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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Doctor Who: A Thirty Five Year History


Fans started writing about Doctor Who almost as soon as it began. Doctor Who is, of course, one of the best loved and most enduring science fiction television series ever made by the BBC. It first started transmitting on 23 November 1963 and went on to enjoy an unbroken run of seasons and stories up until late 1989 when the BBC decided to cancel the series. Since then there has been a single American-co-funded television film but nothing else.

Some of the earliest fan criticism can be found in general sf fanzines of the time. For example, the first Dalek story, 'The Mutants', came under scrutiny in a 1964 SF review zine, and science fiction fans found that the Doctor’s weekly adventures made a good counterpart to reading and reviewing the latest science fiction novels, which included, according to John Clute’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: J G Ballard’s The Burning World, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Clifford D Simak’s The Way Station, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Andre Norton’s Witch World, and other works from Roger Zelazny, Robert Heinlein and James Blish.

The first organised fan group directly associated with the show came into being only two years after it had started, when a young fan living in Stoke on Trent started to put together and mail out to subscribers an A4 duplicated newsletter containing information on the show’s stars and details of forthcoming television stories. At the time that the first actor to play the Doctor, William Hartnell, left the show, this organisation changed its name from the William (Doctor Who) Hartnell Fan Club to the Official Doctor Who Fan Club and it then continued operating throughout the Patrick Troughton era of the show (1966-1969) before grinding to a halt around 1971.

Towards the end of 1971, however, another fan of the series, Keith Miller, wrote to the BBC asking about a fan club. As the previous club was inactive at the time, he decided to start and run one of his own and the Doctor Who Fan Club came into being. Miller published numerous newsletters, as well as an irregular magazine, but on the whole there was not much else. Jon Pertwee, playing the third Doctor at the time, enjoyed a fan club of his own, which also published a news-magazine, but it wasn’t until 1976 that Doctor Who fandom really took off in a big way.

This was due to the formation in that year of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, or DWAS – which still exists to this day – and an explosion in the number of fanzines available for fans to buy. Indeed, in the early eighties, the DWAS’ newsletter had to split the fanzine advertisements off into a separate 4 to 8 page supplement as they were swamping the content of the rest of the newsletter.

All of this background is by way of trying to explain why myself and Stephen James Walker wanted to bring together some of the wealth of fan writing and commentary on Doctor Who and present it to a new audience, many of whom were not even born at the time the original fanzines were being published.

My own interest in Doctor Who started around 1974 – coincidentally the same time that Tom Baker took over the lead role – although I can remember watching it as early as 1966 when I was five years old. I joined the fledgling Doctor Who Appreciation Society in late 1976 and started my own fanzine in July 1977. I felt that I had something to say, that my interests – at the time in the Doctor Who monsters and the numerous TARGET novelisations being published – were not being catered for by the DWAS’ own newsletter (called Celestial Toyroom after a sixties episode) or magazine (called TARDIS for reasons which may be obvious). My fanzine, Oracle, ran for 36 issues and was published more or less monthly.

Ever since then I have been involved in Doctor Who fandom in one way or another. I ran the DWAS’ reference department for several years in the early eighties, and collected as many fanzines as I could – and there were hundreds of them. Mostly A5, photocopied affairs, they contained articles, interviews, reviews, pictures, comic strips, photographs, artwork … anything and everything went as far as the fanzines were concerned. Some were serious, others treated Doctor Who as a springboard to discuss television fantasy as a whole, yet others treated the whole thing with disdain and sought to put down and criticise anything that was perceived as being popular or worthy.

My first foray into the professional world of Doctor Who came about in 1991, when, almost as a direct result of publishing 24 quarterly issues of my second fanzine, The Frame, with two friends, Stephen James Walker and Mark Stammers, we were commissioned by W H Allen – soon to be taken over by Virgin Publishing – to write the first of a proposed three-book series looking at the background history of the show. Doctor Who: The Sixties was and still is a book I am very proud of. Hot on the heels of that came a commission to start another series, this time a sequence of paperback ‘handbooks’ to the show, one per Doctor. This autumn sees the publication of the final such book, looking at the eras of the seventh and eighth Doctors.

In between I have authored or co-authored nearly twenty other non-fiction titles connected with the show. The depth and range of information covered in each book has varied, and the research has ranged from interviewing just about everyone involved with the show, to sifting through piles of musty paperwork at the BBC’s written archive centre.

