As we approach the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who, revisit the story of Doctor Who, the occasional series written for the 50th Anniversary, explaining the origins of the programme.

Episode 31 - An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend: First published 23 Nov 2013

The Roots of Evil (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 26 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Roots of Evil
Written by Philip Reeve
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Philip Reeve has won many awards across his writing career to date, and reading this month’s e-short it’s easy to see why. As well as effortlessly capturing the spirit of a fourth Doctor and Leela story (it feels like something developed by Hinchcliffe and Holmes but made by Graham Williams… with a budget), Reeve’s own authorial voice also rings out loud and clear. When ‘name’ authors work on non-TV Who there can sometimes be a tussle between different incarnations – will it be a Michael Moorcock novel, or a Doctor Who story, for instance. But in this case, there’s a seamless integration of something that’s at once very “Reevian” but also contains dialogue which wouldn’t feel out of place in a classic Chris Boucher script. Leela’s curt explanation of what a scarf is, for example, offers up particular humour. And perhaps as a nod to the Sevateem there’s something intriguing and very unexpected about certain character names…

To call this a partial compositing of ‘Planet of Evil’ and ‘Face of Evil’ does it a disservice; the world swiftly and colourfully sketched in by Reeve would have been tricky to realize in the 1970s TV show, and it really belongs to written Doctor Who. It has the same coherent inventiveness which marked out Reeve’s Mortal Engines – but where that introduced mobile cities, this has the “Heligan Structure”, a tree that's grown into a kind of "wooden space station". And there’s an entire accompanying culture set out for readers, whether it’s the Heligan’s “heartwood”, “digestion chamber”, or “trunk-roads”. Reeve has fun naming his world’s tangled arboreal features – the Heligan’s bark has plenty of bite – but he also acutely captures Tom Baker and Louise Jameson’s performances. There are moments of description which resonate with Baker’s joyous inhabitation of the role, particularly a focus on that infamous, life-affirming grin.

All the language games with tree-like features and attributes – plenty of copse markers, one might say – make this sound like a very fantasy-oriented tale, riffing insistently on a single set of ideas. But Reeve also branches out into sharply observant character moments such as Leela missing the woodland of her own planet, as well as linking the oxygen-producing capacities of the vast Heligan Structure to one of SF’s staples, namely terraforming. With the Doctor and Leela being well served, poor K-9 remains very much the unwanted tree decoration on this occasion, left in the TARDIS to charge up his batteries. Perhaps this makes sense in a novella, however, as it means there are only two lead characters to follow, whilst also avoiding questions of K-9’s mobility on a tree-world, not to mention whether his laser would’ve promptly burnt the whole place down.

Given recent speculation over which actors might or might not be appearing together in the fiftieth anniversary TV special, Roots of Evil has a rather canny structure which at least allows the fourth Doctor to express clear views on his eleventh incarnation. They might not meet, but their paths cross glancingly in this adventure, albeit sufficiently for the Baker Doctor to express some trenchant views on whether certain items of clothing are “cool”. And Leela also has a view on the future Doctor, as aspects of the show’s current format fleetingly intertwine with retro gothic stylings. The sonic screwdriver is even retconned into line with facts established by Steven Moffat, as two eras of Who are brought into dialogue, and tendrils of connection are lightly stretched across the programme's family tree.

Reeve paces his tale incredibly well. We get clever back story, a well-crafted and believable alien society, a lunatic villain for the Doctor to spar with, and some great monsters – all without events feeling too rushed. The monsters, although perhaps being slightly predictable in form and function, are still smartly depicted, carrying a requisite sense of mulched menace.

Roots of Evil is by far the best Puffin e-short to date. This really is a five-star adventure for the fourth Doctor, and hopefully later contributors to the sequence will take a leaf out of Philip Reeve's book in terms of intelligently balancing authorial style with authentic Doctor Who.

