Doctor WhoChristopher EcclestonDavid Tennant
About Time 7 - The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who 2005-2006 Series 1 & 2
Medium: book [non-fiction]
Year: September 2013
Publisher: Mad Norwegian Press
Writer: Tat Wood, Dorothy Ail [additional material]
Format: 464 pages
Series: << Doctor Who
Regulars: 9th Doctor, 10th Doctor
Website category: Doctor Who
Review date: 18 August 2013
It's my first About Time. I'd been aware of the previous six volumes, of course, and they'd sounded intriguing. I'm a big Lawrence Miles fan and Tat seemed like an interesting chap when I talked to him once. I'd simply never got around to reading one before. (Caveat: I read a pre-publication copy and any or all of the following might get fixed in the published version.)
In short, I loved it. It's whackadoodle, contains hobby-horses and made me wonder if it was reacting against some kind of subjectively perceived wisdom, but I can live with that for the originality and vigour of its thinking.
My initial reaction: "Great Scott, there's a lot of it." Admittedly this was partly because the first chapter (Rose, of course) is the longest in the book, but that was like jumping in a swimming pool for the first time. I was boggling by the time I reached the chip recipes, but I got used to it. I like it. In-depth is good. The more room for analysis, digressions and loopiness, the better. There are even references to the accompanying articles for much more recent stories, suggesting that Tat's written up all of 21st century Who and the only reason it's not all in one volume is that only weightlifters could have lifted it.
WHAT'S GOOD
I like all the analysis. I was expecting to like the reviews best, but in fact I flipped even more for the massive essays that go all over the place. One thing I'd like to pick out, incidentally, is the fact that he gives examples. Damn, that's refreshing. He doesn't just claim that a director is good, but might cite specific shots. (I've never trusted the majority of fans, myself included, to be capable of anything but handwaving generalities when it comes to direction.) Similarly he might name specific scenes for actors.
I like the observations I hadn't noticed, or even thought about. A Xenomorph in Van Statten's museum in Dalek? You're kidding, surely? Let me check my DVD... okay, are we talking about second from the left at 36 seconds, in front of the Cyberman? Changing the subject, I'd have never noticed the colour-coding. The link between The Unquiet Dead and The Stolen Earth. Wow.
I like him thinking odd thoughts.
I also like the distance from the subject. Nearly a decade has passed. Naturally a guide to the 2005-2006 stories written in 2013 will have a richer perspective than one that had been written more promptly. We've had two showrunners and nearly a hundred episodes of New Who. However at the same time it's still fresher ground than the endlessly analysed 20th century stories, which leaves more room for surprises.
WHAT'S GREAT
Some of the specific essays are magnificent.
Tat has an amusing "you kids get off my porch" rant about mobile phones, then analyses how this has affected Doctor Who storytelling and TV consumption in general. He hypothesises about what would happen if you inserted mobiles into 20th century stories and ends up making some strong observations on what we've lost.
I love the way he'll accept the Whoniverse as real and try to make sense of 51st century history, Dalek timelines and rules about history-changing. Those all blew me away. The Dalek touching Rose takes him into some brilliant speculation and a big Bad Wolf theory. His history-changing analysis is glorious, even if I think he ties himself in knots on Father's Day. Incidentally, for me all this was welcome partly as a counter-argument to "It's meaningless, who cares, they all made it up as it went along". That's true-ish, but boring. Surely it's more interesting and fruitful to embrace the contradictions and try to make sense of them? It's the Sir Edmund Hillary approach to Doctor Who studies. Mountains must be climbed.
I love his piece on xenophobia, which is topical at the moment with all that anti-immigration hysteria. It challenges smugness, arguing that the series as a whole might be preaching tolerance, but that individual episodes don't.
The fandom essay is completely out of left field, but there surely can't be another book that's going within miles of there.
It's a joy to see him rolling up his sleeves and going to town on Gatiss. Here, I can't believe that Tat will ever be bettered. Not only does he get all the references, but he's willing to spend dozens of pages explaining and discussing them. He pulls off the trick of lacerating Gatiss, but in a completely fair way with which even Gatiss himself probably wouldn't disagree. He's magnificent on The Unquiet Dead, but then raises himself to still more towering heights for The Idiot's Lantern, with his essay on "Are We Touring Theme-Park History?" being something that they should teach in schools. He discusses:
(a) The 1950s, Quatermass, etc. incidentally giving us the background of British TV that would lead up to the creation of Doctor Who.
(b) The history of the historical genre, both in Doctor Who and in English literature, then shows how The Idiot's Lantern fits into that. I studied maths at university, not English, so for me that was beautiful.
(c) What a literary theorist would see as the paradoxical differences between Whitaker and Spooner's approaches to Hartnell historicals.
(d) A worked example of the difference between a Whitaker historical and a 21st century one. Specifically he discusses getting into the mindset of the era in The Crusade vs. deliberately not doing so in The Shakespeare Code.
WHAT'S INCOMPLETE OR QUESTIONABLE
I miss Miles, even though I've never read any of his co-authored volumes. (Larry's funny, if nothing else. This book mostly isn't, although that's not a problem.) I like having two voices on books like this. Burk and Smith?, Shearman and Hadoke... having two authors gives more perspective and adds intellectual rigour because your co-author can reply when you're talking garbage. Admittedly this volume has "additional material by Dorothy Ail", but she's invisible and I've no idea what this material might be.
