David J Howe
Interviewed by Paul Scoones
David Howe ought to need no introduction. His contribution to the range of factual books published about Doctor Who over the last six years is staggering, and he is undisputedly the most prolific author of Doctor Who non-fiction ever. Making the leap from being a life-long fan of the show to being a published author was "a case of being in the right place at the right time."
His contact with Doctor Who book publishers dates back to around 1976: "I had always been a fan of the Target novelisations and early on had discovered that you could get proof copies of the covers months before publication. I loved the covers and started collecting them and therefore tried to stay in contact with the various editors at WH Allen so that I would not miss out on any. This worked for the most part although certain editors treated people like me (those who bought the books and who were enthusiastic about the range) with undisguised contempt and would not supply advance information and covers.
"This led to my getting to know Peter Darvill-Evans when he took over as editor and this sort-of coincided with W H Allen being bought by Virgin and the range of Who books undergoing a major overhaul. There had always been two streams of books published; the novelisations and the factual books, and I had been helping with the factual ones for a few years (checking proofs, re-writing bits etc.). Peter wanted to move things on and to make his own mark."
In 1987, David and two fellow fans, Stephen James Walker and Mark Stammers, created their own Doctor Who fanzine called The Frame, a glossy publication which featured exceptionally high standards of writing and presentation (24 issues were published between 1987 and 1993). "We had proved that we could write, edit and design something to a professional standard, and so we found ourselves talking to Peter about the books, and (almost jokingly) about why he hadn't commissioned us to do anything yet. Peter's reply was that it was because we hadn't submitted anything. We then discussed Peter's plans (which were to do a series of themed books as these seemed to be popular - there had recently been David Banks' Cybermen book which had been well received) and came up with the idea of doing a book on the Daleks. This would be similar to Cybermen, but called Daleks, and was to be written and designed by myself, Steve, Mark and Tony Clark (a friend whose artwork had illustrated Picadilly Press' Encyclopedia of the Worlds of Doctor Who as well as on the covers of the Target novelisations of The Rescue and The Space Pirates). We came up with a proposal, contents list, sample chapter and cover designs and Peter was pleased and keen to do the book. Because it was about the Daleks, it was felt that Terry Nation's agreement should be sought and so Peter got in contact with his agents. Nothing was then heard for weeks and the day before we were due to sign the contracts, Peter received a fax from Nation's agents saying that they could not give permission for the book to go ahead as Nation had just done a book for St Martin's Press in America and his contract for that said that he couldn't authorise a similar book.
"In our view this was nonsense as the St Martins' Press book was only published in America (it was the John Peel co-written The Official Doctor Who & The Daleks Book), and the two books were fundamentally different in any case. However, we could do nothing about this, Peter was not prepared to continue without Nation's agreement and so the project stopped. We were somewhat crushed, partly because if we had actually signed the contracts, we would have got some money, but Peter saved the day by saying that he still wanted us to do a book for him, and could we have a re-think and come up with some more ideas.
"After some thought, Steve, Mark and myself came up with the idea of doing something looking at the sixties period as this had not really been covered properly before, and we believed we had lots of new information and a large collection of photographs on which to draw. There was a touch-and-go situation when Virgin pondered that maybe they would not do it as there had already been a book on this period (Jeremy Bentham's The Early Years) but Peter convinced them to go with it and so the book was given the go-ahead."
Researching Doctor Who
David's first co-authored book, Doctor Who - The Sixties, was published in late 1992 and overturned many established 'facts' about the origins and early years of the series. Even more revelations about this era came to light with the publication of a series of articles by Marcus Hearn in Doctor Who Magazine in 1993 and Howe, Stammers and Walker's First Doctor Handbook - written at the same time and published in late 1994. Why did so much 'new' information about this era of the show suddenly become available during over these few years?
"When we were researching The Sixties we 'discovered' the existence of the BBC's Written Archives Centre but at the time it was hard to gain access to. This was the same for Marvel: we all knew it existed, but no-one had actually been there. Therefore, The Sixties was almost totally written from other research and interviews we did for The Frame with additional research conducted especially for the book, as well as some early documentation held at the BBC's script unit (which has since closed down).
"With the knowledge that the BBC had this storehouse of information, we started to try and get in there and eventually managed it in time to use the initial information gleaned for the First Doctor Handbook and The Seventies. Marcus Hearn, Andrew Pixley (author of Doctor Who Magazine's 'Archives') and others also gained access and so, slowly, the information contained therein started to come out. We were actually all doing the research at the same time, and it's still going on, with new files being found and accessed all the time. There are so many strands of information to follow: we have mined the main Doctor Who files quite extensively, but there are many more files on the actors, as well as general files. Any of these can throw up interesting and unrelated facts that all help to give a bigger picture of what was happening.
This research was conducted independently however David points out that there was a degree of cooperation. "Andrew would phone Steve Walker and myself with what he'd discovered and also liaise back with Marcus so that we all knew what was being found and could hopefully draw the same conclusions from it.
"Just because you have the 'facts' in terms of reams of notes, memos and other documents, doesn't automatically mean that you have all the answers. The facts have to be interpreted and things come up that need a view to be taken. By comparing all our various knowledge and research, these things were resolved to the best of our ability.
"To give credit where credit's due, from our side it was Steve Walker who physically did the research at the Written Archives Centre and not me, but I was involved in numerous discussions about the interpretation of what was discovered."
The Sixties saw the adoption of certain Hartnell story titles which differed from those in previously common useage. The First Doctor Handbook two years later saw even more title changes. David defends these changes. "Every book that is written is a product of its time, and will hopefully use the information that is current at that time.
"The problem is, of course, that the stories up to The Gunfighters had no on-screen title for the story and so to name them you have to decide what your criteria is. For us it is a complex combination of scripts (rehearsal and camera) and internal documentation. If you have not had sight of this information, then it may seem as though the titles keep changing, however what we are basically saying is, you can call these stories by whatever title you like, but nothing will alter the fact that the titles we use are those that research has shown to be those used by the production team at the time the stories were being made."
David points out that the 1976 edition of The Making Of Doctor Who by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke was the first time that most of the story titles we recognise today first appeared in print - notable exceptions included The Dead Planet and The French Revolution. A number of Hartnell story titles varied between most eighties publications, including The Programme Guide, Doctor Who Magazine and Doctor Who: A Celebration.
