Doctor Who: The Episode Guide book review

Alex checks out a brand new, up-to-date episode guide for Doctor Who...

Episodes guides are strange things and rarely done well. Firmly split into two basic camps, they seem to be either too scant to be of use to the real afficionado or too impenetrably detailed to be inclusive enough to the new reader/viewer.

Probably the best examples of the genre in Doctor Who terms are Laurence Miles and Tat Wood’s superlative guides About Time. Six volumes encompassing everything we know or could want to know about Doctor Who. Added to the mix are some very interesting and informed essays deconstructing various aspects of the show in an entertaining prose style which avoids the ‘dry factual tome’ criticism levelled at so many writers.

This entertaining approach borrows from The Discontinuity Guide published in the mid-90s by the respected writing team of Paul Cornell (yes, that Paul Cornell!), Martin Day and Keith Topping to point out goofs and mistakes yet, paradoxically, formed a very good episode guide in its own right.

A real benchmark in the ‘everything we ever wanted to know’ guides was the work of David J. Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker in their excellent decade histories, Doctor by Doctor handbooks and the bible-like Doctor Who: The Television Companion.

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Does the world really need another (albeit as up-to-date as possible) Doctor Who episode guide?

Mark Campbell seems to think so. This episode guide was first published in 2000 as a 96-page Pocket Essential, when Campbell unwisely declared Doctor Who (as a TV programme) was dead. In his third edition (2005), he had to retract those remarks. Now the enlarged fifth volume is with us, complete with a preface from Kim Newman.

Now over 220 pages long and hardback, it can hardly claim to be pocket-sized.

Whilst I’m sure Campbell doesn’t claim this work to be definitive, calling it The Episode Guide invites many an afficionado to take a pot shot. To be fair, Mark Campbell has written other more detailed guide books to Doctor Who and his brief here is to be concise and give ‘in a nutshell’ opinions. That said, The Wheel In Space is summed up as “Utter Tedium” which is about a concise as one can get, and not especially useful.

As someone old enough to recall Jean Marc Lofficier’s programme guides from the early 80s, I’m keenly aware of the need for a definitive bible on the series. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke produced The Making Of Doctor Who as far back as 1972, notable for giving us the Doctor’s name in full and for the radical idea of weaving all the Doctor’s adventures together into one readable narrative.

1973 saw the Radio Times Doctor Who 10th Anniversary Special and an attempt to put together a credible episode guide. One must remember, in the early 70s Who didn’t have quite the active cult following it does today. RT’s admirable attempt was undermined by the mistaken use of first episode titles for many of the early Hartnell stories, hence The Daleks became The Dead Planet.

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Of course, episode titles in the Hartnell era have long been the subject of debate. Campbell doesn’t really address this and uses the more commonly accepted titles.

An Unearthly Child is the name of the first episode of Doctor Who, but officially, the serial is called 100,000 BC. The Daleks was originally called The Mutants. The name of the serial was changed to avoid confusion with the 1972 Pertwee story of the same name. Similarly, The Edge of Destruction, for many years was known as Beyond The Sun, a commissioned but ultimately unmade story. Recently acquired BBC documentation named the serial as Inside The Spaceship.

The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve was often shortened to The Massacre and Doctor Who And The Silurians is sometimes referred to as The Silurians. In truth, the latter should be its official title. The addition of the Time Lord’s name is the fault of the BBC graphics department, who constructed the titles for the episodes unaware of the protocol of the titles of the series appearing before the serial name, and so ran them together. Similarly, many believe the first colour episode of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs was junked because on screen it was just called “Invasion“, so as not to give the game away and became confused with The Troughton serial The Invasion, which was due to be wiped.

Although generally Campbell’s ratings give a fair appreciation of the series as a whole, some marks seem a little out of step with received wisdom or are being knowingly controversial.

Warriors Of The Deep, The Underwater Menace, Time And The Rani, Delta And The Bannermen and The Aliens Of London (complete with farting Slitheen) outscore Evil Of The Daleks, Silence In The Library, The Ice Warriors, Masque Of Mandragora and The Visitation.

Ten out of ten for Invasion Of The Dinosaurs? Not a bad story if you look beyond the ropey dinosaurs themselves, but a ten?

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There’s a, frankly, generous two out ten for the likes of The Twin Dilemma and Time Flight, but only one for New Earth? Sure, not Tennant’s best by some distance, but that bad? It’s interesting that in the original book Campbell rates The Invasion as one out of five, whereas ten years (and a very good DVD release) later, it musters five out of ten.

Each to his own, I suppose.Campbell is entitled to his opinion, but for me, the best episode guide should encompass the thoughts of more than one author.

The ratings figures have been annoyingly averaged in the case of all but the standalone episodes, so one can’t tell how consistent a serial’s viewing figures were. Appreciation Index figures would be a useful addition for the next guide.

At the back of the book there is a guide to other media such as the stage plays and Big Finish audios. A useful check list, but nothing more.

If you want a very basic overview of the series so far and you are not too bothered on the detail, then this is the book for you. Best suited, I would say, to the younger Who fan who knows the new series backwards, but isn’t so clear on the original series.

It’s better than it was, but still not as good as it could and perhaps  should be.

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Doctor Who: The Episode Guide is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.


2 out of 5