Dave Thompson, author of numerous books on the history of rock and roll, turns his attentions to Doctor Who, that 50-year-old children’ series that has, since it premiered in 1963, become a global sensation with its current run drawing in millions of viewers worldwide and raking in cash for the BBC by the truckload. Thompson’s Doctor Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Most Famous Time Lord in the Universe (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books) looks to provide fans with a concise history of the series, contexts in which to view it, and more than a half dozen lists and appendices to scrutinize or memorize, depending on your particular brand of fandom. What strikes me most about the FAQ is the way Thompson manages to not only contextualize the series historically, but to present the series proper as but one of a number of texts (including non-canonical audio plays, comic books, etc.) that have kindled a love of Doctor Who in fans around the globe.
Sure, Thompson details the production history of the series in early chapters and even provides readers with a look at those pre-Doctor Who works that are regarded as the inspiration for the series. But, to me, a standout chapter in terms of the series’ broader contextualization comes in Chapter 11, “Was This the Greatest Episode Ever?” In this chapter, Thompson explores the myriad of ways in which the Third Doctor adventure, “The Daemons,” echoed the people’s abounding fascination with (or fear of) the occult during the era of its production, linking the serial to the music of T.Rex and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby among other things. Some viewers might be apt to view Classic Who with disdain, dismissing it as a cheesy old kids’ show, but reading through the FAQ, I surmise, will give such viewers cause to reassess serials these kind of knee-jerk appraisals.
But what about the lists, Jef?! Okay, yes, there are tons of lists in the FAQ, and one might even say an inordinate amount of them, considering that five of the 22 chapters serve as list-based guides of one sort or another and the four appendices are entirely comprised of lists. Thus, lists make up about a third of the entire book. The five chapters offer guides to the eleven Doctors, 41 of the Doctor’s companions (the number of companions with whom he has travelled over the years varies depending on who you ask of course), the various incarnations of The Master and The Rani, the Doctor’s foes, and even songs about the series. Additionally, the chapter on the missing episodes contains a reference list to those episodes no longer known to exist. The first appendix is of course an episode guide with handy markers noting shifts in serials, seasons, Doctors, and even companions. The second, third, and fourth appendices provide lists of the Big Finish audio plays, original Doctor Who fiction, and selected comic book appearances, respectively.
While the chapter-based guides provide write-ups on each item included, it should be noted that those lists comprising the appendices are presented sans detailed description. So if you’re looking for a more thorough and critical exploration of the series’ individual serials, you might consider picking up John Kenneth Muir’s A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television– not as a substitute for the FAQ, but a supplement. After all, that book too has its limitations when compared to the FAQ, namely that its discussion of spin-offs and paratexts including the audio plays, fiction, magazines, comic books, etc. pales in comparison to that featured in the FAQ. Non-canonical though they may be, the FAQ acknowledges the importance of these supplemental texts to fans and the overall history of Doctor Who, respectfully covering them in chapters and appendices all their own. The shear breadth of focus here and the contextual insight Thompson provides for the series, especially in his chapter on “The Daemons,” makes the Doctor Who FAQ a really handy, and occasionally thought-provoking, guide for fans to have on-hand.
As something of a postscript, I feel compelled to note, however, that I as a scholar was hoping for a far more thoroughly-cited work than the FAQ turned out to be. As such, you’ll find it quite lacking in that respect if you’re looking for a scholarly resource on the history of Doctor Who. It is a fan reference through-and-through. Had I had my way, this thing would have been wall-to-wall endnotes, showing the source of every last bit of information. But of course, we academics with a vested interest in writing about Doctor Who are a far slimmer audience than the Doctor Who fanbase at large, so I’m not complaining really. I’m just saying.