Image Credit: ECW Press (Fair Use)
Image Description: The cover of Who is the Doctor Vol. 2
Ian Bayley reviews Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?’s latest guide to the new series, Who is the Doctor 2
When I was much younger I owned, and constantly browsed, Jean-Marc Lofficier’s The Doctor Who Programme Guide Volume One; a thin paperback notable for having, pleasingly, the exact same dimensions as my Target novelisations. For every televised story, up to only Logopolis in its first edition, I could read the production code, transmission dates, writer, director, guest cast, and a hundred-word synopsis. Of course nowadays, in the age of the Internet, nobody would pay money for this kind of a dry repository of factual data, and so considerable creative energy has to be expended into making programme guides interesting. Graeme Burk and Robert Smith? excelled at this for twenty first century Doctor Who when they published Who is the Doctor in 2012. It was described by Neil Gaiman as “nightmarishly more-ish” when he became embroiled in an engrossing four-hour reading marathon after only a glance, and I have had many such unplanned sessions myself in the years since I bought it. The only fault I have ever found with it, one that worsens over the years, is that it stops with The Wedding of River Song. You can therefore imagine my excitement at receiving a preview copy of Volume Two that covers Series Seven to Eleven, including all three series of my favourite New Who Doctor.
The key to the more-ishness is in the choice of categories, which make the reader want to read the entry for the next story, then the next after that and so on. The apparent cultural roots for each story are listed; much erudition is displayed in their references to other works of literature, film and television. I particularly enjoyed, for example, A Town Called Mercy’s suggested links not only to the film High Noon, which I had watched, but also to the Deep Space 9 episode Duet, which I hadn’t. Other links, related to aesthetics rather than plot, are often more tenuous but no less enjoyable: Pavel’s frozen pose in Knock Knock resembles Han Solo trapped in carbonite, while the Murray Gold favourite ‘The Shepherd’s Boy’ from Heaven Sent sounds perhaps a bit like the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
The sections that follow help to clarify continuity: callbacks, series arcs, and character development for both the Doctor and the companions. Further sections consider the ‘monster of the week’, explain where the TARDIS has landed, and find one thing to praise and one thing to carp at – even for the stories at the very edges of the quality spectrum. There’s then a page of interesting trivia, often channelled into speculation. To take two examples from the second half of Series Seven, Moffat probably knew that The Web of Fear was close to being found when he wrote The Snowmen, effectively a prequel, and Ellie Oswald’s death on 5th March 2005 was probably due to the Auton attack on that day shown in Rose.
All these sections so far, however, are but a mere prelude to the main focus of the book: reviews, usually at least a page long, written by each of the two authors in turn. As someone who has already watched the episodes in question many times, I can find new reasons to love the undisputed greats; a precise analysis of what went wrong for the episodes that nobody wishes to defend and a fresh perspective even on those stories that have already been debated exhaustively on An Unearthly Chat. Although marks out of five might seem reductive, and have probably been avoided for that reason, there were reviews where I would have liked more clarity about where the writer stood. One particular irritation is that the first review of the pair is always, inexplicably, called either ‘Brilliant?’ or ‘Cool?’ or ‘Don’t Be Stupid?’, while the second is always called ‘Second Opinion’, whether it accords or not. Unfortunately, for at least two episodes that I find important, reviews have been replaced with attempts at comedy. For The Lie of the Land, they both created what appear to be semi-sarcastic reviews based on the idea that the Monks had rewritten their personal history. For Heaven Sent, Robert cycles repeatedly through the five stages of grief while watching the episode and the other says he has nothing to add.
Starting with the fan favourites, The Day of the Doctor is “about learning how to be a grown-up”, with the mid-life crisis Eleventh Doctor hiding from his past, and the Tenth Doctor defined by it, until Clara helps them both to see that the only way to truly move on is to make amends. In Mummy on the Orient Express, they examine how the Doctor’s moment of vulnerability on the beach is earned through his reaction to every death. In Face the Raven, Robert points out that Clara has spent all her time learning how to be the Doctor, only to forget that she can’t regenerate to cheat death, perhaps giving the coherence of her character arc more credit than many would. The other, meanwhile, writes a moving eulogy to his “favourite companion,” pointing out that the Doctor himself was the impossible one, so perhaps Clara wanted to be like him to escape the tragedies in her life. Other Twelfth Doctor classics such as Last Christmas, Oxygen and Extremis are loved for pretty much the same reasons as the ones I would write.
Turning to the stories that I believe, based on DWM polls, are less fondly remembered, we start with The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, where both reviewers admired the whimsy of the Eleventh Doctor and the portrayal of the nature of Madge’s grief. Kill the Moon, meanwhile, is mercilessly lambasted for its crimes against science before the moral philosophy even starts – admittedly it is an episode of two halves. Both reviewers, unsurprisingly, link it explicitly to the abortion debate. Robert agrees that men should not absent themselves from the debate, like the Doctor did, but was angry that we were all presented with a consequence-free “right answer” at the end. Graeme just loves that the fact Kill the Moon makes people feel uncomfortable!
Turning to Sleep No More, the authors suggest that though it advertises found footage as its innovation, it then betrays the concept by putting the cameras in the dust so they are nobody’s viewpoint. Furthermore, the spacious sets take away the claustrophobia that the format needs, and then fills them with uniquely unscary monsters: the Sandmen. Eaters of Light, they concur, is boring and/or inert; nothing more than the epilogue to an unshown battle.
Moving onto the Chibnall era, Arachnids in the UK was an unlikely favourite for the authors: Graeme loves the title, finds the spiders scary – both sentiments I can’t share – and loves the character moments. Robert passionately defends Robertson’s mercy killing. The Tsuranga Conundrum was a showcase for the Chibnall era’s procedural style for Graeme but Robert found it contrived, and laughed at sibling rivalry between middle-aged people. He did, however, point out to me that the early death of Astos, and pregnancy of Yoss, is an interesting inversion of gender.
There are, however, stories that are neither universally loved, nor universally hated, but which are much discussed in An Unearthly Chat. There are many I thought of covering here, but I will stick to the highlights of Series Seven. Fans of The Rings of Akenaten would be very pleased to read their reviews of the story, with high praise for its depiction of a genuinely alien society and the imagery of using untapped potential to defeat Grandfather. They also celebrate the fact that Clara herself rejects the ‘Impossible Girl’ label that the Doctor assigns to her. I received a huge shock, however, when reading their reviews of A Town Called Mercy. One of them is outraged that the Doctor uses a gun to force Jex to stay out of the town, insisting that Jex could easily have been rescued with the TARDIS, while claiming that the Doctor doesn’t care about Isaac’s death. Another says that the only joke in the episode is the horse being called Susan and describes the scene that leads to Jex’s expulsion as “100% pure bullshit.”
There is one major fault with this book, however, and it’s one that I had to struggle not to begin this review with, as it was my very first thought on receiving the review copy. The problem is, it stops at Resolution and the end of Series Eleven. It is already out of date at a time (April 2020) when we know there will only be one new story in the next eighteen months. It looks ahead at how Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor could evolve, pointing out in particular that the Doctor is wrong a lot in the middle episodes of Series Eleven, and bemoans the fact that Yaz was underutilised, as we all did at the time. Every observation of the Chibnall era so far fills me with the urge to exclaim “so what happened then?!”. I strongly urge the writers to finish the job and release a second edition for Series Twelve as soon as they can, as only the more disenchanted fans would welcome the omission of nearly half the Thirteenth Doctor’s episodes.
The book in its current form will be valued most by people who enjoy and would like a full account of the Capaldi era; I am one of those people.