FILTER: - eBook - 50th Anniversary - B00B54TZA6

Summer FallsBookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Summer Falls
Written by Amelia Williams
BBC Books
UK release: 4 April 2013
This review is based on the BBC Books' ebook and contains some spoilers  

Summer Falls is a curious novella, more ‘Doctor fic’ than ‘Doctor lite’, since it’s supposedly written by Amelia Williams (formerly Pond) and involves a lightly fictionalized version of her Doctor. The ‘Curator’ has a mysterious “shed” in place of a Police Box, says very Doctorish things like “magic is cool” and “I love a little shoppe”, and is highly knowledgeable about all sorts of unusual entities and events. Oh, and the Curator also has a sort-of companion: one of the most brilliant, amusing companions that we’ll never get to see on-screen. No, it's not a shape-shifting talking penguin, but rather a grey talking cat, which enables real-world writer James Goss to explore all manner of great cat jokes. Essentially, what we learn is that cats do not fit at all well into the template of a Doctor Who companion, particularly given their tendency to get comfy and warm and have a doze mid-adventure, or their need to start cleaning rather than answering a question.

Returning to thoughts of Amy Pond strikes me as a faintly curious thing to do just as a new companion and a new mystery are launched in the TV series. Having Clara Oswald refer to an Amelia Williams’ story could be read as a passing of the baton; a way to honour and remember what’s come before as the franchise moves remorselessly on (and where everyone’s replaceable – not just companions, but even executive producers and showrunners). Perhaps this particular tie-in offers a kind of reassurance to fans of the Ponds. Amy hasn’t been erased from Who, after all, and the show is allowed to remember her in its passing details. Either that, or there’s method to the reminiscence, and Steven Moffat doesn’t want audiences to forget Amelia for a specific, yet-to-be-revealed reason. Given that ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ was so insistently book-ended, circling back to ‘The Eleventh Hour', for this story/character thread to be picked up again so soon feels strange at the very least.

For my money, James Goss has consistently been one of the best recent writers of original, off-screen Doctor Who and Torchwood, and there's a tendency towards playful pastiche evident across his work. He’s a strong choice for this sort of material, given that Summer Falls was supposedly first published in 1954, and so is tailored to resemble a quaint, mildly jolly-hockey-sticks children’s fantasy adventure. Not only does it not feature the Doctor (by name), it’s also strongly fantastical rather than science-fictional, a genre shift which Who itself occasionally indulges in, but which seems to have dismayed some audiences of late with regards to ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. Although Summer Falls has the Doctor-type character muttering about “psycho-temporal” factors, it doesn’t really make very much effort to pin matters down into a science fiction template, instead preferring the broader poetic license of talking cats, frozen seas, and strange, powerful objects which have to be collected.

Goss repeatedly toys with readerly expectations. Summer Falls features the Lord of Winter, which in a novella released shortly before ‘Cold War’, and not long after ‘The Snowmen’, one might guess would implicate either the Ice Warriors or the chilly Great Intelligence. What we get remains tantalizingly vague, and I’m not at all convinced that this tale ties into ongoing series 7 events in any unexpected way. Of course, the big gimmick is that Summer Falls appeared on screen in ‘The Bells of Saint John’, meaning that we’ve already seen its heroine Kate depicted as a Spoonhead, as well as knowing that Chapter 11 is a tear-jerker (something it strives to live up to). This creates a complex layering of fiction-upon-fiction: the real book that you can buy and enjoy is itself part of the Doctor Who universe, as well as featuring a fictionalized version of the Doctor. When will Clara ask the Time Lord if he’s really the Curator? Will this fiction-within-a-fiction be played with in the TV show itself, I wonder, even perhaps in its anniversary special? I’d hazard not, however: the reference-spotting of Summer Falls suits fandom all too well – it’s a sort of roman à clef revolving around a key which has to be found, while readers can use the master key of Doctor Who to interpret what’s going on. But I’m not convinced that such "meta" would necessarily translate well to the broader mass audience of Christmas and Anniverary Specials, so perhaps ‘Doctor fic’ will remain a little-known tie-in subgenre for now.

Having said that, I’d like to see a series of Amelia Williams’ tales, perhaps written at different times across her life, each giving a different refraction and revision of her adventures. Re-fictionalized alt-Daleks or Screaming Cherubs could get an outing. Pursued as a series of reimagined slants on the Moffat era, this sort of playful Who manqué could start to build up into far more than the sum of its parts. But as things stand, and as a one-shot, Summer Falls is a clever, cool experiment in meta that doesn’t always feel like it really matters to ongoing arcs and questions.

FILTER: - eBook - Series 7/33 - B00F5W7SE4

The Nameless City (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 22 February 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Nameless City
Written by Michael Scott
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 February 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

The second of Puffin’s e-shorts, this story focuses on the second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. At times it reads rather like Lovecraft lite: Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s own short story called ‘The Nameless City’ was published in 1921 and dealt with ancient ruins sung of by the (fictional) Necronomicon's "mad poet."

