Inside Doctor Who Magazine
By David Bishop
"The Magazine and W.H Allen are really keeping the seventh Doctor legacy alive at the moment. Until there is a new series, we are the standard bearers, you could say. That's a bit presumptuous but we have a duty to do and we do it properly."
The person talking is John Freeman, editor of Doctor Who Magazine. The 30-year old from Lancaster has helmed the monthly magazine for two years, graduating from several months as its designer. Under his editorship the magazine's look and contents have made great strides forward and he is proud of the fact that erstwhile readers and fans have started buying it again following its changes.
Doctors, producers, script editors and fanzines have come and gone over the last decade but DWM has remained, if in many forms. It began as a comics-dominated weekly with two strips of high quality artwork. Now it is text-based monthly with one strip a month and that is now back to seven pages a month. Since Freeman took over as editor with #137, he has employed a vast pool of very capable fan writers with a depth of intelligent informed comment, instead of the sameness and superficiality generated when a single writer like Richard Marson penned out most of the material.
Freeman has a publishing and design background and was more of a Doctor Who watcher than fan in younger years. He is particularly familiar with Gerry Anderson shows and does a wicked Thunderbirds impersonation - "Change to real hand!" is a Freeman catchphrase. He is a very relaxed, down-to-Earth person with no delusions of grandeur, despite having the job many fans would kill to get their grubby little protuberances on. Freeman talks candidly about the programme and the magazine, recognizing flaws and past errors.
"I don't think the show will be canceled. All the interest from independent companies seems to have made the BBC re-think its attitude to Doctor Who - it may even produce season 27 in-house. But if the show was canceled the magazine would follow pretty quickly."
DWM is produced from the small room 70 on the fourth floor of Arundel House, Marvel's UK Headquarters. The building is an unspectacular stone structure opposite the Temple tube station. From the window by Freeman's desk the river Thames can be seen flowing by, but the editor rarely spends the time admiring the view.
He is confident about the monthly's future despite the long hiatus. No announcement is expected from the BBC before April or May. But DWM has survived the infamous 18-month break in 1985-6 and Freeman believes it will survive this break too.
"I think we'll keep ticking over. There's enough material to keep going for a long time yet. The biggest problem is to keep promoting the magazine and keep sales up."
Marvel UK has no qualms about canceling a title that is losing money. Fantasy Zone was stopped after just six issues, failing to find its niche against the likes of Starlog and Starburst, the latter ironically a former Marvel publication. DWM's assistant editor Louise Cassell went too when Fantasy Zone was canned.
The magazine has three regular writers - David Howe on Matrix Data Bank, Andrew Pixley on Archives and Gary Russell with Off the Shelf. Other items such as interviews are farmed out to a team of freelance writers. Up to two dozen writers can contribute to the monthly over a year, which Freeman believes gives every issue the element of surprise.
Freeman has other duties beside DWM, although it takes the vast majority of his time. He is acting editor of the Marvel UK stable of magazines. The stable is a little empty right now, with just two incumbents - DWM and a young girl's product called Bea. It was three before Fantasy Zone's demise. Besides this Freeman also writes freelance for one-off Marvel publications, including several black-and-white Doctor Who five-page strips which appeared in a magazine called The Incredible Hulk Presents. But more on that later ...
The monthly has a paid circulation of 25,000 - that has picked up since Marvel took over the distribution of the title in the US with issue #157. The number of copies going into New Zealand and Australia has been static at 2800 (excluding subscriptions and specialty stores) for the last two years, something Freeman finds a little irksome. He is unimpressed when told about the difficulties of trying to get a copy of the magazine in New Zealand, even issues months out of date. "I can only suggest people subscribe direct - then they'll get the March issue in late February or March instead of August."
He is full of praise for Time/Space Visualiser, considering it very impressive for its resources. Graham Muir's strip featuring the companion from the planet Poultro provoked many a chuckle from him. TSV even gets a plug in DWM #158 in the Gallifrey Guardian column. A certain article about Doctor Who in New Zealand is penciled in for #162 of the monthly but schedules are often juggled at the last minute to react to late-breaking news.
