REVIEW: "Doctor Who: From A to Z" Book

by Zepo
20 June 1999

Gary Gillatt, _Doctor Who: From A to Z_, (BBC: London, 1998). 

[Image of Book]

RATING: 8 (of 10)


     Before anyone realizes that this review is written about half a
year after the release of this book, I'd like to point out for
the record that as a collector's and academic site, the
Earthbound TimeLords site reviews older products as well as those
that are brand new.  The impact (and accuracy) that certain works
and products have on the Doctor Who experience as a whole are not
singularly timeless and their overall impact often changes over
time.  A book that is seven months old is quite a recent one
compared to a review of say the original 1965 Hartnell Annual.  
None-the-less, I felt when I first bought this book that I needed
to digest it a bit before I reviewed it.  After already having
read a few reviews of this book, I felt I couldn't tackle its
worth with an open and fair mind.  I needed to give it a fair
read.  That time has come. 
     Gary Gillatt (the current editor of  _Doctor Who Magazine_)  
has written a book that is not an investigation of a specific 
element of the Doctor Who program nor is it a guide to its 
episodes.  Instead, he has written a book which investigates the 
phenomenon of the entire program.  In the book's opening author's 
note section (p.4) he expresses his intention to write a book 
about "...Doctor Who's rise and fall in popularity, [and] of it's 
effect on the lives of its followers."  After having tackled the 
hardcover's 167 pages I felt as if Gillatt has left fandom (and 
pop culture academics) a book that reveals a great deal about 
themselves and their favorite show.  The book is not arranged in 
any chronological order (so before anyone makes a connection 
between there being 26 letters and 26 seasons of televised Doctor 
Who, please put it out of your mind). 
     Instead, Gillatt simply arranges that each chapter begins 
with a successive letter in the English language and that the 
chapter's topic has a catch phrase that begins with that letter.  
To present an example the first chapter (letter A) has the chapter 
title "An Adventure in Space and Time", and the third chapter 
(letter C) is titled "Carry On Doctor."  Gillatt uses each 
chapter in the book as a five to six page treatise on various 
subjects about the program. 
     Included in the book are numerous sidebars that include bulleted 
trivial information on aspects of the show, such as a listing of 
famous people that the Doctor is said to have met in 
non-televised adventures.(p.30)  Being a fan of trivia, these 
sidebars were interesting, but quite frankly useless -- at least I 
felt so.  Readers of my reviews and fandom friends of mine often 
know that I long for academic notation in Who reference 
books -- that's not what I'm talking about here.  This isn't that 
kind of reference book.  But a note to future authors: if you 
plan on doing a better job than the _Doctor Who Book of Lists_  
and intend to feature a tidy listing of all the references of a 
specific type mentioned in _Doctor Who_, at least list which 
story it is from so that others can go and watch it.  
     The book features an investigation of the shows popularity and 
how it changed over the years.  In one of my favorite chapters 
(letter U--"Undergraduate Anoraks") Gillatt makes a very strong case 
in one of the chapters when he writes about how the dynamics of the 
program have changed.  The chapter deals with the shows change of 
viewership: a shift from a family children's show to a show 
enjoyed by those now-grown children as college undergraduates.  
Especially the "anorak" type of undergraduate, what we in the 
United States would call a "geek."  Gillatt, in my opinion, 
spot-on writes, "...there came a significant shift in how the 
series was perceived by the audience at large.  In 1980 Doctor 
Who was still simply a 'family show'; by the end of the decade it 
was a 'cult show', and no longer easygoing, easy-access     
entertainment."(p.135)  The quality of this statement shows that     
_Doctor Who: From A to Z_ is a book that often features a quite     
brilliant look at the program. However, the book still falls into     
the trap of somehow pandering strictly to the "anorak" Who fan     
rather than making the turn into a wholehearted open and     
accessible (and in a way near-academic) discussion that Gillatt     
seems to want to make it.  Gillatt properly points out that by     
the show shifting to a series with cult status it could no longer     
attract the common viewer without them feeling lost and not     
in-the-know.  I maintain that by Doctor Who remaining a cult     
program, non-fans to this day are alienated from the program.      
The side bars, which as previously mentioned feature listings of     
off-screen references, fail to give information from which show     
they are mentioned in.  Sure fans will recognize most or perhaps     
even all of these references.  However, once again, the common     
reader is left out of the discussion.  Is a person who discovers     
the joy of Doctor Who for the first time through this book     
supposed to simply watch 26 seasons of existing material in order     
to find out when the Doctor mentions that he studied medicine in     
Glasgow as mentioned in the sidebar?  Maybe, by chance, wouldn't     
in be better to include that such a reference came from the story     
"The Moonbase (Episode 2)" so that a casual person who may have     
just become interested in the show might try to track down a copy     
of that story out of interest.  Though I know that my point seems     
dull when faced with the fact that "The Moonbase" is an     
incomplete story, the point is none the less valid.  
     Who writers, even when attempting to investigate the 
program as serious writers rather than fans, stumble into the 
trap of making their material so exclusive that its value is 
often lost to the uninitiated.  Before anyone starts to criticize 
my own writing, I am quite aware that my opinions and work are 
exclusive to the group of people who enjoy Doctor Who and even 
then I probably exclude many of them through my academic style of 
article writing.  But Gillatt's book is strong enough that it 
could have broken this mold and actually appealed to a wider 
audience with little specific knowledge about the Doctor Who 
television show. Layed out in a better style, expanded on for the 
less casual reader and marketed correctly, this book could have 
been a breakthrough for authors on the program.  It might have 
garnered more common interest in the show and ultimately been the 
first step in a grass roots movement to bring the show back to 
the airwaves.  But alas, it fell back into the mold suited best 
for the "anorak" crowd. 
     So what does the book give us?  A lot of great things.  It     
gives us a stirring introduction telling of _Doctor Who_ having     
been voted the best BBC drama series of all time!  We are given     
numerous never-before-published photos.  Best of all are 26     
chapters of well supported opinion about the program.  The     
strength of this book is that the opinions that Gillatt gives us     
are strong, but they are not always irrefutable nor are they     
always (at least in my opinion) correct.  Gary Gillatt has given     
us a book that if read carefully and approached with a discerning     
mind might lead to an endless stream of articles opposing his     
opinions or arguing for their brilliance.  We are presented with     
a book that stimulates even more discussion about the program and     
in the larger scheme of Doctor Who fandom this is a wonderful     
addition to a fan's library.  I started my review saying that     
Doctor Who products are not timeless and that a person's opinion     
of them and their impact may change depending on when the review     
is written.  This book could have transcended being simply     
another book in the library for fans and perhaps may have had a     
timeless impact on the generals public's perceptions of Doctor Who.  
But it did not.  Because of this fact and because my own opinions 
differ from Gillatt's in some cases, the book's rating is a solid 
eight.

(c) copyright Zepo, 1999.


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