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Reviewed: 100 Objects of Dr Who by Philip Bates

Not content with having his name on one book with last year’s Black Archive on The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Doctor Who Companion editor Philip Bates has done it again with his new volume 100 Objects of Dr Who. “Not another one?!” cries Brenda from Bristol, but should the lady who so neatly summed up disillusionment in British politics in 2017 be a Doctor Who fan she’ll find plenty to enjoy in this fun and eclectic volume.  

The idea of picking 100 objects to tell a wider cultural history is not a new one. BBC Radio 4 had one of its biggest ever successes with Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects in 2010, which was itself followed by a Doctor Who take on the theme two years later in James Goss and Steve Tribe’s A History of the Universe in 100 Objects. But this new work is very much worthy of your time, presenting a wonderfully offbeat, individual buffet selection from the world of our favourite show.

A random selection of the objects selected serves to illustrate the book’s quirky nature: a Talking Cabbage; Sylvester McCoy’s Sixth Doctor wig; the 1996 Series bible. Each one of these and the other 97 objects (well, there are actually 98 – Bates manages to squeeze an extra one in on the last page…) heads a short chapter on an aspect of Doctor Who, and often it won’t be the one you’re expecting. The chapter on Sylv’s hairpiece, for example, heads up an overview of how each of the show’s leading actors came to leave the role.

It’s just one of many wonderfully clear and concise short histories we get in the book. Working with a tight word count, the author makes sure every sentence justifies its place. The story of the series’ origins has surely been told a thousand times but rarely with the economy and clarity of the first chapter’s four pages. Elsewhere there’s a fine tribute to Terrance Dicks, a useful overview of the Master’s appearances, and the moving story of just why William Hartnell found it so hard to leave the role he loved – and why Patrick Troughton struggled when he took over.

Even if you know Doctor Who very well, you’re likely to find out something you didn’t know. If you’re curious to know the name of the Dutch newspaper which first revealed what a Dalek looks like, or how much Terry Nation made from his creations in those heady early months, you’ll find it here. The gruesome real-life tale of the two-headed dog is touched on in the chapter on the Cybermen, and you’ll discover which is the rarest vowel found in Doctor Who titles in a fabulously inconsequential yet thoroughly researched examination of how stories are named.

Above: Illustration by Martin Baines.

This kind of non-linear approach makes it a great book to dip into at random. Indeed, the author offers no less than three different ways to read it, the last of which he pledges ‘restores balance to the universe’.

If I’ve given the impression that 100 Objects of Dr Who is purely a work of trivia, this couldn’t be more wrong. There’s a thoughtful exploration of the programme’s sometimes problematic approach to diversity which, refreshingly in this age of social media outrage, ventures to suggest there are no easy answers. The chapter on faith is also worth reading for a look at a key area of human experience seldom considered in the series.

If you’re a regular DWC reader, you’ll notice a few familiar names cropping up here and there. Simon Danes sets out how a 1960’s Berwick Dalek Playsuit differed from a Scorpion Automotive one, and why 2013’s drama An Adventure in Space and Time, for understandable reasons, showed William Hartnell’s granddaughter being given the wrong one. Rick Lundeen recounts the mammoth task of adapting The Daleks’ Masterplan into a graphic novel. My own memories of the 1983 celebration at Longleat are briefly recounted in the book, and the bill for my counselling is on its way to the publishers now (‘Oh, the humanity…’).

Hopefully, you won’t feel this impairs my judgement in offering a whole-hearted recommendation that this book is well worthy of a place on your Doctor Who bookshelf.

The book is fronted by an excellent retro style cover by Martin Baines, who also contributes black and white illustrations inside. Fittingly, they’re all mashups of beings and objects from different eras – my favourite being a Yeti, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a sonic screwdriver all floating in space. It’s that sort of book. Sadly, those transfers on the cover aren’t real, but they have given my long dormant idea for a Dragon’s Den pitch a shot in the arm.  

An index would have been useful, but such is the sheer variety of material covered in the book’s relatively short length, would probably have doubled the page count. As Doctor Who has proved numerous times with the likes of Skaro, Peladon, and New Earth, there’s surely potential for a sequel.  

100 Objects of Dr Who can be ordered from Candy Jar Books, priced £9.99 + postage.

Jonathan Appleton

Reviewed: 100 Objects of Dr Who by Philip Bates

by Jonathan Appleton time to read: 4 min
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