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!





This Is Colin BakerBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 23 September 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
This is Colin Baker (Credit: Big Finish)
Colin Baker, Nicholas Briggs (Interviewer)
Released August 2015, Big Finish Productions

The Sixth Doctor is perhaps the greatest 'what if' incarnation out of all the Doctors to grace the small-screen in the program's history. .Born out of the explosive events on the planet Androzani Minor, the very first moments of this direct and superior individual made the perfect end to an all-time classic serial. But trouble soon followed for both this new version of the Doctor and the program itself, and Colin Baker's wish to be the longest Doctor to date was cut abruptly short by the higher powers at the BBC

Of course, a horde of Big Finish productions expanded the universe of the past Doctors, and the characters they encountered. The Sixth Doctor has had many more chances to show just why he is every bit as worthy a pilot of the TARDIS as those that came before him and since.

My earliest impression of Colin Baker the person was at a 1990s convention in Birmingham where he had just returned from a tour to Blist Hills with The Mark of The Rani's cast and writers. Somehow I managed to grab a seat on the front row with a friend. One great story after another was shared, and during all that time I noticed just how friendly Colin was with the thoroughly engaged group of fans. A man who could look you full in the eye and smile, and for it to feel like you had met him before.

This type of friendly figure should have been the final stages of the butterfly Sixth Doctor, after sufficient build up and hints along the way. But it was not to be in the 1980s. I am at least confident it will happen in a not too dissimilar fashion with our present Doctor played by the wonderful Peter Capaldi.

This release is both similar and markedly different to Tom Baker at 80. Colin is younger than his predecessor but is very reflective and shows a 'come what may' attitude to the remainder of his career. Unlike Tom, Colin has always been a receptive and fairly open person for an interview. Such is Nicholas Briggs' determination, we actually do get the occasional more negative feelings and critical side to him, without it feeling forced from him.

Another notable difference, is that with Colin, Briggs has clearly much knowledge and appreciation for his work, but also knows that they had a healthy functional relationship.  Baker could get many more opportunities to show his capabilities as the Doctor and Briggs could write, direct, produce or act to some degree depending on the particular story in question.

And I personally enjoy this more assertive model of the same interviewer; one who can clarify and muster views on the past, the present and the future as they transpire for the interviewee.

 

The structure here is successful as a chronology with the occasional reflection and discussion of a big topic or theme. And it is very engaging to get a sense of how Baker as an acting persona grew and developed, drawing upon the various formative experiences he had, and later influences from people that he respected or revered. Colin rarely speaks for more than a minute or two without making some amusing anecdote, or some very insightful point about various important topics, i.e. society, education, effort in accomplishing something, opportunity, status, basic respect, and being a public figure - that last one of course being of paramount interest to listeners. He was put into a very troublesome place when it appeared he might be turned on and blamed for things faltering in a massive institution which Doctor Who was (and now is more than ever before).

To my mind this release is just as engrossing, and more dependable as a record of the person behind the actor. There will always be a sense that Tom Baker wants to play to the audience and be an entertainer the majority of the time, and will keep a certain amount of his most private thoughts to himself and a few trusted confidantes. Colin Baker is private in the sense that he will hint how his children and wife are the biggest thing in his life, but he will talk properly about virtually everything else and show no worries as to what others think. He even says that whether he is smart or not is for other to "decide", which is wonderfully self-aware and grounded.

But one common trait with the Fourth Doctor actor release, is that this interview tries to avoid retreading much previous material from bonus interviews that followed the Big Finish dramas. Furthermore there is very little about the majority of Baker's tenure as the doctor. So if like myself, you were frustrated by a lack of commentary from him on the DVD of Revelation of the Daleks, (and again for episode 13 of The Trial of a Time Lord) then this just is not the place to find his views.

 

Baker's formative years are arguably the very best component of the interview. We see a remarkably distinctive boy who unapologetically demonstrated the mind and attitude of a middle class thinker, and that caused problems for him in a school that was part of a very northern working class town. Further problems came from his posh voice, and his bookworm tendencies.

Yet instead of bogging the young Colin down, the ability to adapt and to gain trust and companionship was demonstrated, and would become a great asset of his. Later  he went on to be a promising young lawyer but opted ultimately for acting, despite its far less certain dividends and prospects.

He also would always stand up for the underdog and not be a pushover, but still use tact and patience when required.. And for those of us who revelled in his Doctor's finest moments, those were the precise qualities that made us cheer him on as he batted aside Mentors, Androgums, Borads and Vervoids.

Colin talks of his proud use of sarcasm, and how he gets on better usually with those that likewise opt for ironic and deadpan humour. And the jokes certainly come through many a time, enabling his release further replay value which was already sizeable given the remarkable life story.