The Necronomicon also makes an appearance in Michael Scott’s story, and his beaked, clawed and octopus-like monsters are reminiscent of the Cthulu Mythos. I wonder just how appropriate these Lovecraftian debts are: when the TV series threatens to become ‘too scary’ for young viewers then negative commentary never seems far away, but perhaps different rules apply to the written word rather than the visual image. In any case, readers don’t have to know Lovecraft to follow the story: it’s more a bonus layer of meaning for those who get the references.

On the whole, then, this is a deft mix of Lovecraftian elements and Doctor Who history: Jamie meets a mysterious bookseller named Professor Thascalos who is presumably a well-known character drawn from the Doctor’s past (and future), whilst Vengeance on Varos’s Zeiton-7 forms a further part of events. And the second Doctor is typically well represented via a scattering of iconic dialogue and artefacts: “ when I say run, run” gets an outing, for instance, as does the Doctor’s recorder playing.

If this anniversary series partly retools Doctor Who for today’s younger readers, another emerging pattern seems to be that these ebooks make heavy use of other fantastic literature. Last month’s title was ultimately indebted to a very famous children’s fantasy, whilst this story focuses on connections to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, and begins in 1968 on Charing Cross Road, itself renowned for its range of second-hand and collectors’ bookshops. It’ll be intriguing to see whether this bibliophilic, bookish strand continues through later e-shorts, but such is its prominence in Eoin Colfer’s A Big Hand For The Doctor and here, it’s tempting to suppose that “include elements drawn from well-known fantasy literature” was part of Puffin’s brief to writers. Time will tell whether such a device does indeed tie the whole sequence of short stories together, or whether it’s just a first and second Doctor coincidence. (Will Charlie Higson pop up with an Ian Fleming-influenced third Doctor story? Which Doctor should be re-worked via H.G. Wells or Jules Verne?).

Michael Scott doesn't just emulate Who, he also improvises a few new tunes using the show's established elements. Particularly striking is how the Doctor looks out of the TARDIS’s Police Box windows at one point, given that unlike latter-day Doctor Who, the TARDIS of this era didn’t include Police Box doors as part of its console room set-up. And the TARDIS’s organic nature, emphasized in ‘new Who’, is also cleverly seeded into Scott’s scenario.

There’s a recurring sense that this short story wants to introduce readers to the pleasures of culture beyond television. As well as featuring Charing Cross and its bookshops, the TARDIS materializes at the back of the National Portrait Gallery, and Jamie doesn’t just muse about how big the TARDIS interior is, he wonders “how many rooms, galleries, museums and libraries” it contains. Here there may be shadowy schemes and terrifyingly powerful forces from beyond time, but there are also books and galleries and music threaded into the story’s background and foreground alike. It’s Doctor Who coded as a culturally edifying vehicle. With freaky monsters. And the Book of the Dead.

One difficulty with the short story form is that there’s relatively little space and time available to set up and resolve an epic adventure. Consequently, the Doctor’s scheme to defeat an ancient evil existing before Gallifrey is only given minor foreshadowing, and seems to emerge almost out of nowhere. Nevertheless, I can imagine the story’s ending appealing both to younger readers and to admirers of Jamie McCrimmon. And curious conclusions have a long track record in official, original Doctor Who literature, going all the way back to 1960’s Doctor Who and the Invasion from Space, where galactic invaders were foiled in a truly absurd fashion. By comparison, Michael Scott’s storytelling is far stronger, artfully weaving together Lovecraft and loved continuity, even if his finale does strike a slightly off note.

A notable improvement on January’s ebook, this feels much more like Doctor Who, and Scott’s representation of the second Doctor comes far closer to deserving the description “as seen on DVD”. However, with the appearance of Professor Thascalos, and the TARDIS apparently being stranded on Earth, there’s also a definite flavour of the following era: this is very much the second Doctor retroactively composed in the light of what’s to come. Perhaps Scott’s preferred era is really that of the third Doctor, and he just couldn’t resist smuggling in a few series-travelling tropes ahead of time. (Or may be he was expecting to write a Pertwee story, and got bumped up the schedule). But whether it’s coloured by passion or pragmatism, The Nameless City is a definite credit to Scott’s authorial name, skillfully bridging Doctor Who’s eras and offering up a smartly intertextual, atmospheric tale.