The magazine's lead-in time (the difference between when it goes to print and when it goes on sale) is a frustration to Freeman in trying make the magazine up-to-the-minute with latest news. The time lag runs about a month to six weeks or more but DWM often scores news coups not picked up by the fanzines with much shorter lead-in times, like DWB.
I spent half a day with Freeman in the magazine's office. Issue #158 had just gone on sale that week, #159 had already gone to the printers ( with a Curse of Fenric photo of Sophie, Sylvester and Nicholas Parsons on the cover. Unfortunately the same pic as on the cover of TV Zone #4, out the same time as #158) and work on #160 was well advanced and due to go to the printers within a fortnight.
(Sidenote: While I was in the office, Freeman talked on the phone with Victor Pemberton, Lis Sladen and Andrew Cartmel, plus a very strange fan from Blackburn wondering where his latest issue had gone to. Later the editor jokingly offered to sell me his filofax containing the phone numbers of Sophie, Lis Sladen, Sylvester, Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney et al - a snip at £5000! Or would you guys like to take up a collection?)
The monthly gets 120 letters a week - about half are competition entries - but only a handful are published each month. Freeman says he does react to suggestions in correspondence, and changes in the magazine have followed from readers. The season survey is a particularly good indicator of likes and dislikes and helps shape the sort of material for upcoming issues. The season 26 survey results will be in issue #160 - Sylvester may do the unthinkable and depose the all- time champion as top Doctor, such is the seventh Doctor's popularity right now.
One of the major problems for the editor is photographs. Tying to find new material, especially from old stories, is very difficult when few photos were taken at the time the black-and-white stories were in production. "The photos problem is one I try to address. Many photos have been used over and over again in the monthly's history but I've tried to avoid this by cultivating new sources."
Production staff such as designers and producers have proven to be goldmines of such material. Freeman says Jon Nathan-Turner has been especially helpful in providing contacts for this sort of research.
During the hiatus the magazine will not lack material - Freeman has a great pile of it clogging the right side of his desk. Dozens of ideas for stories, interviews and strips are sent in on spec (without commission) and may never get used - especially for comic strips. Ben Aaronovitch - writer of Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield - is among those to have submitted unsuccessfully to the magazine, giving an idea of the calibre of material needed to make DWM's pages.
PUTTING AN ISSUE TOGETHER
The magazine runs at least two months ahead of itself. As already stated, the editor is putting together an issue two on from that just on sale. But material is commissioned even further in advance to have it ready for placement in the monthly. Freelance writers will approach Freeman with an idea for an article or offer copy from an interview and are verbally commissioned to do the piece, given a rough word-count of the length needed (Freeman sets 2000 words as the usual top limit, anything after that being just repetition, he believes) and a deadline for the copy.
Each issue is now 40 pages long - 16 of those are in colour including the front and back covers. A rough plan of the pages and their contents - a pagination (an example, fictional for #168, is included here) - is made up. This can change five or six times before the issue achieves its final state. This is caused by interviews falling through, late advertisements causing a rejuggle of pages or an item being changed to react to a sudden event (eg. news of a new season, death of someone involved with the program).
From the 40 pages, about four are advertisements. Three pages is the allotment for You on Who (Freeman is no fan of letters pages and keep them towards the end of each issue) generally, with a similar amount for Gallifrey Guardian at the start of each issue. Matrix Data Bank, contents page and Off the Shelf take up another four pages or more sometimes. That leaves about 26 pages, the center eight in colour on glossy paper.
The strip now takes up seven black-and-white pages, usually after the center spread. A location guide, archive or some other specialist piece takes another six pages usually - leaving about a dozen for interviews and analyses. Freeman has dispensed with formerly reviewing each new televised story as other fanzines do it far sooner than DWM because of its lead-in time.
