Me, You and Doctor Who: A Culture Show SpecialBookmark and Share

Friday, 22 November 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Me, You and Doctor Who: A Culture Show Special
Presented by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Jude Ho
Broadcast: BBC2, 22 November 2013
Nestling in the schedules between yesterday’s glorious Adventure in Space and Time and tomorrow’s big Day of the Doctor, this will probably receive less attention than it ought to. Presented by broadcaster Matthew Sweet – he of the DVD extras and Big Finish audios – this is a whistle-stop tour through Who’s cultural history. It re-tells many stories that are already highly familiar to fandom – Mary Whitehouse didn’t like The Deadly Assassin; 'Doctor in Distress' wasn’t a brilliantly successful pop record – while also showing Mr. Sweet in search of genuine Doctor Who relics. The mastertapes of Delia Derbyshire’s theme tune are reverently handled at one point, and the show’s prehistory is also explored via Cecil (“Bunny”) Webber’s play ‘Out of the Frying Pan’, which includes dialogue sounding uncannily like a mission statement for Doctor Who. Lesser-known names and contributors, e.g. Tristram Fry (Dudley Simpson’s percussionist) are cherished just as much as actors who have played the Doctor, and the sequence where one of Simpson’s soundtracks is recreated offers a truly magical moment. Meanwhile, filming carried out at Project Motormouth back in snowy January 2013 shows David Tennant auctioning off Who memorabilia, along with queues of fans waiting for autographs, giving a glimpse of fandom’s devotion. And a sequence referring to Rob Shearman's early fanzine writing and Gary Russell's work on the Audio Visuals series is highly diverting; there's surely a separate documentary to be made on fan creativity.

However, this is a modishly modular doc, rushing into new topics every few minutes, and breathlessly whizzing from Warriors’ Gate to Survival to the wilderness years, or the “theme park years” as Paul Cornell brilliantly dubs them. If you don’t like a particular era of Doctor Who, well, don’t worry because another one will be along in a minute. You’d almost think someone had shouted “when I say run, run!” at the writing and editing team, such is their commitment to racing down fifty years of pop-cultural corridors.

Another slight weakness is the occasional reliance on ‘name’ contributors and broadcasters. The show jumps from Hartnell to Hartnoll, taking soundings from psychotherapist Philippa Perry and columnist Caitlin Moran along the way. Moran proffers something about the impact of Russell T Davies's writing which sounds great, but is actually fairly simplistic and probably unverifiable. But never mind; it’s a punchy, attention-grabbing quote. Even Sweet’s unveiling of ‘Out of the Frying Pan’, backed up by Richard Martin’s agreement that the extract sounds like the glimmerings of what would become Doctor Who, can’t be solidly corroborated as more than the coincidental appearance of a pretty generic idea. But again, this makes for an attention-grabbing ‘reveal’. Fewer celebrity contributors, and a more measured pace, could have made this a more substantial contribution to documenting Doctor Who.

At one point, Sweet emulates Patrick Troughton’s disembodied, multiplied, and swirling appearance at the end of The War Games. It’s a visual trick that these sorts of documentaries seem to love, as if their fan-presenters can seemingly get inside the film or TV series they’re talking about, re-staging and recreating well-known images. Despite such playful brio, one serious gap is the absence of Russell T Davies. Julie Gardner sings his praises – and quite right too – but there’s no sign of RTD himself, just as he was absent from BFI events commemorating the ninth and tenth Doctors earlier this year. Davies has done enough Doctor Who-related interviews for thirteen lifetimes, let alone one, but it's still a shame that his distinctive voice doesn’t ring out with new insights and provocations. Faithful viewer, you'll just have to make do with other guests.

Matthew Sweet reviewed Richard Marson’s JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner for The Guardian back in March, and he can’t resist airing its “scandalous” content here, already sensationally picked over by assorted tabloids, and by now widely familiar to devoted fan readers and forum dwellers. I felt slightly ambivalent about the decision to include this material: yes, it makes a point about how the historical record can shift radically over time, but it seems very much at odds, tonally, with the rest of this broadcast. Perhaps Sweet didn’t want to be accused of whitewashing production history, but the issue is dealt with (characteristically) briefly before the show hurtles onwards through space and time.