FILTER: - Second Doctor - eBook - 50th Anniversary - B00B54TZAG

A Big Hand For The Doctor (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 22 January 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - A Big Hand For The Doctor
Written by Eoin Colfer
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 January 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

This title kicks off Puffin’s monthly series of ‘eshorts’ (
or short stories available electronically), featuring the first Doctor and his granddaughter Susan. Having recently rewatched An Unearthly Child at the BFI, and also having recently read Phil Sandifer’s sharp analysis of Kim Newman’s Time and Relative novella, the first thing that struck me about Eoin Colfer’s story was how unrecognisable his first Doctor seemed to be. This rendition isn’t loath to intervene, acting like a sort of anti-hero or proto-hero (as in Newman’s pre-Unearthly Child tale). No, this version of the William Hartnell Doctor has been busy pursuing Soul Pirates through space and time in order to combat their evil ways. He’s a swashbuckling action hero trapped in an ageing body. He even sees visions of his later and more physical selves, mainly so that younger readers can be reminded that this figure is the same character played today by Matt Smith. It’s a device, a convenience, that probably wreaks havoc with Doctor Who continuity, but neither Colfer nor whoever signed off on this short story are overly concerned with capturing the spirit of 1960s Who. Instead, the Doctor is a generic do-gooder who refers to things such as Hogwarts, referencing pop culture familiar to 2013 readers.

And as if symbolic of the way that Colfer has grafted his own approach into the world of the first Doctor, the integrity of the Time Lord’s body has also been violated. He’s lost a hand – sliced off by a Soul Pirate Captain – and so has to make do with a two-fingered ceramic model housed inside an ill-gendered spare. Surely Colfer isn’t putting two literary fingers up at fans who might be dismayed by this turn of events? Although the mental image of William Hartnell’s Doctor sporting a woman’s hand, painted fingernails and all, is certainly a striking and incongruous one, it’s not quite how I expected to be thinking of the first Doctor at the beginning of this anniversary year. It’s a good gag, sure. But it's one that isn’t afraid to ride roughshod over the dignity of the Doctor. This is a full-blooded contrast to the first Doctor instalment of Destiny of the Doctor, and each series looks set to work in very different ways for very different audiences. Destiny is era-appropriate fan service, while this eshort strikes a vastly revisionist, irreverent tone. This is Doctor Who’s history rewritten from a present-day perspective, enclosing younger readers in demographic now-ness rather than truly opening a window on mysterious other times.

And Doctor Who of fifty years ago, a strange and wonderful and enigmatic thing, is further reworked here as a burst of auteurist whimsy. Yes, Colfer’s authorial voice shines through – making this part of a marketing strategy where ‘name’ authors take the Doctor in hand – but I still would’ve liked to witness more of a meeting of author and character rather than the scales being tipped very much in the writer’s favour. And some jokes (e.g. a Time Lord known as the Interior Designer) breezily transform Gallifrey into a planet of Time Morons. The Doctor himself is depicted as unsmiling, and chided about his unrelaxed state, as if readers are being warned they need to take what follows in good humour.

Without spoilering the story’s Epilogue, there is a neat twist that frames Colfer’s heightened fantasy version of Who. H.G. Wells and his time machine have made a few appearances across Doctor Who’s lifespan, with ‘scientifiction’ (early science fiction) being positioned as one source for the Doctor’s time-travelling adventures. Colfer takes a rather different intertextual tack, however, in line with his genre-shifting towards children's fantasy adventure, and in the end this conceit works rather beautifully. It’s a handy pay-off which bathes events in a clever, new glow. And it makes excellent use of the short story form; there can be little doubting Colfer’s skill as a writer. Indeed, he retraces Douglas Adams' fingerprints here by adding Who as well as The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to his CV.

Like The Coming of the Terraphiles before it, though, this title is more concerned with being a publishing industry ‘event’ than with addressing fandom’s notions of authenticity. In short, this simply isn’t speaking to long-term adult fans. The signal it sends, loud and clear, is that the 50th anniversary is for all sorts of audiences, and for varied generations who have become fascinated by the Doctor. It's a post-Potter first Doctor. Bill Hartnell for Generation Z. And perhaps such diversity and plurality can only be a good thing.

That said, this eshort still sticks out like a sore thumb.