"It wasn't until access was gained to internal documentation from the BBC script unit in the late eighties that the true titles used by the production teams at the time for the first three stories came to light (although it had long been known - but for some reason ignored - that the first Dalek story was called The Mutants, as this was the title under which it had been sold to Australia back in the sixties). These were first promulgated by Stephen James Walker in an article for The Frame in 1990, since when many others started to use them. The problem was that in the eighties, fandom had rapidly expanded and many fans believed that the titles they knew were the correct ones, and some simply refused to accept that the basis on which the titles had been decided up to this point was anything but scientific.
"From The Sixties onwards (in fact, it's from The Frame which pre-dates The Sixties) we have always used what we believed to be the correct titles for stories one and three - 100,000 BC and Inside the Spaceship. The only concession we made in the first book was to refer to the second story as The Daleks, although we noted that its correct title was The Mutants, and to retain Mission to the Unknown as the title of that story. With the First Doctor Handbook we decided to use The Mutants rather than The Daleks as that was, after all, its correct title, and, with confirmation from other sources that Dalek Cutaway was correct (for Mission to the Unknown), we used that also. I did the same in A Book of Monsters and the forthcoming Television Companion will also follow this route."
"More information is being revealed all the time about these early story titles, and it is possible that some that have been well established may still not be 'correct'. Basically, we will always use the titles that are 'correct' at the time the book is put together. If this means that they change between books, then so be it."
So will there ever come a time when a consensus for these early story titles is reached? David doesn't believe that consensus really comes into it. "Just because a lot of people believe something to be true, doesn't make it true. The more research that is carried out, the more chance there is of people's previously held beliefs being challenged. As long as these challenges are backed up with solid research and documentation to prove the case, then I see no reason why we should not accept the new information and then use it from that point onwards."
The 'Decade' Books
It is perhaps not all that widely known that The Sixties was initially conceived as a stand-alone volume. The success of this book spawned The Seventies in 1994 and The Eighties in 1996. Of these three volumes, often collectively referred to as the 'Decade' books, David is probably happiest with The Sixties. "With that book we had, in my view, the right amount and level of text and the correct balance of photographic material. With The Seventies, the photos were all printed too small because there was too much text to cram in - basically we overwrote - and with The Eighties while the illustration balance was better, there were numerous behind the scenes problems that made me less than totally happy with the end result. This was partly because John Nathan-Turner declined to speak to us and so we had to go on what had been previously printed rather than getting the story 'from the horse's mouth'. As far as I can tell, he declined because he wanted payment. We have never paid anyone for an interview and didn't feel it would be fair on all the others we had spoken to if we paid one person and not everyone else."
Despite David's reservations about The Eighties, when Nathan-Turner subsequently wrote his memoirs for Doctor Who Magazine the former producer's revelations didn't result in any changes to the text of the book. "Certain points only clarified what we had already said. I was pleased at this as I felt that in many respects it vindicated the stance we had deliberately taken of only presenting the facts."
"Even though I was perhaps less than happy with the books, this is not to say that if we could go back, we would write them any differently. What I would love to do at some point is to combine all the material together, correct any minor errors, add new material where necessary and present it all in one volume, re-laid out with new pictures as well as the best of the existing images."
Perhaps the most noticeable difference in format between the three books is that the stories of each season are arranged thematically in The Sixties, and chronologically in subsequent volumes. Peter Darvill-Evans was responsible for this unusual ordering of the sixties stories. "He didn't want us to cover the stories in transmission order as he felt that this would make the book too much like a simple programme guide. He wanted an approach that was different. We therefore suggested the thematic approach (although still by season) as a way round his perceived problem because, for that period, there were two distinct 'types' of story: the historical and the futuristic."
The thematic approach was considered for The Seventies, although it was soon abandoned as being impractical. "We felt that trying to force an order other than transmission order onto the text would result in it coming over as somewhat strained. For example, with Season Seven, you really have to cover Spearhead From Space first, but then there are only three other stories: what would have been the point in doing them out of transmission order? Also, as you move through the other seasons, you start to have more development from story to story, for example with the Master, and we all felt the book would flow better if it was in transmission order."
Most of David's hardback books have subsequently been reissued in paperback, including all three of the 'decade' volumes. With the exception of The Sixties, the paperback editions have all featured usually quite minor changes. "It's simply that things slip through our net. There are odd spelling mistakes, mis-captionings, photos printed back to front and other minor things that always get 'helpfully' pointed out by reviewers. This is despite every book going through at least two 'test' readers to look for this sort of thing. When this first happened, which was after the hardback of Timeframe, I asked Virgin if there was a possibility of getting such things corrected for the paperback and the answer was, yes, as long as they're not too major or extensive. Therefore that's what we've done. We do care greatly about the accuracy of the books we produce, and feel that Virgin are to be applauded for allowing these corrections to be made."
With less than two years left, it looks increasingly likely that Doctor Who (the TV Movie) will be the only new television story of this decade. In the absence of new television stories the nineties has however seen much merchandise produced and productions such as 30 Years in the TARDIS. David says that if The Nineties is written the content will have to be very different to the preceding volumes. "With the first three books, the emphasis was firmly on Doctor Who on television, with the subsidiary items (films, stage plays, fandom, merchandise etc.) sidelined. If we do The Nineties, the situation is reversed. The main thrust through the decade was in merchandise, and in particular the original novels which were the only source of 'new' Doctor Who adventures. This potentially changes the emphasis of the whole book and one would have to consider whether it was a commercial proposition to publish it or not. For example only around 20,000 people were buying each of Virgin's New Adventures as opposed to three or four million people watching Doctor Who on television. You end up only selling to fans rather than to general viewers. There's also the problem that the potential content may appear in other books before we get to when The Nineties can be considered (the year 2000). Basically, we're going to have to wait and see if Virgin want to do it, and then see what the content might be."
