Attics can be wonderful, beautiful things. Sometimes they are repositories of worthless junk, but more often they have such wonderful stories to tell. They are full of boxes. Some contain toys from childhood. Others hold certificates, pictures, and correspondence. Still others contain mementos and heirlooms of events both obscure and infamous. There are such stories to be learned, if one can only gain entry and do some research.
That is how it could be for Doctor Who. With 52 years now passed since the show began production, what stories can its artifacts and ephemera tell us? We know the exoteric truths of the show’s production from its primary artifacts — the episodes produced by and shown on the BBC. Surely, there must be more than that. What were the stories, the images, the ideas that never made it onto those tapes? What did time or budget make impossible? What was merely deemed to be poor creative choice?
These are the motivating themes of a new book, Doctor Who: Impossible Worlds by Stephen Nicholas and Mike Tucker. It proposes to take us into the Doctor Who production design department to show how the core ideas of the series transformed from imagination to television drama for over 50 years. In this, it succeeds more than it fails and provides the reader with some rich visual insight into the history of Doctor Who.
To judge the success or failure of that proposal requires the acknowledgement of a very basic fact: Doctor Who is not one show, but two. There is Classic Doctor Who, the show produced primarily near London from 1963 to 1989. There is also modern Doctor Who, the show produced by BBC Wales near Cardiff from 2003 until the present day. That fourteen year gap creates some impossibilities because each show had its own attic, and the older one is pretty much empty. With the cancellation of the classic show in 1989 came the liquidation of the majority its production artifacts. Many were lost, and some deemed valuable found their way into private hands. That creates a historical wall that is difficult to penetrate at more than a 25-year remove.
The book divides the visual history of the show around four major themes that embody seven different topics. The most fundamental relates to the TARDIS. Its control room is the fixed set piece where much of the show played out since 1963. The next three deal with monsters in some form or fashion. Two deal with the most frequently recurring monsters of the combined series runs: the Daleks and the Cybermen. The Daleks are Doctor Who to some degree, and the Cybermen were created as their replacements when the rights to the Daleks drifted elsewhere. A third examines other monsters; some like the Silurians, the Sontarans, and the Ood will be quite familiar and others are more obscure. Another two sections deal with various implements, one with tools like the sonic screwdriver and one with guns and other weapons. Finally, there is a section mostly concerned with Gallifrey and its artifacts.
The structure of each of these sections is more or less dictated by that 14 year gap in production and the attendant loss of material. Each section begins with some introductory text that discusses the roots of the topic in question in Classic Doctor Who. That text is frequently accompanied by various production stills, and sometimes by production artwork, though that is sporadic. We get to see some of Raymond Cusick’s early Dalek designs, and the first sketch of a Cyberman costume, for example. Yet the evolution in design for both these monsters, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, during the classic era is primarily described in the text and not with pictures. That changes once the modern side of the wall. The bulk of each section occurs after the text with an abundant display of sketches and design ideas from modern Doctor Who. We are treated to renderings of multiple ideas for the TARDIS control room, the Daleks (of different classes and kinds), the Cybermen, the sonic screwdriver, various monsters, Gallifreyan architecture, etc…
That’s all fine. I get that. Despite the Pertwee-era logo, this book is primarily a creature of the 21st Century. It’s fascinating to see how concepts for the TARDIS control room changed both as the series grew in popularity (and budget) from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant to Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi. Fascinating too are the ways in which new props and costumes were either re-thought or kept largely unchanged from the classic series to the modern one. It’s also quite interesting to read how the management of production design changed over the decades: from the departments of salaried, pensioned employees in Television Centre in much of the classic series, through the move to contract employees, production companies, and regional production facilities during the post-Thatcher period, and finally to the establishment of a dedicated film-like production design department for the modern series.
What I don’t like so much are some of the gaps that still exist. The exterior of the TARDIS and its evolution barely gets a mention, for example. Yet, I know that there are groups of fans out there who avidly follow the evolution of the TARDIS police box prop through the decades… and it has evolved, sometimes dramatically. The same is true for the TARDIS lock and key. Discussion of the Doctor Who logo and opening title sequence is completely absent. Yes, the title sequence is something of a special effects concern, but I would tend to consider the logo and its presentation to be a genuine concern with the production design. Neither get a mention here. Unlike Star Wars or Firefly/Serenity universes, there is no discussion of how written language is presented on the series… even Time Lord written language.
Does that make this a bad book? No, I think it merely renders it incomplete. With 50 years of material to discuss and draw upon, the book weighs in at a substantial 288 pages. An exhaustive discussion of Doctor Who could fill multiple volumes of similar size, depending on the levels of detail and graphic content. It’s a fascinating read for adult Doctor Who fans, and its visual nature will likely appeal to children as well. It’s just a shame that the authors didn’t get to dive deeper in to classic era material.