Convincingly and creatively tackling all of Who in such a compressed format is certainly a tall order. Matthew Sweet is never less than an engaging presenter/writer, but this mostly feels like a compendium of well-loved tales. It’s almost the TV equivalent of reading Peter Haining’s Doctor Who – A Celebration (and footage from Longleat will stir up memories of anniversaries-past for viewers of a certain age). Perhaps, in future years, a whole generation of fans will nostalgically recount watching Me, You and Doctor Who the day after seeing David Bradley as William Hartnell and the day before witnessing mind-blowing 3D Who at the cinema. As part of the BBC’s parcel of anniversary week gifts, this is a sweetly timed present: some documentary calm on the eve of November 23rd's oncoming storm.




The Science of Doctor WhoBookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 November 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

The Science of Doctor Who
Presented by Professor Brian Cox
Broadcast: BBC2, 14th November 2013
If The Day of the Doctor is a vast, intergalactic exploration of Doctor Who’s fictitious mythology, steeped in pseudo-fantastical grandeur as it depicts a wealth of extraterrestrial planets beyond our own, then BBC Two’s celebratory lecture programme The Science of Doctor Who is a more grounded, logical take on that same mythology. Presented by Brian Cox, it delves into those age-old, fascinating concepts of time travel and other-worldly creatures, Cox’s perspective on the reality of such matters proving nothing short of captivating overall.

Something which will no doubt come as a pleasant shock to viewers is the inherent accessibility of this one-off instalment of scientific analysis from Cox. The English physicist’s powerful respect for the show which the programme celebrates is clear from the outset, with references to the Eye of Harmony and foes such as the Daleks thrown in for good measure throughout. At the same time, however, fans should be cautious with their expectations, for the Whoniverse can often feel like a tangential strand in the course of the lecture. There’s the sense that Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary has simply offered Cox the chance to take up a long desired opportunity to exhibit his passionate views on the realms of science-fiction, for better or for worse.

This isn’t to say that Science doesn’t come recommended as a compelling step further towards the big day, only a conceptual health warning that the show itself isn’t the key focus here. What Cox does have to say on the TARDIS’ capability of time travel and its implications is nevertheless thoroughly engaging, his manner of expression of the layered mechanisms which we perceive as operating in what we call ‘time’ neither alienating for newcomers to the field nor condescending for viewers who bring a degree of prior knowledge into the lecture. Walking such a delicate line between accessibility and depth of content can’t have been a simple prospect for the lecturer, yet on a surface level at least, he appears to pull off this particular feat with ease.

In spite of the programme’s focus often lying beyond the confines of Doctor Who’s ongoing narrative, a few delectable moments of direct correlation with the travels of the Doctor do feature along the way. Matt Smith reprises his role as the character’s eleventh incarnation in a series of brief sequences aboard the TARDIS with Cox, one example of which can already be glimpsed in the BBC’s trailer for the lecture. As ever, Smith gives a bombastic performance, energetic and refusing to stand still for the most part. Although in the show’s latter fictitious segue-way scenes, his portrayal becomes that much more subtle and emotionally intricate, his final message resonating beautifully with Cox’s closing words on the potential impact he hopes his lecture may have on the younger members of his audience.

Another satisfying deviation from the norm comes with Cox’s calling upon a variety of colleagues and thespians from his audience to partake in revelatory experiments. Charles Dance is a particularly memorable contributor, his likening of a test involving chemical spray and Bunsen burners not to his school days but to “psychedelic rock concerts” a brilliant, oh-so-characteristic highlight from the Game of Thrones star. Isolated moments such as these encapsulate the understated British charm that pervades the show’s fifty-year history, an admirable achievement in itself for a singular lecture which lasts barely an hour and as such only has so much time for its helm to bring across his central ideas.

