Review: Doctor Who: A History

Doctor Who: A History - Alan Kistler

Books about Doctor Who are a cottage industry. This isn’t surprising, considering the scope of the show, its record-breaking timespan, and the ravenous nature of Whovians. There are hundreds of titles centered on and in the Whoniverse; most are fiction commissioned by the BBC as tie-in materials, while a great many others are unauthorized fan fiction and criticism. The rarest beast is the authorized non-fiction, of which this is a shining example.


Doctor Who: A History is an authorized work, and as such tries its best to stick to the facts, of which there are many. It is not a treatise on the value of Doctor Who, but a clear, concise history of the show’s creation, production, setbacks, and transformations. It takes a lot of restraint to distill 50 years into a couple hundred pages (or about ten hours of audio, in this case), and Kistler certainly holds back--in a good way. He has produced a sweeping, if necessarily truncated, overview of a massive pop culture phenomenon without interjecting his own experience with the show, or digressing into criticism. Those sorts of analysis certainly have their place in fandom, but Kistler’s style works best for those of use trying to catch up on all of the things we may have missed as latecomers to the world of Who.


The structure of the book relies on simple, chronological storytelling, but also includes sidebars on everything from 1960s era television production to the birth of the show’s defining villain, the Daleks. The inner workings of the BBC are presented without commentary from the author, but not without a certain degree of analysis from primary sources- the book is chock full of interviews with writers, producers, actors, designers, and myriad other creators that brought the show to life. Frankly, the best parts of the book are the interviews, and the best interviews are, of course, with the actors that have played the Doctor. (Sylvester McCoy’s interviews are disarmingly charming).


It is actually rather astonishing that Doctor Who ever made it on the air, or stayed there for any length of time. Originally conceived as an educational children’s show with sci-fi trappings, it quickly outgrew its constraints and became something weirder and less easy to define. Science fiction was still a bit of a media ghetto in the 1960s, and most shows aimed at children were not looking to capture their parents as well. Doctor Who broke through these constraints, sometimes by lucky accident, but more often due to a very dedicated production team in the early days, before marketing became a driving force in television and could prompt some of Who’s more questionable decisions later down the road. Most fans probably know by now that the regenerative ability of the Time Lords was originally a straw grabbed by necessity; William Hartnell’s declining health demanded either an end to the show, or a recast of its lead. Instead of simply recasting the Doctor and pretending that nothing at changed, which was not uncommon, they used the already mysterious nature of the Time Lords to create an alternative- regeneration.


The correlation between necessity and invention kept the show alive and kicking for many years, so it should be no surprise that the worst decisions made behind the scenes were generally either prompted by budget constraints or pushes for marketing. Kistler gives a full breakdown of the constraints the show worked under, even at the height of its original popularity with Tom Baker in the 1970s, and how the show often triumphed, but also occasionally failed, leading to its temporary “end” in 1987. Thankfully, it had gained so much cultural traction by then, it was only a matter of time before it regenerated into our consciousness once again. Kistler covers not only the journey of the show, but many of the tie-in events and smaller elements that helped create an entire Whoniverse, and kept the mad man in his blue box alive in our imaginations for more than 50 years and counting.


Though not passionate in tone, the sheer amount of work that obviously went into this history is a testament to the passion of Doctor Who fans, and the information provided shows us why a television show that premiered to lackluster numbers the day after Kennedy’s assassination now holds a place of honor in hearts and minds five decades later.


(The audio version that I listened to was narrated by the author, who struggled a little at first, but actually did a very good job.)