The 1977 Annual
|SBN||7235 0369 9|
|Starring the third Doctor, Sarah, Harry, UNIT and the Brigadier|
A Review by Finn Clark 5/3/04
The 1977 Dr Who Annual has always been notorious. Twenty years ago, we called it "the annoying one that doesn't fit with the others on the bookshelf because it's slightly taller and wider". Then in 1998 Gary Gillatt went to town on it in his splendid essay collection, From A to Z. According to Gary this is the craziest book World Distributors ever published. It takes him three pages to stop talking about the plot of 'War on Aquatica'. I had high expectations for this one.
So imagine my surprise when The 1977 Dr Who Annual turned out rather bland.
Its stories get weird at times, War on Aquatica being particularly surreal. However once past the occasionally wacky sci-trappings, you're left with a distinctly ordinary collection which keeps stranding the Doctor, Sarah and Harry on the sidelines as the plot unfolds without them. Detour to Diamedes is the worst example, in which you're still waiting for the story to start when it ends, but frankly our heroes never make much difference to anything.
In Double Trouble, body-hopping aliens hitch a ride in the TARDIS and beat up each other while the regulars stand around watching, though I liked the comedy dialogue at the end. In War on Aquatica, the Doctor, Sarah and Professor Levi (!?) escape from a prison cell and then drop out of the plot completely as Phyllos tells King Chympazo to use Mongs to defeat the Medusians. What? Then Cyclone Terror is about the Zanons using cyclones against the Zotons of Zoto in the galaxy Zaurus. 'Zat 'zo? Admittedly the Doctor drives off the bad guys in that one, but he's not exactly hard-pushed. The Zanons are so afraid of weapons that the Doctor foils their invasion plans by whittling a stick to look like a gun.
Oh, and The Eye-Spiders of Pergross uses what I can only call TVM logic. The TARDIS lands on a planet of eyeball spiders, which is definitely strange. Apparently these things evolved from ordinary humans hundreds of years previously, so the Doctor decides to change history and return his friends to human form. That's unusual in itself. However his grand scheme for changing history is... to travel back 872 years in the TARDIS! Nothing more. It's as if time-travel unwinds history throughout the universe, like the TVM's temporal orbit, creating a version of Professor Periopolos from 3000 who can remember his life as an eyeball-spider in the year 3872!
The best of these short stories is probably The Time Snatch, which still doesn't give the regulars much to do but at least has dramatic stuff happening. Strangely enough it's also an Earthbound UNIT story which wouldn't have felt out of place in a Pertwee annual. (There's even nothing in the text to indicate the 4th Doctor rather than the 3rd.) However the scene with Ben Hunter and an electric fence is creepy and the jump to the Paleolithic era is startling. Despite its amazing lack of explanations, I liked this story.
As with last year's annual, Paul Crompton's art is the best thing about this book. It's kinda worrying at times (the endpaper illustration includes a bird on a severed hand) but Crompton has moved on from last year's excesses and can now illustrate a story. His pictures may be weird, but at least this time they're vaguely related to the stories they're illustrating and help to enhance the mood. (Except for the picture of Tom Baker for War on Aquatica which looks as if he's been punched repeatedly in the face.) They're experimental, playing with pencils, watercolours, oils (?) and probably more, and at their best they'll turn your mind inside-out. I particularly boggled at the surreal montage at the start of The Eye-Spiders of Pergross.
However his comic strips are special. The fully painted one (The Body Snatcher) will haunt your dreams, with its skull fixation and psychedelic visual style, though Menace on Metalupiter again shows up his weakness as a visual storyteller. The duotone reproduction does Crompton's black-and-white art no favours and you still can't see what's going on. Without the caption boxes, this would be incomprehensible. Nevertheless these are some of the most visually striking Doctor Who comics ever produced and up there with the most interesting work in any Dr Who Annual. (The scripts are wacky too. The robots on Metalupiter don't just get reprogrammed; their brains turn to rubber!)
A big problem with the filler articles is the sense that someone's not taking this book seriously. Problem of the Painted Planet presents us with a world of Jimorrisons, highly artistic cockroaches whose "logic is limited and their natural intelligence is amongst the lowest in the cosmos". Someone wasn't a fan of a certain musician. Then Out of this World! is a joke page starring a race of aliens whose pear-shaped heads comprise their entire bodies, with legs in their chins and antennae on their heads. These guys just look stupid. Personally I reckon it's this page that turned contemporary fandom against the 1977 Dr Who Annual, not anything in the regular stories or art.
Random observation: any modern author looking to make fanwank references to the 1977 annual should drop in on the 40th century. War on Aquatica takes place in 3999, Cyclone Terror in 4000 and 'The Eye-Spiders of Pergross' in 3872 (though also 3000, and 2094-96).
This Dr Who Annual is an improvement on the previous year's offering, but it shares many of the same faults. The stories are still written by someone who hasn't watched the show (seat belts in the TARDIS?) and the regulars are poorly characterised and constantly sidelined. This was the last 80-page annual and so it's chunkier than any other annual from then onwards, but it's still not particularly good. It's strange (especially the art), but World Distributors have done stranger.