Friday, November 22, 2013

Whoniversary: Who waits 8 months for new Doctor Who?: One Man's Love Affair with Doctor Who Spin Off Media by The Oncoming Josh

You hear it all the time. The frustrated call of the fan boy/girl.

"I have to wait HOW LONG for new episodes of Doctor Who?"

"They're splitting the season? I'll have to wait for months for the story to finish!"

"Why isn't Doctor Who on ALL THE TIME???"


Well, actually, it is. 

Sure, you can't turn on your television each Saturday for a new episode of Doctor Who to feast upon, but if you expand your horizons past that screen, you will find a wealth of Adventures in Time and Space... ones that may even surpass what you see on that screen. That's right, as good as that masterpiece of television "Fear Her" may be, I'm here to tell you that "Alien Bodies", a BBC books Doctor Who novel written in 1997, is better. Ok, frankly "Alien Bodies" is better than 90% of any media ever produced, much less crappy, animated wall drawing monster stories, but my point stands. And you don't have to wait 8 months for the BBC and Co. to get their act together for new episodes if you decide you want to read it... or check out any of the other multitude of Doctor Who spin off media which is in constant production. And this stuff is good! I should know, I consume ALL OF IT, to the detriment of my wallet and suffering family. I can't help it. I sincerely love these media off shoots. After all, they are what made me a Doctor Who fan.

A History Lesson

By all rights, I shouldn't be a Doctor Who fan. Or at least, one of the supremely obsessed variety that leads me to work on editing books on the subject, hosting a podcast, or talking for hours on panels at conventions. You see, I wasn't one of those fans that happened across a random episode of Doctor Who and was granted an epiphany to become an immediate convert. I grew up in the 80's, in a family that had a predilection for watching Sci-Fi. Most things Sci-Fi ended up on my television at some point, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Knight Rider and Transformers. Not to mention such total classics such as Automan and The Powers of Matthew Star! So you'll have to forgive me for not being immediately converted; I was inundated with a lot of Sci-Fi shows, and when Doctor Who did show up on the family TV, my pre adolescent self would have dismissed it like so many other shows, because it didn't have the glitz of my childhood obsession, Star Wars. 

Ah yes, Star Wars. That seductive franchise that snaps us up as children with its lightsabers, spaceships, and casual incest. Now, I mention Star Wars because it directly leads to me to Doctor Who fandom, in a round about way. Tie in novels for successful franchises have been published for years, dating back to the original Star Trek. Most of these books were easily forgotten however, as they were presented as nothing more than subpar episodes of the shows, with no progression in any overall plot or characterization. Everything had to reset to how it was at the start of the book, letting whoever else was to follow in any medium to pick up anew. This led to many fans to dismiss such media, because if nothing could change, it obviously didn't "count". This all changed in 1991, with the release of the new Star Wars novel, "Heir to the Empire". For the first time, a franchise was charting further adventures of its characters past the visual medium, with a full backing of the production crew, and an implied acknowledgement that it "counted". It was an enormous success, and changed the landscape of spin off media. Tie in novels had always been a good source of income, but suddenly these books were becoming national best sellers, and everyone wanted in. Doctor Who would be no different.

The Wilderness Years

In 1992, Doctor Who had been off the air for 3 years, and the hope of its return seemed bleak. Following the success of the Star Wars novels, Virgin Publishing started their New Adventures line, picking up with the 7th Doctor having adventures taking place after the show had gone off the air. I had entered high school by this point, and had a more refined taste. At least, I liked to think I did. So when a friend, knowing my fascination with time travel, properly introduced me to Doctor Who, I was more willing to give it a far shake. He loaned me a few videos, Tom Baker of course, and I liked it well enough. The 5 Doctors followed closely after that, and concept of regeneration perked my interest even further. So when I walked into a Waldenbooks one day and saw several books on the shelf with the Doctor Who logo on them, I decided to give one a try. The covers of these early books weren't the greatest. In fact, they can be downright embarrassing. But there was one book with an AWESOME cover, and I just had to get it. That book was "Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark". It featured a cover with the TARDIS parked outside of what looked like Stonehenge, with a unicorn coming out of some portal. It is a beautiful piece of art, probably one of the best ever to grace a Doctor Who book. I excitedly read it and... it was not very good. My burgeoning fandom might have ended there, except two things happened. I actually got to see Sylvester McCoy in a televised story, and I read Timewyrm: Revelation.

Before Star Wars, before Doctor Who, before anything else in my life, I was a comic book reader. I learned to read from comics and had developed what would come to be a life long comic book habit. The era of the 7th Doctor is hugely influenced by the ideas that had developed in the comic medium of the late 80's. Writers such as Alan Moore and books like 2000 AD were pushing boundaries of what people thought comic books could accomplish. It was from these types of ideas that script editor Andrew Cartmel based his era of the show. I was beginning to see the real potential of what Doctor Who could be about... then I read "Timewyrm: Revelation" by Paul Cornell, and my mind was completely blown.

