Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday recycling: Who break

There was supposed to be a blog post here today about the most terrifying thing late-eighties superhero fans could contemplate, but I spent the weekend at my very first Doctor Who convention, and got to see Doctors 4-8 on stage, and I’m not saying it was the greatest day of my life, but it’s certainly in the top 100, and I got into so much that I haven’t written anything for today.

Besides, I bought the latest Doctor Who Magazine, an issue of Vworp Vworp, several cheap audio plays (including Jubilee and Spare Parts) and Harry Sullivan’s War, so I’d rather get stuck into that lot, instead of productive blogging.

So instead, here's some recycled posts about Doctor Who books. Normal service will resume on Saturday.

An extraordinary thing happened to me on the way to the pub 
Originally posted July 29, 2009

It’s the Tom Baker that catches my eye.

A couple of weeks ago and I’m walking down the street near my flat, on the way to the pub for a Saturday afternoon catch-up with an old workmate. It’s a miserable day and the footpaths are packed with material put out for an inorganic collection programme running that week. Mainly old mattresses and television cabinets, surrounded by all sorts of old junk.

Wandering past one of these piles, I carry on for another few metres before I decided it really was Tom Baker I’d seen on top of one of that broken-legged desk. It was him, the fourth Doctor’s unmistakable hair and Baker’s own unique grin. I have to go back and have a closer look.

It’s sitting on top of a beaten-up box and I’m not expecting much. It’s probably just some old, tatty magazine with little worth reading, an old Starlog or SFX that gets breathless about long-forgotten geek interests. But then I turn it over to look at the cover and it turns out to be a late 1980s issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine, the best publication to ever cover my favourite television show.

DWM issues are still pretty rare around these parts and it’s good to get hold of any back issue, especially one that is sitting unloved on the street, ready to be carted away. I check underneath to see if there are any other unfamiliar issues and see another Doctor Who logo, so I dig a little deeper.

Wait a fuckin’ second….

When I’m nine years old, the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary special is my bible. It’s a nice, chunky magazine that is packed with information and I read that fucker until the cover falls off. Then I read it some more and the first and last few pages also fall off and then I finally put it away, having memorised all the information I need.

At this stage, I’d only read a couple of the Target novelisations and seen a few handfuls of episodes, but the local television has just started running them from the early days (claiming, bizarrely, that the Mind Robber, from deep into the second Doctor’s run, is the earliest complete story available and starting from there).

And then I got this magazine and it had a full episode guide, with the briefest of synopsis and details about the Doctors and every companion they had and stories about the behind the scenes people and even some weird fan convention photos that fascinated the fuck out of me.

Doctor Who was always on the television, but it was the printed page that got  me hooked on the show. It’s the magazines and books I find over the next few years that fill me in the background of this great, great series.

This is the mid eighties. This isn’t just in the days before DVD box sets, this is before many of these stories even got a video release. The local video store had some beaten up copies of the very earliest video releases featuring stories like the Seeds of Death, Revenge of the Cybermen and the ubiquitous Five Doctors, with annoying things like credits edited out. But apart from that, there was nothing.

 A whole generation of Doctor Who fans could only read about the older stories, as there was no chance of seeing them anytime soon. If a new episode was missed, tough luck. It might get repeated somewhere, but the chances were slim.

Amongst all the novelisations and magazines, the best source of info turned out to be the official Doctor Who magazine. First published in the late seventies as a weekly, it soon became an indispensable part of the entire experience. It’s not just the story details it gives, it’s the huge amount of background detail and analysis of classic stories that make it so damn useful.

It also helped to be full of interesting comic strips, from a variety of fantastic creators, including John Wagner, Pat Mills, Dave Gibbons, Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgeway and many, many more, including the odd story from Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.

The magazine got a lot of mileage out of the series when it was still on its original run, breathlessly introducing every new Doctor or companion, and eagerly scooping up any snippet of information.
Remarkably, the magazine got even better in the years following the cancellation of the original run.

Wild speculation often filled the pages, and little of it turned into reality. (The magazine must have told us that the Doctor was definitively back a half dozen times before Russell T Davies came along.)

But with no show, the level of analysis came to the forefront, and the magazine became a much richer experience because of it. There was always new product, including original novels and audio adventures, but without that ongoing television saga to follow, the publication still managed to get some great in-depth pieces out of the overall Doctor Who culture.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy to get hold of copies of the magazine. It has always been on newsstand, but has also been a fairly pricey read in this part of the world, and if an issue was missed, it was so hard to find might as well have been a lost episode of The Celestial Toymaker. Back issues would rarely show up on the second hand market, and while it was possible to pick up older back issues now and then, they proved pretty elusive.

