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A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television

By John Kenneth Muir

Book review by Paul Scoones

Unlike almost all other Doctor Who non-fiction titles, A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television is written from an American perspective and reveals a somewhat different slant on the series from that which we are used to receiving from British writers. Muir's 491-page book is a fine looking publication with library binding and high-quality paper, giving the outward appearance of a serious-minded academic treatise. Indeed I suspect this is exactly how Muir would like his book to be received, but the content is unfortunately deeply flawed.

In view of the title it comes as no surprise that the book is filled with the author's own opinions of the series. What's remarkable is how frequently these views are at odds with commonly-held views; Muir lambasts Ghost Light as “wretched” and the “worst” story of the series, whilst celebrating Paradise Towers and The Power of Kroll as great stories and applauding Timelash for its creativity and originality. While such wildly divergent views are refreshingly welcome, the book as a whole is so riddled with fundamental factual errors that Muir's ability to make such informed judgements must be called in to question.

The errors are far too numerous to catalogue here. Names are frequently and inconsistently misspelt: ‘Stacy Sutton’ played Nyssa; ‘Ken-Po’ is a character in Planet of the Spiders; David Collings plays ‘Pow’ or ‘Poole’ in The Robots of Death, Ace has a friend called ‘Tryla’ in Survival... Other ‘facts’ include: The Sontaran Experiment was allegedly truncated in length due to Tom Baker's injury; The Happiness Patrol and Silver Nemesis are four parts each, Polly's surname is Lopez, and the Doctor was first put on trial by the Time Lords in the 1986 season. Muir also resists now commonly accepted Hartnell story titles, asserting that “1,000,000 B.C.” (sic) and “Inside the Ship” (sic) are no more than the product of fan preferences and subject to frequent change. For a book that has only just been published, it is disconcerting to find that the information is about a year out of date - The Lion is still missing and the most recent video mentioned appears to be Battlefield.

The author seems to seize every opportunity to draw a comparison with any American SF television series, and frequently lambasts Doctor Who as not being up to the standard of his obviously personal favourite, Space 1999. Muir also states with confidence that Doctor Who was influenced by Star Trek in its use of such concepts as ‘warp drive’ and ‘transmats’, but what he fails to consider is that these terms and concepts existed in literary science fiction long before being adopted by Star Trek. Conversely, Muir seems convinced that the Cybermen inspired Star Trek's Borg, but whilst he has some compelling evidence to support this theory, many of his other examples of inspirations and connections are far more tenuous.

Almost any mention of a cast or crew member provokes a mention of their other work (especially if it's in Space 1999), but failure to appear in Doctor Who is no barrier to a name-check. Muir mentions Scream's Courtney Cox and Voyager's Robert Duncan McNeill because they both appeared in Masters of the Universe, which featured someone who looked a little like The Armageddon Factor's Shadow.

The book features some sweeping generalisations about Doctor Who, especially in discussions about the series' morality, which don't hold up at all well under scrutiny. The Seventh Doctor allegedly represents a departure from previous Doctors because he meddles without asking in the affairs of other races. I can only assume that Muir is being completely serious when he comes out with such lines as “Parents could entrust their children to Doctor Who, comfortable in the knowledge that it would shape them into decent, moral, upstanding members of Western society”!

After hearing good things about John Kenneth Muir's 1997 book about Space 1999, I was expecting better things from this author. If I wasn't such a completist Doctor Who book collector, I would surely have passed on this one. [2/5]

This item appeared in TSV 59 (January 2000).