"Timewrym: Revelation" is an inward look at Doctor Who, a deconstruction of the Doctor himself in an internal mindscape of the sort that could never be justifiably put to film. We get to see just how complex of a character the Doctor is, the conflicts within himself literally personified as his former incarnations. This was heavy stuff, and I loved every page. Armed with this new knowledge, I dived in, ready to take in all the Doctor Who I could. At this point I finally learned the terrible news; Doctor Who had been canceled years ago. Once I made my way through the available stories on video and PBS, that would be that...

Except it wasn't. Those books that I had read weren't just your average tie in books. They were the continuing adventures of the Doctor. Each month, I would be granted another New Adventure, a story too broad and too deep for the small screen. Unburdened by the miniscule budgets and children's teatime scheduling, Doctor Who was allowed to blossom into a more mature and compelling story. Actions had consequences, and things weren't always tied up neatly. The Doctor had to make hard choices in an expanding universe of threats. He assumed the mantle of Time's Champion, the one shining beacon of hope for a universe swathed in enemies out to conquer and destroy. This was Doctor Who on an epic scale. And I ate it up.

The New Adventures are certainly a product of its time. Don't buy into the dismissive idea that haters push that these books were only about sex and violence. While these are present from time to time, it's no more than you'd find in a high school literature course. This is a more mature era of Doctor Who, but it’s the advanced concepts and themes explored that make it so. I even argue that this is a direct line of descendance from these stories to what you get on the new series. Writers such as Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, and a little known writer by the name of Russell T. Davies all had books published in the New Adventures. I wonder if we'll ever hear from those chaps again?

Even if for some unfathomable reason you don't find the continuing adventures of the 7th Doctor to your liking, like a snowball rolling down a mountain, they have led to a world of other options. The success of the New Adventures led to the launch of the Missing Adventures. These were more traditional spin off material, with stories of the first 6 Doctors being placed between televised stories. Written by the same cadre of writers who were working on the New Adventures, the Missing Adventures managed to rise above standard tie in fare, using a lot of the same troupes as the New Adventures to tell stories of the older Doctors. At this point, I was in heaven. Even with my televised Who mostly exhausted, I was still getting 2 books a month to fill that Who shaped need in my soul. Not to mention that Doctor Who magazine by this point was telling new stories based out of New Adventures in their comic strip, bringing things full circle. You will sometimes hear fans tell of the bleakness of the Wilderness Years, what with no televised stories around, but for my part, I was having a ball in them.

An All Too Brief Respite, Then Business as Usual

1996 saw Doctor Who return for an all too brief time in the Television Movie. Again, fans were downtrodden to learn that nothing more would come from this event. For myself, as happy as I would have been to see Doctor Who return to our screens, I was perfectly content with the Doctor's continuing adventures in my books. The BBC, seeing how successful Virgin had been with it's book lines, brought Doctor Who back in house and continued publishing the ongoing adventures of the Doctor, this time featuring the newly regenerated 8th Doctor. BBC Books also continued to use much of the same writers from the Virgin era, creating an ongoing timeline of stories, reaching back to 1991. Doctor Who continued to evolve, with several arcs of stories running from book to book, forming seasons for all intents and purposes. The arc styling of Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were being put to great use in the Eighth Doctor Adventures. New blood of the likes of Lawrence Miles, writer of the aforementioned "Alien Bodies", brought in ideas like the War in Heaven, a great war between the Timelords of the future and an unknown, time active enemy that the Doctor inadvertently stumbles into, the destruction of Gallifrey (Hmm that seems familiar), or the multi book story arc where an amnesic Doctor is stranded on Earth in the 19th century and has to live there for the next 100 years with no idea of who or what he is. The BBC would publish the Eighth Doctor Adventures and its accompanying line the Past Doctor Adventures for 8 years, up to 2005. The line was cancelled because, yep you guessed it, Doctor Who had returned to television, and the BBC somehow figured having these imprints out there would confuse its audience. It is a offense I have not yet forgiven the BBC for.

No, There is Another

Even with the cease of production of the Eighth Doctor and Past Doctor Adventures in 2005, fans would still have a source of original stories each month... ones that were even more valid in a lot of fan's eyes! In the late 1980s, a group of fans bonded together to make their own Doctor Who stories. Not satisfied with just the written word, they turned to that time honored British tradition; the audio drama. The likes of Nicolas Briggs, Bill Baggs and Gary Russell produced several stories in their Audio Visuals line and made a name for themselves because of it. With some financial backing from Jason Haigh-Ellory, they created the company Big Finish, who quickly nabbed the license to produce stores featuring Bernice Summerfield, a (brilliant) companion who was created for the New Adventures range. Based on the success of these productions, Big Finish acquired what they had been created for: The official license to produce Doctor Who.

