|The thing in front is not David the
Gnome. It’s the Doctor. Or did you mean
You Were Expecting Someone Else is a recurring feature covering non-televised Doctor Who from classic eras, generally more or less in the period where they came out. Today we look at the 1966 Doctor Who Annual (published in late 1965), The Dalek Book, and The Dalek World, the three earliest examples of Doctor Who spin-off fiction.
So, I’m getting a late start to the blog entry today, kind of have a sinus/allergy headache, and am in a strangely bad mood. Let’s dive right in and tackle the question of canonicity and Doctor Who, shall we? (What? I mean, what do you do when you have a headache?)
I mean, it’s not actually that tough a topic. The sadly defunct blog Teatime Brutality sorted out all the possible issues in Doctor Who canon over here. The piece is as good a take on the matter as I could possibly do, and reveals the rather surprising truth that the single most important episode of Doctor Who in explaining its canon is Gareth Roberts’s The Unicorn and the Wasp. From this data, he works up the extremely handy map of Doctor Who continuity you see somewhere on the right side of your screen.
But a broader question is what that means. I mean, it’s all well and good to do some hand waving and proclaim that Doctor Who has no canon and all works of fiction are equally valid in the Doctor Who mythos, but it comes awfully close to the literary criticism equivalent of technobabble. I mean, yes, it’s trivial to show that Doctor Who does not have a canon in the traditional Star Wars tiered sense of things. (Though it’s worth doing so, as Teatime Brutality demonstrates. If only so you can quote that hilarious line from the Transformers Wiki, “Indeed so little attention is paid to it that the franchise is riddled with countless irreconcilable continuity clashes despite being presented as a single continuous story, even in the TV movie and continuing television series that were made many years after the original series was cancelled.” If only for the hilarious implication that we poor Doctor Who fans are somehow living with a terrible affliction in this regard. Hey Transformers fans. We just have a lack of canon. You have two Michael Bay movies. We win.)
So let’s look at it with some historical perspective. Such as via these three books, the earliest instances of something that may or may not be Doctor Who canon. First off, what are they? Well, they’re three books, each about 100 pages. The Dalek books are a mixture of four color comics and prose stories with single color illustrations (red, as it happens), published by Panther Books. The annual is all prose stories with four color illustrations published by World Distributors. And, as I said above, they’re more or less the first published Doctor Who fiction. (There were some comic strips in a book called TV Action. I haven’t been able to locate any of them. If I ever do, believe me, even if I’m off in the Sylvester McCoy era, I’ll go back and do a post on them. Also the three early Doctor Who novels – adaptations of The Daleks, The Web Planet, and The Crusade.)
Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, in About Time, make great snide references to the entire body of non-televised Doctor Who as “professional fan fiction,” which is perhaps true, and in any case surely needs to be taken in context given that Lawrence Miles has written reams of the stuff. But calling this fan fiction would be wrong. The Dalek books are written by Terry Nation and David Whitaker. The annual has no listed author, but it’s well known that Whitaker ghost wrote most of this stuff. So these are people with tremendous real involvement on the show – easy contenders for any top ten list of the series most influential writers.
But it’s equally clear that this is not straightforwardly part of the series. I mean, the Dalek books seem to have Skaro as part of our solar system, and to assume that the bulk of planets in our solar system are habitable. And the annual features the return of that character so popular from the movies, Dr. Who. Neither of these hypotheses bear much fruit in the remainder of the series.
On the other hand, watch The Dalek Invasion of Earth immediately followed by Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, or, better, by Doomsday. You’ll immediately notice something about the Daleks in the two stories. The Daleks of the Russell T. Davies era fly around, have massive spaceships, and there are oodles of them. For obvious reasons, in The Dalek Invasion of Earth there are five of them, they wobble around, and they are very, very terrestrially inclined. And that gets lampshaded in The Chase. (Which also has a great shot where a Dalek clips the side of a door and the suit visibly bounces open.) There’s a bit of a disparity here between the Daleks we see on TV and the Daleks we imagine.
That disparity came from the spin-off fiction. Because things like these Dalek books were the first time we saw massive armies of Daleks swooping around and conquering things. They were the first time we saw an Emperor Dalek. I mean, yes, he looks absolutely ridiculous, butt hat’s hardly the point. It’s the Emperor of the Daleks. You see that and the first thing you imagine is the Doctor facing that thing down.
But, of course, the nature of television is that you’re never going to get the massive field of swooping Daleks. At least, not when these books were coming out. And so the books are providing a genuinely important service to the show in that they’re providing context for the episodes. Once we see the Emperor Dalek in a comic, he’s always there. Even if we don’t see him on television, we can imagine the Daleks we see as a tiny subset of a much larger set. Doctor Who uses this kind of approach all the time. It’s absolutely crucial to modern Doctor Who. Look at The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End for a brilliant example. Throw in two or three CGI shots of a Dalek fleet and you can get away with having the entire rest of the episode be the Doctor and Davros chinwagging at each other and still have it feel epic. Or The Web Planet, which introduced the Atmospheric Density Jackets (mentioned twice in the Annual) just in order to have the Doctor and Ian in white to make the special effects shot of the massive stone edifice work. Because once you see the massive stone edifice, you can get by just showing some men in silly ant costumes for the rest of the story.
