How do you sum up fifty years of travel, adventure and excitement, troubles and conflicts, hopes and disappointments, with clarity and context, in just over three hundred pages? The answer is, if you are Marcus Hearn, you do it extremely well indeed. Published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who in November 1963, soon to be commemorated on The Day of the Doctor, he has taken a seemingly impossible task and delivered a coffee table book of depth and insight which is also entertaining and addictively readable.
Subtitled Treasures from the First Fifty Years, the plethora of illustrations which illuminate the text range from full page portraits of key characters and thumbnails of memorable villains and guests heading every chapter to reproductions of rare documents, memos, costume designs, props and a veritable cornucopia of merchandise and memorabilia from the last half century, enough to astonish and delight even the most learned of Whovians who have shared a corner of the TARDIS for even a portion of that time.
The decision within the show this lacklustre anniversary year has been to pay little more than lip service to a long history the BBC would apparently prefer to forget with any references to the first run of the show confined to (sometimes mispronounced) soundbites, and while this magnificent book may not entirely remedy that disappointment it is certainly a comprehensive balm.
The opening pages see recently departed companion Karen Gillan commenting on how the show has saturated public consciousness (“Everyone knows about Doctor Who – children are born knowing about it”) while current executive producer Steven Moffat observes that this ubiquity through changing times have led to a central contradiction within the show (“The Doctor’s time machine is now cleverly disguised as an artefact now only recognised as a time machine”) though that is only one of many inherited through the years.
The book itself is both linear and wibbly-wobbly; each chapter is devoted to a single year or period of the show’s history prefaced with a chronological overview of the key events, the casting, filming and broadcast dates accompanied by photographs pertaining to that time, but the body of each chapter takes a topic linked to that year and explores its relevance throughout the whole history of the show.
This approach allows Hearn to link together themes which have recurred and evolved through the half century the audience have travelled with the Doctor. “A format that has evolved through necessity,” it is always experimenting, and what is successful is repeated and refined, the Daleks leading to the Mechanoids, the Cybermen, the Quarks and the Krotons, the numerous “base under siege” stories of the Troughton era culminating in The Invasion which set the format for UNIT in the Pertwee years featuring the Doctor, Liz Shaw/Jo Grant, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton, the extended family setup which is reflected in the much of the modern Who style.
Inevitably, there are sacrifices; Terry Nation is described as “surely the most influential of all Doctor Who writers,” but with the revolving door of producers, script editors and writers it is very difficult to gauge the contribution of many of the individuals who are reduced to little more than names, certainly for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the particular stories they are attached to.
The world of Doctor Who fandom can be viciously elitist and self-policing, with any negativity perceived as a betrayal rather than a valid critique or justified expectation for improvement, and refreshingly the book is candid about the failings and those responsible. There are admissions by John Nathan-Turner, producer through the period which saw the decline and cancellation of the original run and his script editor Eric Saward that they made mistakes with the sixth Doctor, in the costume and in making him too aggressive in their effort to set him apart from Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor.
Working hard to promote the brand, Nathan-Turner ended up cheapening it by never considering whether it was the right kind of publicity, casting light entertainment actors and comedians simply to generate column inches, the most egregious example when he recruited a cast drawn principally from Who actors for the pantomime he directed, (Cinderella, featuring the Gary Downie dancers!), but Russell T Davies’ obsession with soap opera actors during his tenure on the revived show was no better.
It is a balanced assessment of Nathan-Turner who knew his association with the show had lasted too long but felt he had no other choice but to remain as he believed that should he leave the show that it would be axed and the BBC refused to offer him another assignment. What is apparent is that the BBC if often not a supportive or forward looking organisation.
A fascinating viewer analysis is important in that it indicated that the audience had grown up and continued watching the show, but the controller of BBC was adamant that Doctor Who should remain the same, convinced that it was aimed at children, not families; it was his perception which was flawed but it was the show which paid the price for that failure; that ignorance was reflected in the persistent complaints of Mary Whitehouse who also failed to understand that it was not a children’s show.
In the chapter on visual effects, while it is understandable to compare Doctor Who to the work of Gerry Anderson or even Star Trek, it is grossly unfair to realistically expect it to compete with Star Wars, though of course both critics of the time and the BBC‘s own executives did so, but despite the budgetary shortcomings refused to allocate more resources to the production.
While logic suggests The Vault should be read chronologically, cover to cover, every historical fact and entertaining quote absorbed, it is equally rewarding opened randomly, with illuminating anecdotes, insightful analysis and with plentiful colour illustrations offering immediate access to whichever period or topic is revealed as well as fascinating discoveries on every page – that Peter Cushing recorded a pilot for a radio show, that original producer Verity Lambert was a subscriber to New Scientist, the question of whether Terry Nation’s proposed Dalek spinoff would have been told from the Dalek perspective or endless defeats of the master race?
There are undoubtedly more exhaustive investigations covering specific aspects of the show in forensic detail and more detailed episode guides, but for a joyful celebratory overview of a half century of adventure, The Vault cannot be faulted or bettered, and true to Hearn’s intention, it truly is “the greatest Doctor Who museum there never was.”