To borrow from their own website, The Black Archive is a series of book-length investigations, each one dedicated solely to a single Doctor Who story. The series is primarily focused on analysing the themes and ideas of each story, and the author may also make use of story treatments, draft scripts and new interviews with the scriptwriters and directors of those episodes. Below you will find short reviews of entries I have read in the series, with links to any longer reviews I have written about them.
This will cover #1 to #8
This will cover #9 to #14
Part One (January to June) will cover #15 to #20
Part Two (July to December) will cover #21 to #26
Part One (January to June) will cover #27 to #32
Part Two (July to December) will cover #33 to #38
Part Two (July to December) will cover #45 to #50
Individual Reviews So Far…
#15 – Full Circle by John Toon
I was persuaded to buy this one after seeing some of the book’s critical acclaim and a few word-of-mouth recommendations; yet its quality still somehow caught me by surprise. The seven chapters just flew by as John Toon told me about ‘hopeful monsters’, the world of Alzarius, the portrayal of theories of evolutions and The Creature from the Black (Park) Lagoon.
A particular highlight from this entry was the book’s opening chapter that suggests whilst Bidmead became script editor at the start of Season 18, starting with The Leisure Hive (1980), it isn’t until this story here, the third in the season, that Bidmead’s authorial signature truly arrives upon the screen. This is where his trademark blend of the mystical and the scientific becomes part of the show’s aesthetic, which perhaps doesn’t truly depart until Eric Saward settles in as his replacement by around Earthshock (1982).
I was quietly in awe of the variety of ideas and the confidence shown in crafting this analysis on a story I had not previously cared about that much. But after reading this, I really wanted to see it again, so I could see it through John Toon’s eyes. I honestly do recommend you pick this one up as I guarantee you will be as surprised as I was by some of its insights. And by recommending a book to you that was before recommended to me, it seems we have indeed come full circle.
#17 – The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit by Simon Bucher-Jones
Simon Bucher-Jones is the first scribe to wade into the second series of the show’s revival looking at black holes and devils within The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. It starts with an astute chapter on why ‘New Who’ finds it so difficult to do alien planets, citing the difference in the number of stories set on alien worlds between Season 1 and Series 1, amply supported by an appendix of such alien worlds featured in the show so far. It is easily my favourite part of the book.
Then come the two Big ideas, with Chapter 2 on black holes and their presence in media, followed by Chapter 3 on humanity’s ideas of what the Devil looks like and what it symbolises. These chapters are at their strongest when it directly critiques the episodes at hand and links it to other sources and bits of popular culture. However, the length of its excursions into the science of black holes and back of the envelope calculations are disproportionate to the amount of insight it delivers on the episodes at hand. I also take personal offence at the homogenisation between physical science and mathematical philosophy shown when relating Newton’s calculus to Zeno’s Paradox. In short, a lot more could have been said with fewer words.
Then we have the latter two chapters. Chapter 4 takes a very brief look at the slavery of the Ood in the story. Whilst there are essentially the monsters of the story, they are not active within the main story, either being used for manual work by the crew or as a vessel for the Beast’s spirit. To go any further would mean to tread on the toes of Planet of the Ood, and so I can sympathise with its brevity. However, the final chapter on the subject of ‘Domestication as Trauma’ has less excuses. It makes a very notable point about the Doctor’s fear of having to settle down with Rose, which most scribes would use on a single paragraph. Instead it covers six pages, of which five are just reproducing a transcript from the episode with little to no comment. It felt such an odd way to end the book.
In summary, this one has all the right ideas, and starts pretty well, but by the latter two chapters felt noticeably shallower in its depth of analysis. There’s also a lot more that could have been explored regarding the crew members and traditional base-under-siege format. Other entries in the range cover the plot and characters a lot more forensically than this one. As such, it’s not entirely without merit but I feel it’s more for completists rather than as a potential entry point.