Sometimes Tat misses the obvious. He can fill an encyclopedia on Gatiss's sources from his childhood, but never gets around to mentioning that The Idiot's Lantern is above all a bad photocopy of the innovations of Eccleston's year. Firstly, it's an attempt at a new and short-lived Domestic Who sub-genre. (See also Fear Her, although also Night Terrors and in a different sense The Lodger and its sequel.) Secondly, it's twisting Rusty's gay agenda into the only Preachy Gay Agenda story in all of Doctor Who, even if in fairness the script never says aloud that Tommy's a woofter.
Tat even denies that Rusty had a gay agenda, which will surprise Rusty. (Tat's read the interviews, of course. He's just being contrarian.) The essay itself I have no problem with. It's making interesting points and I love seeing received wisdom challenged. However it needed a follow-up essay to show how it had missed the point, perhaps by expecting "gay agenda" to be something higher-profile than Rusty's tactic of normalising it by making it into background radiation. Such an essay could have continued by observing that this included all kinds of sexuality, not just gay, e.g. all three Rusty companions have had or want an inter-racial relationship, inter-species (Captain Jack, Gridlock), man and paving slab (Love & Monsters), etc. Then there's Torchwood. It's also hard to think of anything higher-profile than Captain Jack as a companion and giving the Doctor ambiguous dialogue about him. Eccleston's Doctor would appear to be bisexual.
Anyway, I think Tat's denial is a shame because Rusty's (slightly mis-named) gay agenda is something to be proud of and something that will have made society and television a little more tolerant. Besides, contrarianism is less valuable when it's obviously and demonstrably wrong.
One could rescue the essay by rewording for less stridency, but that's true elsewhere too. "Betrayal of what the old series meant to millions of viewers over a quarter of a century." Really? Uh-huh. Any sentence where Rusty has a "pathological" anything is liable to be making Tat look silly, even if of course we know what he means. It's just that the words he's using suggest that he thinks consensual sex with a paving slab, for instance, isn't challenging for a BBC1 Saturday teatime audience... although of course I couldn't presume to know what is and isn't normal Chez Tat.
He similarly overplays his hand on Father's Day. It's a good hand. I like Tat's thinking. I just disagree with his claim that it's the only way to approach the story. "Nothing that can be tentatively be put forward as a theory fits all of the available data from even this one story." Really? Let me have a bash. Firstly, the Reapers seem to be animal-like predators, so I think it's an error (although a worthwhile line of thought) to assume that their actions must be entirely deterministic. A pet snake can turn up its nose at two rats and then eat the third one. Secondly, temporal physics must be complicated. If one compares it with nuclear physics, then a nuclear explosion can cause mushroom clouds, radiation, a physical blast (the hydrodynamic front), light and heat and an electromagnetic pulse. These look like unrelated phenomena, but an observer would only think so due to insufficiently deep theoretical understanding. Thus I have no problem with the appearing and disappearing Peugot, which makes sense under a "causality's been nuked" model but might be harder to explain if one's trying to build a billiard-ball deterministic theory.
None of these are fatal flaws. One can make allowances for dogmatism, but it would have been easy to tweak it so that one didn't have to.
OVERALL
I'd been warned of inaccuracies in earlier volumes and was told that one doesn't read these books for their facts. However I hardly spotted anything. It looked fine to me. Maybe I'm ignorant and ill-informed? (Probably.) However this book probably is less erratic than its predecessors, since there haven't been decades of fan myths about the new series and it's easier to be accurate about recent history that's fresh in everyone's minds.
Mind you, I did spot p259 "intended to be Ripley". That's bollocks. Also p460 can't spell "yakuza".
I did start wondering if Tat was going out of his way to react against outside opinions. When you have someone defending Aliens of London, Rise of the Cybermen and The Idiot's Lantern, it's hard not to start looking for patterns. I approve of these positions, but it's clearly not a mainstream stance. His Love & Monsters review seems to think that the story needs defending, which I find bewildering. It's clearly one of the best and most notable 21st century stories. End of discussion. Similarly he gives an entire essay over to attacking a perceived (by him) idea that Tennant's first year is seen as a golden age. This makes for a surprising and original essay, but again it feels to me as if Tat's arguing against thin air since that's clearly Rusty's weakest full season and we'd have no competition for the title of 21st century's worst until Moffat and Smith. The filler is more fillery and there's more of it, while the better stuff doesn't hit the heights like Blink, Human Nature, Midnight, etc. Rusty's subsequent seasons had a pattern of "first half treading water, second half gets good", but the Tennant-Piper year was struggling a bit to get past stage one. I don't think it's bad. I like it. I just think Rusty's other three full seasons blow me away more. (We'll draw a veil over the Specials Year.)
However then one reads that Tat's favourite story in this book is The Christmas Invasion and all bets are off. Maybe this really is what the sky looks like to him?
He has his hobby-horses, some of which can be hard to fathom. He seems offended that New Earth is too cautious in its realisation of an alien world, but then later he's dismissive of The Impossible Planet, so it's not that easy to work out what would have pleased him. I'm going to speculate that he means alien cultures and societies, which would be consistent with his grumbles about 21st century historicals. Oddly, after going into all that detail, his actual reviews (under "Critiques") are occasionally capable of being a little thin.
However at the end of the day, he's thinking new thoughts and saying often unfashionable things with detailed working. I love his disdain for Simon Pegg in The Long Game, for instance. Tat's mad and Pegg is wonderful, but we should cherish madness. He also says many valuable things that aren't contrarian, e.g. his perspective on School Reunion. I also love his defence of Aliens of London and his attack on "over-earnest adolescent boys wanting everything to be lip-bitingly 'serious'." He's not diplomatic, to put it mildly. He sometimes overstates his case. It's still great stuff.