REVIEW: "A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television" Book

by Zepo
23 December 1999

Muir, John Kenneth, _A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television_,
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999).

[Image of Book]

RATING: 10 (of 10)


     John Kenneth Muir has given researchers of Doctor Who and cult
television perhaps the definitive work on the Doctor Who phenomenon with his
book "A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television."  The book, currently
available as a hardbound edition, covers almost every element of Doctor Who
from the program's origins to fandom, to the show's various spin-offs in
novel and comic book form.
     Muir has given researchers a book which is an excellent jumping off
point for more detailed investigations.  Written in a scholarly style, the
book opens with an inquiry into the show's origins and into its developments
as it changed during the tenure of the various actors to play the Doctor.
The book's first few chapters also devote time to an investigation of
morality and meaning in the serial's programs, as well as cinematography and
special effects.  The series itself is investigated by a section that
presents the show's critical reception, which was perhaps one of the most
interesting reads in the tome.  It was thrilling to read both the positive
and the negative opinions of reviewers and critics.  The book continues with
a look at each and every story, giving technical information, a synopsis, a
listing of the guest cast, and a short commentary on each of the series'
stories.  While the commentary section might be seen as built strictly on
the author's opinion, Muir uses this section to provide valuable information
and connections between Doctor Who's own programs.  Connections are also
made between these stories and other science fiction series or films.  This
look at each of the stories fills over 300 pages in this book and provides
excellent information on the series.
     Further chapters in the book include a look at the various spin-off
films, television shows, videos, story novelizations, and original novels.
A look at non-fiction books, role-playing games, and comics is also
included.  Muir, takes the Doctor Who phenomenon full circle and actually
investigates Doctor Who fandom.  He covers Internet sites (unfortunately he
did miss the Earthbound TimeLords site) and standard fan clubs, and makes
the point that Doctor Who's fandom has evolved over the years.  To conclude
the book we are given appendixes that cover a listing of BBC production
codes, a list of episodes of recommended stories for viewing to include
possible connections to other sci-fi, and even a debatable listing of the
top 20 best stories.
     This book features an American perspective of Doctor Who as a series,
as Muir admittedly points out in the book.  This, however, is quite
refreshing, as hopefully English researchers or fans who take a serious read
of this work may notice that some American fans approach Doctor Who quite
differently from them.   The book solidly points out that in America the
preferred titles of Doctor Who stories (from the early shows when each
episode was individually titled) are the original names presented in
Jean-Marc Lofficier's "The Doctor Who Programme Guide, Vol. 1."  This can be
seen by evidence of Muir's use of these titles during his investigation of
each story.  Muir's listing of the American Fox Network Television Movie
staring Paul McGann, also reveals that most Americans consider this story
not part of Doctor Who canon, unlike many UK fans.[p.410-412, 437]  In my
opinion, it is this objective American perspective that makes the book seem
quite more scholarly than the current crop of works that English authors,
most of whom are dedicated fans of the program, have released in recent
years.  Muir presents the scholarly reader with many of the views from each
side of the Atlantic and though writing from an American viewpoint
definitely takes a neutral stance on all that has happened in the
'Whoniverse.' 
     The book however is not without a few small mistakes.  Examples of this
might be that Muir writes that the first adventure takes place in
1,000,000BC when in fact they year is 100,000BC.[p.11]  He mistakenly writes
that "The Edge of Destruction" is the first Doctor Who serial shorter than
five parts" when in fact the very first story ("An Unearthy Child") was a
four part serial.[p.83]  When investigating non-fiction works, he mistakenly
says that the second part to Jean-Marc Lofficier's seminal "The Doctor Who
Program Guide, Vol. 1" was not written for a decade later, which is quite
incorrect as the second volume entitled "The Doctor Who Programme Guide Vol
2: What's What and Who's Who" was released the same year as volume
one.[p.426]  He also misses a few other important works of note in his
non-fiction section such as J. Jermemy Betham's "The Early Years," some of
Peter Haining's offerings, and the first scholarly work John Tulloch and
Manuel Alvaredo's work "Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text."  Of importance to
this particular reviewer who has a love for role-playing games, he misnames
the titles of the FASA Doctor Who Role-Playing Game booklets.[p.428]  But in
John Kenneth Muir's defense, as one looks at the almost 500 page offering,
these mistakes are quite minor and forgivable in the huge scale of this
undertaking and any serious and informed researcher will catch these minor
oversights and continue on with their research.
     Besides the book's broad look at Doctor Who, there are a number of
other strengths.  Muir compares Doctor Who with many other sci-fi works and
draws parallels between these various contributions.  Most refreshing of all
is Muir's use of scholarly investigation as the backbone of the text.  This
book succeeds in giving legitimacy to the task of researching Doctor Who as
an important cultural phenomenon.  This edition has a strong bibliography
and an outstanding index that will be of great use to other researchers.
While the book contains footnotes they are a bit sparse, and while more
liberal use of notation might have been nice the book itself remains a
strong document.
     In my opinion, this work has superseded "Doctor Who: The Unfolding
Text" as the strongest of critical works on the program.  While the
expensive price tag may scare off some buyers, let me assure you it is worth
every cent and more.  John Kenneth Muir has given television researchers and
Doctor Who fans alike, up to this time, the definitive work on the program,
one that will be used for years to come as the jumping off point for more
detailed, specific and perhaps controversial investigations.  It is highly
suggested that if one intends to research the field of Doctor Who that one
owns this work.  This book is a must for the serious researcher's library.
     Those interested in purchasing John Kenneth Muir's "A Critical History
of Doctor Who" can contact McFarland Publishers by either calling their
order line (in the USA) at 1-800-253-2187 or by writing them at: McFarland &
Company, Inc., Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson, NC, USA, 28640.

(c) Copyright Zepo, 1999.


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