There was a lot of Dr Who hoo-ha leading up to last weekend, and I’d saved this particular volume to read inbetween hours. It’s a book that Puffin published serially, one story per month, from January onwards. Back at the start of the year I downloaded Eoin Colfer’s ‘A Big Hand for the Doctor’, and enjoyed it a lot – but I knew I’d prefer to wait for the rest, when they arrived in November’s bumper silver-blue outsized volume.
Each story is by a leading children’s / YA author – and there are some stellar performances here from writers seemingly unencumbered by overt brand-policing and fannish group-mind consensus. Almost all of the names involved are new to published Dr Who fiction, but most work in a related genre – science fiction, fantasy, Gothic, action thriller, and so on. One of the entertaining things about the book coming out monthly as e-books was hearing the rumblings around the Dr Who blogosphere – about how it was a mixed bag; how some stories were so way-off beam in characterization and continuity and how some were unrecognizable as Dr Who. As the year went on, less and less was said, and it seemed as if those fans who were readers were just enjoying reading the stories and everyone else was off doing other, less readerly things.
In Dr Who fandom, as in every other world, some people are readers and some just aren’t. I am, of course, and I belong to an era of Dr Who fandom that spent childhood reading novelizations and bonkers Christmas Annuals, my teenage years reading fanzines with smudgy pages and my twenties reading daringly original novels from Virgin and BBC books. As I’ve said many, many times before, Dr Who for me has always been as much about what’s on the page as it has been about what’s on TV – maybe even more so.
And so at last – uniting two lifelong passions of mine – we get what is essentially the Puffin Book of Dr Who, with a range of new, exciting voices and a good spread of types of stories and ways of telling them. And yes, it’s a mixed bag, but the experiment is a huge success, I think. Each story transports us into another era of the Show and each arrival has its own cosy moments of recognition and familiarity, but they also have bits that belong uniquely to the writer involved. All the way through it’s possible to hear the individual voices of the eleven authors: they haven’t been diluted or distorted by the demands of writing in someone else’s universe.
Every reader will have their favourites. I still loved Eoin Colfer’s bizarre story about Victorian London and the Soul Pirates on a second reading. It’s rendered in the bright, jarring colours of an illustration in a 1960’s World Distributor’s Annual. It has a ghoulish, hook-handed, action hero first Doctor and I enjoyed its bravado. On the other hand (ha) my favourite story in the whole collection must be Philip Reeve’s ‘The Roots of Evil’ – a story that could have been plucked from the middle of Season Fifteen, no bother. It’s a pitch perfect Fourth Doctor and Leela tale about a lost tribe on a moon that turns out to be a spherical tree. It’s funny and scary and hits every note perfectly – a story that really does manage to take us successfully back to Saturday teatime in 1977.
Marcus Sedgwick’s tale of Nordic legends for the Third Doctor and Jo is similarly, brilliantly evocative of its era. I particularly liked the description of a soaked and frozen Doctor turning up his unique personal central heating to full, until he and his Edwardian costume are as dry as a good Martini. I was perplexed, however, by the inclusion of the Rani in Richelle Mead’s story. The Rani has never appeared in licensed Dr Who fiction before, but here she is – and she’s very welcome, though I don’t see a credit line on the copyright page for those (much-maligned, in my opinion) writers and creators, Pip and Jane Baker. Penguin might have to look into this issue for a second edition.
It has to be said that almost everyone hits their particular Doctor’s personality bang on.
Malorie Blackman contributes a Dalek story that turns the creatures on their heads and puts the Doctor in a very McCoy-like quandary. We are taken back to a Skaro only ever glimpsed in David Whitaker’s original ‘Dr Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks’ for this one, I thought. Back when planets were huger and richer and more magical than the ones TV can evoke.
Neil Gaiman bookends the volume with an Eleventh Doctor story, from an era he is, of course, very at home in. It’s a delightfully spooky and macabre tale about ancient Gallifreyan enemies infiltrating the housing market for bizarre purposes of their own. Gaiman gets right to that particular blend of the humdrum and the way-out that Dr Who stories always need. His stories have a crepuscular folk tale feel to them because that’s what Who is, more than anything: a fairy tale.
It struck me, reaching the end of the book at the end of the celebratory weekend, that the stories were quite bookish. Whatever their setting, most of them were tied up somehow in books and story-telling: whether Norse legends or Peter Pan, Enid Blyton and the very idea of The Land of Fiction being an actual, physical place in the Dr Who universe. The Show has always had a keenness to engage with ideas about story-telling and to become quite self-conscious, at times, of its own status as a series of endless cycles of fantastic tales. For me, as a reader who was nurtured so generously by Dr Who fiction as a kid, this book was the perfect way to celebrate.
There’s been a drought in recent years of stories about the older Doctors. Will Penguin please do this again? Can’t we celebrate every year?