For example, #160 features the usual items plus: a Pertwee/Ice Warriors poster and accompanying Barry Letts interview, the season survey results and analysis and part one of the Season 26 guide pull-out as its major articles. The season guide for 1988 in #147 made very illuminating reading with revelations about missing pieces, such as the mysterious portrait of Ace that never made it into Silver Nemesis. The guide for 1989's stories should be even better. Such is the wealth of material that has been discovered about Season 26 that the guide has to be split over two issues of the monthly to give it proper coverage.
Choosing a cover is a crucial element of an issue's success. The editor picks covers so they reflect the contents of the issue, but also with an eye to grabbing any casual buyers at a newsstand. And the reason for a run of Dalek covers in recent issues? "That was a series of four covers from a photo session we commissioned specially. The reason is that Dalek covers make an issue sell better - there are people who will buy something because it has Daleks on it that would not buy it just because it was Doctor Who."
Freeman admits that run of covers in the early #150s issues may have verged on overkill - don't expect to see Daleks on the cover again for a while! The covers tend to follow a pattern - the Daleks or the current Doctor, followed by top monsters (eg Cybermen, Sontarans, Ice Warriors) and favourite companions (eg Ace, Tegan, Sarah Jane Smith). Indeed an upcoming issue will feature Ace and dinosaurs - a special photo session is being arranged starring Sophie Aldred, probably for use on #162.
Also coming up will be an issue focussing on the TARDIS, with an archive and fact file on The Edge of Destruction. Freeman believes the cover should reflect the issue's contents and so expect to see a tall, blue box appear on DWM's cover soon. Ironically the TARDIS exists no more! It seems the BBC disassembled the central console room set once and for all after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - that is why it appeared only briefly in Season 26 (in Battlefield) and then only the central console and a couple of walls...
Freeman favours each issue reflecting current activity within the show and fandom. But he also likes to hold back material revealing the plots of adventures before they screen and doesn't believe in killing any elements of suspense or surprise worked into a story, as some fanzines are prone to do for the sake of oneupmanship.
Only after a season has finished will the monthly "do-it-to-death" mode take over. Then follows floods of interviews with the stars, the writers, the special effects and other production people and the ubiquitous location reports...
The 30-year-old likes the monthly's current mix of colour and black and white pages. If the magazine went all glossy the cost would jump by a third to £2 and actually give it a thinner feel - the thicker black-and-white pages help give it some bulk at present. Going for a perfect bound product (with the hard spine used for recent specials) would be an added expense, pushing away young buyers - after all the target buyer age is about 14.
"It's the best of both worlds at present. We put the price up to £1.50 on #154 with very few complaints because we also increased the page count to 40. Any higher priced and we'd be cutting our own throat almost. This is still cheaper than any fanzine on the market."
For the curious amongst TSV's readership, I asked why a promised series of articles about Doctor Who's Lost Stories scheduled to start running about #152 never appeared. Freeman said John Nathan-Turner was a little uncomfortable with the idea and there was also difficulty over where to draw the line at establishing a lost story. Something that only got to breakdown stage like Robert Holmes' Made In Singapore for the canceled Season 23 or fully scripted that were never made like Anthony Coburn's The Masters of Luxor which was dropped in favour of Terry Nation's The Daleks. An article for each Doctor was mooted and indeed the first two were written and typeset but pulled at the last minute - Freeman still has copies of the articles so they may yet be published, especially with the current hiatus...
Love it or loathe it, the comic strip is an integral part of DWM and probably always will be. The magazine was originally conceived as a strips weekly with a few text articles in between the strips. Gradually it became the other way around. From two strips a week the comic element is down to seven pages of strip per month. But the comic strip will remain, especially while Freeman is editor.
The strip eats a big chunk of DWM's budget - nearly half, according to some people - and is very unpopular with some readers who see it as a waste of space and resources. But Freeman is committed to continuing it and improving it. He admits some of the stories or artwork has been substandard (Invaders from Gantac, for example). And artists find McCoy's likeness especially difficult to capture as the actor's face looks different in every photo taken of him. Fortunately the Seventh Doctor has a distinctive costume, making him at least easily recognizable.
