At the start of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the dusty old monarch plans to split his kingdom between his three daughters and avoid future strife (spoiler: it doesn’t work). Rather than get out his best scissors, a freshly-sharpened pencil, and a map, the King makes it into a big show where each of his offspring has to publicly say how much they love him in order to get the best slice.
His youngest, Codelia (who’s actually very fond of her pops), refuses to play ball and takes the fifth. His two scheming other daughters, Goneril and Regan, are happy to wax lyrical about the old duffer even though they don’t much care for him.
As a result, the nation is plunged into civil war, Goneril and Regan poison each other, Cordelia is executed and dies in her doting father’s arms, and Lear himself expires of a broken heart after plunging into the depths of madness for five acts. Don’t ask about Gloucester; it’s all a little bit eye-popping.
So you can imagine how a similar scenario played out in my head when Philip ‘The (Doctor Who Companion) Master’ Bates asked me to review this book, Whoblique Strategies, that he’s contributed to. And then for said review to be hosted on his website. Should I do a Cordelia, refuse to play the game, and end up executed? Or do a Goneril and Regan and be poisoned by my equally-evil other half? It was like being handed a poison chalice with the Sword of Damocles hanging over me.
Fortunately, I absolutely loved Whoblique Strategies… so I will gush, and praise, and offer my hearty recommendations knowing that it may all end in the death of all of us. You included, dear reader. You can be Gloucester.
“So, what is this Whoblique Strategies? It sounds complicated,” I hear you cry… Back in 2016, playwright, Elton Townend Jones, edited A Time Lord For Change: In An Exciting Adventure with the Drabbles. And a very fine collection it was too, of 100-word writings based on every TV Doctor Who story up to the end of 2015.
Now Elton has come up with another compelling conceit, a further anthology covering every BBC TV story from An Unearthly Child right up to Twice Upon A Time (275 entries). This time, as well as getting double the word-count, the writers are each given a ‘strategy card’ to inspire, subvert, or transform their writings.
These oblique strategies were cryptic phrases Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt designed to break deadlocks in creative situations. Eno went on to use them when he produced three of David Bowie’s classic late ’70s albums Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger (known as the Berlin trilogy). Here’s a few examples: ‘Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame’; ‘What mistakes did you make last time?’; ‘Listen in total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly’.
Elton put this challenge to 70 fine Doctor Who writers, many of whom have written for BBC Books, Doctor Who Magazine, or Big Finish (see the big list at the end), and often they are Bowie fans too. The result is a playful, fun, and, at turns, infuriating and impenetrable collection.
Some will make you smile, others will make you wince (compelling you to read again), while others may encourage you to launch the tome skyward across the bed/train carriage/Royal abdication ceremony (wherever you happen to be reading at the time).
It’s chock-full of fan theories, conspiracies, previously-unthought-of origin stories, revelations of characters’ deep-dark (sometimes sticky) desires all neatly wrapped in little vignettes which range from straight prose to computer readouts, blank verse, poetry, nonsense writing… And it’s all highly addictive in that, if you are a completeist like me, you want to read and read to find out the take on The Sensorites, Logopolis or The Happiness Patrol. Or McGann’s TV Movie, The Day of the Doctor, or In The Forest of the Night. And there’s a tremendous sense of equality here; each story is treated the same whether it’s considered a classic or a duffer, a seminal or a footnote. Each has its moment in the sun.
I absolutely loved some, intensely disliked others, and some I just didn’t understand. I suspect that every reader will have an equal and opposite experience. Some are like a cryptic crossword, designed to make you tear your hair out. Then you get it, and enter smug mode. Oh, come on, read it again. It’s easy… It’s so obvious…
And for every entry that baffles or bemuses without a breakthrough, it’s just an invitation to reread, to give it one more go and see if you can break the code. Maybe there isn’t an answer; maybe some should be left an enigma? Meanwhile, the ones you think you’ve cracked can reveal hidden references on repeat readings.
All this and for a fantastic cause too – after printing costs are covered, all profits will go to Children in Need. So, if you are prepared for a more playful, arty, and challenging Doctor Who book, Whoblique Strategies should definitely be on your wish list.
Full list of writers: Elton Townend Jones; Simon Messingham; David A McIntee; John Dorney; Simon A Forward; Ian Potter; Simon Bucher-Jones; Paul Ebbs; Matthew J Elliott; Alistair Lock; Andrew Hunt; Blair Bidmead; Ira Lightman; Dan Rebellato; Matt Adams; Andy Priestner; Sami Kelsh; Christian Cawley; Paul Driscoll; Tim Gambrell; JR Southall; Christopher Samuel Stone; Matt Sewell; John Gerard Hughes; Daniel Wealands; Craig Moss; Kara Dennison; Sarah Di-Bella; Hendryk Korzeniowski; Brendan Jones; Will Ingram; Ash Stewart; Christine Grit; Nick Mellish; Mark Trevor Owen; Dan Milco; Ken Shinn; Jon Arnold; Jon Dear; Brad Wolfe; Matt Barber; Georgia Ingram; Alan G McWhan; Alan Taylor; Aryldi Moss-Burke; Warren Cathrine; Townsend Shoulders; Marius Riley; Simon A Brett; Lee Ravitz; Robin G Burchill; Callum Stewart; Tessa North; Ian Baldwin; Philip Bates; Alex Spencer; Lee Rawlings; Steve Watts; Ian Kubiak; James McLean; Gareth Alexander; Liam Hogan; Clive Greenwood; Stephen Aintree; Barnaby Eaton-Jones; Ruth Wheeler; Martin Tucker.