Saturday, November 02, 2013

Doctor Who: 1991

After episode 695 (Survival, part 3)
Timewyrm: Revelation, first published December 1991
<< back to 1990
Andrew Skilleter's cover art for
Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell
Who was Doctor Who for?

I argued last time that in 1990 Doctor Who had stopped being for children. That fact was self-evident to Peter Darvill-Evans, who in 1991 was editor of the long-running Doctor Who novelisations. I spoke to him in 2006 about it:
‘It was quite obvious,’ says Darvill-Evans, ‘that Doctor Who fans had grown up, particularly as the viewing figures were relatively low towards the end of the 1980s. It meant that the vast influx of Doctor Who fans had been teenagers during the 70s and early 80s, and they were now growing up. It was a bit absurd to be producing children’s books for them.’

John Freeman could also see this on Doctor Who Magazine: ‘Our readership was late teen and getting older by the issue.’
Me, Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story (Big Finish: 2009), p. 10.
Both men tailored their publications to suit this older, more dedicated audience - and that's probably how Doctor Who Magazine and the books survived the long period without Doctor Who on TV. DWM studied and analysed the show in ever greater depth. The New Adventures books featured adult themes - sex and swearing, drugs and psychedelia, and an awful lot of references to then-current indie bands.

At the time, I was just the right age to embrace this more mature Doctor Who (the first of the New Adventures was published just as I turned 15). Now it seems incredible that the range would purposefully exclude child readers. This, though, was very much of the time - I argued before that Doctor Who was just one of a number of well-known heroes being reinvented in a darker, more violent form. (In 1989, I'd been furious that the new James Bond film was a certificate 15 as I wasn't old enough to see it; and I felt terribly grown-up getting into see Batman, the first ever certificate 12.)

But it wasn't the adult tone of the Doctor Who books that especially hooked me so much as the sense of community they engendered. That community was down to two factors that made the New Adventures very different from most other ranges. First, there was something in the contracts that Darvill-Evans drew up for the authors.
"We had to put into our contracts with authors that these characters and the TARDIS and so on were owned by the BBC, therefore they couldn’t use them without our permission. I also put into the author contracts a clause which said that any character that the authors created remained theirs but that they, by signing the contract, granted Virgin Publishing the right to use those characters in other people’s books. It meant that any character or creation, or anything created in a New Adventure, could be used by any other New Adventures author."
Ibid., p.9.
As a result, authors developed characters and settings from previous books, creating a vividly detailed history of the future, full of recognisable friends and enemies. The more you, as a reader, kept up with the series, the more rewarding this development would be.

But there was something else profoundly important. Darvill-Evans had spotted what he called,
"a huge untapped and rather frustrated pool of talent amongst Doctor Who fandom".
Ibid., p. 11.
The press release announcing the New Adventures, dated 27 June 1990, said the range was open to submissions from previously unpublished authors. This was an unprecedented step: reading the 'slush pile' of unsolicited manuscripts can be arduous work. Yet the Doctor Who books quickly struck gold.

Paul Cornell was the first to be accepted. His first novel, Timewyrm: Revelation, was the fourth New Adventure, published in December 1991. It was an extraordinary, strange and rich debut - I received it as a Christmas present and read it from cover to cover that very afternoon.

Paul was followed by more first-time authors, among them Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts (who, like Paul, would write for the TV series when it returned); Justin Richards (now in charge of the Doctor Who books); and Andy Lane (now the bestselling author of the Young Sherlock Holmes books). That was just in the first couple of years: Doctor Who books continued to offer opportunties to first-time authors.

Not only were the books developing a shared universe but anyone could be part of it. I sent my first submission in to the editors in 1994. You can read it here (it's not very good) and see the response I got from editorial assistant Andy Bodle (which was amazing). Even though I was rejected, the kind response and the invitation to try again kept me avidly reading the series, and it kept me writing.

(I was finally commissioned to write a Doctor Who novel in 2004 - 10 years after my first attempt. I owe my career as an author to that initial, kind rejection.)

So, as I said at the start, who was Doctor Who for?

Watching telly is a largely passive experience. It might make us laugh or cry, we might shout at the screen, but (unlike theatre, for example) our responses don't shape or affect those telling the story. Our role is simply to watch. There are shows that want us to write letters or ring in, or - these days - Tweet along. But, especially with drama, the audience mostly takes what it's given.

Fandom - any kind of fandom - is about being involved. Dressing up, writing our own stories, discussing the production of the show in depth - all fan activity - is about taking an active part. It's sometimes said as a criticism that fans have a sense of entitlement, but that's exactly what being a fan is (though that doesn't excuse bad behaviour).

For a brief and thrilling time when Doctor Who wasn't on TV, fans could participate in the creation of new Doctor Who. Not on TV and not for children, but a Doctor Who of the fans by the fans for the fans.

But how did it look to anyone else?

Next episode: 1992

No comments: