Mad Norwegian press
About Time
Seasons 1-3

Authors Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood Cover image
ISBN 0 97594 460 8
Publisher Mad Norwegian Press
Published 2006

Summary: An in-depth look at the Hartnell era.


A Review by Samuel Yeo 26/8/10

A caveat: I'm new to Doctor Who non-fiction (and indeed to Doctor Who). After five years of New Who, I finally decided to go back and watch the classic series all the way through (reconstructions and all), and I'm currently somewhere in the middle of the Pertwee era. I've read a few guides here and there, but stumbled across this book in a cult shop and... can I just say, wow.

The book is straightforward enough: a detailed entry on each serial, comprising enyclopaedia style details about aliens/ethics/behind-the-scenes goss, along with critiques, analyses and an essay accompanying most every story. The subjects range from timelines (Daleks, UNIT, Cybermen) to sex (which companions and with whom?) through to questions on science (are most of the stories set in our galaxy?), fandom and - of course - the age of the Doctor. And when I say essays, I mean essays. Using evidence from across the entire series (up to Doomsday in fact), these guys query whether Steven might have been Dodo's ancestor; how Earth society developed through the 21st century; what Torchwood were up to during the UNIT years; and just how the various end-of-Earth serials can be mutually accepted as canon. They don't always come to conclusions, and sometimes they seem to waffle on a bit, but the questions they raise are a damn sight more entertaining than just reading another guide which will tell me that Peter Purves got bored with Steven, and that Hartnell called in sick a lot.

But what I particularly enjoyed about Wood and Miles' approach is that it perfectly balances out those two sides of fandom which seem to compete in the guide world: on the one hand, these guys are grown-ups so they recognise the flaws in the series and are happy to discuss the exigencies of scripting, editing and production in the black-and-white era; on the other hand, they're avid fans and live by the motto "if the series says it, most likely it is true". Which leads to wonderful mature analyses of planet structure and location in time and space, by examining even the shortest off-hand remark which other guides might treat as a blooper. That's not to say that they don't call out Mr. Hartnell on his line fluffs, for example but, even when they do, they recognise the mechanics of `60s production and try to incorporate as many of them into the plot as possible.

And the most wonderful part for someone like me who was in diapers when the classic series was cancelled: the writers examine the historical and cultural context of each episode. They go beyond the simplistic explanation of "The Avengers was popular at the time", or "Asimov did it first", and instead genuinely explore what had aired and was airing; and even occasionally dash some well-known myths on the rocks of truth. Knowing how people approached television, what the BBC was importing and even what time of year it was, can be crucial in truly understanding ratings and audience appreciation.

I've seen very few comments on these guides, but I do want to refute claims that they are too cynical. Both these authors have a long history with Who, and I think their balancing act of criticism is much the way a lot of fans of "cult" TV series approach them: to me, at least, Twin Peaks is the epitome of cult. It is certainly patchier in quality than any number of "classic" TV series, but part of that is why we love it. There's so much more to investigate beneath the surface because the ambition and the nature of the work occasionally outweighed what could actually be done. True cult fans know the flaws and the mistakes, but somehow that just enriches the experience. And here, Wood and Miles will definitely pause for a laugh in their analyses, but at the end of the day they'll regard every story as `real' - and what they're laughing at is when people trying to tell us this `real' story end up failing.

This guide isn't quite as definitive as the writers claim: perhaps wisely, they largely shy away from the well-known anecdotes you can find on Wikipedia in favour of more earnest analysis. You won't want to throw out The Discontinuity Guide or the Handbooks. However, I'd argue that everyone will take something from this series: the essays are insightful and, since every serial has an entry on the companions as well, you come out feeling like you've been watching much more rounded characters than you actually saw when watching the show on a week-by-week basis.

I'm just finishing the second volume of About Time now, but unless something radically changes, I don't think I'll write further reviews: this one about covers the consistent quality thus far. Incidentally, the 2009 edition of Volume 3 mentions a Volume 7 (presumably covering the Ninth and Tenth Doctors) as forthcoming... but no word yet.

First up against the wall when the revolution comes by Robert Smith? 5/8/18

The About Time books have been somewhat hit and miss. The original launch of the series with Volume 3, rather than this volume, made perfect sense at the time: many more people are familiar with the third Doctor onwards, so it made logical marketing sense to begin there. However, the biggest surprise yet is that Mad Norwegian Press needn't have bothered: About Time 1 is fantastic.

This is the book that the Hartnell era was made for. In an era of wildly divergent storytelling, obscure and limited background information and a behind-the-scenes turnover unlike anything you could imagine the series surviving today, this is the perfect era for something like About Time. The facts aren't at everyone's fingertips like later volumes, so even the otherwise dry lists are engaging. The essays, previously the highlights of earlier volumes, are just as fascinating here. You get the sense the authors have simultaneously hit their stride, while also finally reaching an era they actually love.

For a series that's attempting to be a history, the very earliest period of the show is ideal. We're transported back to the sixties in a way that simply wasn't possible for later decades, which are much too fresh in the cultural memory. And the jokes are not only plentiful but, crucially, feel as though we're laughing along with the show, rather than at it. This is a real triumph. Despite the marketing release, if you want to sample one of the About Time books, this is the one to try.