First published in late 1992 at the same time as The Sixties, the Handbook series will finally be completed this year. Some fans have voiced the opinion that the Handbooks are a repetition of the same material from the Decade books in a different format. David disagrees: "The major difference is that the Handbooks are more opinionated in their approach. Even though there is the obvious inclusion of the 'comment' sections against each story, there is also an element of telling the story from a different angle. Chapters like 'Rewriting The Myth' take theories and ideas into account as to how aspects of the show might be interpreted, and 'Selling The Doctor' takes on board all manner of aspects of Doctor Who that are not covered extensively in the Decades books, like press coverage, overseas transmissions and an analysis of ratings and performance.
"The Decades books on the other hand are purely and wholly factual. We went to great efforts to try and ensure that none of our opinions were contained therein, and that any statement of whether something was good or bad was quoted from elsewhere.
"We have also been able to include more detail in the Handbooks than we were afforded in the Decades books. Basically the two sets of books hopefully compliment each other and together give a far better overview of what Doctor Who was all about than either set is capable of doing on its own."
Mark Stammers was not credited as one of the authors on two Handbooks. "For the Fifth Doctor Handbook, it was because he was too busy with other design projects and for the Third Doctor Handbook, he was busy designing The Eighties. He has also decided not to work on the Seventh Doctor Handbook because he feels his current priorities are elsewhere."
"At the start of each Handbook we map out the content of the book and decide which of us will do which bits. This has more-or-less stayed the same for each of the books, with Steve and I taking over the bits that Mark did for those books where he was not involved. When it has been just myself and Steve, I have done the Foreword, the bulk of the 'Stories' section (this has input from everyone), 'Script to Screen', 'Selling the Doctor' and the table at the back, with Steve handling the 'In His Own Words', 'The Doctor' and the 'Production Development'. The 'Rewriting the Myth' and the 'special' chapters have been variously done by each of us.
"Once we each have written our bits, they are passed to the other(s) for checking and re-working (if necessary). This process is continued until we are all totally happy with the work. In this way we ensure that the writing stays as consistent as possible and that there are not too many jarring elements. Sometimes this process gets curtailed due to us running out of time, and when this has happened, the books have had a few minor problems such as repetition of quotes and facts in different sections that some kindly reviewers have gleefully pointed out. We take the view that as the books primarily are for reference then this repetition is really no bad thing."
The series commenced with the Fourth Doctor Handbook, which is noticeably shorter and covers its era in considerably less detail than any of the later volumes - which is a little ironic considering that this book focuses on the longest era of the show. David has not thought seriously about writing a revised edition of this volume to bring it into line with the others. "This is something that we would like to do, but it is not solely up to us. Virgin would have to be convinced that a revised book would sell enough to make it worth their while. The book has only been perceived as being brief in retrospect. In fact, it was almost exactly the length Virgin required. You could equally argue that the other books were overlong and contained too much detail."
The increased thickness of subsequent volumes was not planned - in fact they were all supposed to have been around the length of The Fourth Doctor Handbook (around 80,000 words). "It's just that we crept over on the latter books. It's actually quite difficult to write to a specified number of words, and so the books have varied between 80,000 and 110,000 words. The First Doctor Handbook originally came in at 130,000 words but Virgin insisted that we cut it to 110, 000 words. That is why the 'Script to Screen' was so curtailed in that book as this was the section that Virgin preferred us to lose rather than the 'Production Diary' chapter, which we were very keen to keep."
The order in which the Handbooks have been published has seemingly been somewhat random, but David reveals that there was some sound reasoning behind the schedule. "It started out as Peter Darvill-Evans wanting to go with who he perceived to be the most popular Doctor (Tom Baker), followed by the least popular (Colin Baker). If these two titles did well, then they would be more happy with progressing with the series. The following titles were worked out based on the publication schedules of the Decades books so that we didn't have the same Doctors covered at the same time. Thus the list ran: Fourth (with The Sixties), Sixth, First (with The Seventies), Fifth, Second (with The Eighties), Third, Seventh.
"The idea was always to leave the McCoy book to last in case the series came back with him in (which it did!). When I secured the publication of I Am The Doctor with Jon Pertwee, I argued that the Second and Third Doctor books be swapped around so that Jon, who would be doing publicity signings etc. for his own book, could also help promote the handbook at the same time. This was felt to be a good idea and so those two books were swapped over. As it happened, of course, Jon was sadly not around to sign either of them."
A few of the volumes - notably the First Doctor Handbook - reproduce internal BBC memos some of which must have been confidential and highly sensitive to those concerned at the time; such as for instance the original cast's pay increase negotiations. David defends the use of this material which may have offended the people named in the memos, saying "It's all so long ago, and many of those about whom the notes refer are sadly no longer with us. We did, however, restrain ourselves from printing everything and tried, where possible, to be tactful and respectful. However, our prime objective has always been to tell an accurate and unbiased story, and if peoples' egos possibly got slightly dented along the way, then that was unfortunate. We have, however, received no complaints from anyone concerning this point, and, indeed, much of the content of the book has been used by other researchers and writers to inform interviews with those concerned, obtaining for the first time, in some cases, a far more honest appraisal of those years."
The Seventh Doctor Handbook is due for publication at the end of this year. David says that there won't be a follow-up volume on the Eighth Doctor. "After much discussion, we decided that there really wasn't enough material available to us on the TV Movie to justify a whole handbook on it (and also given that Philip Segal is in discussion to write his own book on the subject, the chance of us gaining access to the necessary documentation was slim). In addition, Virgin would have to negotiate a separate licence with both the BBC and Universal to publish a book solely on the Eighth Doctor. Therefore we decided that the Seventh Doctor book would also cover the - short - era of the Eighth Doctor. We're going to do this as a Handbook-within-a-Handbook and so there'll hopefully be sections on 'Paul McGann: In His Own Words', 'Production Development' and so on. This has not yet been finalised, but this is the current plan."
Since the Seventh Doctor Handbook will close the series, Howe and Walker will also be taking the opportunity to include material updating past volumes. David confirms that although there will not be enough space for an addenda, he hopes to include an errata - "Always assuming, that is, that Virgin don't require the book to be cut, as this would be one of the first things to go if that were the case" - correcting errors which have been picked up since publication. "There will also hopefully be included a complete index to all the Handbooks. It's going to be another thick book."
