In some ways, I have found the history of the Doctor Who television series to be even more fascinating than the stories themselves. The very first episode aired on November 23, 1963, so we are just months away from the show’s official 50th anniversary. For a relative “newbie” like me, it is a massive undertaking to get a handle on the so-called “Whoniverse.” Thankfully, there is the new book Doctor Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Most Famous Time Lord in the Universe by Dave Thompson to turn to.
Condensing 50 years of a program’s history into a 338-page book must have been a Herculean task, but he did a very good job of it. The Doctor Who FAQ is no dry encyclopedia though, as the author is a fan first and foremost. Thompson does not shy away from offering his own opinions throughout the FAQ. The book not only provides us with a wealth of information, it kind of feels like you are watching the Doctor with a friend.
As a self-described “British ex-pat living in America,” Thompson was just about the perfect choice for this book. He grew up with the Doctor in England, then watched the series gain an audience in the United States, beginning with the PBS broadcasts in the late seventies. His experience provides a nice perspective, because with something like 250 individual stories, and 11 different Doctors over the years, a bit of a roadmap is a handy thing to have.
The tone is set right off the bat in the Introduction, “Who Is Your Doctor?” I find myself getting into this conversation with fellow fans often. Your favorite Doctor says a great deal about you, after all. As Thompson mentions, the majority of American fans choose the Fourth Doctor, who was portrayed by Tom Baker from 1974 to 1981. A big reason for this is because it was his serials which were initially aired on PBS. True enough, but Baker was brilliant. As producer Philip Hinchcliffe states in one of the DVD extras on The Ark in Space, “For generations of fans, Baker was the Doctor.”
Not that anyone asked, but my Doctor is the First Doctor, William Hartnell (1963-1966). It is a tough choice, because so many of those original black and white episodes are lost (more on that later). Nevertheless, the deal was sealed for me when I watched the reconstructed Planet of Giants (1964). Hartnell stole my heart as the sly old grandfatherly Doctor who was always up to something. I just find his combination of playfulness, with a bit of menace underneath it, to be irresistible.
One might expect that a book about a TV show would be somewhat chronological, even if the show is about a time traveler. And the Doctor Who FAQ is basically chronological in structure, but it is interesting to note where Thompson begins. Chapter One is titled “The TARDIS in America: In Which Our Favorite Time and Space Traveler Crosses the Atlantic and Conquers America.” It is a lengthy title, and pretty self-explanatory.
The author shows his colors by starting with the introduction of the Doctor to audiences in the United States, then going all the way back to 1963 for the beginnings of the program itself in Chapter Two. Once again, the wordy title offers a pretty good approximation of its contents: “How Did It All Begin? In Which We Journey Back to the Beginnings of the BBC and Discover How the Doctor First Came to Earth.”
As befits a FAQ, there are chapters discussing each of the eleven Doctors, his various companions, the monsters he has faced, and even favorite locations. Actually, the locations are in the “Doctor’s Best Baddies” chapter, under the sub-heading of “Sandpits and Quarries.” This bit contains a pretty good example of Thompson’s sense of humor, “But if you really want to annoy a Doctor Who fan…ask him why the show always looked like it was filmed in a sandpit. Or a quarry.”
As author Lance Parkin notes in his Foreward, “Doctor Who is very, very big. There have been, if you count the various spin-off shows, near as dammit, a thousand episodes since [November 23, 1963].” As I have discovered, once you get hooked on the Doctor, you want to see it all. This is the great tragedy of the BBC’s old program of “wiping” episodes. Although it seems inconceivable now, back in the days before VHS tapes, and DVDs, a show like Doctor Who aired once, and that was it. If you missed a chapter of a serial, tough luck. To cut costs, the BBC would routinely erase the tapes of their shows and reuse them. This happened across the board by the way, it’s just that us Doctor fans take the situation very personally.
Today, there are a total of 27 incomplete Doctor Who serials. Out of 253 episodes of the first six years, 106 are now on the British Film Institute’s “Missing Believed Wiped” section. The good news is that this is down from 136 in 1981, through the efforts of fans literally scouring the Earth for copies. The bad news is, there are still 106 of them that are gone.
Looking at the glass half-full in regards to the surviving Doctor Who serials though, there are plenty. BBC Home Entertainment are releasing new ones all the time, usually with a lot of extras thrown in. For me, it has been a real voyage of discovery. Each Doctor is unique, and it is clear that the stories have been written to play to his particular strengths. Walk into a store like Fry’s and just take a look at all the Doctor Who titles that are available. Owning them all would be quite an investment.
But wait, there’s more. In fact, there is so much more that it kind of boggles the mind. There have been two feature films, plus enough books, comic books, audio-books, spin-offs, specials, and merchandise to fill multiple warehouses. Thompson gamely attempts to catalog all of this stuff, but freely admits that to get it all in is beyond the scope of his book.
This is actually fine with me, because there is enough here to keep me busy for years to come. Without question, Doctor Who is “very, very big.” But it sure is fun. I have resigned myself to probably never seeing, reading, and hearing it all, and that is the way it is. Just the other day I was in Goodwill though, and found a whole section of Doctor Who paperbacks for fifty-cents apiece. It is those kinds of finds that makes the Whoniverse such a fun place to visit.
Dave Thompson has done a great job in breaking down the world of Doctor Who for us, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think other fans will too.