Mad Norwegian press
About Time
Seasons 18-21

Authors Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood Cover image
ISBN# 0 97594 464 9
Publisher Mad Norwegian Press
Published 2004

Summary: An in-depth look at the first half of the Nathan-Turner era.


Fountain of Knowledge by Thomas Cookson 7/1/07

Recently, Rob Matthews recommended the About Time critical analysis books to me, describing them as a very thorough six-volume guide to Doctor Who.

A friend in my local fan group was good enough to lend me the third volume, which covers the Pertwee era. It has got to be said that I found it a fascinating and addictive read that really dissects the show well and gets to the core of why we love Doctor Who and what makes it so special and unique, despite the fact that the modern media screams down our necks how 'crap' it all was. I was worried that maybe that kind of dissection of the stories might be very clinical or snobbish and make for cold reading (a bit like quite a few online reviews from know-it-alls or bitter curmudgeons), but somehow they really have the affirming nub on what gives the show its magic.

The books (written by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood) delve into behind-the-scenes information and reviews on the TV stories, pre-2005. They also place the show historically at the backdrop of what was going on in Britain at the time in terms of the social, political and cultural. To which, I thought "Now that sounds really interesting, and probably would be relevant to my sociology media course too."

In many ways I see the books as the 'fountain of knowledge' for most of the cream of the Ratings Guide reviewers. I even look on it as a fan bible. I see the sharpness of its analysis, the sublime writing and its view of socio-politics through TV as the inspiration for many of the reviewers we have here. Even some of the terminology, like describing popular culture's sneering attitude to the series disguised with backhanded nostalgic fondness as being the result of a "'knowing' media" seems to be replicated many a time in our defence of the show.

When I had read the Pertwee era one, I had an unquenchable thirst to read more of them. So I fecklessly ventured my money on Volumes 4 and 5.

Volume 5 covers Seasons 18 to 21, the final season of Tom Baker and the entire Peter Davison era, with Colin's ghastly debut tacked on at the end.

I would recommend any of the three I have read so far, but Volume 5 is in many ways the one with the edge and with the most conflict, covering as it does the first half of the corrosive John Nathan Turner era. In Volume 4, Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood had shown a difference of opinion between them over the Graham Williams era (and The Deadly Assassin), which saw their review section divided between them into prosecution and defence. Here nearly every story gets a prosecution and defence angle, with only The Twin Dilemma being given a single unanimous slamming.

Indeed, the volume is bookended by two articles discussing how John Nathan Turner's new regime had changed Doctor Who beyond recognition. The opening article evaluates the 'new look' favourably, managing to work in the idea of Season 18 having a tactile detail and involving directing that made it "total television", as a way of matching up with the "total cinema" of Star Wars. I like the way they highlight things that the viewer isn't supposed to be aware of, and how it puts the thumb on how the series has visually told stories to us.

They also describe the show's 'rennaisance' as a welcome one for bringing back the danger and the fallibility of the Doctor after the comical frivolity of the Graham Williams era and Tom Baker's uncurbed flippancy that was allowed to get out of control during this point.

Incidentally, I must say I've not seen enough of the Williams era to be yet convinced that it was the point where Tom Baker got out of control.

From what I've seen he seemed to keep up the pace. In City of Death and The Invasion of Time he still seemed like the master of contrast between humour and gravitas; and in the latter story played a manic, megalomaniac Doctor very well (I couldn't say the same for Colin Baker). In Destiny of the Daleks, the bit where he's first exploring Skaro, he actually plays it sombre and lets the quiet atmosphere speak for itself.

But as I said I haven't seen that many other Williams stories.

Basically, much of his performance as the Doctor suggests a thespian who can do no wrong. But of course I hear many anecdotes about his out-of-control antics which are pretty convincing, and Volume 5 continues to stack them up.

But anyway, the closing article, put alongside the review of The Twin Dilemma, goes to the opposite extreme and using the faults of The Twin Dilemma as a mouthpiece, it goes on to say that the John Nathan Turner was wrong from day one. Clearly the writer of this article actually preferred the Williams era, and I really enjoyed reading this eloquent voice of disillusionment. In this section, some of what is said leans more on whether this new Doctor Who was still popular or accessible, rather than whether it was good or not, picking apart the alienating effect of the hard-science writing and the poor season-scheduling which saw a season begin or end with a discouraging story on the cheap. However, there is one particular favourite criticism of the era.

Doctor Who had always been based on an idea of literacy as power against the powerful, developing the individual's self-knowledge and ability to understand others, and above all conveying the basic message that things-as-they-are isn't all there is. Now it all goes philistine and illiterate. The boy-Doctor and his teen titans only ever read instruction manuals.
The divided nature of the reviews and the opinions between the two writers has been described as making for a schizophrenic read, but for me I'd say it was more what I'd call 'democratically written', with both sides expressing their points very well and each having their pull and a chance to be equally affirming; leaving you with a sense of fair balance in the evaluation of the era.

It should be noted that these books are not spoiler sensitive and that some pre-awareness of the covered era is probably essential.

My favourite review of the book is on The Keeper of Traken, with both writers treating the episode as a delicacy. I also enjoyed reading the lore of Warriors of the Deep, which highlighted that in the original script, the Myrka was supposed to strike in the dark when the base suffered a power failure. The contemporary context of Resurrection of the Daleks is also an illuminating favourite as it highlights the public awareness of military culture and atrocities of war, and makes the point that actually the 'excessive' violence of Resurrection of the Daleks was a fair and strong reflection of the violent times it was made in. Similarly their behind the scenes look at Time-Flight makes a fair case that the faults of the story were outside the writer's control.

Each book has a striking sense of humour about it, with nice welcome in-jokes and wordplay, but none of it made me laugh more than reading their assessment of The Twin Dilemma and their way of struggling to put together a fair review of such an abomination, before finally giving up in the last paragraph.

Well recommended, certainly.

I can't wait for Volume 6.