I went back and forth over whether to run this as an Eruditorum post or as a side post. Ultimately, I wanted to put it in before we started talking about The Runaway Bride, so it got an Eruditorum slot. Nevertheless, this is a book review of About Time Volume Seven, out on September 10th from Mad Norwegian Press, who were kind enough to give me a preview copy, which I spent two days doing nothing but reading. The short form is that it’s brilliant and you should buy it. The long form actually makes sense to describe in context of the series’ history, because About Time occupies a particular and important place in that history.
About Time is a fascinating example of a book series swallowed by history. It started and premiered before the announcement of the new series, and continued over the course of the series’ development. You can watch, reading it, as the new series exerts its gravity and changes the project out from under Miles and Wood, so that what the books are changes over the course of the series. Given that the series was released out of order, starting with Volumes Three through Five, doubling back for One and Two, and then finally concluding with the Wood-only Volume Six and Wood’s solo rewrite of Volume Three, this gives an interesting sense of things. What started as an attempt to do the most thorough episode guide ever took on an oddly elegiac feel, becoming something more like an attempt to make the definitive statement of what Doctor Who was prior to the new series, before the cultural gravity of the new series erased the ability to see it. In doing so, it went from being a very long guidebook to being the definitive account of it.
Let’s be clear: if you like TARDIS Eruditorum and have never read any of About Time, get thee to Amazon. About Time is indispensable. It’s not that TARDIS Eruditorum wouldn’t exist without it – in fact, if I’d known it existed when I decided to start the blog I’d probably have been intimidated out of starting it, because you’d have to be mad to look at About Time and say “yeah, I just think there’s more to say.” But discovering it a few entries into the Hartnell era was perfect, even if I do have a nagging sense that my Season One coverage is forever compromised by the fact that all the essays started absent the context of About Time. Because About Time got to what I was doing first. It’s an attempt to explain all of Doctor Who – everything about it. Which meant I got the wonderfully easy job of just sitting back and responding to it.
This is, of course, ridiculous as a goal. Doctor Who is far too big to be pinned down into a single explanation. Which is, of course, part of the conceit of About Time, which immerses itself so deeply in the minute particulars of Doctor Who as to willfully lose all sense of Doctor Who as a singular object. Split over six books and the veneer of a sectioned guidebook, the whole bubbles under the surface magically. This is not, let me be clear, a defect in the least – it’s the only way you’re ever going to make this approach work. About Time is, ultimately, the same approach Alan Moore famously took with From Hell, whereby you take the joke of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency seriously and actually try to explain the totality of a thing.
This was, however, something truly new in Doctor Who fandom. About Time was staggering in the way that something from the creator of the War in Heaven and the writer of Spectrox had to be. Eventually the center could not hold and it became a Tat Wood solo project, but this was a blessing as much as a curse. The latter part of Volume Four and all of Volume Five tear themselves apart accommodating Miles and Woods’s dramatically different visions of Doctor Who, and while this leads to occasional sparkle, the most compelling part of About Time – the sense of Doctor Who as something that’s part and parcel of the time it’s being made in – gets lost. (In practice it would have been much better if Miles had written Volume Five alone, and Wood had gotten Volume Four to himself. Of course, it could also just be that the sections in question are where Doctor Who itself lost the plot of its times.)
And so virtually everything in TARDIS Eruditorum up to Survival is massively indebted to About Time. Because ultimately I was only going over the ground Miles and Wood had already worked. I just had a take on what Doctor Who was that was different enough from theirs to get away with it, and used a different narrative structure. And, you know. Doctor Who isn’t only big enough to encompass Miles and Wood’s differing accounts of it. There’s room for more sprawling takes on it yet. What’s interesting, and a development that only came in that weird period as Doctor Who was transitioning from being just the classic series (which was just Doctor Who then, not the classic series) to being an altogether more complex and convoluted cultural object, was the idea of trying to look at the whole of it in a massive, messy way instead of a compact way.
Which brings us to About Time Volume Seven, covering the Rose Tyler years, and out from Mad Norwegian in a few weeks. This marks the series’ long-awaited plunge into the new series, and also the for me very weird point where instead of using About Time as my anchor in the series I’m out ahead of it. So in the spirit of that, before I move on to material past the scope of Volume Seven, some comments and responses. One last chance for my work to sync up with About Time, if you will.
The first thing that jumps out is that the new series renders the idiosyncrasies of Wood’s views more manifest. For the most part Wood’s views on the classic series, while at times odd, follow reasonable arcs. It is possible, however, that Tat Wood is the only person alive who considers The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit to be the absolute nadir of the first two years of the new series. More broadly, the sense that Wood feels like the new series is a desecration of everything that Doctor Who once stood for is at times more palpable than is helpful for the book. This is not to say that the book is some sort of hit job screed – Wood is good at presenting a balanced case for episodes. But after a certain point the need to articulate the case against every single episode wears. This book makes the “Critique” section feel almost extraneous – in amidst the rich tapestry of cultural history being painted, Tat Wood’s episode reviews seem like small details given too much space in the work.
The problem with the Critique sections is that they feel, in many ways, small and finite. Where the book sings is in its treatment of the messiness of episodes – the way in which episodes of the new series are a collision of differing viewpoints, goals, and inspirations. This has always been one of the major appeals of About Time – the way in which it meticulously lays out differing visions of what Doctor Who is. And Volume Seven is no exception in that regard.