Timeframe, published by Virgin to mark the show's thirtieth anniversary, was devised to tell the story of the entire series in a highly visual 'scrapbook' format. David wrote about assembling Timeframe in an article published in TSV 36. A year later, Virgin published a paperback edition, offering David the opportunity to update the last section of the book. "At the time the hardback of Timeframe went to print we had no knowledge of exactly what the BBC might do to celebrate the 30th anniversary. I therefore suggested a major overhaul of the final page for the paperback edition to take into account pictures and captions from the documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS and the five minute documentaries which preceded the BBC repeat of Planet of the Daleks. Again, Virgin allowed me to do this, and so this page is totally different for the paperback edition. We also updated the text for 'the Nineties' section to take the celebratory events into account. There are actually two versions of the hardback as well: the only difference being that the Birthright cover is round the right way in the second edition.
David Howe and Mark Stammers collaborated on Doctor Who - Companions, a 1995 Virgin book which raised a few eyebrows for the inclusion of several 'glamour'-style photographs of companion actresses such as a nude Katy Manning, a swim-suited Nicola Bryant and Janet Fielding wearing a see-through top. David defends the inclusion of this material. "All of the pictures in the book were obtained legitimately through press and photographic agencies. None of the actors and actresses pictured were doing anything in which they were not a full and willing party and none of them are what I would consider 'indecent'.
"We tried to be careful in our selection, but despite this, one picture turned out to be less than satisfactory as the enlarged image showed something that we had simply been unable to see on the transparency. If we had noticed, then the image would have been changed for another from the same set. Such is publishing, that if you don't notice soon enough, then it is too late. Apologies for this have been made to the appropriate people."
The photograph in question was the one of Nicola Bryant on the dedications page. Asked why, if this shot was less than satisfactory, it remained unchanged in the paperback edition David explained "Because it had text over it, Virgin would not allow it to be changed as the cost would have been too high - and we didn't have an alternative shot anyway. As I say, it's the mechanics and costs of publishing."
A photograph which was changed for the paperback edition was the photograph of Katy Manning posing nude with a Dalek. The reasons for changing this shot were different as David explains "On the hardback, the original image we used had come from a fan's collection, was of relatively poor quality, and we did not know who the copyright holder was. Thanks to the magazine DWB pointing out who owned the copyright in their review, we were able to contact the owner and arrange for a new and better quality transparency to be made available for the paperback. There were some other minor textual corrections made for the paperback as well."
I am the Doctor
David is also the co-author of I am the Doctor, written in collaboration with Jon Pertwee in the year before the actor unexpectedly passed away. David explains how the book came about: "One of the pieces that I researched and wrote for The Seventies was the chapter on Jon's life, and I was fascinated by how much he had done, and how little had really been spoken about. Jon had always stated his intent to continue his memoirs when asked at conventions and in interviews, but always said that he would do it when he was not busy. I felt that perhaps we may never see the second part of Jon's autobiography. I therefore started to wonder whether I should approach Jon myself and ask him about working on the next volume with him.
"The opportunity came when we were both guests at the 21st anniversary of the Doctor Who exhibition at Longleat house in 1994. After the event was over, I plucked up courage and approached Jon about it. He suggested we meet the next week at his home and talk it over. We did, he liked the idea, and we agreed to do it. I was somewhat stunned at this. Here was I, a big Doctor Who fan, who grew up with Jon Pertwee's Doctor, actually working with the man himself on a book about his life!
"I then had the problem of trying to sell the book to a publisher, and this took nine months of effort and disappointment. Virgin initially turned it down, and so I tried several other publishers, but none of them were interested in a general autobiography. I returned to Peter at Virgin and asked what they would be interested in and he came back with the response that if it was a Doctor Who book, then they might be interested. At about the same time, Boxtree also came back with a similar response. I then had to weigh up the options: Virgin wanted a large format illustrated book, whereas Boxtree wanted a 'standard' autobiography format. Boxtree were potentially offering more money up front, but Virgin was 'my' publishers and I have a lot to thank them for. In the end, I decided to go with Virgin who finally made a formal offer for the book the day before Boxtree made theirs. If Virgin had delayed any longer, then the book would have gone to Boxtree."
For many years, fans anticipated a follow-up to Pertwee's first autobiography Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, picking up where that book left off and presented in the same format, but I am the Doctor turned out quite different. This was because "Virgin wanted the book to be about Doctor Who and they also wanted a large format illustrated book. Our original proposal was for a direct continuation of Moon Boots, but I couldn't find a publisher willing to go with it. Once Virgin said they wanted a Doctor Who book, I knew that my preference was for a large-format and illustrated book, and Virgin agreed. We had an established sales pattern for those sorts of books, and the sales for a more 'traditional' autobiography ('royal' format, with a single photo section) were generally not as good.
"There was also the amount of text to consider. If the book had been more general in its scope, then Jon and I could have come up with the 80,000 or so words required as a minimum for a 'standard' autobiography. However with just Doctor Who as the scope, reaching that length would have been difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Therefore the only practical way of getting a good, saleable book out of the required material, was to include a lot of pictures.
"Because Jon and I both wanted to include other material as well, we kind of sneaked in the opening overview of everything that Jon had done, as well as spreads on The Navy Lark, The House That Dripped Blood and Worzel Gummidge. If we had had more space, we would have liked to have done more of that, and maybe added spreads on films, on other television, on stage work and so on."
Advance publicity for the book promised that a synopsis of Jon Pertwee's own, unused, Doctor Who script - variously known as The Brain Drain or The Spare Part People - would be one of the book's features, but in fact this did not appear in the finished product. "The original idea was to include the full synopsis in the book (there is no script, just an episode by episode synopsis) and I wanted someone to create paintings of the sets and costumes from the descriptions to illustrate it - I had some early discussions with ex-BBC designer Barry Newbery on the subject. Mid-way through the writing process, however, Jon received a request from a fan to adapt the story into a novel, and this fan had apparently spun a good tale about what he hoped to do with it. Jon therefore decided to pull the synopsis from the book so as not to overshadow this other project. I felt that we could have used the synopsis anyway, as it should in no way have detracted from someone else's interpretation of it as a piece of prose fiction. However, the book was as much Jon's as mine and I decided not to argue the point. The fan's project has, to my knowledge, still not seen the light of day."
