REVIEW: THE ANNUAL YEARS – A CELEBRATION OF THE WORLD DISTRIBUTOR DOCTOR WHO ANNUALS / AUTHOR: PAUL MAGRS / PUBLISHER: OBVERSE BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: MAY 30TH
For 21 Christmases between 1965 and 1985, the children of the United Kingdom were able to indulge in a seasonal Doctor Who treat without any recourse to their television sets, and with no evidence of a Kylie Minogue or a Giant Spider-Lady in sight. Well, apart from maybe a Zilgan or two, that is.
I’m talking about the mad universe of the World Distributor’s annual of course, that yearly insanity that pretended to be Doctor Who but never quite convinced. I myself partook of the experience in the early 1980s, during a period in which the television series was taking itself possibly a little too seriously, and I must confess to having occasionally wished it was the stories in the annuals that I was watching instead...
I digress. After decades of independent episode guides for everything from televised Doctor Who to the audio dramas of Big Finish and lately even The Target Book, it now feels inevitable that those old annuals should be dusted off and given the same treatment, although prior to the publication of The Annual Years, you might well be considered just as mad as the stories they contained for thinking so. Long considered an external activity bearing only the most vague of resemblances to the series from which they had sprung, the Doctor Who annuals have become something of an embarrassment to a fandom that has lately been more used to spun-off media that treats its source more reverentially. In his opening chapter to The Annual Years, Paul Magrs spells out how this might not have ended up the case: “Right at the very start the annual was going to reflect what Doctor Who was like on TV. Fidelity was the key,” Magrs informs us, in an informative and evocative dance through the history of the publication and its background.
This opening chapter, entitled – rather cheekily – The Making of Doctor Who, serves both to dispel the myths that have surrounded the World Distributor series (as well as to underline the reasons why the character became known as “Dr Who” in the books), and also to canonise those contributors whose place in the pantheon of Doctor Who creatives has hitherto remained unreserved. John Pemberton’s name might not trip so readily on the tongue as Victor Pemberton’s, but his responsibility for the enchantment of several generations of children is surely the greater. The Making of Doctor Who forms only as an aperitif to the main body of The Annual Years, but it is a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of the history behind the volumes, and an absolute must-read for enthusiasts of the television series, even if – in fact, especially if – they are as ignorant of the work that went into producing the annuals as I was.
We then come to the main course, and this is perhaps where I found The Annual Years a slight disappointment, preferring my histories of the show’s bygone years to take the form more of critique than simple episode guide. But this is also where Paul Magrs comes into his element, and demonstrates the wisdom in having an established writer of fiction such as Magrs as the author of such a book. For instead of simply taking us by the hand and walking us through the many and varied contents of the twenty Doctor Who annuals (and several related World Distributors’ titles), Magrs’ droll commentary provides all the analysis necessary to thoroughly understand quite what a bizarre but enjoyable universe World Distributors presented. The summaries for the stories contained in each of the books are written with a wry eye for the absurdities of the plots, but Magrs stops becomingly short of pointing out such incongruousness for the reader. After all, for some of us these stories are cherished if all-but-forgotten memories, while for others, ignorant of the source material, Magrs’ sardonic synopses are evocative of an alternative account in which the series might have taken on an altogether more peculiar approach – something to which the new series has on occasion seen fit to pay homage.
The main chapters fill themselves out with a number of shorter sub-sections, detailing the dovetailing between annual and television canon – and the divergences thereof – in a similarly light turn of prose. Magrs is keen to point out the similarities as much as the differences in the characters we know, and the What I Learned From... segments are as amusing as they are would-be illuminating.
Magrs then makes the last section of his tribute into a series of appendices collecting together interviews with some of the authors and artists who worked on the annuals, and a selection of letters both to and from the people at World Distributors who produced them, and thus The Annual Years ends as eye-openingly and as absorbingly as it began.
To many, the World Distributor annuals represent no more than a footnote in the many-avenued atlas of Doctor Who, but for countless thousands of children they symbolised the potency of Christmas, and were every bit as effective as the Target books in awakening that latent fan-gene. Here then, is Paul Magrs’ particular, and personal – but not excessively so – account of those special, in oh so many ways, publications. The Annual Years is a volume that, thanks to its idiosyncratic but very accessible approach, will grace the shelves of any self-respecting Doctor Who fan, whether versed in the subject matter or not – and should slot happily in between The Television Companion and The Amazing World of Doctor Who. Just make sure you have enough money left in your account for a potentially expensive excursion to eBay before you start reading it, though...