And so these books did a tremendous amount of work filling in the possibility of a larger context for the series. By giving us a glimpse of what existed beyond the episodes, the episodes became better. Likewise, every story in the Doctor Who Annual takes place on other planets. Basically, in terms of sheer strangeness, they start where The Web Planet left off, all of them featuring hard-to-televize monsters and massive set pieces. Which, again, once you can regularly see the Doctor engaging in that sort of adventure, ironically, the restrictions of television become easier to accept.
But there’s a flip side to this. As the argument is coming perilously close to suggesting that Doctor Who might be better as comics or prose pieces. The fact of the matter is, these three books are slogs. It’s really, really tough to get too excited about them. They feel appallingly rushed, and any quality they have is clearly due to the fact that Whitaker has a refreshingly high minimum quality he achieves. Perhaps the high point comes in “The Lost Ones,” when on page 46 it is clearly stated that the Doctor is “prevaricating, because, of course, he did not come from Earth,” but then two pages later it’s established that he doesn’t want to let a spaceship go to Earth because “To send it back to modern Earth would condemn his world to destruction or slavery.” I’d say the copy-editor should be exterminated for this, but the fact of the matter is, there probably wasn’t one. The Dalek books, on the other hand, mostly feel like characters so two-dimensional even Isaac Asimov rejected them acting out Dick and Jane Get Exterminated. (See Jane scream. Scream, Jane, Scream!)
On top of that, the books have dated in a way that the show hasn’t. It’s not just the depiction of Venus as lush and teeming with life, or “The Crab People,” a truly horrifying piece of work in which the Doctor is implored by a dying civilization that has nearly destroyed itself with genetic engineering to take 100 test tube babies from the civilization to safety. When the embryos die in transit, the Doctor writes it off with a shrug and a comment about how it served them right for tinkering with genetics and making things like test tube babies in the first place. Easy to write 12 years before Louise Brown. Tough to read 33 years after her. It’s the fact that the books are visibly not trying to be anything better than average quality pulp science fiction for the time, such that even when they do have the odd moment of ambition (the central image of “The Crab People,” a civilization that has gone so far with genetic engineering that they cannot hold their own form and transform into unspeakable and unfathomable horrors in the grand Lovecraftian tradition, is great) it just highlights how lazy the whole thing is. (Another corker is the use of screencaps from The Daleks to tell a completely different story.) The fact of the matter is, these books do nothing so much as make one want to watch the much better TV series.
There is something – and we’ll deal with this much more when we get to the 90s and Doctor Who is a book series – special about television. Doctor Who, for some reason, works better there. And these annuals aren’t portraying a new vision of Doctor Who. They’re portraying the fringes of the existing vision.
So are they canon? On one level, the answer is clearly no. Nobody would complain if the Doctor visited the Crab Nebula and it wasn’t like it was described in The Crab People. People do, on the other hand, complain when a new series episode like School Reunion directly contradicts a classic series episode like The Five Doctors. Then again, the more important thing to take away from that may be that the series is perfectly willing to contradict itself.
On another level, the answer is clearly yes. The Dalek Emperor makes his way to the TV show. As does the basic vision of Daleks on offer here. In the Annual, you can see several wild ideas that, years later, the show would finally tackle. (Giant spider, anyone?) These stories are part of the cultural memory of Doctor Who, and influence the show. If canon is the established body of literature the show can draw on, these are canon.
I prefer that definition, by and large, because it seems to perform the useful function of actually having canon work more or less the way the writers treat it as working. Canon is the menu of things you can reference. And so the Dalek annuals, with their gleaming space maurauders of Daleks, are canon because it’s screamingly obvious that’s where Russell T. Davies got his images of Daleks. Because the alternative, as we’ll talk about way down the line, is to argue that the fact that the Virgin New Adventures aren’t canon. These, of course, are the books that were so important to Doctor Who’s development that Davies went and commissioned Paul Cornell to rewrite his book Human Nature as a TV story. Which is, of course, used as evidence that the book version can’t count. This is canonicity at its most perverse – books that are so important to Doctor Who that they can’t be canon.
So, by way of wrapping up, let’s tackle one more chestnut, since both this entry and the last make it relevant. Dr. Who. Is it his name? Clearly not, right? I mean, one of the fundamental points of Doctor Who fandom, the basic question one that separates the anoraks from the wannabes (Or, more usually, the dontwannabes), is what is his name, and the answer is the Doctor. All the occasions where he’s referred to as Doctor Who are errors.
Except that both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat slip and call him Doctor Who in interviews from time to time. Real interviews, with Doctor Who Confidential. So it’s not that they’re pandering to the ignorant, and they’re clearly not ignorant. And anyway, maybe, just maybe, it’s not a great idea for Doctor Who fans to set up a booby trap to humiliate people with only a casual interest in the show.
Thankfully, our understanding of canon helps us a lot here. Is his name Doctor Who? Not usually… but in the vast gestalt of things that make up the cultural context of the show… yeah. In some places he is. Being Doctor Who is a part of the character. A real part of it. Not a major part of it… but a part of it. And not an error or a wrong part. Just… a part.
Oh good. My headache’s cleared up. I think I’ll talk about television again on Friday.