Jon Pertwee's memories of working on Doctor WhoDoctor Who were jogged by watching his stories on video with David. This was a time-consuming process and consequently the book took a year to research and write - longer than any of David's other books. "We sat and watched some of all of his stories," David explained. "In some cases we used the shuttle-forward on the remote to zoom through, for others we watched them all and for some we only watched selected episodes. It varied depending on the mood Jon and I were in, and how much time we had to get through the material.
David thinks Pertwee enjoyed watching his old adventures. "I don't think he had seen some of them since their first transmission (if he had seen them then), but he wasn't embarrassed or anything like that. The main problem I had was when talking to him about them. I kept mixing up Jon and the Doctor, and would describe a scene as, for example, 'then you jumped in the boat and drove off - well, the Doctor jumped in the boat.'
"It was strange watching Jon on the screen go through his paces, as the man himself sat across from me. Sort of like sitting with the Doctor himself and watching some home movies of his adventures - very surreal. Certainly Jon revised some of his opinions on them. For example, he found Day of the Daleks really quite enjoyable after years of criticising the Dalek attack on the house."
When Jon Pertwee passed away on 20 May 1996, I am the Doctor was just about finished. "The main text had been completed and agreed by Jon, and we had also chosen the photographs for the book. This took place about a week before he left for America and about ten days before he died. We had met together on an irregular basis for about a year in order to get all the material together for the book and, as I knew that Jon was off on holiday in May, and the delivery date of the manuscript to Virgin was at the end of April, I wanted to get it complete before Jon left. After Jon died, I couldn't look at the manuscripts for a month or so, even though the design process had started. In the end I had to force myself to start work on the next phase of the book: the internal design, captioning and checking."
Unlike all of David's other large format hardback books for Virgin, I am the Doctor has not yet been reprinted in paperback and at present the publishers have no plans to do so, which is unfortunate as the hardback is now out of print. "It sold out very quickly as, at the eleventh hour, Virgin curtailed the print run. I think this was because they suddenly got cold feet. Jon had died by this point and they knew that he would not be there to help promote it. Sales of all the Doctor Who books had apparently been slipping, and the previous biography, Jessica Carney's Who's There?, had not performed as well as they would have liked. It was apparently a decision taken by the Sales and Marketing department, and Peter's editorial department were not consulted. Such is the world of publishing."
Forays into Fiction
Although David has made a reputation for himself as an author of Doctor Who reference books, he is also a keen fiction writer. So far, the only professionally published example of David's Doctor Who fiction is the short story, Fascination, for Decalog, published in 1994. "As well as the story in Decalog, I have also had horror fiction published in some small press publications. I also used to write quite a lot of fiction for my first fanzine Oracle back in the seventies (mostly under the name John Fencher). Because of the time that the factual books have taken up, I simply haven't had time to devote to fiction recently, although it's something I enjoy. It is an area I'm interested in and I have had proposals for novels rejected by both the BBC and Virgin. I am also part-way through the first draft of another horror/dark fantasy novel (non-Doctor Who this time).
"Depending on what happens in 1998 after both the Seventh Doctor Handbook and the Television Companion are complete, I may well be able to devote more time to my fiction and, who knows, maybe I'll get something accepted somewhere. Fiction is a strange beast in that it seems to be harder to hit a style that an editor will like, whereas I've not had that much of a problem with the non-fiction. I modestly think that my writing is as good as that which does get published, and hope that eventually I may get something published."
Listed alongside the well-known titles in the front of a few of David's books is Drabble Who? a title that is unlikely to be familiar to most New Zealand fans. "A 'Drabble' is a piece of writing exactly one hundred words long and two books of these had been published by a small press publisher called Beccon to raise money for the Royal National Institute for the Blind's Talking Books library. The contributors to these early volumes were science fiction and fantasy fans and writers: everyone from Arthur C Clarke to Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov were represented.
"Being a fan of these small books, I wondered if it would be possible to get one off the ground for Doctor Who's thirtieth anniversary. I therefore contacted Roger Robinson of Beccon and he felt that the idea had merit and so we started to plan the book. Joining me on the editing front was David B Wake, coincidentally a fan of the show, but who had also edited the first two volumes and thus had an idea about how it might work out.
"The format of the book was to obtain one hundred, one hundred-word pieces from as many people who had been involved in Doctor Who as we could. Any shortfall would be made up from fans. I got in touch with Doctor Who magazine and they kindly helped with a competition run through the magazine, with the top-three entries guaranteed a place in the collection.
"As it happened, the standard was so high that we were able to use a lot more than three from those submitted. We also had contributions from many other friends and fans: my brother managed to come up with a good piece, as did some of David Wake's friends and contacts in the SF community.
"In the end, the book was split roughly fifty-fifty between fans and professionals. I was especially pleased to receive contributions from, amongst others, Robert Sloman, Michael Ferguson and Chris Boucher, not to mention Doctors Colin Baker and Jon Pertwee, and companions Sophie Aldred and Louise Jameson. Other previously published 'names' included Paul Cornell, Andy Lane, John Peel, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker, while we were pleased to include, as far as I know, the first professionally published Doctor Who work (aside, possibly, from Doctor Who Magazine) from some who have gone on to greater success: Peter Angelides, Mark Morris, Justin Richards, Kate Orman, Gary Russell and Keith Topping.
"It should be mentioned that the book was all done for charity, all these people contributed pieces for no fee, and neither I nor David Wake were paid for doing the book. It was launched at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society's thirtieth anniversary convention, and has since sold out, something that the previous two volumes have so far failed to do.
"It was really nice to be involved with editing something like this, to receive help from so many fans and professionals from the world of Doctor Who in the process and to support a worthy cause into the bargain."
Memories and Magic
Early in 1994, David was commissioned by London-based publishers Salamander, to write a book which was to be called Doctor Who: Memories and Magic. "They had done similar books on Elvis and the Beatles, and wanted to do something on Doctor Who. It was conceived as a book looking at why Doctor Who had been so popular. The images in it would primarily have been of merchandise and other commercial Doctor Who related happenings, but the text was intended as a light analysis of the reasons for Doctor Who's popularity and longevity.
