As I was growing up in the suburban Los Angeles area, I would watch local televisions shows like Sheriff John and Hobo Kelly. When I was home during the day I would watch soap operas with my mother. The Guiding Light, As the World Turns and The Young and the Restless.
Unbeknown to me, these shows had already been on television for decades by the time I joined the audience in the ‘60s. So, too, was my ignorance of television lore when I met the rather strangely dressed man on public television, seen first in grainy black-and-white, who called himself The Doctor—a character about to celebrate his golden anniversary.
I had already met Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, and watched Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space because, as my personal adage goes, “bad science fiction is better than no science fiction.” And although Lost in Space made a big screen appearance in 1998, nothing had the staying power of Star Trek or Doctor Who.
Unlike Star Trek, perceived during its production as another throw away, much of its early material was not curated, if it survived at all. The BBC, on the other hand, kept good records of its productions and those records can now be found in Doctor Who: The Vault: Treasures from the First 50 Years.
As would be expected, this oversized, overstuffed volume chronicles every Doctor Who moment from the first day of production. Other books, like Buffy: The Making of a Slayer and Star Trek Federation: The First 150 Years recreated a few artifacts for readers that made them appear to be more collectable (what they did do was make those books more fragile with bits to fold-and-unfold or items easily lost), but while Doctor Who: The Vault offers tantalizing glimpses of production designs and various Doctor Who kit, it keeps the images on the page.
At its core, Doctor Who: The Vault , is a history book. And a good history book, at that. Most history books don’t include detailed memories, memos and interviews with the actual participants. And even when they do, they don’t span an entire 50-year period. This isn’t a retelling of a story trying to make a point, this is the chronicle of a kind of meta-adventure that was the backdrop to the adventures of the enigmatic character of Doctor Who and his companions. Marcus Hearn does a fine job of offering just the right balance of insight, exposition and detail to keep the reader moving along.
Despite rubbery costumes and cheesy sets, Doctor Who always intended to be the best kind of science fiction, a show that puts realistic, relatable characters into incredible situations. Doctor Who: The Vault presents origins and every other aspect that a fan of the show can imagine: props, creatures, sentient aliens, design sketches, toys and memorabilia. The book is as much a journey through television’s history as it is a journey through the show’s history. Black-and-white cards of the stars appear quaint and nostalgic next to today’s high-tech, video-on-demand, follow-the-star’s tweets world. Indeed, Doctor Who was always about the future, but the early chapters of this book remind the readers that Doctor Who, and television itself, arose from rather humble beginnings.
There are two ways to read Doctor Who: The Vault. Read it as a picture book. Forget all those paragraphs of explanatory text, history, trivia and detail and just let the images wash over you. K-9, the Daleks, Tom Bakers great scarf and his even greater companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Images of various incarnations of sonic screw drivers, sketches from children, spin-off magazines and books. And of course, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, The Master and the TARDIS.
In all this imagery, though, you may miss the ‘90s, the dark years of Doctor Who, when the show wasn’t renewed for television. But its dark years, like the dark ages, weren’t nearly as dark as their name portends. Doctor Who, like Star Trek before it, was creating a fan base through re-runs, appearances, video releases and the explosion of other media outlets, including BBC radio, novels, webcasts and comics. There was even an American/Canadian mashup that resulted in a television movie that received more viewers in England, than it did for the target North American audience.
Doctor Who’s ‘90s era hangover lasted until 2005, when the BBC once again launched the series in the format for which it was designed, television. To absorb this history, you will need to actually need to read the book.
On the heels of the 50th Anniversary of the show, which will conclude season 7, and likely leave as many unanswered questions as answered ones, Doctor Who: The Vault should be seen as a well written, companion to the show, that is in many ways, all about companions. In the intervening months between the 50th Anniversary special and the 2014 launch of season 8, fans can look to Doctor Who: The Vault as a ready reminder of all that they love about the show, that like its main character, keeps regenerating in order to deliver ever new delights, conundrums, and hell, just fun.