Justin Richards Delivers a Mixed Bag in Doctor Who: The Time Lord Letters

This is a thick and glossy volume featuring the Doctor's correspondence across time and space.

Doctor Who: The Time Lord Letters

Publisher: Harper Design
Author: Justin Richards
Publication date: 2015-09

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.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.