BOOK REVIEW: SPACE HELMET FOR A COW – THE MAD, TRUE STORY OF DOCTOR WHO (1963 – 1989) / AUTHOR: PAUL KIRKLEY / PUBLISHER: MAD NORWEGIAN PRESS / MARCH 24TH
There probably isn’t much you can say about the early years of Doctor Who that hasn’t already been splurged across a thousand books, audio commentaries and fanzines, but Paul Kirkley’s excellently written, jaw-droppingly comprehensive new book Space Helmet for a Cow – which covers the show’s run from 1963 through 1989 – happily unearths quite a few new stories and even manages to put a refreshingly acerbic spin on the backstage shenanigans we all know so well: Jon Pertwee’s famous tetchiness, Tom Baker’s massively inflated ego, and the less-than-visionary producer John Nathan-Turner who eventually turned the programme into a turd so nasty that not even its best scriptwriters wanted to stand close enough to polish it.
Well, that’s this particular writer’s opinion anyway. Fortunately Kirkley is a lot more diplomatic about Doctor Who than I am and, although not blind to its faults, is obviously massively fond of the show. His affection for the material shines through every page but not in that irritating fanboy way in which many of these books are written – he knows that the programme was, more often than not, a well-meaning disaster area and he’s at his best when he celebrates the series’ massive screw-ups, showering the text in comic asides that are occasionally laugh-out-loud funny (describing the Creature from the Pit as a “giant bollock-monster” and how audiences tuned in to see Tom Baker “wrap his laughing gear around the end of a long green shaft attached to a giant ballbag, all in the name of family entertainment” being one of my favourite examples).
But, more than any of that, Space Helmet for a Cow is a refreshingly no-holds-barred autopsy on how a modest little tea-time show that took everybody by surprise in the mid-1960s exploded into a 1970s phenomenon and was then sent whimpering into 1980s obscurity because the creative team lost the plot and BBC bosses, quite frankly, didn’t care anymore. Despite occasional bursts of inspiration – more squibs than fireworks – the show started to go downhill during Tom Baker’s final seasons, maintained a slow but steady descent through Peter Davison’s tenure, and then went into total freefall when Colin Baker arrived. It’s clear during the Baker Mk 2 years that producers just wanted to put a bullet through the show’s skull and the bullet they selected (called Bonnie Langford) did some pretty impressive damage although somehow the Doctor staggered on through another incarnation before BBC management finally gave the ‘Do not resuscitate’ order. According to Kirkley, when the final Doctor - Sylvester McCoy – was offered the role he took some time out to think about it because he was afraid of being typecast. Personally I wonder if he already knew he was just a Dead TimeLord Walking?
And that’s the beauty of Kirkley’s book. Not only is it a joy to read (warning! because it’s not a BBC publication, there aren’t any pictures) it’s a glorious overload of nostalgia that made me think seriously about a show I haven’t thought about in years, and even made me want to go back and watch a few episodes of it. Space Helmet for a Cow is a fantastic read that isn’t just for Doctor Who fans, it’s for everyone who loved and misses a very specific golden age of British television.
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