But if there’s one element which Doctor Who has never ceased to manipulate to its advantage, it’s that which lies at the heart of the show- time. Similarly, Cox uses the brevity of his lecture’s allotted running time to great effect, the points he presents never outstaying their welcome or becoming so convoluted as to prove detrimental to the programme’s structure. Matt’s various cameos in proceedings are welcome and satisfying to be sure, yet of greater merit is the fact that this one-off instalment would not suffer in the slightest were its fictitious sequences absent.

The Science of Doctor Who may not deal with the Doctor’s mythology as regularly as fans might have expected from a programme in the BBC’s 50th Anniversary celebratory roster, but it remains an engaging watch throughout. With any luck, as Cox suggests, perhaps this single, isolated lecture will one day inspire a boy or a girl to search for the answers to time’s mysteries when they reach adulthood. In doing so, they could very well change our perspective on our world and the wider universe, just as an aspiring science-fiction drama once did on a cold Winter’s night in 1963.




The Doctor Who Book GuideBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 30 July 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Doctor Who Book Guide
Written by Chris Stone
Published by Long Scarf Publications
Published July 2013
Over the course of the last few decades I've amassed a large clutter collection of books relating to Doctor Who, and whilst many of the reference books of recent times are available to hand on a nearby bookshelf, the multitudes of fiction novels and redundant non-fiction volumes are lurking in boxes up in the loft, piled precariously on bookcases upstairs, or strewn haphazardly in columns in premium floorspace. However, the bigger question isn't on where they are but, more importantly, what have I actually got?!!

In one of my rational moments I did create a spreadsheet so that I know which book is in which box (though not necessarily where the box is in the loft, oops), but that only tells me what's actually there - the "known knowns" to coin a phrase - it doesn't indicate what I might be missing and still need to track down (the "unknown unknowns"). However, this predicament may have a solution in the form of The Doctor Who Book Guide, a book compiled by Chris Stone that aims to list every publication relating to the Doctor's travels in time, space, and bookshops.

The book is split into several sections, covering fiction and non-fiction publications, which are again split into their 'series' where applicable. For fiction, annuals and graphic novels are also included as well as the novels, as are fan publications. Similarly, non-fiction sections include the gamut of reference works, but also items such as Doctor Who Discovers, plus a summary of other factual books organised by publisher. Books that are related to spin-offs like Torchwood are also included in their own section.

Whether this book would be of use to you really depends on whether you are looking for an in-depth reference work delving into the history of Doctor Who literature, or if you are looking for a tome that you can use to keep track of your own collection. This book falls firmly into the latter category, as the author states in his opening paragraph: "This book is designed as a checklist for any Doctor Who Book collector.". So, if you were looking for a detailed history of Target books, for example, then you'd turn to The Target Book from Telos - what The Book Guide provides is a list of each publication of those novelisations. Taking the first entry as an example, The Abominable Snowmen details nine British 'incarnations' from the 1974 first edition from Universal/Tandem through to the 2011 reprint by BBC Books, noting things like which have a Chris Achilleos or an Andrew Skilleter cover - the overseas versions of the novelisation are also included in their own section. In my case, I've collected three such editions, my original 1978 edition which is well-read and well-thumbed from my youth, a copy of L’Abominable Homme de Neiges, and then a 'pristine' first edition I picked up much later. However, it's clear that if I were to pursue all of my 'known unknowns' then my existing storage facilities would be very hard-pressed very quickly!

Though I found the listings to be quite exhaustive and, as mentioned, a way to check off which editions I already have (the book does have a handy checkbox column for those who don't mind "desecrating" a book in that way!), its large format means that it falls into an "keep on the shelf" type book rather than a "take out on the field" type, which I actually think is the more useful function in the proactive pursuit of filling those holes in the collection. There are often times when I'll go into a second-hand bookshop and there'll be a pile of Doctor Who novels staring at me from the shelf, but I don't know exactly what I've got; having this to hand would be a godsend in those cases but it would be a bit impractical to carry the physical A4 book about - for that, I think a smaller 'Rough Guide' type size would perhaps be more useful. Actually, this sort of book begs to be turned into a mobile app which would make the task even easier - something for the author to consider for the next edition, perhaps!