For me, at least, its high point is the side essay for The End of the World, “RT Phone Home?” That essay makes the case that the advent of mobile phones fundamentally changes the way the series works by removing the concept of falling entirely out of the world. Without the concept of complete alienation, which drove the classic series, the new series becomes a very different beast. It’s probably the single best piece of writing on the new series that I’ve seen, though where Wood seems to see this as evidence of the fundamental desecration of all that Doctor Who is, I tend to find it a terribly exciting new possibility.
Other essays go further in painting a cultural context for the new series – the opening essay “Why Now? Why Wales?” manages to be a properly definitive take on the well-trod ground of how a series revival happened, and “Was 2006 the Annus Mirabilis?”, a grudging sequel to Volume Three’s “Was 1973 the Annus Mirabilis?”, is a compelling account of what the series’ ascension into the popular culture felt like at the time (even if it does inexplicably think that the tail end of Series Four, when the show managed a #1 chart placing with a 91 AI, represents some sort of falling off from the heights of Series Two).
Of particular interest are the essays on points of continuity. In the first six volumes, these served as pleasant alternate histories – views of directions Doctor Who continuity could have taken if different people had been in charge of making decisions at different times. (Volume Four’s “Did Rassilon Know Omega?” is a particular highlight, providing an entertaining timeline of how three generations of creators and fans each slightly misunderstood the previous generation’s intentions) But in the face of the new series, with its relative consistency of worldview, these essays take on a new and altogether more invigorating purpose. Now they’re defiant challenges, denying the new series its own authority and creating strange parodies of it. “He Remembers This How?,” attached to World War Three, wrings five pages of theories about how alternate timelines work from the work-in-progress nature of how the Doctor figures things out in that two-parter, and it’s brilliant every step of the way. And “Why’s the Doctor So Freaked Out by a Big Orange Bloke?” comes close to explaining why Wood hates The Satan Pit so very much in its stinging attempt to make any sense out of its cosmology.
This is not to say that the actual guide material is flawed. Even the “for beginners” section at the start of every entry has gems, like the observation that Love and Monsters contains the “arc clue words” for all four Davies seasons. The usual About Time pleasure of reading the work of someone who has watched every single episode with more terrifying attentiveness than you could ever dream of mustering is well in place, in other words. The Continuity section remains a dense game of fanwank that is perhaps best described as a sipping drink, but remains the gold standard for it. But the real joy is, as ever, The Analysis, particularly “The Big Picture,” formerly titled “Where Does This Come From?”
It seems strange to suggest that anything in About Time is insufficiently developed, but if there was a section that could comfortably double in length, this would be it. The usual noting of the real social concerns being reflected in Doctor Who is there and invaluable – the political subtexts of New Earth and School Reunion are gloriously elaborated on, as are a host of other points. But several are, and really it shocks me to say this of a 464 page book on two seasons of television, frustratingly underdeveloped. School Reunion finds no time to talk about the change in the series’ relationship to its own past, and Rise of the Cybermen is curiously uninterested in talking about the Cybermen. Perhaps most jarring is Father’s Day, where the section doesn’t even make it to a page, and manages not to touch on the fact that the story was a deliberate attempt to capture the style of the New Adventures, or on what the significance of Paul Cornell as a writer is, even though it spends three paragraphs giving his career history. (Perhaps Wood is holding the New Adventures back for Human Nature, but this is, as none of the stories adapted from Wilderness Years material have much focus on the source material of their source material – Dalek is just as jarring, describing Jubilee in detail without ever getting around to asking where it came from.)
Finally the Production section, which adds usefully to the already voluminous amount of production information. Some of this is down to Wood’s willingness to make narratives out of scant information – a tendency that drifts into excess in spots such as the speculation over why Eccleston departed. But in the Production sections the tendency is restrained to where its a virtue. With so much of the existing documentation of the production existing in BBC-sanctioned celebrations like Doctor Who Confidential, a take that reworks the material into what we know in practice the first two seasons were – a bunch of people scrambling to make a television series that was like nothing else that had ever been attempted – is valuable.
The result is odd. Unlike the first six volumes, there is no sense that Volume Seven can possibly serve as the definitive take on this era of Doctor Who. The history itself is too recent, and the fact that Wood, at the end of the day, seems to want to rescue proper Doctor Who from this meddlesome interloper means that he’s never going to nail down an account of two seasons that are, in practice, so massively popular that they’ve obliterated his preferred version of Doctor Who from most of the cultural memory. This is a dissenting view in a way that the previous volumes never were. But that’s not a problem. This is a different sort of book to the first six volumes, but different doesn’t mean inferior.
Yes, I’ve spent an awful lot of this essay quibbling. But that’s the fun, and what a book like this invites. It’s not a criticism on my part, it’s me eagerly getting to play the game with my favorite interlocutor. So yes, Tat Wood thinks the new series is a desecration of everything that Doctor Who once was, and I think it’s a terribly fun and interesting game of genre play, and that there’s nothing actually wrong with the transition from being about worlds to being about genres and iconography that Doctor Who has made since 1963. And he, in turn, presumably doesn’t actually care at all what I think, which is as it should be.
None of this changes the basic fact: About Time is the best Doctor Who criticism I have ever read. Volume Seven is the best work on the new series I have ever read. This series remains the gold standard, and every other guide to Doctor Who starts from the position of having to justify why you’d ever need it when you already have About Time.
Thankfully, given how long Volume Seven took, I have a good long while before anybody asks that of the rest of TARDIS Eruditorum. Volume Seven is essential reading. It’s that simple. On a new post day this blog gets around 5,000 readers. By this time tomorrow, this book should have around 5,000 preorders.