#19 – The Eleventh Hour by Jon Arnold
With Rose, Scream of the Shalka and now The Eleventh Hour under his Black Archive belt, it’s safe to assume that Jon Arnold quite likes beginnings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this entry has five chapters on things that began in The Eleventh Hour: Matt Smith becoming the Doctor, Karen Gillan becoming the companion, Steven Moffat becoming the showrunner, the format becoming a ‘fairytale’, and the bedroom crack becoming the overall arc for Eleventh Doctor’s entire era.
I confess, I was initially concerned by the book’s slender size but Arnold’s analysis is strong, well-researched and reads almost too fluently. Such was the clarity and depth presented here that I went back and read it cover-to-cover a second time so I could appreciate this book just a bit more; I rarely read books cover-to-cover twice. The text also provides a great starting point for further analysis and so I imagine this book will be referenced by most subsequent Black Archives on the Eleventh Doctor – Jon Arnold is providing a sturdy base from which future books can be built upon.
There is perhaps a greater emphasis on the start of Matt Smith’s tenure on the show than there is on the specific themes in The Eleventh Hour alone, more holistic than squarely focussed. But there are ample future stories for these things to be discussed, such as The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang and The Time of the Doctor; you only get one story where Smith, Gillan and Moffat actually become the fulcrum of the entire show. So, if you fancy finding out exactly how Smith, Gillan and Moffat managed to reinvent Doctor Who all over again, then this is one that you’ve simply got to pick up!
#23 – The Curse of Fenric by Una McCormack
For my money, Una McCormack’s entry on The Curse of Fenric is the best title in the range to-date (this being March 2020 at time of writing). I have read and reread this book more times than any other entry so far because it is such an enjoyable and satisfying read.
The book covers four extremely well-chosen themes that allow McCormack to examine why she thinks The Curse of Fenric is the best Doctor Who story ever made. They are (in my own words) ‘Doctor Who as a response to Thatcherism’, ‘The use of World War II as a setting in Doctor Who’, ‘Women and their images in science fiction’, and ‘The shift of the Doctor to a secular mythic figure’. Each of these chapters have their own distinct identities, and yet also wonderfully complement each other. The analysis deftly weaves external texts, such as the science-fiction writings of Joanna Russ or the Fukuyama’s essay ‘The End of History?’, with the behind-the-scenes production of the story to present a succinct and insightful close reading of the story. The line “I exercise my rights as reader and thus co-creator of the text to choose to consider this non-canonical” has also become something of a personal mantra.
This book is not just highly recommended to fan of The Black Archive range but to all Doctor Who fans in general. It is truly an essential purchase.
#24 – The Time Warrior by Matthew Kilburn
The Sontarans have gone on to become one of Doctor Who’s most recognisable returning foes, having made four appearances in the show’s original 26-year run, the first of those of course being 1974’s The Time Warrior. Matthew Kilburn is no stranger to writing about Doctor Who, having already contributed several articles for Doctor Who Magazine as well as production subtitles for the Classic Who DVD range. Here he once again dons the twin hats of research historian and Doctor Who fanatic to closely examine this Pertwee-era story. Indeed, history is the dominant subject within this entry in the series.
Here there are four rather substantial and well-researched (I mean this in the strongest possible sense, the bibliography has something around 180 references!) chapters. These include the development and potential inspirations for the Sontarans, investigating what possible time this story is set in, and the clash of Sarah Jane’s feminism with the values and cultures of medieval times. However, my absolute personal highlight of the book was the third chapter examining the parallels between the Third Doctor and Linx the Sontaran, in what is surely one of the best realised chapters in the entire range; I can honestly say it has distinctly changed my understanding of the story and that it is worth the price of entry on its own.
In summary, this entry comes with a hearty recommendation from me. And for the sake of potential bias, I’ll also add that I have had the pleasure of meeting Matthew in the pub a few times now, and he is a splendid fellow. Hopefully then, you will still trust this source. Won’t you?
