Mad Norwegian press
About Time
Seasons 12-17

Authors Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood Cover image
ISBN# 0 97594 463 0
Publisher Mad Norwegian Press
Published 2004

Summary: An in-depth look at the Hinchcliffe and Williams eras.


A Review by Daniel Saunders 25/5/05

Doctor Who books are criticised for being many things: derivative, radical, badly written, boring. It is rare that a book can be criticised for breaking the Trade Descriptions Act, but that is precisely what About Time 4 does. The back cover describes it as "the unauthorized & ambitiously definitive guide to Who" yet it could not possibly be seen as definitive. In part, this is because the series is so complex that the completely authoritative work on it will almost certainly never be written. To satisfy all definitions of what is important, such a book would have to narrate the story of the show's production, contain detailed plot synopses, lists of everything the Doctor carries in his pockets, try to reconcile continuity errors, undertake detailed analyses of the themes of the series and probably do more too (and I have not even mentioned the problem of what is considered canonical enough to be included). About Time tries to do most of these things and so fails to do any of them definitively.

The book is divided into various sections for ease of reference. Several of these state the facts of the programme's production as well as giving plot synopses. As the synopses are intended for new fans, they contain no spoilers (even though these appear elsewhere in the book), preventing the work comprehensively covering story details. The production details are also far from definitive. Aside from the odd decision to make the number of "Things to Notice" in each story the same as the number of episodes, these sections contain only a handful of facts and there is no attempt to describe the production of the story in detail in the manner of a DWM Archive. This is understandable, as that would have (and has) taken up several volumes by itself, but again undermines the decision to promote the book as definitive. More worrying is the presence of several factual inaccuracies. For example, in a list of the best cliff-hangers they state that episode one of Marco Polo ends with the Doctor laughing hysterically, but in fact it finishes with Tegana planning to poison the caravan's water supply. There are similar errors in the continuity sections, which list things we learn about the Doctor, companions, TARDIS, alien worlds and so on. For example, they state that The Horns of Nimon is the third time the Doctor has fought a minotaur, citing The Time Monster and the jokey reference in The Creature from the Pit, but omitting The Mind Robber (many of the inaccuracies in both this volume and volume three concern the stories from the sixties, which makes me wonder if they wrote these books before watching those stories again). It is also difficult to avoid the impression that the decision to include these sections, as well as the lists of logical errors in the story, was based on what features in other books. The Handbooks and The Sixties/Seventies/Eighties series (not to mention the DWM Archive) have comprehensively covered the production of the series, while The Discontinuity Guide and A History of the Universe listed continuity points and tried to reconcile contradictions, with the Guide also noting plot errors. Far too many works to list have contained plot synopses, while The Television Companion described all the cliffhangers.

Fortunately, the analysis section is much better than the rest of the book, containing several very interesting and relatively innovative elements. Story reviews are hardly original, but the ones here are carefully reasoned and interesting. Wisely, the more controversial stories get two critiques, a prosecution and a defence, and the reader is left to decide which is more convincing. Most surprising was the discussion of the things that influenced the production team, especially the writers. Far from being the simple list of sources I expected, this is a detailed discussion of the social, political and cultural environment in which the show was produced. The authors are less interested in stating that The Androids of Tara is based on The Prisoner of Zenda than in why the production team chose to do a swashbuckling story at this time. This is an excellent idea, as many aspects of the show become more understandable when put in context. However, these sections are too short and would have benefited from the ability to go into more detail and bring in more evidence to support the authors' ideas. More room should have been given to them by reducing the other, less original sections and expanding these analytical ones. This has been done to some extent by providing a series of essays on aspects of continuity and production (asking, for example, why Earth is frequently invaded and why the BBC did not spend more money on the programme), but these too would have been better if they were longer.

It is interesting to speculate on how this state of affairs occurred. No one can believe that it is a coincidence that with a new series being transmitted, at least four non-fiction works on the series have been republished and another three written. I can not help but wonder if About Time was originally intended to examine Doctor Who analytically (possibly in a single volume), looking at the show in its original context, reviewing it, examining its themes and possibly reconciling continuity errors, but in the style of John Sutherland's books on Victorian fiction, trying to think how the authors would have resolved them had they realised they were there, as a way of trying to understand the stories and the writers' intentions more clearly. Then, when the new series was announced, it was hurriedly revised in a attempt to appeal to a wider, new, audience, with little time for new research, reducing the length of some essays and editing others into lists of trivia with only tiny bits of analysis and speculation inside brackets.

Whether you consider About Time a waste of time, not to mention money, really depends on what you want from it and what books you already own. If you want lists of continuity points and attempts to reconcile continuity errors and if you do not own The Discontinuity Guide, then you will probably enjoy this. If you want the "definitive" guide to the series' production, then you will have to look elsewhere. If you are hoping for a detailed, analytical study of Doctor Who's narratives and themes, then this will satisfy you to some extent, but leave you wanting more. It is unfortunate and even a little surprising that while fans often claim that Doctor Who is more intellectual than its critics realise, mainstream Doctor Who publishing (as opposed to media studies textbooks) seems to focus almost exclusively on production details and reconciling continuity points, rather than on detailed analysis. DWM seems to publish analytical articles less frequently now it has a new series to report on (which is understandable), but Gary Gillatt's Doctor Who: From A to Z remains the only mainstream analytical book. This is surely a gap in the market. It is unfortunate that this book does little to fill it.