In summary, this isn't an in-depth reference work on the history of Doctor Who books, so might not meet everyone's needs, but if you want as comprehensive a list of book releases as you can get (up to May 2013) then this book more than adequately provides that - and name a fan who doesn't like lists! However, I personally would have liked a format that could be used more 'pro-actively' (on-the-hunt) rather than 'passively' (checking off what you've got).

The Doctor Who Book Guide is available to purchase through E-Bay.




The Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who AssistantsBookmark and Share

Thursday, 20 June 2013 - Reviewed by Emma Foster
Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants
Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants
Written by Andy Frankham-Allen
Released by Candy Jar Books, June 2013
With the 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who in full swing fans are being treated to a near unprecedented level of merchandising. Virtually every week there's a new gizmo, piece of apparel or toy for the deep of pockets to pick up. More than most, those who appreciate a good tome to while away the hours with are being spoiled with an avalanche of books to read about every possible bit of the Doctor's fictional universe and the people in the real world who bring him to life.

Joining my heaving bookshelves is the companions book by Andy Frankham-Allen, a book which promises to "look at the story of 35 of the Doctor's friends who have changed him into the man he is today". The book gives a basic overview of the Doctor's companions on television and their later adventures in the expanded universe of audios and books.

The book is written in a clear, consice fashion and gives a good overview of all the television companions. However, an issue that all books of this ilk face is who is this book aimed at? For long-term fans this book will not be offering many insights into the psyche of companions, or interesting discussions of continuity. For new fans one wonders about the appeal of reading a book of descriptions of things that companions did and felt in an episode when you could spend the £9.99 the book costs on a few DVDs and get a lot more value for your money. Gone are the days where the only way you could learn about companions of days past was by reading a book like David J. Howe & Mark Stammer's Companions of the 1980's - stories from every era are now widely and cheaply available, reducing the need for a book that fills in knowledge gaps.

The book sometimes comes across like it's been copy-pasted from Wikipedia in its character summaries, and it reads in an excessively dry manner. Also, the expanded universe companions are quite poorly served by the book - characters like Evelyn Smythe and Erimem for example are some of the most interesting and unusual companions to have been created, but they are barely mentioned, getting just about a page each. This is a major oversight in a book like this; a lot of novels from the wilderness years are now long out of print and filling in information about companions which newcomers to the series would have never heard of and would be unable to learn about by simply watching television would have elevated this book above the ordinary.

In a marketplace which has books like the majestic About Time series - surely the gold standard for fan books in any genre - The Companions book is a very poor relation.




The Doctor's MonstersBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 28 August 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

Written by Graham Sleight
I.B.Tauris
UK Release - 30 August 2012
Available to purchase from Amazon UK
For a show that revels in them, it is perhaps surprising that there haven't been as many books dedicated about the monsters of Doctor Who as one might expect. In the past, 'oldies' amongst us can look fondly upon our battered copies of the 1970s The Doctor Who Monster Book from Uncle Terrance, or more recently with 2005's Monsters and Villains by Justin Richards, but with several more years of 'monstrous' adventures to explore here we are presenting with a new tome from Graham Sleight.

However, those looking for a nice "A-Z" type book are likely to be disappointed, as the aim of this book is somewhat different, as the back cover explains:
This book takes a new look at the monsters and asks what inspired them and lies behind them. Why are we so scared of monsters? Why so they look and act the way they do? How do they reflect the time and place that the series is broadcast in?
Such a description immediately conjures up an image of in-depth analyses of monsters and their environment, and how contemporary socio-political influences affected the way in which they were realised - fortunately, we don't have to worry about the redundancy of auxiliary performance codes, however, as Sleight presents his arguments in clear, concise prose, and in a reader-friendly manner.