#25 – Doctor Who (1996) by Paul Driscoll
This twenty-fifth release was ear-marked as a milestone for the Black Archive range. It’s a very important one to get right because this is, if we’re being really honest here, the one Eighth Doctor television story. That is to say, this is Paul McGann’s only proper outing in the leading role. On top of this, the 1996 TV Movie has perhaps been scrutinised by the fandom more than any other episode due to it being a) the only Eighth Doctor story and b) the only new episode of the show between 1990 to 2004, a fifteen-year drought between the show’s two continuous runs (1963-89 and 2005-present) so far.
The task at hand was bestowed upon writer Paul Driscoll, who previously had contributed the ninth Black Archive entry on Eleventh Doctor story, The God Complex (which I have yet to read at time of writing!). The introduction plainly states the book’s purpose, to closely read the ideas and themes of Matthew Jacob’s script, whilst also hand-waving any concerns about repeating the contents of material that has exhaustively documented the challenges, production and reception of the episode. The very idea that it took over twenty years to come up with this book is something of a testament to fandom deriding what they are given, instead of appreciating what they have.
Driscoll’s analysis is a delight to read and successfully challenges long-held fan wisdom on the perceived Americanisation of the show and the portrayal of the Master as a camp caricature of evil incarnate. It also interrogates key ideas such as whether the story could have fared better as a reboot, and how the story utilises popular culture as wide-ranging as Frankenstein, Batman, Wild Bill Hickock, and Jesus Christ, in order to make the show relatable to new audiences whilst also reintroduce the show to mainstream television.
The printed copy does have some typos and bizarre errors, most notably where it states that Last of the Time Lords was broadcast in 2008 and that it follows on from 2007’s Voyage of the Damned, a Christmas Special that explicitly follows the cliffhanger left by Last of the Time Lords, as well as an unfortunate muddling of Heaven Sent and Hell Bent (both 2015) in the final chapter. Perhaps the manuscript was manipulated by the long-forgotten Millennium Bug?
Whilst unfortunate, these are minor gripes and I thoroughly enjoyed this entry in the range. The analysis is also lovingly bookended with a foreword by the scriptwriter Matthew Jacobs and two appendices covering fan perceptions of the episode (which allowed readers to interact with the range itself!) and a transcribed interview with Jacobs about writing the script. This is an entry worth celebrating about and I take my hat off to Driscoll for delivering it. I now wait patiently for his next entry, which is on one of my favourite episodes of recent years, Vincent and the Doctor (2010).
#28 – Love & Monsters by Niki Haringsma
One of my personal highlights of the range so far. Haringsma has deftly tackled one of the most divisive and unpopular Doctor Who episodes of recent years. It’s hard for me to pick out a stand out chapter but the second one looking at intertextuality and the narrative theories of Bertolt Brecht was so lucid and that it brought back long-forgotten details of a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that I had seen several years ago. Other equally insightful chapters covering the introduction and consequences to storytelling in the Doctor-lite format, the disgusting and problematic nature of the Abzorbaloff, the roles of mothers in the narrative (Jackie Tyler and Elton’s mum), fandom studies, and the encoding and decoding of media.
What I particularly love about this entry is that Haringsma dives deep into the episode, presenting theories and ideas that I had never considered whilst watching the episode (and in my defence, some are very well-hidden meanings) with well-researched sources and quotations backing the arguments made here. The level of thought, praise and critique on display here provides overwhelming evidence of Haringsma’s fascination for the episode under examination, and I strongly feel it provides fresh perspective on some of the more tired and stale criticisms levelled at it, whilst also bringing up all-new criticisms that warrant further attention from fans.
And perhaps in a metatextual stroke of genius (Faction Paradox much?), the book itself breaks the fourth wall by asking questions to the reader and perhaps contains a few hidden messages/jokes, as if embodying the narrative style and techniques of the episode itself. One of strangest, darkest, maddest and best books in the Black Archive range to date. Do go and buy it.