Beginning in 1999, Big Finish brought back Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy to portray their incarnations of the Doctor in a series of monthly releases. It didn't take long before they were also able to convince Paul McGann to come back as the Eighth Doctor. Like the BBC, Big Finish took advantage of the already experienced group of writers that had guided the book ranges to write for Big Finish. Only this time, they got to hear the actors say the words they were writing! The joy experienced at hearing the Doctor's voice in our ears again was too good to be true. Big Finish would go on to develop its own style and continue to shape the characters of each of the Doctors, many of whom never got the proper development they deserved. Colin Baker in particular has been a marvel on audio, as he and Big Finish have worked to redeem the character of the Sixth Doctor in many a fan's eyes. And even though it took awhile, they even managed to bring back Tom Baker! Who would ever have believed we would have the ability to hear new words from the Fourth Doctor? Enough cannot be said about the good work Big Finish has done over the last 14 years. They gave voice to the Doctor again, shepherded him up to the new series, continuing to work with the current production offices to make sure everything fits together cohesively. Big Finish have maintained the classic Doctors, giving fresh outlooks and perspectives to them, and continue to cultivate new talent in writers like Rob Sherman and Jonathan Morris. They constantly put out quality material. I'd be lying if I didn't say that I was looking forward to their anniversary story, "The Light at the End" featuring the Fourth thru Eighth Doctors, more than the TV anniversary special! Nothing beats getting to listen to a new Big Finish story, closing your eyes and seeing in your mind a classic Doctor, unchanged from his days on television, having an adventure with an unlimited budget. If you've never tried a Big Finish play, you're missing out.

And That's Not All!

I could go on (but won't because there's a man in a luchador mask giving me the stink eye to wrap this up). Doctor Who Magazine has published original Doctor Who comics for 34 years! That's a lot of material to catch up on. What to make your own Doctor Who Adventures? There are no less than 3 different Doctor Who role-playing systems that have been published. There's even an online solitaire role-playing game, putting you in the shows of multiple different Doctors! There's short story collections, board games, cook books, action figures... you name it! Basically, if you never want Doctor Who to stop, it doesn't have to! There's more than enough out there to get you through those cold, lonely months between seasons.

If you want a suggestion on where to start in Doctor Who Spinoff Media, Big Finish is probably your first stop. It has the connection with the original actors, and all of its material is readily available. Just pick your favorite Doctor and jump in! A few recommendations are "Spare Parts", "The One Doctor", and "The Fires of Vulcan". They are cheap entries if you wish to have just a taste, and all are quite excellent. The books can be a little harder to track down since they are out of print, but most are readily available through online used book sellers. And if you're of the sort who knows how to 'get' things online, electronic versions of the books are floating around. If you read just one, check out "Alien Bodies" by Lawrence Miles, or if you'd like to try a New Adventure, you'd probably do best starting with "Love and War" by Paul Cornell, as it gives you a good idea of what you're in for in the New Adventures, and is great to boot!

I hope that my trip down memory lane has been informative, and maybe even a little enticing to those who have never tried any of these works. Don't get hung up on what does and doesn't count. The Doctor can go anywhere and anywhen, so why shouldn't he be having these adventures alongside those on TV? Nothing is there that is going to outright contradict what you see on television. Well, no more than what the television show does to itself anyway! The Doctor is still the Doctor, never cruel or cowardly, traveling the universe in the big blue box. I guarantee that even if you don't find out that your favorite ever Doctor Who story comes from a book like I did, you still won't walk away feeling that these works are a waste of time. I suppose it is a little odd to have a related work be someone's favorite bit of Doctor Who, especially when what we see on television in both classic and new series is so fantastic! But I look at it this way, why not when it's all from the same universal source? I mean, who would want to turn away more of the best thing in the world?!? Especially when it's good! 

Maybe it's just that I'm constantly searching to fill a need, looking for more of my favorite thing in a finite world. But that's okay, because reading and listening to this stuff reminds me of why I fell in love with the world Doctor Who, on a daily basis. Nothing quite pleases me as much as opening up a Doctor Who book to read. And why not? After all, that how's it all started.

-Josh

Josh Wilson is an editor for Mad Norwegian Press and host of The Oncoming Storm: A Doctor Who Spin Off Media Podcast. You can listen to him wax poetically about a different Doctor Who book or audio each week at http://theoncomingstorm.libsyn.com/.


This week here on Needless Things will be dedicated to Doctor Who. I have Guest Posts, Toy Reviews, and more on the way. The site will be jam-packed – relatively – with content. Please share these links wherever you can and spread the word. And if you’re so inclined, throw a few dollars at the Needless Things family. I have to send you to the podcast homepage because Blogger doesn't want this sort of thing. Just check out the widget on the bottom right here.This is all out of pocket for me, so anything I receive during this time will got to site costs, hosting, and possibly new merchandise if I get really ambitious.
Also, you can buy the Limited Edition NeedlessThingsSite.com Luchador vs. Owlbear t-shirts here. I can’t say they’re selling fast, but once this style is gone, they’re gone forever. And I do intend on being famous one day, so wouldn’t it be cool to have the first shirt I ever designed?


Remember to check in every weekday between now and the 23rd for new, original content.


Finally, be sure and come out to the HUGE 50th Anniversary Party that TimeGate, Earth Station Who, the folks behind The Forgotten Doctor, and (others) are throwing at the Holiday Inn Select; the same location where TimeGate is held each and every year. There will be panels, games, Whovian carousing, and a LIVE recording of Earth Station Who immediately after “The Day of the Doctor” airs. You will literally never have another opportunity to attend a party like this!

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