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January 18, 2008

"In many cases, no date was ever given for a story..."

Ahistory There are basically two different approaches to Doctor Who’s grand narrative. On the Doctor Who Forum recently there was a rather long discussion about which order the Eighth Doctor stories should be consumed in. Everyone had their own theory, their personal canon as Paul Cornell memorably describes it, either jumping about the different media or looking at them in a fairly linear order (in my version of his life, it’s the novels, then the comics, then all the audios beginning with Shada and continuing into the latest monthly episodes). This and the old Outpost Gallifrey Canon Keeper’s Guide approach the story from the Doctor’s point of view, biographically slotting everything in from before An Unearthly Child and ending with Voyage of the Damned.

Lance Parkin’s Ahistory looks at the universe he travels in from the other perspective, placing events from within and implied by each story into chronological order writing instead a biography of the universe. Such endeavors are not unusual in science fiction television; when Star Trek was back in vogue, a chronology was produced of that timeline. The difference here is that unlike the Trek office who decreed that only the television series and the films should be considered canon (and about one novel and the flashbacks in an animated episode), the BBC have had a rather more relaxed approach (presumably because to say that nothing produced during the extend hiatus is valid would be an Amazing Spiderman-style kick in the teeth), which means that Parkin’s book attempts to rationalise everything but the silliest stories that the franchise has produced over the past forty-odd years.

This second edition (fourth if you count a fanzine and the Virgin publication) updates the material as far as a couple of months ago, as well as adding in every Doctor Who comic strip, the Dalek TV21 stories.  Dimensions In Time is still ignored, as is Curse of the Fatal Death, but curiously Death Comes To Time is in there as is Scream of the Shalka. The main omission is short fiction; as Parkin points out there’s been so much of that across the annuals and Short Trips anthologies it would double the length of the book and because of some of its experimental nature create even more problems than already exist. Sadly Lance couldn’t find a ‘placement’ for one of my favourite bits of Doctor Who comics continuity, in which the Seventh Doctor met the British comics character Death’s Head on route from the Transformers timeline, shrunk him and deposited him in the Marvel Universe, thereby forcing three different franchises together in a few short pages.

What we have instead is an act of love only a fan could produce and clearly only a fan could read. It would appear to be a relatively easy prospect simply assigning each story a date and putting them all in order. But what Parkin does, with additional help from Lars Pearson, is see how the various stories all relate to one another often to the point of deepening the experience of watching/reading/listening to a particular story. That’s particularly true of Dalek history, in which countless orphaned stories suddenly become part of an ongoing campaign and their empire goes through all of the problems similar endeavours have on Earth with infighting, false profits and final destruction. As Parkin himself notes, the franchise has a roughly consistent approach to future history and actually Captain Jack was right, the twenty-first century is when it all changes (even if not necessarily during Torchwood). 

But the author doesn’t simply slot everything together, at the bottom of each pages in a shaded area he includes his working out, either by simply mentioning the story that a factoid was referenced from or more often a mini-essay explaining his choice. It’s probable most readers will spend their time in this section as Parkin ruminates on who was the American president and when in the past few decades, quite why Sarah-Jane keeps forgetting that she’s met the Doctor since he dropped her off in The Hand of Fear  (and if he really didn't care why did he give you K9?) and in what order the Doctor’s met Shakespeare (often enough that the bard’s as much of a companion as The Brigadier – assuming that really is him in The Shakespeare Code). To his credit, only now and then does he resort to blaming inconsistencies on the time war but as far as he’s concerned UNIT dating is still up in the air, the period in which they happen being given a discrete section with the main text, expending whole pages on the arguments left and right. If only Whatever Happened To Sarah-Jane had aired a few weeks earlier. 

Perhaps of most interest to new fans will be the section about the present day, which shows how the three franchises all slot together and the events leading into the time war.  oth betray many hours of thinking through as well, with Lance carefully knitting Torchwood into the gap between the mother series revealing that The Runaway Bride occurred mere weeks before a giant demon stomped all over Cardiff in End of Days (which mirroring our reality should be happening about now). Most of Blink actually happened in 2007 and we can see now on which days all the contemporary scenes in the last series happened, with the QuickRead Made of Steel occurring on the Wednesday. The time war is even more of a mind bender, as it attempts to unify the one from the Eighth Doctor novels with the one from the television series producing a rather surprising outcome in relation to who the central character of the new series actually is – his dialogue from The End of the World (“This is who I am! Right here, right now! Alright? All that counts is here and now and this is me!”) gaining a whole new meaning.

All of which is just the doorway of a dimensionally transcendental time capsule and it'd be probably quite fun showing this to someone whose only seen the new series, or else a non-fan to see what their reaction is. The fan reaction is one of utter addiction and a massive debt run up on ebay. Parkin has said that he didn’t write the book to be read from cover to cover, and that the best way to approach is to pick a favourite story and then see what was happening around it – but it’s perhaps even more exciting to simply let the book fall open at random. The only problem is of course that even the most die-hard fans will have read and seen everything so inevitably something is going to be spoiled so the book should be approached with caution. But it would be grand to think though that despite its unauthorised status, there are a couple of copies lying around in the offices of the new series so that when their version of contemporary Britain catches up with 2012 they remember that Mariah Learman is in power and a King is on the throne…

AHistory: An Unauthorised History of the Doctor Who Universe by Lance Parkin
ISBN: 978-0975944660
RRP: $29.99 (approx. £15.00)
Release date: out now

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