A CRITICAL HISTORY OF DOCTOR WHO ON TELEVISION
by John Kenneth Muir
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1999, John Kenneth Muir published A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television. With the resurgence in interest in the franchise caused by the BBC’s reimagining “Doctor Who” with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, publisher McFarland has elected to reprint the volume.
The meat of Muir’s book is a serial-by-serial guide to the series from William Hartnell’s first appearance in “An Unearthly Child” in 1963 through Sylvester McCoy’s bow at the end of “Survival” in 1989. In this, Muir’s book is similar to other such episode guides, such as Paul Cornell, Martin Day & Keith Topping’s The Discontinuity Guide (also recently reprinted). However, Muir goes a step further than Cornell, Day, and Topping by including a lengthy introduction to the twenty-six year history of the series as well as its cinematic and televised antecedents. Muir also looks at spin-offs and fannish activity.
Paradoxically, it is much of this extra material in Muir’s book that is jarring and decreases the book’s desirability. The eight years since the book was published has seen a growth of Doctor Who novels and audioplays, which are unmentioned, let alone the revival of the series. Muir’s discussion of websites is dated, although the decision made when the book was published not to include sites’ URLs means that it isn’t immediately obvious which sites have vanished. In 2007, A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television would have been immensely improved had Muir updated the text, or even just added an additional chapter covering the past eight years. His notes about what is available on VHS also is dated in this era when new DVDs are being released with additional material.
The actual history of the show given at the beginning of the book provides an excellent framework in which to watch the show, looking at the way it went from a children's show with a mandate to provide science and history lessons to a show that lost that mandate and was able to focus on entertainment and, occasionally, moral issues. Muir does an excellent job tracing
the evolution of the series behind the scenes which affected what was broadcast over the air.
Muir also follows the thematic changes of the show from the time the first Doctor appeared as an eccentric old man traveling with his granddaughter to the introduction of the idea of the Time Lords. The various stages production went through, from the rubber-masked aliens to stranding the Doctor on Earth to the introduction of the Master are also covered, providing detail which informs the viewing of the episodes, but which wouldn't be apparent just from what appears on screen.
Muir's book is a concise and thorough history of "Doctor Who" up to 1999. The book's usefulness in 2007 would have been greatly enhanced, however, if Muir had been given the opportunity to update the book in light of the advances in web fandom, the audiobooks, DVD releases and, most importantly, three additional seasons of "Doctor Who."
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