#29 – The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon by John Toon
The words that came to my mind after finishing this Black Archive entry were ‘difficult second album’. Toon’s first outing on the Fourth Doctor serial Full Circle (1980) was a pleasantly surprising examination on a story I had no strong opinions on, yet it compelled me to go back and watch it again with new insight. But here it’s almost like the reverse has happened, examining an Eleventh Doctor story that I actually quite like and then leaving with no real desire to revisit either the book or titular episodes in question. So, what’s happened this time?
The book does seem to have all the right ideas to hand. The six chapters here cover the Men In Black, conspiracy theories such as the 1969 moon landing being faked (which didn’t happen) and the Watergate scandal (which did happen), the portrayal and narrative role of Nixon in this story, the apparent genocide of the Silence, and the morality and ethics of the Doctor’s actions. But it all feels… undercooked. Why’s that the case?
I feel there are three main reasons for this. The first is its self-references to the book’s structure (E.g. “Remember also from Chapter 2” and “as discussed in Chapter 1”). It’s most certainly not a cardinal sin of writing critiques but rather simply lacks the confidence of his debut. The second is its frequent use of rhetorical questions in discussions which, combined with the structural self-references, repeatedly throws the reader out of the text (a stark contrast to the absorbing nature of Full Circle) and makes it feel like the author is treading water. You’re left waiting for Toon to decide where he can go next repeatedly.
Finally, there’s the author’s choice of tackling rather broad and ambiguous questions, such as whether the Doctor’s choice of resolution to the plot was moral. Again, there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of subjects but the lack of any argument towards a particular stance left these discussions feeling somewhat woolly, rather like the opening chapter of Kerblam! on the Doctor’s political stance, and choosing to take “it’s complicated” as a conclusion. With a bit more time and a bit more of a stance, this had the potential to be an interesting addition to the range. But, almost ironically, it seems to fade from memory.
#30 – The Dalek Invasion of Earth by Jonathan Morris
There’s no easy way to say it; this one was utterly disappointing for me. Jonathan Morris elects to examine every version that exists of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, looking at draft scripts at every stage of production as well as the novelisation and film adaptation of this particular story. What this results in is not a critique of the story, nor an examination of its themes and ideas, but a rather overblown version of his Fact of Fiction column for Doctor Who Magazine. It just really doesn’t meet the briefing of the series.
Around half of the book is spent summarising all these different draft scripts, things that should really be relegated to an appendix, like in The Ultimate Foe by James Cooray Smith. The original insights from Morris accumulate to tidbits of production trivia and pointing out subtle differences in each version, as if he’s trying to say that the different versions of the text are the result of different authors being involved at different points. It also makes me wonder how much of this has already been published elsewhere in the back catalogue of Doctor Who Magazine. I understand this was a last-minute replacement for another book that has fallen through in the range but for the same asking price it just isn’t at the usual high quality I’ve come to associate with this range.
Morris, like myself, is a self-professed fan of City of Death. Here he hasn’t produced a fine wine of vintage years, but more of a table wine, leaving no discernible impression.
#31 – Warriors’ Gate by Frank Collins
One of the more scholarly entries in The Black Archive range, in the sense that this wouldn’t be out of place as a final year dissertation. I can see from the Coming Soon pages of previous entries it was pushed back by a couple of months, which is unsurprising once you consider its length, breadth and depth. I actually think Frank Collins knows more about this serial that the combined knowledge of its multiple authors!
Collins has set himself the enormous task of examining the authorship of Warriors’ Gate, a story that was written by Stephen Gallagher, then rewritten by Christopher H. Bidmead, with some support from Paul Joyce, who then directed it, but he was temporarily fired and so Graeme Harper stepped in for a few hours of filming, and also it was produced under the watchful eyes of John Nathan-Turner and Barry Letts. Phew!