So when I see Tom flashing his big cheesy grin on that pile of inorganic refuse, I know I’ll be happy if I get a single back issue. It’s something, which is always better than nothing.

But wait a fuckin’ second…

I’m late to meet my friend at the pub, because something much more important has come up. Turns out that one issue of the Doctor Who magazine was just the tip of the iceberg and there is a whole pile of the things. I have to get them home.

I know I look horribly skody, swiping a bunch of magazines from a pile of inorganic refuse, but I don’t care. Walking down the street with a box that is starting to fall apart, all I know is I’ve found the kind of score that doesn’t come along very often.

I get them home, stash them away safely and head back off to the pub. I apologise for the delay and get the beers in, but can’t stop thinking about that beautiful pile I’ve got sitting back home.

It doesn’t take me long to get the issues in order and see what I’ve got, and it’s a true treasure haul. Every issue of Doctor Who Magazine from #89 up to #210, along with a dozen special editions, including a decent copy of that Radio Times magazine that disintegrated under my obsessed hands.

It’s been a few weeks now, and I haven’t even made a dent in that pile. There is just so much material to get through, but even with the vague browsing I’ve managed so far, it’s still fascinating to see how the show evolved during the late eighties, with the actual magazine blossoming into something new after Sylvester McCoy walked off into the sunset with Ace. More analysis, more fiction, more experimentation. The introduction of the New Adventures novel range were a pretty big deal at the time, even if it has led to a massive amount of similar auxiliary product. At the time, NAs were unique.

There really is a whole lot more of these magazines to get through, and I’m looking forward to it. I sometimes wonder if I should knock on the door of the house I found the magazines outside and thank the person who decided to dump them, because I am incredibly grateful to have the chance to read this stuff.

I dream of finding hauls like this, and still can’t really believe how easy it was to find them. It really is the kind of opportunity that comes along very, very rarely.

Thanks to Tom Baker and his unmistakable grin, and the decision to walk to the pub instead of driving, I ended up with a pile of great reading. I’ve always love Doctor Who and always will, and a decade of unlikely magazines only reinforces that love.

Especially when they’re free.

Who's the best?
Originally posted December 8, 2011

When I get obsessed with comics and books and TV shows and movies, I want to know everything about them. When that obsession lasts more than three decades, I soak up a whole lot of information.

I have spent a significant amount of his life with my nose buried in a Doctor Who reference book, and I can honestly say that Lance Parkin’s aHistory – a comprehensive history of the Doctor Who Universe – is easily my favourite.

Reference books used to be an absolutely invaluable source for any kid who was crazy about Doctor Who. Before the internet, before episodes were easily available for viewing on DVD or YouTube or download, reference books were sometimes the only thing you could use to find about more about Doctor Who.

After all, by the time I was born, the Doctor Who production team had created 12 years worth of stories, and there was a lot more to come over the next decade, and I could barely keep up with it all.

Target novelizations were excellent for reading about past Doctor stories, but even though those books were everywhere, there were still vast sections of Who continuity that I was painfully unaware about.  (The fact that Target books sometimes had completely different names to the televised stories didn’t help.)

But reference books offered a better glimpse inside Who continuity. A classic magazine produced by the Radio Times for the show’s 20th anniversary was my bible for years, and I literally read that thing to pieces. Whenever I think of a particular point in the series history, I automatically think about its position on the pages of the episode guide in that magazine. (I’m not joking – I always think of the Key To Time stories as the ones going down the right hand column of one page, and the Dalek Invasion of Earth is sitting at the top of the second page in the guide.)

Over the years, there have been plenty of Doctor Who reference books to help fit in the gaps. Some of them were a bit too fixated on the behind-the-scenes stuff (which was always fascinating, but there are only so many times you can hear the same old stories of creating such wonder on an incredibly small budget), or offered up dodgy background material that didn’t always conform to anything else in the series (like The Gallifrey Chronicles and Cybermen).

My favourites were the ones that focused on the stories, rather than the production or anything else. I wanted to know about the Doctor’s adventures, not about the special silver paint used to colour the Cybermen’s shoelaces.

So when Lance Parkin’s chronological stab first got a decent printing from Virgin in 1998, I was always keen, and I must have read that book all the way through a dozen times.

It put all the televised and novelised adventures – at that time – into order, starting with an older universe containing its own Time Lords and its destruction with Event One back in 13,500,017,903 BC, and ending with our own universe consumed by its successor, the realm of Saraquazel.

