Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Review: Whotopia: The Ultimate Guide to the Whoniverse

Sixty years!  That's a long time by any measure ... and it's how long Doctor Who has been running ... Sixty ... In that time we've had 14 Doctors, or more, depending on how you count and what you include ... many companions, monsters, villains ... lots and lots of excitement and adventure ... and merchandise too ... including books looking at every aspect of the show.

So what might be left to cover? BBC Studios/Ebury Books have released Whotopia as their offering as the 'big book' for the 60th anniversary ... and one might expect something special ... something different.

For the 20th Anniversary we had Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration ... for the 25th Anniversary it was Doctor Who: 25 Glorious Years from the same author. The 30th anniversary brought Timeframe, a glorious full colour romp through the years via the mediums of Target book cover art and ephemera, by David J Howe (yes, that's me!).

For the 40th came Doctor Who: The Legend by Justin Richards, a full colour, over-designed but slight look at all the stories. This one was firmly based in the fiction of the series, and that, sadly, is where BBC Books/Ebury seem to have been mired ever since. For the 50th Anniversary there was Marcus Hearn's superlative Doctor Who: The Vault. A magnificent look at Doctor Who through the medium of props and paperwork and other ephemera - a really original way to explore the series. But there was also The Doctor: His Lives and Times, yet another in-universe look through the series.

Pretty much everything they have published over the last twenty years has been about the fiction of Doctor Who. There have been endless books of lists, encyclopaedias of the worlds of Doctor Who, art books looking at the concepts, a dreadful atlas which documented all the fictional planets, endless picture books of monsters, aliens, planets, technology and so on ... all reusing the same in-universe information about everything that ever appeared or has been mentioned. What there haven't been are any BBC-Published books which explore the making-of or the backgrounds to the stories ... looking at the writing, the production, the artistic skills ... for some reason this sort of behind the scenes history has not been in favour.

Given that many of the books have been published by BBC Children's books may give a clue ... BBC Studios has increasingly seen its publishing aimed at young children - kids who probably have not got a clue what was happening in Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat's increasingly complex and 'Timey Wimey' television take on the show. From the annual Annual, to fan art collections, a history of the Time Lords, the companions companion and the Doctor's guide to whatever and whoever ... these books aimed at the younger market have proliferated ... and have also been augmented with novella-length fiction, again written for the younger reader ...

All of which brings us to the sixtieth anniversary ... and what could the BBC bring to the table?

Given that they potentially have unparalleled access to the show and its makers, something looking at the changing face of the show perhaps, exploring production techniques and methods through the years?  No?

Or something interviewing the producers and actors, those who make the show what it is? No?

Or something exploring how the show has touched lives and inspired people? No?

In fact, many of these elements have been explored in publications, both licenced (rather than published) by the BBC and published independently (as no license was required) ...

What the BBC have given us is Whotopia.

From a very plain cover: simple gold foil wording and circles on a dark blue background, the book is in full colour throughout, but the design is very flat and uninspiring. A flick through reveals more white space than colour and imagery ... So it's certainly not overdesigned.

What is it? Well ... it's a collection of articles, letters and other writings purportedly written by the Doctor, the companions, the monsters, the guest stars and so on. There are other smaller paragraphs written in standard third person on other more minor elements of the show. So, once again, it's an in-universe guidebook to the Doctors, monsters, companions, aliens ... and ... zzzzzzzzz

There's nothing here about any behind the scenes elements ... and stories and plots from the sixties rub shoulders with those from the recent Whittaker era ... which is nice. All the pics are in colour, with any originally black and white shots having been colourised.

But substance? Not really. It's an encyclopaedia by another name, with a handy index at the back so you can find what there is to say about Time Cabinets, Morgus, Atraxi and so on.

I can see the book being diverting perhaps for the Who-obsessed kid who, for whatever reason, hasn't managed to pick up any of the hundreds of other books published with basically the same content, and it might act as a stepping in point for said child to start exploring the worlds of Doctor Who as the episodes are all now present on iPlayer (all those that still exist anyway). Maybe this is the intention.

But what of the fans of all ages who have been diligently following and collecting the various books and DVDs over the years? A visit to any charity shop in the UK will usually turn up a variety of these publications, and eBay is chock full of them too, so they're not hard to find ... Then this book will feel very familiar and disposable.

The authors have done a good job of stepping through all the elements, and some of the writing is amusing ... Kahler-Jex explaining his back story (from 'A Town Called Mercy'), Sutekh repeating some of his utterances from the show (from 'Pyramids of Mars'), Rocco Colosanto musing on his home-share woes (from 'Turn Left') and so on. But overall, there is little substance beyond that which the source episodes contained and, as it's all in-universe, there's no context to when and where in the Doctor's travels these people and creatures appeared (aside from referencing the story titles).

As a celebration of sixty years of Doctor Who then, Whotopia sadly for this reviewer falls completely flat. It's a book which contains nothing new, and which presents no great insights into the show, or covers an area which has not been covered a thousand times before.

It's such a shame as BBC Books could and should be doing so much better. A wasted opportunity.

Published by BBC Books 16th November 2023
£30 hardback

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