Macmillan Press
The Unfolding Text

Authors John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado Cover image
ISBN# 0 312 21485 5,
Publisher Macmillan Press Ltd
Published 1983

Summary: An academic work examining the semiotic thickness of Doctor Who as text.


A Review by Rob Matthews 4/2/03

Much of my current Doctor Who reading has been dictated by the caprices of secondhand bookshops and dwindling cash reserves. I was going to to go right on from Camera Obscura to Time Zero, but instead I discovered this. Then once I'd finished it, I went out in search of a bit of Ursula LeGuin (to see if it would cast any light on Kinda), and to my delight came across a stash of cheap Benny NAs instead. Result!

Unfolding Text is a book I'd fancied reading for quite a while, but I'd never really expected to stumble upon a copy. If you haven't heard of it, and why should you, it's a media textbook kind of thing from 1983. I'd heard of it because Andrew Cartmel apparently got all his writers to look at it before writing for the show and I thought it'd be interesting to see a serious analysis of the programme published while it was still on the air - since usually books of this type are written with the benefit of hindsight.

It turns out to be a very insightful tome, mainly because of a wealth of interviews with prominent producers, directors, actors and writers who worked on the show - JNT (natch), Verity Lambert, Peter Davison, Graham Williams, Terrance Dicks, Christopher Bailey, Barry Letts, Peter Grimwade, Phillip Hinchcliffe, Douglas Adams. Indeed, its a big fat treasure trove of strong, articulate and conflicting opinions about the nature of the show. and a thorough study of how it had developed with its audience.

And luckily, even though it was published at a time when anti-Graham Williams feeling was apparently very high among fans, it keeps a very even-handed tone. One might have expected something along the lines of 'thankfully all this silliness has been put behind us now this nice Nathan-Turner chap has took over the show', but fortunately we're far enough into the JNT era here (two seasons, with the twentieth not yet broadcast) for the authors to fairly evaluate the merits and flaws of both approaches. John Nathan-Turner is given his say, and is in my opinion unnecessarily harsh on his producer-predecessor, all too often dismissing the Williams-era as 'slapstick' (okay, there was a certain element of physical comedy , but you could hardly describe it as a dominant element of Williams' or Adams' approach). Williams' and Adams' respective responses to these accusations are as erudite and intelligent as you'd expect - Adams in particular making the point that he went to great efforts to give his villains convincing motivations for their destructive actions (notably Scaroth and Captain Whatsisface in The Pirate Planet), and going on to point out (something which virtually had me cheering him on) that you couldn't say the same of the unconvincing moustache-twirling Master resurrected by JNT (and, as a sidebar, the only time the Master ever worked was when he was given the believable motivation of fighting for survival - something done so well in Assassin that it was replayed in Traken, Planet of Fire and, aptly, Survival).

Still, 'even-handedness' is the watchword here, and Nathan Turner is given due credit for adapting the show to the prevailing market forces of its time, in particular packaging it more obviously for the US market (including the reintroduction of the purely historical stories with Black Orchid - the BBC being renowned in the US for this sort of stuff - and Nathan-Turner was keen to do more of it, though in the event, we know it didn't happen)

Ian Levine offers a couple of comments that are so Ian Levine-ey they're practically parodic - 'Any serial which brings back elements from past episodes gets my vote' he says. Just prior to the transmission of Arc of Infinity... Bwah, ha, and might I add, Ha. Matthew Waterhouse complains about Adric being crap. Verity Lambert dismisses the establishment-friendly Pertwee era. Barry Letts demonsttrates a bit of castration anxiety as he concedes that feminists are alright as long as they're not the mad ones who want to chop off men's willies. There's an interesting suggestion about the influence of Dan Dare on the show's formative years (comparisons between the Mekon and Davros, Dan Dare berating foes who, so to speak, don't enjoy sunsets and well-prepared meals). There's far too much about Kinda (though it does confirm my own beliefs about why that story is not the success its often thought to be), but I guess that's the recency effect in action. Overall, it's a highly engaging read, and fairly light on the media studies bollocks.

That said, Cartmel's writers clearly did get something out of it. Remember 'The theory that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of auxilary performance codes' in Dragonfire? Yep, it's a verbatim quote from the book. But if you do come across it, don't let that put you off.

A Review by Terrence Keenan 14/8/06

A while back, I picked up a book about Hitchcock's films, mainly an analysis of Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo by some university Film Studies instructor, and put it back on the shelf the moment I read that this guy's brilliant theory was that Psycho was all about eating, defecation, and literally eating shit.

Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text suffers from much of the same ultra-academic presentation. Although I will say that I do believe that the book is important in the sense that our beloved Who is worthy of such academic analysis.

Part of the problem is that The Unfolding Text reads like a college textbook. Having read more than my fair share of these long ago, it took me a bit to get into the swing of things, so to speak. The prologue did help me get into the swing of things, being a crash course in what to expect for the rest of the book.

However, amongst the academic linguistics and overanalyses of certain Who scenes and lines, there are insightful interviews of both cast and crew, with John Nathan Turner looming largest. Unfortunately he spends most of time bashing The Graham Williams era (blasphemy!!!) and defending what I consider some very questionable actions. However both Graham Williams and Douglas Adams both appear on the pages to defend the era in question.

The last chapter is designed as a summing up of the previous chapters with regards to one serial, Kinda, as well as mutterings on Star power and how useless Adric was. The most interesting part of this chapter was how Christopher Bailey's Buddhist-leaning texts got changed into Manichean Christian concepts (absolute Good v Absolute Evil) by the production team.

Overall, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text is worth reading, even if you do have to roll your eyes at some of the pretentiousness of the analyses. In its own way, The Unfolding Text is an important book, if not always an enjoyable one.