BFI TV Clasics
Doctor Who: A Critical Reading of the Series

Author Kim Newman Cover image
ISBN 1 844 57090 8
Publisher BFI
Published 2005

Summary: In this comprehensive study, Kim Newman follows the Doctor's travels through time, examining outstanding stories, as well as prominent themes, recurrent character and monster types and the show's generic positioning between Quatermass and Star Trek, to assess the show as television masterpiece and cultural phenomenon.


A Review by Thomas Cookson 19/8/06

Now that Doctor Who has gained a respectability in popular culture, so we have now been treated to various books that offer a critical analysis of the series. This is a Doctor Who book without the formulaic routine columns and tables of viewing figures, cast details and little review on each individual story that make for a bumpy and clunky reading that usually makes me as a reader very spoiler-wary (I cannot count the times I got frustrated at reading books on the series that gave away the climax to Fury From the Deep when I've never seen it myself). Actually his coverage of Trial of a Time Lord does give away some spoilers concerning the fate of Peri, but beyond that very little of the devlish details of stories are divulged.

Kim Newman's book is a very snappy read of solid prose that gets through the eras of Doctor Who very briskly and smoothly. The book reviews seasons and eras in one breath, occasionally stopping to give particular analysis to the occasional individual story, such as An Unearthly Child, The Mind Robber, The War Games, Genesis of the Daleks and Trial of a Time Lord.

He openly declares that his chief love of Doctor Who is for the period from 1963 to 1977 as well as the 2005 revival series. He suggests that if the old series had ended on a high with The Horror of Fang Rock, the show could have been remembered as a great show at the height of its powers, rather than what it became in the 1977-1989 period, which he describes in no uncertain terms as an embarrassing and indulgent parody of its former self.

Although he never comes across as bitter about the period where he feels that the show jumped the shark, it is clear in his appraisals of the early Tom Baker era, that he believes the show took a major wrong turn from 1977. In his appraisal of Genesis of the Daleks it is clear that he would rather have remembered Davros as a one-off character who reached his full potential and met a poetic end. When he reviews The War Games and The Deadly Assassin, he highlights how intriguing and mystical Gallifrey once was and how suddenly it became dull in subsequent stories. When he reviews Tom Baker's characterisation of the Doctor, he portrays the Fourth Doctor very astutely as a Doctor who has succeeded his predecessors and has reached his full development and maturity. That his omnipotent knowledge and up to speed adaptability to all situations reveals a Doctor who could never have been bettered, particularly focusing on the "Do I have the right?" scene in Genesis of the Daleks as showing the Doctor reach an awareness of the ways of the universe and consequences that set him above his more impulsive predecessors. Therefore his successors were a regression for the character: Peter Davison was too human and Colin Baker was just obnoxious.

I have to say that there's nothing I love more than reading well-written reviews of Doctor Who. It goes without saying that many a time I have felt in rather low spirits and come to The Ratings Guide to read a review that completely cheered me up. There's nothing like a bit of astuteness and the feeling of shared enthusiasm. When I read Kim Newman's book I feel like I am on a similar wavelength to him. I must say that when I first started reading this book I was culturally ignorant enough to think that Kim Newman was a woman and was momentarily overjoyed at the thought that there might be a woman out there who is not only a fan of Doctor Who but who also sees the show the same way as I do. I enjoy reading reviews that take the words out of my mouth, or even reviews that come down heavy on a story that I love as long as the review is well written and accurate and critically sound. When a negative review lacks such astuteness or simply picks on the story for having a continuity error or a "blasphemous" characterisation of the Doctor, then the review is not merely off the mark, it is being unfair and dismissive and is unpleasant to read.

In a pocket-sized book like this, one might think that his shorthand approach might lead to a similar generalising and dismissal of the post-1977 stories, but actually he remains astute and brings up points that are hard to refute. He makes his points far less didactically or vindictively than I have, which makes me pause to consider that I ought to apply some restraint and quality control on my own reviewing style. He explains where he is coming from when he holds the show to particular standards, and viewed in the context that he prescribes it is hard to disagree with him.

He often uses a select story as a template for the standard of a particular brand of Doctor Who whether the 1960's historicals or the 1970's gothic horror pastiches. When it comes to the Graham Williams era, he holds City of Death as the standard of the era for a comedy approach that works with solid plotting and for making good use of Romana and the absence of K9. He also points to Kinda as the standard of the 80's era of the show, even declaring it one of the best scripts the show has ever been gifted with. He pauses to wonder why the era couldn't always have been so intelligent and progressive and had to instead rely on indulgent continuity revisitation (curiously enough he never mentions Frontios or Caves of Androzani along similar lines). His dismissal of much of this era as Doctor Who doing its own fan fiction is hard to disagree with, nor is his bashing of The Twin Dilemma and Trial of a Time Lord.

Even when he evaluates the final years of the show less than positively, with Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light and Survival failing to impress him, he is fair and puts forward the view that they were potentially great but to him they lacked refinement or a sense of coherence and that the monsters were too static. Which he bemoans as a lost oppurtunity given how they saw some of the finest costume designs the series had ever seen.

With Kim Newman's book you're getting just around a hundred pages of pocket-sized writing with the occasional picture. But it is hard to put down once you start reading as his writing is so arresting and so cut-to-the-chase astute. The most entertaining parts of his book are his reminiscence of how his first major scare from the series was watching The Macra Terror at seven years old, his overview of the Time Lords and why it took them so long to actually catch the Doctor if they were so all powerful, and most entertaining for me is his 'why didn't they do that before' list of aspects of Doctor Who that the New Series has taken advantage of for the first time. I also like his notes section where he scoffs at attempts to make Doctor Who's contradictory continuity workable, and where he draws attention to the homo-erotic aspects of the TV Movie, concerning the Master's usurping of a new body.

All in all, it's a very entertaining read if you have a spare 12 pounds on you. Very recommended.