My roommate, Julie, got this for me as a birthday gift. (She also gave me a rather nifty silicone baking pan with Doctor Who–themed moulds in each of the cups.) We share an affinity for Doctor Who; I feel particularly lucky to be living in England during the 50th anniversary year. I’ll get to go watch the anniversary special in theatres on the night it premieres (in Canada, because my city is not particularly blessed, I’d have to wait until Monday to see it in theatres, and then what’s the point?). More generally, living in England has given me a different perspective on Doctor Who by exposing me to elements of culture that have helped shaped the show. Of course, it goes the other way too—elements of Doctor Who have seeped into British life, and arguably the success of the show affected the lifestyles of families in Britain.
So I was quite excited to read Fifty Years in Time and Space: A Short History of Doctor Who. It’s from an independent publisher out of the way and is, in fact, signed by the author. And this provenance shows in some aspects of its production: the typesetting is very minimalist, with no running headers or footers aside from page numbers, and a few typos here and there that more careful copy-editing might have spotted; I am sceptical that much editing of any sort happened, which I’ll address shortly. However, Frank Danes delivers exactly what he promises on the cover: it is a history of the show, and it is relatively short. Indeed, he goes somewhat beyond that, delivering a very detailed history despite its brevity.
Danes takes the show mostly in chronological order. He expresses his hope in the introduction that readers will "forgive me for jumping around and pursuing the bits I’m most interested in", adding that his analysis "coloured by my own critical preferences". And, fair enough. So are my reviews. So Danes starts with the origins of Doctor Who, the First Doctor, the concept of regeneration, and each Doctor thereafter. He points out some of the most significant episodes, explains why certain companions or Doctors chose to stay or go, and gives interesting behind-the-scenes information on costume and prop designs, production and script development, and the show’s reception in the eyes of fans and the BBC itself.
This chronological order makes a lot of sense at face value, but it also leads to problems. Danes claims his secondary objective is to chart the way Doctor Who’s attitudes towards politics and the presentation of current events changes. One would think that a chronological approach would be the most conducive to such a survey. Yet the staggering amount of history to Doctor Who belies such a simplistic method. It results in much repetition from Danes, and what he doesn’t end up repeating, the reader needs to retain and recall when it becomes important again, fifty pages on.
A more ambitious yet more effective approach would involve a more deliberate organization based on themes, characters, and issues that recur throughout the fifty years of the show. Instead of a chapter, roughly, for each Doctor, Danes could have tracked the evolution of humour, of the monsters, of the role of the companion, etc., within each chapter. He could have spent a chapter talking about regeneration and the various ways the Doctors have been cast, and a chapter devoted solely to the series’ tumultuous relationship with its parent company. There would inevitably be some overlap and repetition, but with some careful authorial choices, it would be manageable. And the result would likely be a more coherent book than this.
For, regardless of its considerably informational value, Fifty Years in Time and Space is pages upon pages of a wall of text. Open the book to any page, and you are confronted with truly massive, back-breaking paragraphs. Danes wrings every detail out of his discussions, carefully noting story titles, dates, actor names, etc. I commend his commitment to such fidelity, but it comes at the cost of readability. It took me several days to read this book, and while I’m used to non-fiction taking longer, I felt noticeably slowed down by slogging through the writing here.
Having finished all 272 pages of this, I rather feel like I’ve spent several hours trapped in an elevator with a Doctor Who fan with encyclopedic knowledge of the show. He knows a lot about the show, so much so that he can’t resist sharing it with you in a long, rambling, unbroken series of lectures that you just can’t stop. You learn lots of interesting things along the way, but once you escape from the elevator and the fan (who follows you once you leave the elevator, because you regained your freedom in the middle of his dissertation on the production problems of Colin Baker’s last season, so you have to lose him by doubling-back and hiding in a nearby restaurant) you realize that you will probably forget most of it, and that you really want to watch some Doctor Who.
No regrets whatsoever about swallowing this walrus, but it’s left me interested in seeing what someone can do with a little more consideration and more careful editing.