McFarland and Company, Inc
A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television

Author John Kenneth Muir Cover image
ISBN# 0 786 40442 6
Publisher McFarland and Company, Inc
Published 1999

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Summary: An anaytical approach to Doctor Who on television.


A Review by Rob Seulowitz 26/5/00

The reader comments on the Amazon site lead me to expect this book to be a serious academic study of Doctor Who, exploring the themes and stories both as elements of the popular culture and as literary forms. Muir has previously published analytical guides to Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999, as well as book on Wes Craven and John Carpenter, and he demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction television from Captain Video to Red Dwarf. Sadly, he doesn't appear to have read many books, thus the scholarly critique I had anticipated was not to be found.

Muir is not interested in sociological or psychological deconstruction, nor with any rigorous application of literary theory. You won't find any arcane academic language, references to Derrida or Freud, or other intellectual posturing. But neither will you find it to be a satisfying analysis of the cultural and literary interaction between the show and it's audience. Instead, Muir mostly concerns himself with Doctor Who in relationship to other television shows which aired before, during and after it. Much energy is focused on the question of which show was first to address a topic or use a plot device, and how the same formulas have been recycled repeatedly.

He begins with a cogent analysis of the origins of Doctor Who, identifying H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (specifically, the 1960 George Pal film with Rod Taylor) and Nigel Kneale's marvelous Quatermass stories (produced by BBC TV in late 1950's) as the two templates around which the vast majority of Doctor Who stories are built. However, he ignores any literary antecedents that must have had at least as much if not more influence on the original series writers. You will not find the names Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein or Madeleine L'Engle in his copious (and excellently thorough) index. For Muir, other than tangential references to the cinema, television is largely a self-contained universe.

Not surprisingly, his analysis is starkly without context. Although he has clearly read enough to understand the historical development of the series in England, he shows no real understanding of the culture which created and interacted with the show. As an example, he equates the Doctor's frequent championing of oppressed people against their overlords with the American Revolutionary War (with the utterly English Doctor siding with the Americans, no less!), rather than with the cold war conflicts over neo-colonialism and self government which doubtless had a much more substantial place in the consciousness of the British public than any 200 year old revolt by transatlantic shopkeepers.

This lack of context is highlighted by the near complete absence of fan material -- a shocking exclusion considering the massive amount of critical commentary produced over 30 years by dedicated and intelligent fans, much of it not only well written, but literate and insightful. Indeed, Muir's few nods to a body of critical writing outside his own amounts to a few isolated pages of quotes, presented without comment on the remark or it's author (so if you don't already know who Harlan Ellison is, he's not going to help you). It is not until well past his review of the show's history that he mentions, almost in passing, that Doctor Who ceased being a kiddie show by 1975. In fact, it's that very change - how and when Doctor Who grew into an adult entertainment - that is the most important element in the show's history, not to say it's impact on popular culture. His failure to grasp this essential point as the appropriate focus of a critical history -- preferring instead to draw out lengthy parallels between Doctor Who and the many science fiction TV shows of the sixties and seventies -- reduces the book to a catalogue of plots and themes rather than a critical history.

Which is not to say that his observations are without merit. In fact, he has insightful and interesting things to say about a wide variety of issues, ranging from racism to jelly baby jokes. His discussion about gender and sexism, especially as it relates to the Doctor's female companions over the years, is extremely intelligent and well written. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the issues he raises are left largely unexplored, as though, merely by having brought them up at all, he has successfully addressed them. His preoccupation with other contemporary science fiction television does him ill service here, as many passages hinge not on the intrinsic merit of a Doctor Who story, but on how the same themes are treated in the Star Trek universe.

After a 35 page review of the show's history, which demonstrates solid research and nicely avoids the politics of personality, he has an all-too-brief 26 page summary of the themes and issues he wants to explore. He discusses the story templates and formulae that were repeatedly reworked over 26 seasons, draws in broad strokes some general moral principles espoused (War is Bad, but Fighting for Freedom is Necessary) and addresses in cursory terms the production standards. He then dives into the heart of the book, a 320 page review of the televised serials, presented in chronological order by transmission, in the style of a program guide.

Muir is badly served, ultimately, by the structure he has chosen. The program guide format compels him to reiterate his previous ideas regularly, rarely adding any additional information or development to the original premise. This quickly become tiresome, unless the reader is absolutely fascinated by the number of time the name "Travers" has been used or which actors and directors also appeared on Blake's 7 and Space:1999. (The vast majority of this material is, of course, already abundantly available, in more complete and less expensive guides.) Most importantly, the serials themselves are presented in sequence, with no additional critical or historical commentary bracketing them. The changes in production staff are not indicated in any way, other than as may be noted parenthetically within the commentary on the individual serial.

Once again, the lack of context robs the critical commentary of any impact. Muir would have done much better if he had abandoned the program guide model and instead devoted himself more intensely to each of his larger themes, such as war, racism, gender politics or story models, and built a complete chapter around each. This would have reduced the sense of repetition, and allowed him greater freedom to explore more fully the ideas he raises.

Like most program guides, the reviews tend to err towards enthusiasm rather than harsh criticism, although he is not afraid to heap abuse where he feels it is due (his excoriation of The Pirate Planet, agree with him or no, is one of the best entries in this section). To his credit, Muir states his own prejudices clearly and doesn't hide them behind a cloak of presumed objectivity. And yet some of his personal tastes, which he argues with passion, are suspect. Certainly, in hindsight, Patrick Troughton can be considered to have been grossly underrated in his tenure as the Doctor, but to emphasize repeatedly that Troughton's years demonstrated the apex of the series' creativity begs a number of questions, not least of which is why those years received such poor ratings. His de-emphasis on the Hinchcliffe years and attempt to reclaim Colin Baker's interpretation as creatively brilliant smack of contrarianism.

Ultimately it's hard to figure out precisely who the intended audience for this book might be. The title is somewhat of a misnomer, as there is no attempt to survey the existing body of historical or critical writing on the topic. It is, therefore, insufficient as a serious scholarly study. At $65, it's a bit pricey for a highly subjective program guide. It offers nothing new in it's treatment of the show's history, and is neither particularly complete (ignoring the contributions of many writers, directors and actors who deserve greater prominence) nor scrupulously accurate (e.g. failing to identify uncredited writers and story origins, referring to the 1920's as "Victorian," misusing the word "empirical"). What it mostly amounts to is a book-length, library bound fanzine with a mild case of delusions of grandeur. The book is not really suitable to the neophyte fan, who would probably find it too expensive, but neither will it satisfy the most demanding aficionado, who will be irritated either by it's format or content.

Still, I would encourage people who fall between those two extremes to read it; if for no other reason than to promote greater discussion of the ideas Muir begins to address. This is not the serious scholarly analysis that Doctor Who deserves, but it's an excellent starting point.