The Book


On opening the book, the first thing you notice is what appears to be a very strange ordering of monsters within the Contents. The Autons ... check ... The Weeping Angels ... check ... Kroll ... erm, okay ... The Primords ... pardon ... The Borad ... WTF? There is method in Sleight's madness, of course, as his intention is to show how the different monsters relate to one another. Thus, Kroll in couched within terms of its being a force of nature like the Angels; after the Primords, the Borad is compared with Stahlman from their story in a "Faustian overreacher" role. The next chapter deals with the Axons and a theme of beauty and ugliness formulated from Timelash. And so on. Building an ongoing narrative between chapters is a great idea, but is hard to maintain, becoming absent in a number of chapters later in the book.

All the big-bads are there of course, with the two major monsters split into 'eras' (four for the Daleks and three for the Cybermen). The coverage does seem a little 'random' at times (eg. the Mandrells), but as Sleight points out, the book can't be completely comprehensive and everybody has their favourites that might not be covered (what, no Zygons?!!). However, there is a handy Glossary at the back that does provide a brief A-Z of monsters in the show.





I also found that the story synopses tended to be quite lengthy; whilst I can appreciate that some readers may not be familiar with the stories in question, such information is readily available elsewhere so a simple summary would suffice and we can get into the monster nitty-gritty. There was also a tendency to slip into 'series politics' which obscured the monstrous discussion that I actually expected. This reached its nadir in "The Cybermen II", which concerned itself more with why the Cybermen stories epitomised what was wrong with eighties rather than the creatures themselves - indeed, with Attack of the Cybermen I thought the depictions of how the Cyber-conversion process depersonalised humanity and the mental affects of partial conversion had on the Telos workforce would be more worthy of exploration than the interminable debate over who actually wrote the story!




However, in many ways I found the book a little too light for my tastes, and for me it was hard to judge who was the intended audience for the book. It clearly isn't for children or the casual reader, but neither is it for those fans who love to delve into heady intellectual debate or critique. Instead, the chapters tended to paint broad strokes over the various monsters covered, and I often wondered what point was being made.










All the standard themes are covered, so oil-drilling in the North Sea is debated for Inferno, the European Union and Miner's Strikes in for Peladon, etc.

Marshmen - not Solonians?






Conclusion

The book sets out to look into the meaning of the monstrous, and certainly covers a variety of the creatures that populate the series




and falls firmly into same style of related non-fiction from IB Tauris (like Booy's Love and Monsters published earlier this year).




Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the PresentBookmark and Share

Saturday, 5 May 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Written by Miles Booy
I.B.Tauris
UK Release - 28 February 2012
Available to purchase from Amazon UK
The latest in I.B. Tauris's series of scholarly studies of Who, Love and Monsters joins a somewhat crowded field. But it very much has something new to offer: not quite an out-and-out history of fandom, it nonetheless historically addresses “the evolution of fan discourse from the second half of the 1970s through to today” (p.2). The story it tells is one of how fandom triumphed, and how the trio of show, merchandise and fans – all rather distinct pre-1979 – had basically intersected by the 1990s, setting an agenda for the show's 2005 return. Author Miles Booy draws both on his own experiences within fandom, and on research into the show's interpretations in Doctor Who Weekly and elsewhere. But it's not especially clear where fan Booy ends and academic Booy takes over; the book occasionally seems to lack scholarly coordinates given that it reflects neither on its theoretical framework nor on its methodology. Of course, some may wish that more academic books would proceed without pesky theories and mind-numbing methods, but their absence makes it rather difficult to perceive just how Love and Monsters is engaged in any sort of dialogue with academia. (Instead one gets the impression that media studies scholars – my day job, for the record – are a strange breed of alien beings who write silly things about 'City of Death', fail to understand that fandoms have histories, and mistakenly think that US models of media fandom can account for Doctor Who's British following). And yet, of course, fans can be academics, just as they can be TV showrunners, or entertainment journalists, or comedians, or writers. Doctor Who fandom gets everywhere.

