBook)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 22 June 2015 -  
 
City of Death (Credit: BBC Books)
Written by James Goss
Based on the script by Douglas Adams
Based on a story by David Fisher
Released by BBC Books, 21 May 2015

City of Death (audio book) (Credit: BBC Audio)
Read by Lalla Ward
Released by BBC Audio, 21 May 2015
Paris, 1979.

For many Doctor Who fans there is only one thing that sentence can possibly mean. For that place and that time are (mostly) the setting for a story from Tom Baker’s penultimate season – and it happens to be a story which is often considered to be one of the all-time greats in the history of the show. Fast-forward (or fast return, it all depends on your point of view) to 2015 and an all-new novelisation of the serial has arrived on bookshelves under the authorship of James Goss. But to see exactly how this came about, we need to step back a little.

2012 saw the release of a novelisation of another Season 17 story, Shada. But there was one big difference: Shada was never finished and thus never transmitted. So that novel, written by Gareth Roberts, actually provides one of our only means of experiencing the story as a complete entity. It was considered a great success, and paved the way for a further book adaptation of another Douglas Adams script which, likewise, had never been novelised.

Enter City of Death.

While these books share a common heritage, then, this latest one has an issue all of its own to contend with. Unlike Shada, City of Death exists in its entirety as a TV serial produced three-and-a-half decades ago. Which raises the question: how far does the book stray from the established path that so many people know and love? Well, the finished novel achieves a brilliant balance.

Perhaps the most important thing to be aware of is that although a considerable amount of the dialogue is recognisable from the story as we know it, Goss has used the original rehearsal scripts as the basis for his novel. This means that while the story is fundamentally unchanged, much of the dialogue and action is either new (deleted from the finished TV show) or different to some extent from how it turned out on screen. The result is quite fascinating. In addition, of course, Goss has embellished and added even further to the story, and this is in evidence almost immediately. To cite an early example, the Doctor and Romana’s first visit to the Louvre is entirely familiar and yet radically different.

The book’s first chapter contains some of its most notable deviations from the televised original (and in this sense you could argue that the first chapter is the book’s most atypical), but this turns out to be a masterstroke. Before we see the Doctor and Romana in Paris (and no, this is no longer their first appearance in the novel) the book does what only a book can: it elaborates substantially on the backstory of almost any character you could care to mention, not just through dialogue but also by transporting the reader into the minds of the characters themselves. For readers familiar with the original material, this makes for a hugely eye-opening introduction to this new interpretation of the story. It has to be said that for those who aren’t as overly acquainted with City of Death, the first chapter could perhaps be a little less effective – not quite so much of a ‘hook’ into the novel, but taking on much more meaning by the time of its conclusion.

As the book progresses and catches up with the narrative of the original TV episodes, that’s where the benefits of the written medium become very clear. Goss’ writing is rich, witty and compelling, not only a superb homage to the late Douglas Adams (indeed, a number of phrases in the book originate from stage directions in the scripts themselves, but except for the examples given in the notes at the back of the book you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the Adams from the Goss – the language is incredibly consistent and harmonious throughout) but also a match made in heaven with the story itself. If there’s any TV serial which particularly suits being made into a novel, it must be this one; one of the most evocative Doctor Who stories becomes one of the most evocative Doctor Who books. It isn’t entirely hyperbolic to say that for a short while, when the pages of this book are open, it’s not too difficult to imagine that you might be in Paris (especially if you have the fortune to actually be in Paris).

Also available is an unabridged audiobook release of City of Death. Read by Lalla Ward (Romana) and running to around nine hours and forty-five minutes, the audiobook is an enjoyable way to experience the story and has a character all of its own. Ward’s reading is sharp, clear and well-performed, and the release also takes the opportunity to spruce up the soundscape via the careful use of sound effects. This definitely improves the overall listening experience while remaining restrained and respectful to the underlying material. But because the audiobook obviously runs at a pre-determined pace, there are a few moments which seem to pass by slightly too quickly – not major plot elements, but some of the subtleties of the writing which don’t have the chance to sink in as well, compared to reading the book at your own pace. Ultimately this comes down to personal preference, but having experienced both the hardback and the audiobook, the former did seem more satisfying overall, even though the audio release is still great fun in its own right.

