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'The Doctors Are In' Tries to Be All Things to All Readers

Alas, the holding of passionate views does not in itself make for compelling reading.

The Doctors Are In: The Essential and Unofficial Guide to Doctor Who's Greatest Time Lord

Publisher: ECW
Author: Graeme Burk, Robert Smith?
Publication date: 2015-09

The Doctors Are In is the third Doctor Who-themed book from the prolific duo of Graeme Burk and Robert Smith? (question mark author's preference), whose previous volumes, Who Is the Doctor and Who’s 50, offered insightful and highly readable takes on the Whoniverse. With the latest title, however, one gets the sense they have over-reached themselves.

The principle behind The Doctors Are In is simple: it's a guidebook to the character of the Doctor. Each incarnation gets a chapter, each of which follows a standard structure, with discussion of the background to their arrival on the show, short biographical notes on each actor, and so forth. Each section finishes with an assessment of the Doctor’s era by one and then the other author, and short summaries of five of their best serials. Burk and Smith? know the series inside-out, and make the thematic and narratological links between characters and serials often separated by decades with impressive ease.

Still, The Doctors Are In’s style and content raises some peculiar questions. One puzzles over the target audience for the book. Each chapter assumes too much knowledge of the show on the reader’s part to make it a book that newbies will appreciate (as is suggested on the back cover), but at the same time so many of the facts and stories recounted here are well-known that most long-term fans will struggle to find anything in its pages that they didn’t know already. Even fans of the post-2005 series who have never looked at old Who, to whom the eras of the first eight Doctors are virgin territory, may find the final third of the book covers old ground.

More in-depth biographies of the actors playing the Doctor, for example, might have revealed some new insights, but there's little that can be fitted into a page and a half (the average amount of space devoted to each actor) that can’t be found on the corresponding Wikipedia page. The accounts of the production history of the show at the beginning of each chapter are similarly rudimentary, shortly turning into nothing more substantial than lists of changes in production personnel with the occasional paragraph on audience reactions to successive eras in the show’s history.

Conversely, the brevity of these sections is contrasted with lengthy discourses on the personality of each Doctor that sit rather uneasily with the hurried earlier sections. Consequently the book suffers from a certain feeling of imbalance: it is at once too detailed in one respect, and not detailed enough in another.

The book’s merit, then, chiefly lies in the authors’ personal assessments of the show. When there is genuine analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each Doctor, this format works well. The fascinating discussion of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor – Smith?, a fan, rehearses some persuasive arguments in his defence of a poor era in the show’s history, and Burk demolishes some (but by no means all) of them in reply – made for entertaining and thought-provoking reading, as did the seedlings of revisionism in Smith?’s criticism of David Tennant’s era for being composed of ‘increasingly vanilla stories’ (removal of rose-tinted spectacles may well prove him right, at least in part).

All too often, however, this type of critical engagement with the show is lacking, and the book’s format starts to look less and less like a nifty dialectical flourish and more like fannish conceit. Why is a page and a half of the section on Christopher Eccleston episode ‘The End of the World’ (2005) lavished on a painfully obvious riff on REM’s ‘It’s The End of the World as We Know and I Feel Fine’, with each line of the song rewritten to refer to the era’s monsters and plotlines (pp. 191-92)? Why does one of the two assessments of ‘City of Death’ (1979) skip discussing the serial entirely, consisting instead of little more than a paragraph exhorting readers to watch it (‘WHY HAVEN’T YOU WATCHED THIS STORY YET, FOR GOD’S SAKE?!? That is all. Thank you.’) (p. 101)?

This is the sort of spontaneous humour that reads well in fan discussions on messageboards such as Gallifrey Base or Outpost Skaro, but that, surely, is where it should stay. ‘This is a guide to the Doctor himself’, the back cover proclaims. Readers buy guidebooks to benefit from the insight and criticism of, in this case, two very knowledgeable authors. Such indulgent passages contain neither.

Perhaps a lack of self-editing has something to do with this, for the book shows signs of having been written at speed. The very occasional typos and missing words notwithstanding, the factual errors that creep in become bothersome after a while. ‘The Three Doctors’ was broadcast into 1973, and not merely in 1972 (p. 264). John Hurt has been nominated twice, but has never won an Oscar (p. 177). William Hartnell starred in Brighton Rock in 1947, not 1949 (p. 8). It's disingenuous to claim (p. 148) that Doctor Who ‘gained in the ratings’ during the McCoy era; his first two seasons offered marginal improvements on the viewing figures for the preceding season, but his final season secured the lowest ratings in the show’s history.

The most annoying thing about these errors is how petty they are – each of them could have been spotted and rectified with a few seconds’ googling. Both authors write fluently, but the ‘What he said’s -- the first appearance raised a smile; by the third or fourth appearance, the bonhomie was wearing thin -- and the fannish hyperbole may grate with some. The suggestion that a serious and debilitating mental illness such as bipolar disorder can be even ‘seemingly cool [and] sexy’ (p. 139) is, at best, exceptionally unfortunate.

Compared to some of the more cynical attempts at cashing in on Doctor Who’s continued popularity, The Doctors Are In has a lot going for it. The authors’ comprehensive knowledge of the show shines through, and they write with passion. The holding of passionate views, though, does not in itself make for compelling reading; and in the end, the contradictions of the format conspire to hobble this interesting but frustrating book.


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