FILTER: - 50th Anniversary - First Doctor - eBook - B00AX0MRNK

Devil in the SmokeBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Devil in the Smoke
Written by Justin Richards
BBC Books
UK release: 18 December 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Certain quarters of fandom have been clamouring for a Madame Vastra and Jenny spin-off for a while, and this ebook pretty much fulfills the brief – albeit as a “media tie-in” (in old money) rather than a fully-fledged series all of its own. Following the release of The Angel’s Kiss (which itself linked into The Angels Take Manhattan), I wonder whether every ‘event’ episode – or even just every episode, full-stop – will now arrive complete with its own commercially-available ebook. Personally, though I’m more than happy to buy DVD releases containing the TV series plus additional material, it feels a little odd to pay (seemingly on a per-episode basis) for prequel novellas to what’s still a public service TV series. But muttering about Doctor Who’s ongoing commercialization is a futile act – akin to trying to catch smoke in your hands – especially on the verge of an anniversary year and what will no doubt be a vast new plume of merchandise. Instead, fans and reviewers may as well just let it all swirl around them; like the weather, there’s seemingly nothing that can be done about Who’s corpulent growth as a mega-brand. And here’s something else for completists to enjoy (though Dan Starkey’s audiobook reading may well prove to be the more entertaining version, given the skill and verve with which he tackles character voicing).

Scrooge-like grumblings aside, there are some lovely moments in this tale, such as an observation of snow settling on the cold-blooded Vastra, as well as a mysterious death which sets everything in motion and features rather more “viscous carmine” blood than I’d expect to see in televised Doctor Who (particularly at 5:15pm on Christmas Day). There’s also some clever use of settings. Justin Richards plays with the reader’s expectation of a showdown set amid generic, grimy industrialism – all smoke, soot and merchants of menace – instead opting for a glassy, atmospheric location that greatly boosts his finale. However, the sense of place and time on show throughout is largely sketched in chocolate-box mode, relying on too many stock characters and shorthand sentiments. There are workhouses, and thugs, and baddies with names like Able Hecklington. Given that Justin Richards has to set out his stall pretty sharpish, and then wrap everything up just as quickly, it feels as if there’s little room for character development here, or indeed for very much which transcends the imitation of pastiche. Mocktoriana is drawn from how we remember collections of assorted cliché: the popular image of Dickens adaptations; jumbled TV Christmas Specials from over the years; big-budget advertising and its jacketing of history into seasonal prettiness. Furthermore, Vastra and Jenny are not really developed in any major way, and intimations of their relationship remain largely off-screen, or off the page. Devil in the Smoke, with its workhouse boys providing a point of identification, is self-consciously suitable for readers of most ages.

It may sound as though I’m being overly negative about this release – bah humbug! – but it has one feature that leaps off the screen and brings vitality to a sometimes insubstantial runaround. For me, the true saving grace here is none other than Strax. Justin Richards writes comedy just as fluently as he does action set-pieces, and his Strax one-liners are consistently laugh-out-loud superb. As a result, Strax pretty much gets all the best dialogue and effortlessly steals the show, for example with his Paternoster Row battle cry, not to mention his emphasis on “regrouping”. Richards clearly relishes the opportunity to subvert Sontaran militarism, but Strax’s forward planning is also valued, and he’s shown to be far more than just a comedic figure, but also one who is an important and respected part of the team.

The Snowmen has already provoked multiple prequels, whether for Children in Need, online, or in this guise. Like snowflakes, perhaps no two prequels are identical – some feature the Doctor, some (like this one) don’t really, some focus on Madame Vastra as ‘The Great Detective’, and others (like this one) amount to a colourful, undemanding romp compressed into less than a hundred pages. Can there ever be too much of a good prequel thing? In its favour, Devil in the Smoke ties into the imminent Christmas extravaganza in more ways than one. Not only does it draw on characters who have already become fan favourites, it also deploys its snowy backdrop for ambience, mood, and for the substance of plotting. Richards intelligently offers a different take on snowscapes (and a snowman) to the one we’re about to receive, and his closing line deliciously resonates with all the trailers and promotion for The Snowmen, setting the pulses racing of those of us “impatient for Christmas”.

I hope this ebook trend doesn’t expand to take in every episode next year, but instead remains an occasional and special treat, like all the trimmings that accompany Christmas dinner. With Devil in the Smoke, Justin Richards has served up something combining traditional, seasonal Who flavours with glorious notes of (potato-headed) piquancy.

FILTER: - ebook - Series 7/33 - B00APKG5LI