Image Credit: Chris Stone (Used with Permission)
Image Description: The cover of Professor Howe and the Crafty Count
By Thomas Barker
Parody and Doctor Who are no strangers. The Doctor Who Night (1999) sketches, The Curse of Fatal Death (1999) and The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot (2013) are official examples of the show sportively poking fun at itself, its fandom, and its production culture, unafraid to pinpoint its tropes while remaining lovingly in touch with its allure and longevity. Unofficial endeavours by fans, however, can prove just as richly entertaining, showing both appreciation and a conscious awareness of Who’s quirks, and the potential for fans to lovingly (and fairly) appraise it. Jamie Hailstone’s Professor Howe and the Crafty Count, part of the spoof-parody Professor Howe series of charity books, proves an engaging mixture of jesting and appreciation as a great send-up of The Curse of Fenric, as well as being an interesting story in its own right – but more on that later!
The ninth entry in the series, which raises money for Children in Need, Professor Howe and the Crafty Count pits the titular Professor (read: Doctor) and companion Barbie Cappuccino against a crafty Count, a mysterious old evil, a new-blooded villain, and an auction sale in the village of Wenches Finger, shadowed by the legend of St Fenwick. With a framework aping the plot of Fenric, and some fine renderings of a certain Peter Cushion and a Christopher Leek which do speak for themselves, the result is a well-paced and never dull story which, despite having never read a Howe book before, I found easy to enjoy and dip into.
One of Count’s greatest appeals, personally, was its parodic engagement with what made Who tick in the late 1980s, particularly in Season 26. Fans of Fenric, the Seventh Doctor, and Season 26 will find much to enjoy in the rendering of the titular Howe, sporting full McCoyesque foresight (or so he thinks), competing (in a round of golf!) with a purported god-like figure, and displaying general Doctorish habits (even if inside a ‘smaller on the inside’ craft). If you are well-acquainted with Fenric, then certain details may prove hilariously well-placed and satisfying, but equally the narrative proves quick and accessible to those not as familiar with the ins and outs of the Doctor’s contest with the Old One. The cover design, here by Matthew Purchase, apes that of the much-loved Target novelisations, much like the other novels in the series, and there are further engagements with the release of Doctor Who stories in the joking foreword describing the Howe fandom’s ‘reaction’ to the story and its apparent Director’s Cut. The crafted author-narrator proves a further delight, retelling this Howe classic as quickly as possible in order to leg it to the Costa del Sol, meaning amusing asides, commentary, and gossip on the production of the ‘story’ ensue, with Easter eggs and plot holes treated as par for the course. The breaking of the fourth wall (if there is such a wall here) to analyse costume discrepancies, production choices, and plot holes (just like a DVD commentary or eager fan would do!) is, again, both a stylistic quirk (almost like a friend recounting a story to you) and a broader commentary on late-80s Who. It is difficult to go into too much detail without spoiling the punchlines, but the interjections appear fluid and relevant to how the narrator chaotically recounts the story in prose form.
Far from merely a reference checklist, the comedic value of the book further stems from its bathos, or its juxtaposition of the potentially epic aspects of Fenric and the comedic Gothic horror elements transposed into the narrative. The insanely dramatic juxtaposes the banal, with a particular scene with biscuits proving a highlight, and makes the inclusion of Cushion, Leek, and the vampiric antagonist able to engage with Gothic horror tropes alongside the main Whoesque plot. Many will therefore find broader jokes and themes to tease out, which I wish not to spoil, at the risk of compromising the charitable aim of the book. Mixing horror tropes and a story from the 1980s into a modern parody undoubtedly steers the trajectory of the book’s material, particularly given its comedic and parodic tone. Part of me, therefore, felt uncertain towards the exchanges of the book’s two women, as well as their general characterisation. However, the parodic send-up of Gothic tropes (which some of this material parodies) meant that this did not appear ill-spirited or malicious, and more perhaps a part of the hyperreal depiction of some of the outmoded elements of an older television show even if some of the book’s other elements – personally – packed a greater comedic punch.
Professor Howe and the Crafty Count has something to offer for every Who fan, with an engaging not-quite-the-Doctor lead, comedic side characters, humour regarding the programme, science-fiction, horror, television production, and general comedic hijinks. Doctor Who’s capability of well-intentioned parody means the Professor Howe series will surely run for many more charitable releases. Count straddles the aim of parodying a Doctor Who story and the need to bring forth original plot elements well, so I will have to see what original-but-inspired adventures Howe and Barbie get up to! I also look forward to seeing – or reading – how the implied wider ‘arc’ hinted to continues and, as with the other components of this book, how it may wink cheekily towards Doctor Who’s chronology.