I came to Doctor Who solely through the revived series. Christopher Eccleston was my first doctor, and it’s true that I’ll never forget him. I was gutted to learn that he was leaving after only the first season and convinced that this new fellow, “David Tennant” (if that’s even his real name) could never live up to the Ninth Doctor’s brusque charisma. The rest is history, of course—the Tenth Doctor stole my heart, along with the hearts of many other Whovians, and then he left and the world would never be the same. Again. The story of new Who fans mirrors the story of generations’ coming-of-age: we forget those who came before already had to go through this. We feel like we’re the first ones to experience these anguishes. But no, fans who had been watching since the black-and-white era had been through this seven times before. It’s special, but it’s not the end of the world.
My experience with older episodes of Doctor Who has only picked up recently. My roommate showed me Tom Baker’s E-space Trilogy, introducing me (and bidding farewell to) Romana II, Adric, and K-9. Prior to that, I had only seen one or two episodes (I can’t even remember which Doctor, let alone the plot of the episodes) in bits and pieces. Reading Chicks Unravel Time has made me hungry to see more. The specificity with which each of these authors discuss the various seasons of Doctor Who made me yearn to be as familiar with the show as they are. I wanted to meet Barbara and Ian, Liz and Jo, Sarah Jane, Leela, Tegan, et al. Prior to this, I’d been aware of how much of the show’s rich history I’ve been missing out on—but this made it more tangible, less mysterious. Reading Wikipedia articles just isn’t the same, because they lack the deep emotional connections that these essays invoke.
The book weaves through the history of Doctor Who in an appropriately non-chronological fashion. Each essay loosely examines a specific season, but each writer approaches the concept of a season-spanning essay slightly differently. Some examine the impact of certain Doctors or their companions on their experience as fans, such as in the exquisitely-titled essays “The Doctor’s Balls” and “David Tennant’s Bum”, by Diana Gabaldon and Laura Mead, respectively. Others look at how that Doctor’s contributions over their particular season affected the course of the show, as in the case of “The Ultimate Sixth”, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, or “How the Cold War Killed the Fifth Doctor”, by Erica McGillivray. I really enjoyed both of these approaches. They exposed me to different fans’ interpretations of seasons I had never seen, heightening that eagerness to discover these Doctors and companions for myself.
Many of the other essays touched on the portrayal of race and gender in Doctor Who. Plenty of the essays extol the various companions, and in so doing offer different ways of looking at Doctor Who’s treatment of women and people of colour. Some compare Liz Shaw to Jo Grant and find the latter wanting, expressing disappointment over her seemingly-shallow characterization in contrast to Shaw’s doctorates and expertise. Others draw the opposite conclusion, finding Jo a realistic depiction of someone who is constantly underestimated because of her appearance but much more capable than she might appear. Having never seen these companions, I’ll have to wait until I can draw my own conclusions. Similarly, some of the essays examine the colonialist tones to the show—once again, trying to find that balance between dismissing the show as a product of its time and excoriating it for its missteps. Again, difficult for me to agree or disagree with the specific comments, but it’s fascinating to see all the different perspectives and analyses.
Though I understand the attraction of the season-based premise, I almost wish the essays hadn’t been constricted in that way. I’d be really fascinated to read broader essays that analyze the show from the same perspectives across the years. (The authors do this to some extent, naturally. I’m talking about far more ambitious analysis that really doesn’t focus on a particular season.) And with Matt Smith leaving and the fiftieth anniversary special soon upon us, I smell a sequel brewing with some updated content (in my dreams!).
So take it from me, fan of the new show but really uninitiated into the old, there’s still something here for any stripe of Doctor Who fan. Every one of these essays is good—which is what you would expect, considering the all-star cast that Stanish and Thomas have lined up. Every one offers a unique, insightful take on a particular season of Doctor Who, grappling with it on a much deeper level than simply listing the reasons they love it. To me, this is the ultimate act of love for a show: critiquing it. I can’t stand fans who get all touchy when you start poking holes in their favourite show. If you truly love something, you should still be able to love it in spite of its flaws. Discussing, examining, acknowledging, deconstructing those flaws are all important ways to be more involved. And, of course, there’s always the potential for change as a result of such discussions—who knows, maybe someone will listen. There’s no point in culture if we just sit by and consume it. We need to become participants. Chicks Unravel Time exemplifies this tradition of fan-led critique, and I highly recommend it.