Doctor Who
Who's 50: The 50 Doctor Who Stories to Watch Before You Die
Medium: book [non-fiction]
Year: October 2013
Publisher: ECW Press
Writer: Graeme Burk, Robert Smith?
Format: 424 pages
Series: << Doctor Who >>
Website category: Doctor Who
Review date: 28 July 2013
Warning: this hasn't been published yet. It's due in October 2013. It's thus possible that things might change and my review might have become inaccurate by the time the book appears.
In short: I really enjoyed it. I read it all in one sitting and it made me want to check out their earlier book, Who Is The Doctor (about seasons 1-6 of the new series).
Fundamentally, it's an answer to the question, "Where should I start?" If you've never watched Doctor Who before and you're wondering where to begin, this book's for you. (That's not me.) However at the same time, it's also aimed at long-term fans who enjoy in-depth discussion of stories and thinking about them in their historical context. (That's me.) You might be wondering about the wisdom of this approach, since those two targets might as well be on different continents, but Smith? and Burk achieve it. They do so by writing a lot and going into lots of juicy detail. This isn't just a list of lists. Even with the non-fiction background stuff, I read everything with interest and learned things I hadn't known before.
I particularly enjoyed their even-handedness. I don't remember ever seeing such fair, clear summaries of UNIT dating and Hartnell story titles, for instance.
What we're really here for, though, are the reviews. These are great. They get cute from time to time with format (e.g. fake letters or recipes, personal reminiscences), but I approve in principle even if it's occasionally distracting. (A review in poetry, for instance, is a fearsome thing to attempt because you're forcing the reader to read more slowly. I speak from experience. You need a much higher concentration of insights and points to make.) However the form doesn't matter. The content is what's important and there's a ton of it here. Smith?'s piece on The War Games is magnificent and they're very nearly as good on Doctor Who and the Silurians and Inferno. There's a throwaway line from Burk that, for me, I don't think could be bettered as a summation of the series. "It completely subverts expectation, like all good Doctor Who." Smith? on the Keller Machine is glorious. This book's full of intriguing, well-argued opinions and it's a delight to wallow in them.
This is strongest when the authors are going against received wisdom or disagreeing with each other. I'd have enjoyed a bit more disagreement, actually, or at least a bit more constructive negativity. (The book loses a little steam on reaching the modern series, largely for this reason.) I have trouble processing a discussion of The Face of Evil that doesn't mention Pennant Roberts. However the single best aspect of this book is that either Smith? or Burk are liable to disagree with the inclusion of any given story and, if so, aren't afraid to put the boot into, say, Genesis of the Daleks, Logopolis or Ghost Light. I loved this. What they're saying is refreshing, but also it gives context and weight to their other comments. The authors came to praise Doctor Who, not to bury it, but unleavened praise can come across as meaningless.
The selection of stories isn't evenly spread across all eras, but that's fine. Doctor Who is, to put it mildly, not homogeneous in quality (or indeed in anything). It also helps that they're only doing fifty stories, which is about 20% of the total. This frees them up not to try to be definitive, instead allowing a more idiosyncratic selection. In other words, they're unpredictable. Most of their selections are mainstream, but there are enough surprises in there to make you either punch the air or have to pick your jaw off the ground. (The odds are probably about fifty-fifty.) The Leisure Hive? Really?
HARTNELL - five stories out of 29, or 17 that are complete. Lots of Season One.
TROUGHTON - three stories, which alas pretty much chose themselves. Little latitude given the sad state of what's currently in the archives.
PERTWEE - six stories, including three-quarters of Season Seven. Again, fair enough, although I wonder if the authors weren't tempted to spend a paragraph or two discussing this.
TOM BAKER - the elephant in the room. They cover seven Hinchcliffe-Holmes stories, plus an eighth that hung over in The Horror of Fang Rock. After that, there's more from Season Eighteen than from the rest of the Graham Williams era. Now in itself, I have no problem with this. It's the right choice. Hinchcliffe stories are superb television productions, whereas the Williams era looks like shit. No need to push people towards Underworld or The Power of Kroll unless you're feeling mean. However again the authors don't mention how they've been selective, while their only mention of Williams-era problems is in discussion of The Horror of Fang Rock, despite the fact that that particular story looks fantastic. I can imagine people reading here that The Horror of Fang Rock looks cheaper than The Talons of Weng-Chiang, continuing to The Invisible Enemy and getting the shock of their lives.
For me, speaking personally and for myself, the lack of comment on Williams feels like a hole in the book. (Well, him and Pennant Roberts.) There's not a word on his competence, but instead a mention of budget problems and 1970s inflation. It's not as if the authors don't give opinions on, say, Andrew Cartmel or Chris Clough. However it's not my book!
DAVISON - five stories out of 20. Loved one of their choices in particular!
COLIN BAKER - two stories, which as with Troughton (but for a different reason) pretty much choose themselves. Harsh things are said about this era and it's hard to disagree with them.
SYLVESTER MCCOY - six stories out of 12, but I love all their choices and would defend them to the death. If anything, I'm disappointed not to get more.
MCGANN - they don't like it much, but they include it. Again, their viewpoints are well-argued and interesting even if you disagree, e.g. on the mighty Eric Roberts.
THE 21ST CENTURY SERIES - this is where the book falls off a bit. The authors' problem is that they already did all this in Who Is The Doctor. Unfortunately that still leaves a bit of a hole here. Two Ecclestons out of 10, four Tennants out of 36 (not counting animation) and three Smiths out of 37 to date. That's barely ten per cent. I have no problem with their choices, which include one that delighted me by being bonkers, but even so we partially lose the sense of a Doctor Who narrative that we'd previously had. We also don't have any disagreements with one author being rude about a favourite of the other. (It's easy enough to be positive about the new series without choosing your favourite ten per cent of it.)
In fairness, though, I now want to buy Who Is The Doctor. This is a win for the authors.
Overall, I really liked this. Admittedly I'd liked both authors' writing in the past, but it was still nice to find that this was basically everything I'd hoped it would be. My only criticisms are slight, subjective ones that come from the fact that they're so good at giving a behind-the-scenes overview that I got greedy and wanted more. I enjoyed their choices, even when I thought they were out of their trees. (Nothing would have been worse than a parade of all the usual suspects.) It's a hugely successful book of which I'm sure the authors are rightly proud and I hope it sells like hot cakes.