In the world of Doctor Who, Justin Richards needs no introduction. A prolific writer, firstly of the Virgin New Adventures novels that kept the show’s fandom alive during the hiatus years of the 90s, and then of novels featuring the post-2005 era Doctors, not to mention two of Big Finish’s highly successful series of Doctor Who Short Trips audio dramas. Indeed his contribution to the Whoniverse is undoubted.
His latest book is Doctor Who: The Time Lord Letters, a thick and glossy volume containing a selection of transcripts, letters and official reports from the Doctor. The examples included are drawn from serials and stories across the entire 52-year history of the show, from the black and white era of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton up to the present day, with several stories featuring Peter Capaldi getting a look-in. Some of the letters and messages are actually referred to in the television series; the existence of others are inferred.
It’s nowhere stated, but it’s fairly obvious that The Time Lord Letters is primarily aimed at older children, perhaps in the 11-14 age range. The reading level seems appropriate, and the busy visuals seem similarly tailor-made for that age group. Indeed, it can hardly be overstressed that in terms of photographic content, The Time Lord Letters looks amazing.
Given free rein of the BBC’s archives, Richards and the book’s designers illustrate each letter with a generous handful of publicity stills and on-set photos. Even the dyed-in-the-wool fan may well be pleasantly surprised by rarely seen colour shots from the black-and-white era of the show, such as the splendid portrait of the First Doctor (William Hartnell) and Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover) in conference in ‘The Crusades’ (1965), or the wonderfully evocative tableau of harlequins and clowns from ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ (1966).
In this way, the book also holds a mirror up to the show. It’s fascinating to see how the visual language develops over the course of half a century, from the rather humdrum photographs of the ‘60s, many of them evidently taken while studio filming was taking place, to the rather formal head-and-shoulders portraits of the ‘70s, to the vigorously posed, dynamic, Photoshopped pictures of David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi’s Doctors today.
The written content is more problematic. It’s at its best when played for laughs, emulating not the often criticised comedy stylings of the show under Graham Williams in the late ‘70s, but the more droll quips and rhetorical flourishes of the Doctor. On the whole, Richards does a good job of imbuing each Doctor’s letters with turns of phrase appropriate to their personalities, although his Sixth Doctor is painted in rather broad strokes, and the vocal wanderings of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor look rather forced in print.
The humour raises a smile rather than a laugh, the sometimes befuddled pronouncements of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor echoing the haughtiness of William Hartnell’s patrician demeanour, and contrasting sharply with the warm humanism of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor. When it strays from this formula, the book is less satisfying.
On far too many occasions the letters, though well written, are simply too bland to leave any sort of impression on the reader. The Peter Davison two-parter ‘Black Orchid’ (1982) – a delightful murder mystery set in inter-war middle England, complete with afternoon tea, games of cricket on the village green, and fancy dress balls, all set against a Downton Abbey-esque background of chummy upper-class bonhomie – makes an appearance in the guise of a letter of condolence written by the Doctor to the story’s main guest character, Lord Cranleigh. The trouble is that there’s nothing very exciting about the letters of condolence. This particular example sheds no new light on the story, offers no particular insights into the Fifth Doctor’s persona, and – most grievously for a book of this type – is just a little boring.
So, too, is a document from the Third Doctor’s era. Richards’ bristling rhetoric strikes just the right note, emulating Jon Pertwee’s famously irritable characterisation to a tee. But the conceit behind this entry – the idea that UNIT, for whom the Third Doctor acted as special advisor, needs an application form in the Doctor’s name on file – doesn’t ring true, and stretching out what would have been a funny one-line joke about the Doctor’s abhorrence of red tape to an entire page’s worth of material overcooks the concept.
It does not help that almost all the letters and documents included here are presented in fonts that are meant to resemble actual handwriting, but don’t manage to do so very convincingly. Surely hi-resolution photographs of letters actually written in several different hands, one for each Doctor, would have provided a more handsome effect.
Even considering these not insubstantial faults, I would rather have The Time Lord Letters on a child or teenager’s bookshelf than not. For one thing, it has substantial didactic value. It’s gratifying to imagine that some young readers who had only vague impressions of the classic series from the brief clips and allusions to it included in recent episodes will be intrigued by the appearance here of the first seven Doctors to indulge the wobbly sets (and, occasionally, the wobbly acting) of earlier eras of the show. Further, if it also inspires just one child to pursue the dying art of letter-writing, it will have fulfilled another, greater purpose.
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