 

However some bittersweet or melancholic moments are also there, even when a  quip has only just registered with the listener.  One of these is Baker talking about his dignified efforts to secure one last full season, and how he would not just return for the opener; eventually Time and the Rani. This was certainly more than reasonable and such issues had dogged Blake's 7 lead Gareth Thomas (Incidentally Colin was fantastically memorable as Bayban in a Series 3 episode that didn't feature Blake).

Yet apparently more galling was the regret over his inability to go to university as his father did not see the value in it. Although grants were available, the financial status of Colin's father meant that he was not eligible, and so had no further higher education opportunity in the Britain of the mid-20th Century.

This lack of choice in being able to go to university is something he freely admits to being a 'chip on his shoulder', but really was it such a problem when he ended up with a happy family life and a very solid acting career? Perhaps a bit of ambivalence lies at the heart of this interview, but that is by no means a failing; rather a fair reflection of a sophisticated and thoughtful individual.

With name dropping of great British actors like David Suchet and Bernard Hill, one appreciates how Colin was learning his craft alongside men with even more natural skill than he had, and that he was more than happy to benefit.

At the same time he is/was a very outgoing, genial and co-operative working actor, who certainly could not have tried harder during the very troubled mid-Eighties period for Doctor Who. And thankfully he ended up working in much more favourable conditions with both co-stars old and new on the audio dramas.

 

Nicholas Briggs will hopefully keep making these types of special audio releases, and involve other major players in Doctor Who history, be they producers, directors, script editors, as well as companions and notable guest stars. For my part I especially would enjoy one with Julian Glover, who now is producing wonderful cameos on Game Of Thrones.

A final reflection on this release then. We have a charismatic man who grew up in Manchester who is very grateful for the continuing adventures of one of the Doctor's more complex and unpredictable incarnations, and of course bold new projects like A Dozen Summers.

So whether the listener has heard any quantity of adventures belonging to the vast Big Finish catalogue, or not, they can really appreciate just why and how Colin Baker is consistently regarded as the best of a worthy group of Time Lords on audio. And of course Uncle Tom is in that mix as well.

 
 
 




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…





Doctor Who FAQBookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 September 2014 - Reviewed by Virginia Cerezo

Doctor Who FAQ
Written by Dave Thompson
Publisher: Applause Theatre Book Publishers
Available from Amazon UK
Available from Amazon USA

As the author states in the introduction, this is not a Doctor Who encyclopaedia, nor a guide, but “the story of all of the Doctor’s adventures,” and that is indeed what one gets to read.

A British ex-pat, Thompson writes a book mostly orientated towards new viewers, people who probably discovered the show by the end of Matt Smith’s tenure, or who just went on board because they were already Peter Capaldi fans. In any case, what this book offers is a detailed story of the show’s history, from its creation to its demise in the 1980s and its reboot in 2005. Of course, there is a detailed account of all the Doctors, the companions and the villains of the show -needless to say, the Daleks have their own chapter.

The funny thing about this introductory book (which also contains plenty of new and useful information for the Doctor Who connoisseurs) is that Thompson is not afraid to share his personal opinion. After all, this is a very intimate book, written by someone who witnessed the birth of the show back in 1963 and who grew up with it. That way, anyone who has never watched Doctor Who and decides to give it a try, will probably feel biased and influenced by Thompson’s own tastes, instantly disliking the Sixth Doctor (and I say dislike in an effort to avoid the word “hate”) and Matt Smith’s Eleventh, as well as companions Rory and Amy, whose stay at the TARDIS he considers “a nest of domestic tedium.” They are not the only ones, though, as he shares his views on every companion (he could not stand Adric, Mel or Peri and does not even consider Grace Holloway as one).

These are Thompson’s memoirs of his life as a Doctor Who fan, so he talks about every companion and Doctor with the knowledge of an expert, one that simply tells you whom he liked and whom he did not, as it is expected. Or maybe I am okay with it because he loves David Tennant’s Tenth and Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, who happen to be my Doctor and my companion.

The book is written with wit and in a compelling way that allows the reader to learn more about the history of Doctor Who, but it is especially helpful for those who joined the show’s fandom after its comeback in 2005, because it contains an impressive amount of stories and facts from the series’ first stint, information that surely helps understand many thing from the new Doctor Who. Because in the end, 50 years is a lot of time. There are so many episodes, novels, audiobooks, comics... The so-called Whoniverse comprises a huge amount of material than can get lost in the mind of a fan, and that is exactly what Thompson wants to avoid, by collecting all the necessary information a Whovian needs to know.

After all, if each one of us wrote a book about our Doctor Who life experience, it would look pretty much like this one. And that is what makes it a must-read.

(If you want to read more from a Doctor Who fanatic, you can visit my blog )