Marcus Hearn is in an ideal position to present a glossy, full-colour, 320-page large format book marking fifty years of the television phenomenon Doctor Who. He’s a writer and TV historian who has penned copious notes for the series’ DVD sleeves, and his imagination and enthusiasm combine to produce a good-natured celebration.
The cult science-fiction show has won generations of admirers and fans since it first hit the screens in 1963. A 2005 remake, currently still on air, has attracted a brand-new audience, ensuring that this anniversary tome will find loving homes on bookcases everywhere.
Doctor Who The Vault will delight fanatics of the show. It’s full of interesting rare photographs of costumes, props and behind-the-scenes shots (there’s a sweet one of Dalek designer Ray Cusick at home with his baby daughter) as well as letters from creatives. A lovely touch is that front and back inlays are a scan of the floor plans of Lime Grove Studio D for the very first episode.
The foreword is given over to Steven Moffatt, the current executive producer of the new series, who recounts being at a party and speaking to somebody who didn’t watch or much care for the show. “I nodded, with my wine still in my glass and not all over his face,” Moffatt writes. Doubtless the comment is meant to be humorous, but the reader is invited to find his point of view sympathetic and overlook the uncomfortable dogmatism. It’s this quasi-religious reverence for the new show that is the biggest flaw of The Vault, since Hearn is fairly and justly critical of the classic series at times, but he turns off his critical faculties for the final eighty pages that lend an overview to the remake.
To be fair to Hearn, he treads a diplomatic line throughout, especially when discussing the 80s under the contentious stewardship of John Nathan-Turner; and the doldrums of the 90s with the brief glimmer of a renaissance under Paul McGann. It may also be that his hands were tied: after all The Vault is published by BBC Books, and Doctor Who is their golden cow. The approach does, however, leave the finished product oddly disjointed. In the section Science and Fiction, Hearn contends that, “the programme has had a rather superficial relationship with science itself,” but applies this to the classic series, rather than to the remake where he could make a much stronger case. It will take for the new series to be cancelled before an objective book can be written about it. Until then, products that mix the two will almost certainly feel disjointed.
Despite this misgiving, Doctor Who The Vault is a pleasurable read, especially for fans interested in television history as well as the show’s mythology. Hearn takes it chronologically, starting in 1963 and picking out moments of interest, expanding topics into mini-essays that cover the entire half-century. Thus the Target novelsations, the rise of organised fandom, the magazine, concerns over violence and the release of older stories on VHS are just a handful of interesting asides. Where possible, Hearn quotes from original sources, and includes some of the more notorious comments (Gary Downie tops that group).
It’s worth taking from The Vault what it is: a crowd-pleaser and a celebration. More studious and analytical works can be found elsewhere. The Vault is a colourful coffee-table book and an ideal Christmas present for Doctor Who fans – whatever their denomination.