Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who
Edited by David Butler
This book is amazing.
Before going some way to explaining that hyperbole, I should first admit my vested interests. The editor, Dr. Butler, a lecturer in Screen Studies at Manchester University, was the man who taught me everything I know about Propp, Said, Tarkovsky and Kurosawa, marked my dissertation and is a good friend (which makes it of course horrifying that I haven’t been in touch lately). He’s been in the news lately because he’s in aiding the project of cataloging the contents of Delia Derbyshire’s attic. He spoke about pulling this volume together whilst I was there and I’m listed in the acknowledgments as well as, I think, being a statistic in his own fabulous essay about audience reactions to An Unearthly Child and the TV Movie. Do not, then, expect the most balanced of reviews.
But really, this book is amazing.
There’s been a flurry of activity in the academic community and beyond in the wake of the new series, with countless volumes attempting to apply complex critical theory to the franchise building on the early work of Tulloch and Alvarado in The Unfolding Text, the first attempt at looking at the series from an academic point of view. Many of them are quoted in here, but from what I’ve seen, with the exception of Kim Newman’s BFI edition, they’re sometimes so fixated on trying to treat the programme as a serious text, they commit the habitual academic crime of deconstructing the target into a series of ‘signs’ and forgetting exactly what it is that drew them to write about it in the first place. Doctor Who above all else is a fun, diverting sci-fi adventure serial, sometimes for all the family or as Dale Smith’s essay about the Virgin New Adventures notes, sometimes not and it’s ok to acknowledge that whilst trying to roll it through the academic rigger.
This book of David and his colleagues treads that fine line superbly. As the brilliant title itself symbolically suggests each of the writers betrays a fannish knowledge of the programme, but at the same time when required (and importantly only when required) pull in relevant academic standards as way of illuminating the show and its place within the cultural mythology. There are varying degrees of discourse; essays such as David Rafer’s investigation into the mythic identity in Doctor Who mention everyone from Laura Mulvey to Jean Baudrillard and are like revisiting my university course in small doses in relation to my favourite television programme. Alan McKee’s fun demonstration of why City of Death is obviously the best Doctor Who story relies more heavily on the programme itself.
Also, unlike certain other academic tomes there’s never a sense of padding, of letting in material to make up the page length and justify the price. There are four sections, mirroring the classic structure of a Doctor Who story. The first looks at the origins of the series, the second how the stories are told -- narrative structure and their mythic and allegorical qualities, the third notes how the production facilities effected what appeared on screen with special emphasis on music and the final part is perhaps the most fan orientated, looking at questions of canonicity, who actually created the series and our appreciation of spin-off media. There also a rather lovely afterword by Paul Magrs on why he loves the series that is as touching, nostalgic and batty as you’d expect.
It’s difficult to select highlights since there’s narry a disappointment, but if you’re wondering through a university library and they’ve only got a single copy on three hour short loan, I’d go directly to the aforementioned piece on audience reaction which wittily runs through the TV movie's exposition failures with some wonderful quotes from fellow students who’ve never seen the programme before and note that for all the crackle and pop of the American cutaway, it’s the first episode and its inherent sense of mystery which is the most compelling. Then I’d skip to the back and find Lance Parkin’s exploration of canonicity which succinctly underscores the reason I love the franchise, that there’s no definitive version and no Lucasfilm style department telling me that the story can’t begin on Barnes Common because that’s not what we saw on screen (something which the Eighth Doctor Adventures turned into a plot point).
From there, bounce forwards through the pagination vortex to Tat Wood’s barmy attempt to work out who represents the viewer’s point of view in the series, making comparisons with everything from wildlife documentaries to film musicals. Then there’s Ian Potter demonstrating that by the close of the series, despite the best efforts of Andrew Cartmell and others, the production was still following the antiquated grammar of the sixties even though the rest of television had moved on around it and Matt Hills taking that a stage further to show that Big Finish were largely tweaking that grammar for audio and presenting the fan listener with a product which captures the magical essence of what they remember the show to be like in their memory rather than what’s being revealed on dvd. By then, your three hours should be up, but its worth risking the exorbitant fines to take in Magrs’s afterword if only to discover where his novel The Scarlet Empress sprouted from.
By then though, you’ll probably have decided to buy a copy and you’d be right to, because these are pages to be savoured. It’s weighty yet accessible, it’s intelligent and sardonic. In recent months, the essays about the contributions of John Nathan Turner and Robert Holmes have become even more relevant since both underscore that the show is not and never can be the vision of a single man, though until Moffat takes over we’ll not find out how much of the essence of the new iteration is due to the producer or the needs of production. It’s not afraid to spend ten or so pages explaining what’s so good about City of Death or why Paul Cornell’s contribution to the recent version of the franchise is all too easily overlooked. There’s a compelling sense of getting away with something – challenging received authority – rather like the Doctor himself.
Like I said, Amazing.
Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who edited by David Butler
Release date: Out Now!