"The publishers arranged for some sample merchandise shots to be taken, and for a cover and internal pages to be roughed up, for which I delivered sample text and images. They spent a fortune on it! Looking back, it was as though the project was fated to fail from the start. The first editor on it left the company after the initial development stages and it went into stasis for about a year. Then another editor joined who was very enthusiastic. She got the project going again but then the publisher lost their American distributor and were unwilling to continue with the project as a UK only publication. Ultimately she resigned, and the book basically died.
"It's a shame as I still think the idea was a good one. I've still got all the initial work and proposal, so who knows ... it may yet appear."
The Doctor Who Diary
It's a little-known fact that David contributed to a 1996 Doctor Who diary published in Australia, and his involvement came as a surprise to David himself. "The first I heard about my involvement was when I received a call from the BBC, asking if I would be willing to help the publishers with some checking of material for them. I agreed, and the next thing I received were copies of the publishers' proposals and initial information. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was listed as the author of the book, and that the publishers had - presumably after discussion with the BBC - included my name all over the proposal.
"It's nice to be wanted. Anyway, I discussed the project with the publishers via fax and phone call and discovered that they wanted a diary crossed with a factual book and could I please come up with some ideas as to how they could do it.
"Looking at their layouts, which were basically the standard diary sections down the insides of the pages, with large margins at the outside into which could be placed other material, I decided that perhaps the best way to approach it was to treat the subject as I had previously done with Timeframe. There was not enough to cover every story, and so I decided to pick two stories per season, and to do a 'fiction' and a 'fact' column on each, illustrated with suitable photographs (which I also had to research for the publishers). On the left-hand-side of each week was a piece on the plot of a given adventure, while on the right-hand-side appeared a behind the scenes anecdote. I also decided to add in a little 'Did you know...' question per week which ranged from the simple to the impossible. The idea wasn't that every reader should know the answers to every question, but simply that it added another fun dimension to the book, and might give users something to talk about on a given week.
"In addition to all these individual pieces of writing (roughly 10,000 words of text at 100 words per piece) there were also special 'spreads' looking at things like 'The Doctor', 'The Master' and 'UNIT'. For these I had to sort out some pictures that would go well together and then caption and credit so that the piece worked as a nice graphic spread. These actually looked stunning, far better than I imagined they would. Because time was very pushed in getting it done (this often seems to be the case), I called in a friend called Richard Bignell to write all the plot synopses, while I concentrated with the behind the scenes sections and photographic research. Between us we managed to come up with everything required by the deadline.
"The publishers put a lot of effort into the publication and the whole diary was really nicely printed and bound. It was almost a shame to write in it. Strangely, it was only ever available in Australia, with only a few dealers having copies in the UK. The publishers were keen and enthusiastic about it, and I really hope that it worked okay for them, but I have a feeling that it might not have done, as plans to reprint it in the UK, but with the dates reset for 1997, never came to anything."
Doctor Who TX File
David first made contact with BBC Books in January 1996, at the time that the news broke that the TV Movie was going ahead with Paul McGann as the Doctor. "I had been in touch with Executive Producer Philip Segal's office in America regarding a 'Making Of' book to tie in with the project, and they had suggested that I should contact the BBC in London as all spin-off merchandise was being handled from there.
"I therefore proposed the idea to BBC Publishing and, despite all my best efforts, they turned it down flat. I never did get to the bottom of what their reluctance was based on, but later discussions suggested that it was because there was a problem regarding the BBC's use of photographs from the production - clearance had not been properly obtained for the BBC to be able to use them extensively in any projects, and the cast had photo clearance on any shots that were to be used, effectively rendering any pictorial work a nightmare of negotiation and expense. There was also the problem that a photo-ban had been imposed on the production, with only the official photographer allowed to take pictures. This meant that, even if the BBC had wanted to do the book, I would have been unable to have taken any pictures myself, and would have had to have relied on the 'official' shots, very few of which were behind-the-scenes.
"However, realising that I was keen, and knew something about the show, early in March I received a phone call from BBC Publishing's office asking whether I would be interested in writing a Doctor Who TX File. This was one in a new series of filofax books aimed at younger children which looked at different television shows. There was to be one on the BBC's flagship Saturday Morning show Live and Kicking, one on the pop duo Ant and Dec, and, perhaps surprisingly, one on Doctor Who.
"The only snag was that they had very little budget for it and could only offer me a fixed one-off payment (no royalties) which was very low indeed. After discussing the idea through with them on the Thursday afternoon, I realised that what they wanted was really very simple and straightforward - character outlines of each Doctor, the Master and the TARDIS. So I agreed to the terms and came off the 'phone. Now, I was due to have a meeting up at the BBC the following day - I think it was to do research for one of the Handbooks - and so I wondered whether I could actually get the text done that evening. I started that minute, and an hour or so later had quite a good outline, so I phoned the BBC back and said, much to their astonishment, that I could deliver the text the following day. They were, of course, pleased, and so I completed and polished the text over the evening and, the next day, delivered it to them.
"The only problem I had, of course, was that the TV Movie had not been transmitted and was veiled in secrecy. Therefore, how was I to write the section on the eighth Doctor and the Eric Roberts Master? What I ended up doing was some brief sketch work based on a snatched phone conversation with a very stressed Gary Russell (who was at the time struggling to complete the novelisation) which the BBC then added to and amended to better fit the actual characters as eventually seen on screen.
"Given that the BBC was offering such a low payment for the work, I felt quite justified at spending as little time as possible on it, and also, it was a very simple project. I believe I currently hold some sort of record in BBC books for the shortest time between commission and delivery - about 24 hours - and the end result was not at all bad. I also chose the photographs for the release, and added captions (they didn't originally want these but I suggested it might be nice, especially for characters other than the Doctor and the Master) once the layout had been completed.
"The TX File series unfortunately did not take off, and after about six months was scrapped altogether, so I suppose these little Doctor Who filofax books might become quite collectible. Who knows?"
A Book of Monsters
Following the TX File, David's next project for BBC Books was A Book of Monsters, published in 1997. The book has received a mixed response, as David explains. "The reception from the BBC has been overwhelmingly positive. They poured a great deal of time and money into getting the book right. I don't think anyone who saw the book in its various stages was anything less than complimentary and enthusiastic.