His analysis is rich and comprehensive, drawing upon the spheres of television production, media studies, visual art and even French cinema. He covers practically every book, film, TV programme, radio play and piece of fine art that is either authored by the aforementioned entourage, said to have inspired them or that he can associate with the final end product of Warriors’ Gate. The 315 distinct footnotes quite frankly speak for themselves. At times, I found the text somewhat dense and it seems to rush slightly towards its conclusion, however I still came away thoroughly impressed by the scholarship of Collins. If you are a fan of Warriors’ Gate like me, do pick this one up!
#32 – The Romans by Jacob Edwards
This is a delightful entry in The Black Archive series of monographs and it comes highly recommended, even to those who may even not be too fond of the episodes themselves. Edwards’ analysis is unafraid to critique the episodes’ shortcomings on racial and disability representation but also quite successfully argues that The Romans was indeed a key turning point in the Doctor Who’s unfolding history and recognises why its quality has endured long past its production sell-by date. The Great Fire of Rome was set alight thousands of years ago, but it is The Romans that still burns bright to this day.
#33 – Horror of Fang Rock by Matthew Guerrieri
For this entry in the range, Guerrieri has produced one of the more unusual approaches I have seen so far from a Black Archive. Forgoing the usual chapter-by-chapter structure in favour of a series of short muses, each collected under one of four twin themes that he has carefully chosen, for example ‘Knowledge and Terror’, to capture the range of ideas and influences within Terrance Dicks’ lighthouse horror story. Whilst largely acclaimed among fandom, it’s never particularly struck me personally as one of the all-time greats but Guerrieri has nevertheless managed to convince me that there’s more going on beneath the surface here.
Instead of analysing the text at hand head-on, Guerrieri almost approaches it sideways by presenting a sequence of stories from history and literature about lighthouses and their sense of mystery, or ideas as wide-ranging as Einstein’s relativity and the theory of colours. His selective juxtaposition of these stories with characters and events of Horror of Fang Rock subtly suggests connections between the two, and leaving the reader with a sense that they have managed to put the pieces together. Except it’s no accident; this was most definitely crafted. There were a few literature references that were too opaque for me to make any real sense of, and some concepts, like serialism in music theory, could have been explained with a bit more depth and clarity. But make no mistake, this is a lucid piece of Doctor Who analysis that feels like reading a bedtime ghost story – and yet all of it was real!
#36 – Listen by Dewi Small
A well-focussed and enjoyable light read that successfully manages to examine a number of angles on this wonderfully ambiguous episode. The centrepiece of Dewi’s analysis, his first chapter centred around Freud’s “The Uncanny” and repressed memories and then looking at how these are represented in both Listen and Doctor Who more generally, is the indisputable highlight of the book.
His other chapters on topics such as authorship of the Doctor’s identity and representations of the apocalypse are great supports to this analysis and, whilst it may be one of the shortest entries in the series, it is far from insubstantial and never outstays its welcome. The eBook is slightly cheaper than other entries, which make it an ideal entry point into the series if this one takes your fancy.
#37 – Kerblam! by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
For this entry, the co-authors take us on a guided tour through the cutting-edge technologies of the 21st Century including robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, and the Internet of Things. Its style is firmly grounded in the genre of popular science but also takes time to examine whether the portrayal and plausibility of these technologies is accurate within the episode Kerblam!
I personally found considerable enjoyment reading about the show’s relationship with these technologies but those looking for something that deftly tackles the political aspects raised by the episode’s final act will be sorely disappointed with this entry. The conclusions drawn about the responsibility of Kira’s death are also reasonable but lacking in much original insight. Consider purchasing this one only if the main topics covered are of interest to you.
#38 – The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords by James Mortimer
Mortimer’s debut Black Archive is an enjoyable and recommended read for fans wishing to delve deeper into the series 3 finale or even RTD’s tenure as a whole. His analysis is thoughtful and focussed and he combs the text for every detail he can find. Some further comparative texts may have bolstered his arguments but it functions just fine without them. I would also add that I’d like to see James Mortimer return to the range, if he so wishes, as I’d like to read more of his Doctor Who thoughts.