For more than three decades, City of Death has been (no pun intended) a closed book. Four episodes of a television show which has been on our screens – on and off – for over fifty years. But serendipitously, the fact that the story is among those never to have been originally novelised has opened the door for this tremendous new book; at once a fresh reworking and a faithful retelling of a classic adventure. If there’s one reason to buy it, it’s that once you’ve read the book the story will never be the same again. Frankly, after finishing the book it feels like the TV episodes have lots of bits missing. Bits which, just for a moment, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d actually seen performed by the actors in 1979. Events in the original (some of which don’t really make a great deal of sense, with hindsight) are justified and explored, often without even being changed to any significant extent. City of Death is now an even richer and more satisfying story than ever before, and it’s a sheer delight that Season 16’s The Pirate Planet is set to receive the book treatment (once again from Goss) next year. Who says you can’t improve on perfection?
 




Drama and Delight: The Life and Legacy of Verity Lambert by Richard MarsonBookmark and Share

Friday, 27 March 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Written by Richard Marson
Published by Miwk Publishing
Available April 8th 2015 in paperback and deluxe hardback editions  

Considering Verity Lambert's legendary status in broadcasting history, it's surprising that it's taken this long for a book about her to emerge. An iconic figure in Television - forever known as the smart, beautiful, stylish young woman who cut a swathe through the stuffy cloisters of the BBC as a neophyte producer with a little show called Doctor Who.

Verity's pioneering work on Doctor Who's formative years needs very little introduction. It's already well-documented elsewhere, and was only the beginning of a long and illustrious career. We've seen a glimpse of this part of her story in An Adventure in Space and Time, but right from the off, Richard Marson's excellent biography is keen to point out that the 'soft' Verity as portrayed by Jessica Raine in Mark Gatiss's drama was far from the whole picture. Indeed, friends and colleagues don't remember her for the doe eyes and Roedean vowels familiar to Who fans from archive footage - her 'public' face. They recall a passionate, expansive, driven woman - just as prone to epic dinner parties as she was to thunderous meltdowns. She liked a drink, she smoked heavily, and loved men. She lived well, and lived life to the full. 

 

Marson paints a compelling picture of Verity's life and career, shaped as much by friendships and lovers as by career decisions. Her passionate, but doomed relationship with brilliant director Ted Kotcheff leads her indirectly to work with her mentor, Sydney Newman at ATV, before he sends for her at the BBC to help deliver the problem child of a children's drama he's been helping develop. She puts up with the bitchy whispers about how she got the job, and kicks back against the pipe-smoking boy's club at the workplace to forge a strong reputation. Marson addresses the rumours about Sydney and Verity, and her friends and colleagues chip in with their thoughts - but the jury remains out whether the whispers were right.

 

After Who, Verity's fortunes vary at first, and Newman makes her unhappily take up production reins on a new soap opera before allowing her to work on her preferred project - Adam Adamant Lives!, which turns out to be a fairly fraught experience for all concerned. Nonetheless, Verity sees out the rest of the decade continuing to move forward in adult drama in the party atmosphere of the glass-chinking late-sixties beeb. It's only in 1970 that the party briefly skids to a halt, as Verity's contract at the BBC abruptly ends after an overspend on the prestigious W.Somerset Maugham series.

 

Verity quickly regroups, and moves on to Thames TV and Euston Films, where her career flourishes - but inamongst successes like Budgie or Minder there are bitter feuds over Rumpole of the Bailey and a long, messy court case over Rock Follies. She raises eyebrows with her marriage to the much younger Colin Bucksey - now an acclaimed director of US shows such as Breaking Bad and Fargo

Her later years in charge of Cinema Verity and return to the BBC in the 90s have a slightly thinner hit rate as TV production becomes more diffuse, but not even the debacle of Eldorado could slow Verity down. Cancer first diagnosed and treated in the early 70s returns with a vengeance in her final years, but Verity worked to the end with dignity and courage. In spite of all the personal drama and tensions at the coalface of TV production, there's plenty of fun stories and you get the impression that Verity inspired as well as innovated. She wasn't just respected, but loved. Marson's book is a class act, it doesn't stint on the sometimes scathing nature of its subject - but it presents a balanced portrait of a brilliant, trailblazing figure in broadcasting, the like of which we may never see again. Drama and delight indeed.