Nostalgia and Doctor Who go hand in hand, which is almost second nature for any creation that has stood the test of time the way this science fiction series has. As the world changes around it, it mirrors the current world and becomes part of our memories. A fondness develops around some of the more forgotten products and trappings of the series which older fans now recall being intertwined with a simpler time in their own lives.
The Doctor Who Annuals published by World Distributors from 1966 to 1986 are one great example of this, a merchandising tie in that children of more then one generation might have found under the tree at Christmas.
Even I got a chance to experience the series first hand, even though it was right at the very end of the original Annual run with the 1986 Annual which I poured over for clues about the Sixth Doctor’s persona as The Twin Dilemma was not shown directly after The Caves of Androzani in some areas in the United States.
I also got a taste of some of the older annuals content through A Journey Through Time, which was a compilation published after the Doctor Who production office decided that the annuals had their day.
Considering the modern whipper snappers of fandom never got to properly appreciate these fascinating and at times slightly odd gems of the Doctor Who Universe, The Annual Years, written by Paul Magrs, is both a wonderful look at both the history of these publications as well as a reference book for the stories contained within the Annuals during their twenty plus year run.
The book begins with an excellent preface which gives the reader a bit of insight as to why Magrs himself is so passionate about these books from Doctor Who‘s past, before the book then treats us to a brief history of the behind the scenes aspects of the publication.
This part of the book is very engaging for those fans who are more apt to watch the bonus features on the DVD line up before watching Planet of the Daleks or Castrovalva for the thousandth time.
Names such as Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes and Phillip Hinchliffe are just a few of the notables that were involved in trying to get World Distributor’s staff to understand the ins and out of the series so it could be represented correctly in the pages of the yearly annuals.
Everything from fees to use an particular actor or actresses likeness to the ongoing battle taken on by many a producer or script editor to get the annual to refer to the Doctor as the Doctor rather Dr. Who is covered in this section, seemingly pieced together by Magrs himself from years of correspondence between the BBC and World Distributors. This section instantly grabbed me as I always love curling up with a good history lesson about one of my many passions.
Magrs writes this section, much like the rest of the book, with flair and a sense of humor that only a true fan of the series could write, although newcomers can still follow along with wide eyes at just how long this show has been taken seriously by both it’s following and those who created it.
Sadly I almost wanted this part to never end: I found myself wanting to know more about battles over misleading Cybermen covers and imagining the expressions on the faces of World Distributor’s staff as they struggled to make sense of incoming Tom Baker’s personality as the Doctor, which was described by then producer Phillip Hinchliffe as a combination of: “Bernard Shaw, Professor Challenger and Sherlock Holmes.”
Tears at the history lesson’s end turned to smiles as I left the world of behind-the-scenes and dove into the treasure trove of knowledge and adventure that began once The Annual Years started to examine the contents of the book series year by year, Doctor by Doctor.
Each year’s set of stories has a brief synopsis, followed by an assessment of the highlights of each’s fictional content, including how similar or different the Doctor or companions act compared to their television counterparts, the quality and likeness of the accompanying illustrations as well as the many continuity errors that were common in the annuals, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.
Humor abounds here too, and you’ve clearly missed the point if you don’t get at least a wry chuckle from such lines as: “Don’t hang around near allotments. Any strange light in the sky is almost guaranteed to be a flying saucer in 1971, probably belonging to an alien species intent on invading. It’s very easy to siphon off energy from a nuclear power plant, for whatever nefarious purposes you fancy. Any Earth probe sent into space is going to come a cropper, and your astronauts are going to come back doo-lally and/or possessed. There are infinite worlds, much smaller than this one and one of them is called Fred, after the man who brings in the tea.”
This is one large love letter to a fan’s Doctor Who (or should that be Dr Who?), the universe created for children from pure imagination. A man of fate and mystery on a quest to see everything he can in this universe and in may others.
After all isn’t that what Doctor Who is really all about in the end?
Beyond the dissection of the Doctor Who annuals (and the one-off K9 Annual) there are also a bunch on excellent bonus features, including interviews with names such as graphic artist Stanley Freeman, who worked for World Distributors in the early days of the annuals and Keith Miller, who founded the first Doctor Who fan club.
These and the other interviews present in the book, mostly with the latter day writers who wrote the bulk of some of the 1980s annuals, create a sense of shared admiration for a product many have dismissed as out of touch and out of date, or at best, a collector’s item to be bought for rarity and monetary purposes only.
Additionally, we are presented with snippets of many letters described in the history section that started off this wonderful trip down memory lane. These were discovered with great personal joy as I thought the trip might be over but they’re a welcome add-on and almost worth the cover price by themselves.
The book concludes with some raw data for each annual up until 1980, including the original retail price, number of units published and number of units sold.
All in all, whether you are a fan of the annuals themselves, a scholar of Doctor Who history or someone who has always been curious about the near infamous annuals themselves, The Annual Years is well worth your time and money. Personally it is one of the best non-fiction Doctor Who books I have read in years.
Now where did I put that 1986 Annual of mine? Something tells me it might be time to dust it off and give it a good read.