"I have also received several e-mails from fans across the world saying how much they like it. Booksellers I have spoken to, people in book shops and even friends at work have been impressed (and some of the latter have even bought it!). It sold out within days at Forbidden Planet in London, and demand has been high. It even made the top-ten hardback genre best-sellers list in Starburst (a leading UK SF magazine), not an inconsiderable achievement.
"On the other hand, I think I've only seen two positive reviews of it. The vast majority of those who reviewed it (TV Zone, SFX, Cult TV, Dreamwatch, DWAS etc) found things to dislike about it, and even went so far as to hint that it should never have been published. I really can't understand why these critics can't celebrate the publication of every new Who product and find the things they like about them, rather than concentrating on a handful of perceived failings (in one case for Monsters, these were invented by the reviewer and do not exist as failings in the book anyway). Still, that's their loss, not mine.
"I recently saw a review in the British Science Fiction Association's magazine Matrix, which said, amongst other things, '...an example of how to do this kind of book well.' Now that really cheered me, as it is the first review to mention this aspect of the book. The genre press seem far too obsessed with the minutiae and in scoring points to notice the wider issues of whether a book has succeeded in its stated intent, and how well it has succeeded. I think that the respective editors of these publications need to have a close look at how they are covering the genre, and in how they treat Doctor Who product in general. There certainly seems to be a climate of negativity present, and this can, in my view, only serve to harm future publications and products."
I asked David if he considered it likely that Doctor Who authors such as himself receive negative reviews because the reviewers, who are often fans themselves, are probably displaying a competitiveness that seems to be inherent in fandom. "You could say that. There are a great many hidden agendas at work in the reviews and reviewers used by supposedly professional magazines. I think there's an element of trying to be competitive, yes. If a humble reviewer can find things wrong with an official and published factual book, then they can feel superior to the authors of said book.
"I have always asked in the past, when people have pointed out to me that they found five errors in The Eighties, 'how many facts did you find that were correct?' The answer is hopefully many hundreds, if not thousands. If only five things are wrong in a book that contains around 150,000 words and over 400 photographs, then I consider that to be a pretty good percentage."
The Television Companion
Over the period that this interview took place, David was hard at work with co-author Stephen James Walker on another reference book, Doctor Who: The Television Companion, for BBC Books, due to be published in October this year. With the book still many months away from publication, David was understandably reluctant to divulge too many details about it, but he did agree to give a general outline, noting that this was the first time he'd spoken in public about the book.
"Way back in 1981 WH Allen published the first edition of Jean-Marc Lofficier's Doctor Who Programme Guide. This book has since gone through a couple of revisions (and expanding from the original two books into three) and yet is still fundamentally the same book that was published in 1981. I have for several years wanted to see another overall guide to Doctor Who, one that was far more informed than the 1981 book and that took into account all the leaps in knowledge that have occurred in the nineties with regards to the show and its history. I feel that Jean-Marc's book has served fans very well indeed, but that the time is right for another overall look at the show.
"For as long as Virgin held the licence, however, there was no way that they were going to publish another guide - they already had one, and moreover one that had sold very well over the years. However, with the BBC taking over the publishing, there was finally, after sixteen years, an opportunity to see a new guide published that would do the show justice based on current knowledge.
"After taking my initial ideas to the BBC it became apparent that we could combine them with a separate suggestion made by Steve Walker of a critical history of the show. I therefore discussed it with Steve and then sat down with him and Steve Cole (the BBC editor) to thrash out exactly what we wanted this book to be. We didn't want to make the Handbooks redundant, for example, and yet there is certain key information that really has to appear in any guide to a series (story titles and transmission dates, for example).
"We decided that, as well as being a factual guide to the series as a whole, it would also be a critical appraisal and so an important aspect of the book are extensive reviews of every story that pull in positive and negative quotes from contemporary sources (both 'fan' and 'pro') as well as from retrospective sources (again, 'fan' and 'pro') and also from ourselves, giving a thirty five year commentary that highlights the good, lambasts the bad and even gives mention to several 'non-standard' views as well (as, for example, that The Dæmons is one of the worst Pertwee adventures). We fully expect these pieces (which are not simply expansions of the short review comments in the Handbooks, but which are extensive reviews exploring all that was good, bad and indifferent about every story) to both incite and inspire people. Some may feel that their particular favourites have not been praised enough, while others will perhaps want to go and watch a story that has an enthusiastic commentary to see what they might have missed on previous viewings. The overall emphasis, however, is to celebrate Doctor Who, and to bring to readers some of the wealth of opinion and discussion that the show has generated over the years.
"With this format mapped out, we started work around October 1997 and the book is due for delivery at the end of February 1998 for an autumn 1998 publication. Steve Cole is very pleased with what he has seen so far, and the intention is that the book will be an enduring, useful and, above all else, entertaining guide to the show. As the title suggests, it is a companion to the series, not a replacement for it, and the greatest accolade we could hope for is if someone decides to go and watch a story for the first time as a result of having their appetite whetted."
Future Factual Books
Holding the record for writing the largest number of factual Doctor Who books perhaps places David Howe in the best position to judge whether there is a market for many more new Doctor Who reference books - or does he think just about every aspect of the series now been adequately covered?
"This is a difficult question to answer. If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I'd have probably answered to the effect of 'don't be silly, of course there is', but these days I'm not so sure. I think the Star Trek market is always good to compare against as it is so much bigger than the Doctor Who market and things get published there that would not stand a hope in the Doctor Who field. (What is strange, is that there is generally more information available in our books about Doctor Who than in those for most other TV shows. Doctor Who fans have been particularly well served in the area of factual books). I don't think we're likely to see Gallifreyan phrase books being published, or Galactic Passports. Having said that, we have had a chronology, so who knows..."
Does David think that it is likely that the Daleks book might be revived at some point? "I really don't know. The idea is still there, but the time may have come and gone for the book. It's always a possibility, of course."
