PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

Books chronicling the history of Doctor Who – both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes ­– are ten-a-TARDIS. Officially-licensed books tend to be rather bland ‘everything’s wonderful’ affairs which regurgitate familiar anecdotes and making-of trivia efficiently enough but with little in the way of real heart or passion for the subject. Then there are the unofficial, independently-published books which can, in the right hands, prick at the pomposity of the world’s longest-running science-fiction series whilst simultaneously displaying and demonstrating a warm and palpable love of this most curious and apparently-indefatigable show. Paul Kirkley’s Space Helmet for a Cow 2 (the first volume dances merrily through Doctor Who’s first twenty-six years on television) brings us up to date with the show’s history in an amiable, often tongue-in-cheek,  sometimes outrageous and occasionally frustrating, look at the show’s fortunes in the years since it originally went off air in 1989. Picking his way chronologically through key events in the intervening years, Kirkley reminds us of those bleak,  dark when Doctor Who was an embarrassment the BBC would rather forget, through the brief 1996 Paul McGann resurrection and finally to 2005 and beyond as the series resumed its place as an enduring and much-loved British cultural icon.

Kirkley’s text is hugely irreverent in places – no-one is safe from his often-lacerating wit and no Who totem is left untarnished – and some of his gags and wordplays are laugh out loud funny as he digs away at the show’s shibboleths with relentless glee whilst also showing due reverence to the passing of legends such as Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen, Mary Tamm and Caroline John. More problematic is his approach to commentary on the episodes of the new series. It’s clear that Kirkley is a shameless Moffat acolyte as he finds it hard to bring himself to really criticise the work of the Great Genius. His predecessor Russell T Davies gets much shorter shrift; whilst acknowledging Davies’s success in reinventing the series for a 21st century sensibility, he is much less forgiving when passing judgement on his work on the series. He is happy to tear whole episodes and characters to shreds and writes off several Christmas episodes as turkeys – yet, worryingly, he finds much to enjoy in Moffat’s hopelessly-turgid 2011 Christmas special ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’. He even describes last year’s horribly-pointless Yuletide episode ‘The Husbands of River Song’ as  “a sweet little chaser to one of Doctor Who’s most widely-acclaimed series in some time”, itself a curious observatiion in the light of seasons nine’s plunging viewing figures and audience appreciaton. Where he does identify recurring faults on Moffat’s efforts – overuse of the same tropes, repeated memes, lazy rehashings of old ideas – they’re just dismissed with comments such as “it’s churlish to criticise”, “but what the Hell…” and “we can turn a blind eye.” What’s good for Moffat’s gander clearly wasn’t quite good enough for Davies’s goose. Sadly the book’s fun value diminishes as the text wears on and Kirkley seeks to climb further up inside his hero’s nether regions as Doctor Who’s domestic stock begins  to drop as its once-fervent audience starts to drift away. Moffat’s feeble and tiresome fairytale aesthetic is repeatedly lauded as “adorable”, “magical” and “quintessential” and his continual volte faces in outlining his vision for the show (and its increasingly haphazard scheduling) are accepted with uncommon good grace as further evidence of his unparalleled genius. When deeply average season six mid-season finale ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ is summed up as “45 minutes of confident, positively swaggering adventure from a  writer with the world at its feet” you might well wonder if you’ve been watching the same programme for the last few years. If nothing else you’ll be calling Kirkley’s judgment into question (he’s even able to make excuses for the inexcusable – ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’) and he brushes many episodes’ faults under the carpet because they look really nice.

Moffat aggrandisement aside, Space Helmet For a Cow 2 (the title is lifted  from a  line of dialogue from the 1965 William Hartnell story ‘The Time Meddler’…but you knew that, of course), there’s fun to be had here and there in the dense, relentless text (it’s an unauthorised publication so there are no pretty pictures to distract from the constant fangasming) and Kirkley clearly knows his stuff, has a good turn of phrase and a handy eye for a gag or a pun. If he’d just turned the Moffat love-in dial down a bit, Space Helmet For a Cow 2 could have been an essential commentary on the past twenty-odd years of Doctor Who but sometimes it can’t help but read like a rather one-sided, starry-eyed, blinkered love-letter to a tumultuous era in the show’s long history.


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