Considering how obsessed I was with the Virgin New Adventures at this time, without actually being able to get my hands on the majority of titles, it was an invaluable resource, and it was a real kick seeing ho wit all stacked together, all the Doctor’s adventures in Time and Space with his ever-resourceful companions.

But in the decade that followed the publication of A History of the Universe, the amount of Who material increased by an incredible amount, with new television, novels, audio adventures and comics.
It’s almost impossible to keep track of it all. The audio plays from companies like Big Finish have had spin-offs of spin-offs, with whole series of non-Doctor adventures taking place in the same universe.

It’s easy enough to just follow the TV show, (although with the Moffat’s tendancy for intricate time-twisted solutions, even that can be asking a bit much sometimes). But with all this other new material, I just can’t keep track. I’ve never heard Evelyn Smythe's voice, or read a third of all the comics produced in the past five years.

But I have got aHistory, and that helps a lot.

If I want to check out how many times the Doctor was on the Titanic, or what exactly he was really up to during World War 2, it’s all there. Any voyage the Doctor has taken on screen, or page, or through speaker, has all been catalogued and put in some kind of order. (Well, every adventure up to the 2007 second edition of the book that I have. There has been even more since and an update is inevitable.)

It’s a massive, thick and detailed work, and I’m surprised Parkin produced it without going totally mental, found in a corner somewhere gibbering about the 1980 reference in Pyramids of Mars and how it relates to Sarah Jane’s birth date.

Because he’s dealing with a chronology that involves the entire history of the universe, created by hundreds of writers over all sorts of mediums. There are inherent inconsistencies that just don’t match up. The New Adventures had the world decimated by plague and war before 2010, when the Eleventh Doctor was wandering around a completely recognisable world.

Chronology only becomes a problem when you take it too seriously, and Parkin treats these inconsistencies with some half-hearted explanations and a bit of a shrug, which is the right way to go about it. There has been an extraordinary debate over the past four decades regarding the UNIT years, and Parkin has to deal with it. His solution doesn’t make a lot of sense if examined too closely, but it’s a game effort.

Parkin – who has also written some very fine Doctor Who novels over the years – shuffles everything in some kind of order, while gleefully pointing out the inconsistencies, and wrapping them up with closed-off alternate timelines and the fact that the Doctor is a terrible name-dropper who is prone to extreme exaggeration. It almost all makes sense.

All this passion and research is poured onto the pages of aHistory. It just goes on and on, dense with information and hidden meaning. I might not be able to afford all those Big Finish productions, or follow all those expensive Doctor who comics with the poor art, but I can still use this one book to see how all those adventures play out.

It’s not the sort of book that you can burn through in one sitting – my lovely wife gave the book to me as a Christmas present last year, and after reading it steadily for most of the year, I’m still only up to the 23rd century.

But it is a book built for dipping in and out of – and an ideal travel book (It is big and bulky, but I have never, ever complained about the weight of my books.) Parts of a long road trip around the American desert earlier this year are seared into my brain alongside earnest consideration of whether a Cyberman Empire actually existed, or whether there are more than one Dalek timelines.

(A couple of months later, I watch a new episode and see the Doctor sitting in almost the exact spot in Monument Valley where I stood in February during that same trip, sparking a chain of unlikely coincidence that climaxed when the Doctor literally made a house call in October. Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story.)

Back in the day, when you couldn’t see old episodes anywhere, you could only read about them, and dream about them. It was years before a repeat of a William Hartnell story showed up on television, and all I could do was soak up plot synopses and faded photos in old magazines. They were enough to spark the imagination, and while the actual productions often turned out to be slightly awful when I finally saw them, I still love the stories.

aHistory taps into that feeling – and I spend more time than I’d like to admit wondering what that Zagreus business was all about, without hearing a single Eighth Doctor audio that didn’t have Lucie Miller in it. It’s that feeling that there is always more to read about, always new adventures in time and space to follow.

Two new Who
Originally posted August 23, 2009

It’s a long, cold year for people who dig Doctor Who. Even though it’s nothing when compared to the great gap of the 90s, it’s still missed. After four years of fantastic television, a couple of specials spaced months apart is a brilliant way to build anticipation and keep the series fresh, but I do genuinely miss it.

We’re all a bit spoiled, really. That break between The Seventh Doctor and Ace wandering off in search of a cup of tea and the Ninth grabbing Rose’s hand and telling her to run for her life was a tough one. It feature some occasionally spectacular novels and one TV film that tried its best, but the idea that Doctor Who could come back felt more and more remote every year.