By contrast – and it is a contrast, because Booy repeatedly pits fans against academics – it's very easy to see how this book engages with fandom. Essentially, it takes fandom's side against those daft media studies types, whilst at the same time aiming a few carefully targeted provocations at fan understandings of Who. For my money, this title would sit far more comfortably with a fan-targeted niche publisher rather than in an academic book series called 'Investigating Cult TV'. The fan part of me loved this book; the professional academic in me – though they are really one and the same  – wondered whether it was monstrously lacking in scholarly debate and theory.

But there's no doubting that Booy writes like a dream. Sometimes reading like Lawrence Miles minus the self-parodic vitriol, or an alt-universe Tat Wood, Booy is at his best when wrestling with forensically close readings of Who detail. His comparison of different editions of The Making of Doctor Who is rather wonderful, as is his analysis of the word “knickers” in the Target book range. Other treats include his re-reading of Malcolm Hulke's persona, and his celebration of Jeremy Bentham, not to mention analysing the impact of video releases, and the discovery of a whole new ”semiotic thickness” by fandom (p.116). Booy also productively champions Doctor Who's comic strips, and reads Grant Morrison's 'The World Shapers' as prefiguring The New Adventures and their concerns (p.120-1). Each chapter brings with it a wealth of Proustian madeleines, Doctor Who-style: Cosmic Masque, or Peter Haining, or the 1983 Winter Special. Mind you, there are also some curious omissions: Press Gang is analysed without any mention of Colonel X (p.144), and Booy's analysis of Timewyrm: Revelation is happy to tell us he's name-checked in its pages, but at the same time he offers no discussion of how his social position and affiliations within fandom may have coloured his accounts (p.149). Having been there might confer certain advantages, but a ground-level view can limit insight just as much as it can grant revelations.

Love and Monsters is strongest on the unfolding texture of what it has meant to be a certain sort of Doctor Who fan, but weaker when it comes defining the bigger picture. For one thing, the book's parameters are hazily defended. Why should 1979 be the starting point? (It isn't, in any case; The Making of Doctor Who is analysed as a pre-79 turning point). But if Booy wants to illuminate the “merchandised reading” of Doctor Who, then why not study 1960's Dalekmania? Why not study the World Annuals that generations of fans grew up with in the pre-Weekly world? No entirely convincing rationale for these absences is forthcoming. And for that matter, why is online fandom not really represented? Because Outpost Gallifrey was deleted, and so historical records can't be pored over? Perhaps, but Booy's not-a-history still seems somewhat arbitrary both in its start and end points. Indeed, its author apparently takes a negative view of online fandom – or may be it's a nostalgic lament for the days of paper 'zines – asking: “what will it mean to be a fan when fan status can be... acquired simply by logging on and marking the new episode out of ten?” (p.190). Such a question seems faintly dismissive, as well as assuming that fandom can be acquired in this manner alone. As such, this book brings sharply into focus the need for more work – on pre-1979 fan discourses (recently documented elsewhere by Keith Miller), and on Internet fandom. To my mind, Booy also downplays changes in the TV industry; although the showrunner model of TV production is considered in relation to BBC Wales' Doctor Who (p.189), it could be argued that fandom's eventual triumph depends, in significant ways, upon shifts in how television production has been professionally conceptualised. Studying fan discourse without also studying production discourse means that Booy's story is necessarily partial, and treats only one part of what is likely to be a more complex tale.

But rather than criticising it for what it isn't, Booy's book should be celebrated for what it is: an academic study created out of the skills of close reading that were evidently nurtured by and within Doctor Who fandom. Had I not religiously read Celestial Toyroom as a teenager, or Doctor Who Weekly as a child, I very much doubt I would have become a media studies lecturer in later life. And therein lies another possible history of fandom, one shared by Booy and myself and countless other folk: not the story of fandom in and for itself, but rather as an inspiration – an opening – to other lives, and creations, and professions.