Freeman thinks that reader's main complaint with the strip is that it mostly exists outside continuity. Mixing real companions from the show (Peri) with those created for the strip (Frobisher) makes the situation even worse. But the editor is working towards getting the strip back into continuity, using the seventh Doctor with Ace or a past companion.
An upcoming strip will be among the first to reflect this policy. Train-Flight is a three-part adventure starting in #159 and continuing until #161 (obviously!). It features McCoy's incarnation of the Doctor and probably the most popular companion of all, Sarah Jane Smith. Without spoiling the story, something goes badly wrong when the pair go to catch a tube to go and hear some jazz - Sarah Jane refusing to travel in the TARDIS! A new race of monsters is introduced and there are some spectacular visuals in this story drawn by John Ridgway. Copies of some partially pencilled pages from Train-Flight part two (to run in #160) are reproduced here.
The strip is one of the best since the epic Voyager series (also drawn by Ridgeway) which ran during Colin Baker's stint with the show and were recently collected in a graphic novel by Marvel. An upcoming strip will see Ace and the Doctor finally brought together in the magazine's strips.
As mentioned earlier Ben Aaronovitch has unsuccessfully submitted a plotline for a strip. Freeman has a great wad of unsolicited plotlines for a strip - one was a six-part Cybermen epic called Resurrection of Evil with a plot synopsis for the first two parts running over a hundred closely typed pages! Don't expect to see that one in a hurry. But one that is going ahead, probably from issue #164, is a strip written by the mysterious Andrew Cartmel.
Cartmel was - of course - script editor for the three McCoy seasons and a controversial figure amongst fans for introducing 'the Doctor's more than just a Time Lord' element to the show. He is the mysterious Cartmel because he has never been interviewed - he apparently feels he has nothing to say and his work speaks for itself. But fans have a chance to see another side of Cartmel with his strip which was fully commissioned the day I spent with Freeman at the DWM office.
Freeman's aspiration to bring the strips into continuity and a wider reading by fans are being hampered by exterior forces at the moment. Late last year Marvel UK launched a comic magazine The Incredible Hulk Presents which mostly reprinted old US comic material on newsprint paper. But amidst the reprints were a series of new, short Doctor Who strips in black and white. Now Marvel UK has decreed these must be used in the magazine to get the full quid's worth from the cost of producing the strips in the first place. The Hunger from the Ends of Time strip that was in DWM #157 & 158 was the pick of these strips. Only 12 issues of The Incredible Hulk Presents were published and some of the material is fun if substandard compared to the usual DWM. A compromise is being forged about this material...
JUST TIME FOR ONE LAST ANECDOTE
In DWM's long history, only one companion has never been interviewed. Polly Lopez (or so she is named in the new programme guide!), who was portrayed by Anneke Wills for several stories in the late Hartnell and early Troughton adventures. I had to ask John Freeman why she had never been interviewed in the monthly.
Apparently she gave up acting soon after leaving the programme and later became a nun(!) for a while. It seemed she remembers nothing of her time with the show or even being on Doctor Who. Only one person knew where she was and had spoken to her - that person was Patrick Troughton. Apparently he was trying to convince her to come to a Doctor Who event in an effort to revive her memory but he died before anything was finalized. Now the elusive Anneke Wills may never be interviewed...
KEEPING THE LEGACY ALIVE
Harking back to the earlier quote from John Freeman, it seems DWM will certainly carry on sustaining interest in McCoy's Doctor. There is a full year of publishing planned, boosted in April by the Abslom Daak graphic novel (which has a cracking colour cover). WH Allen's future is a lot more fluid right now. The majority of the company's staff has just been sacked (although Target and Doctor Who personnel survived intact). There are plans to sell the company, putting into doubt the remaining novelisations and the planned series of six-part Survival novels featuring the Doctor and Ace, called the New Adventures. But since Target survived one purge, it should survive a change of owners.
Meanwhile DWM will carry on, in its role as the true chronicler of all things Doctor Who - the true Doctor Who magazine.
This item appeared in TSV 19 (June 1990).