David breaks down the documentation of Doctor Who in the books into several categories: "Chronologically (The Decades books, the Handbooks, The Doctors), thematical (The Gallifrey Chronicles, Monsters, Companions, A Book Of Monsters, Cybermen, The Hinchcliffe Years, The Harper Classics, The Nth Doctor), celebratory (Timeframe and all of Peter Haining's books), by actor (Who's There, I Am The Doctor, Who On Earth Is Tom Baker, Ace!), humorous (The Book Of Lists, The Completely Useless Encyclopedia) and pure reference (The Programme Guide, History Of The Universe, Encyclopedia Of The Worlds Of Doctor Who, The Doctor Who Production Guide), plus assorted other tomes that don't seem to rightly fit anywhere."
Although it would appear that this is a pretty exhaustive coverage of the series, David feels that there are still some obvious gaps. "A good book on locations is long overdue, as is a book looking at the merchandise (I am currently in discussion with a publisher regarding an extensive Doctor Who collectibles guide and so don't want to say much more at this time). I'd still like to do a proper Encyclopedia. There are plans afoot to cover the Paul McGann TV Movie in a lot more depth, and there are other people with other ideas about things that they might like to write about. The area with the most potential is the thematic coverage, with possible subjects including a definitive book looking at the Daleks, something covering the Doctors properly might be nice (the book called The Doctors does not do this - it is instead a very flawed behind the scenes history of the show), there's the potential to cover more of the producers with books of their own: Barry Letts, Verity Lambert and John Nathan-Turner would be obvious candidates. Nicholas Courtney is currently working on his autobiography, one of Patrick Troughton's sons is working on a book about his father, and I'm sure that, if an interested publisher could be found, that both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy would be interested in seeing their 'memoirs' in print.
"Overall, while the depth of factual information that is available is astonishing, there is still much that can be written about Doctor Who. I think that Gary Gillatt has the right idea with his thematic A-Z which is due for publication at the end of 1998. Gary has the right sort of style for this, an easygoing, reader-friendly approach that laces the subject with humour, but which still treats it with respect.
"The biggest stumbling block in all this is getting a publisher to agree to publish. I have often commented when people say 'why don't you do a book on ...' that I have suggested this, but that Virgin (or the BBC) have not wanted to do it. I believe that probably every possible sort of book has been suggested at one time or another, but that the publishers have not felt the idea to be commercially viable. This is the big problem: Doctor Who is not as big a market as, for example, Star Trek, and while the novels do okay, and certain factual books have done okay, they aren't all a dead certainty. I had great difficulty selling I Am The Doctor, and Virgin turned down Monsters, for example.
"One of the problems with Virgin being the only publisher licensed to do books about Who was that they would, understandably, try not to duplicate what they had already done, and to try and learn from their previous experiences. For example, a book I would love to see is a really well researched locations guide. This has been suggested to Virgin (not by myself) on more than one occasion, but, as they published Travels Without the TARDIS in the eighties, and that book did really badly, their marketing department has a view that another location guide will also do badly. This was the problem I hit with A Book of Monsters. It was originally offered to Virgin as a sequel to Companions, but as Virgin had published Adrian Rigelsford's Monsters, and that had apparently done badly, they weren't prepared to consider another, even though my proposal was very different from the earlier book."
It seems clear from the example of A Book of Monsters that the shifting of the Doctor Who licence to BBC Books gives proposals rejected by Virgin a fresh opportunity for publication, so for instance is there a good chance that the BBC will pick up the book on locations? "I would have said so," says David, but cautions, "the important thing to bear in mind is that the BBC is, like Virgin, a commercial publisher and if the reason that the idea was rejected was because it was perceived simply as being not commercial enough (arguments about past failures notwithstanding), then the BBC will probably reject it as well. It depends how much faith you have in what you are offering. If you feel that Virgin were wrong in whatever comments they made, then by all means submit it to the BBC unchanged, however it might be foolish to simply ignore all criticism, and maybe the ideas need refining or more thought being given to them before being re-submitted. Certainly with Monsters, I strongly felt that Virgin were wrong, and the fact that the BBC snapped the title up would suggest that they were with me in my view."
"As long as there is no new Doctor Who on television or video, then the audience for all the Doctor Who merchandise will continue to contract. If the BBC allows some more new Who to go into production, then the audience will expand, and who knows what sort of books will become commercial propositions as a result.
"Fundamentally, I think that those who buy these books are perhaps going to have to change their aspirations. Rather than judging a non-fiction book's worth on the basis of how many new facts it contains, they're going to find that the books increasingly make them think, and challenge their own perceptions of Doctor Who. As with any sort of writing, factual writing is also meant to be entertaining. It is easy to forget this when immersed in the minutiae of cast lists and transmission times, but I think that this is something that the writers will have to try and discover. I have always tried to enjoy myself when writing the books, and I hope that some of that enjoyment and enthusiasm rubs off onto the reader.
"The main aim, I feel, should be to try and introduce more people to the show. This is why most, if not all, of my books have included material which can be seen as perhaps too mainstream for a hardened fan audience. I don't believe that fans are the only people who buy these books, and you have to ensure that you don't alienate readers who maybe don't know that Inferno is a Jon Pertwee story from his first season, or that the Brigadier was played by Nicholas Courtney. You have to be careful not to talk down to the readers, but you must also make sure that you're not losing them as well. It is annoying when critics pick up on these more generic elements and suggest that they should have been dropped as they were not included for the pleasure of the reviewers (who generally know all the stuff anyway) but for people for whom this might be their first Doctor Who book. And every one of these books is potentially someone's first Doctor Who book.
"With the BBC still refusing to allow any new material to be made, we are left with a show that is getting older all the time. Every video that is released brings the number to go lower and lower, and eventually there will be nothing new to release. The novels are great in their own way, but I wonder whether new fans are being drawn in through them, or whether they're bought by the same people that buy everything else to do with the show. With this background, it is so important that the show finds new fans with every product.
"I am often asked by the BBC to help and advise people and companies involved in producing Doctor Who products and I will always do my utmost to promote the show. If a publisher or manufacturer wants to produce something associated with the programme, then I'm keen to help try and broaden the appeal while ensuring that the product is both accurate and in keeping with what has gone before, and where possible is new and innovative. This isn't always possible, but I believe that the more Doctor Who product there is available, the harder it is for the BBC to continue to ignore one of its greatest assets."
Doctor Who Books by David J Howe (1992-1998)
This item appeared in TSV 54 (March 1998).