And then it came back and it was so good and suddenly Doctor Who wasn’t old vid-fired DVDs and great novels with terrible covers any more, it was a massively successful television series that didn’t have to compromise to fit with mainstream tastes.

The decision to take it off for a year is a sound one. It’s an excellent one to differentiate between the Davies/Tennant era and the Moffat/Smith one. It means we don’t get sick of it, it means we appreciate it all a bit more when it does come back.

But I still miss it.

There are still the new novels and audio adventures, even if they feel a little unnecessary now. There are also plenty of books and magazines that remind me of everything I like about the television, while still showing me something new.

This week, I’ve been indulging in a couple of new Doctor Who publications. One is a dense and in-depth look at the inside of a writer’s head, while the other gives a broad overview of the appeal of the show, by drilling down into the details.

Doctor Who: The Writers Tale
By Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Davies has taken a fair bit of an online kicking from dickheads who don’t know what they are talking about, accusing him of storytelling laziness and sneering at him for being populist while vaguely hinted at some ill-defined and ill-mannered gay agenda.

I’m only a quarter of the way through this book, but if there is one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that Davies is about as far from lazy as you can get, unashamedly populist and massively gay, although I still really don’t understand why this is supposed to be such a bad thing.

The Writers Tale is 500 pages of correspondence between Davies and Cook, essentially a year long interview with Davies explaining the writing process while he’s doing it, chugging through the fourth season of the show with copious amounts of raw script. Davies is also amazingly open about the whole process, his part in it and the 3am terrors, when he convinces himself that everything he writes is shit.

And it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. There have been several thousand behind the scenes books on the series over the years, but none of them have crawled into the head of the main creative voice on the programme and taken a look around like this book has.

With the hindsight that comes with the familiarity of the episodes he’s working on, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see a story take shape, even if Davies’ first drafts are surprisingly resilient, with many familiar lines and moments that survive every aspect of the rewriting process.

It’s also interesting to see Davies explain why he does the things he does, forced to always think about the budget he has to work with, while always trying to push the limits of British television capability.

It really is a fascinating book. It’s not just the best book I’ve ever read about writing Doctor Who, it might be the best book I’ve ever read about writing television altogether. Davies is intellectually naked here, always aware of the pressure that surrounds his position, while relishing the opportunity to craft a definitive chapter in his favourite television series.

I really hope he doesn’t take all the online criticism to heart. Some people are only too eager to rip one of his stories to pieces because it upsets their precious sensibilities. But if they could understand the actual storytelling process and all the limitations and liberations that come with it, they might actually have something interesting to say.

(Davies is a nice little sketch artist too, so if this Doctor Who thing never really works out, he could always find a home on the Beano.)

Doctor Who: 200 Golden Moments
Edited by Tom Spilsbury

The UK-based Panini Magazines, which also publishes the regular Doctor Who Magazine, (along with several American comic reprints), has put out plenty of special editions covering the history of Doctor Who since the new series started five years ago.

In fact, this is the twenty-second. But while the previous 21 have been packed with fascinating trivia and amazingly fresh anecdotes, this is the first one I’ve actually bought.

Because while the others are full of behind the scenes trivia and broad overviews of distinctive periods in the show’s history, this one focuses on the little moments, picking 200 tiny little slices of Doctor Who, summing up everything that is great and wonderful about the Doctor and his adventures in time and space.

Every story is covered, from Hartnell hiding in a junkyard, to Tennant striding the silky sands of San Helios. Some of the top moments are unexpected, some are obvious. Some are full of grandeur and operative vigor, others are tiny little character moments or good scares.

There are the Cybermen walking in the shadow of St Paul’s and the Doctor wondering if he has the right to wipe out the Daleks at their genesis, but there is also Jamie’s anger at being used by the Doctor to prove a point, or the Doctor telling Martha about the silver leaves of Gallifrey.

As somebody who has loved Doctor Who his entire life, I don’t mind admitting that it can be a terrible show sometimes, with ridiculously bad production standards only eclipsed by some horrendous acting. But even the most unloved of stories have their moments of charm, every story has one bit that makes it all worthwhile.

And the army of writers who volunteered for the special do a remarkable job of catching that charm in their short pieces. Familiar names like Paul Cornell, Kate Orman and Gary Russell snapping up the opportunity to talk up their own little favourite moments of their favourite show.

It's still a good few months before The waters of Mars and the final two stories of the Davies/Tennant run, but there is plenty of good reading to fill in the time.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Excellent - just what I need - though I reckon some of these books will lead me down the rabbit hole ...