One thing that I had never done, however, was a programme guide to the show. The reason for this was simple – there was one already, and, as W H Allen (later to be taken over by Virgin) had published it back in 1981, they were not about to publish another. However, when in May 1995, a decision was made by the BBC not to renew Virgin’s licence to publish the series of original novels which had been running since 1991, and instead for the BBC to take over the range, I realised that, finally, I might have the opportunity to do the ultimate Doctor Who programme guide. A book that was informed by all the in-depth research that had gone on into the show over the years, but which also pulled in some of the wealth of comment that had appeared in the short-run and, for the most part long forgotten, fanzines.

Therefore I joined forces with my writing colleague Stephen James Walker, and set to outlining the sort of book we wanted to see.

What we have ended up with is, as is every book to some extent, a compromise between our ideal book, and what we could practically achieve given the constraints of page-length, and the requirements of our editor at the BBC. What we hope we have achieved is a single book which encapsulates all that is good and bad about the show. It has a sound and accurate base, and upon that we built a commentary using many quotes from the aforementioned fanzines, but also press reviews, and comments culled from the BBC’s own Audience Research reports over the years.

What quickly becomes apparent when looking at Doctor Who fanzines is the sheer number of talented people who cut their teeth either editing or writing for them. People who, twenty five years ago, were writing reviews of then-current Doctor Who are today editing professionally published newsstand genre titles, or are novelists, or are doctors, professors or other academics. Others moved into television and film and are working as programme editors, or script editors, or even running their own production companies.

A great many of the authors of the various ranges of original Doctor Who fiction published professionally by Virgin and the BBC cut their teeth in the fanzines. In some cases, their novels have been based on pieces of fan fiction published years earlier, while others are wholly original.

It was something of a dilemma to decide what to keep and what to discard from thirty five years of fan writing in our selections for The Television Companion. Unfortunately, legally we could only use small extracts from any one piece (anything more would have meant that we would have had to have sought permission from the authors – an impossible task given the sheer number of things we would have wanted to use and the relative obscurity of some of the titles and authors) and so we restricted ourselves to pertinent quotes which backed up opinions, or examples of particularly fine thought and analysis, or original takes on the show; items which kicked against oft-stated perceptions and which presented something fresh.

All of this material was sifted and edited until we ended up with roughly 1000 words per Doctor Who story, summarising the good and the bad aspects of each adventure. We feel quite strongly that, like most television, Doctor Who was seldom all good or all bad, and wanted to point out this fact, and also to highlight that even the most critically reviled adventures can have elements of greatness, if you know where to look.

Of course we could have written these sections of the book wholly ourselves, but then it would have just been our opinions – two people – as opposed to a selection of views both contemporary and more recent. We felt that it was important to keep it broad, and hopefully the result is both interesting and eye-opening.

As this was also a programme guide, we ended the book with the hope that one day, there might be some more episodes of the show made, and that we might be in the happy position of issuing a revised edition. As of writing there is still talk about the BBC collaborating with a film company about a feature based on the show. The producer of the 1996 television movie has indicated that his production was a ‘one time only offer’, but has not elaborated further as he is currently working on his own book about the show he made wherein some of the problems he encountered will be revealed.

Whatever the future holds for Doctor Who, one thing is certain. It is one of the most flexible and adaptable formats for a TV series ever developed. We have seen other shows come and go which tried to tap into the concepts that made Doctor Who great: Quantum Leap, Sliders and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer all contain recognisable elements of the Doctor Who format. In a climate at the end of the 20th century where our creative talents constantly look to the past to try and capture a theme for the present, it seems inconceivable that Doctor Who will never return.

©David J Howe


To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Doctor Who, the BBC are releasing a bumper bundle of goodies.

Doctor Who: The Television Companion (David J Howe and Stephen James Walker) – official guide to the show.
Doctor Who: From A to Z (Gary Gillatt) – thematic articles looking at all aspects of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors – special double-tape video release. The first tape contains episodes 1,4,5 and 6 of the Patrick Troughton story 'The Ice Warriors' which has been remastered and cleaned up. The second tape contains a special documentary on missing Doctor Who – which number includes episodes 2 and 3 of 'The Ice Warriors' which no longer exist – together with episode 3 of 'The Underwater Menace', a surviving sixties episode, plus clips from numerous stories and episodes which no longer exist in their entirety. The package also includes a CD containing the original soundtrack for episodes 2 and three of 'The Ice Warriors'.
Doctor Who: The Infinity Doctors (Lance Parkin) – a special novel commissioned to celebrate the anniversary.


For further information about Doctor Who, seek out the following books:

Doctor Who: The Sixties/The Seventies/The Eighties – all by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (Virgin Publishing)

Doctor Who: Timeframe – by David J Howe (Virgin Publishing)

Doctor Who: The Television Companion – by David J Howe and Stephen James Walker (BBC Books)