‘Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1990-2013)’ reviewed

❉ In ‘Space Helmet 2,’ Paul Kirkley continues his witty and irreverent history of Doctor Who, from 1990 to the end of Matt Smith’s tenure.

Among the many books about ‘Doctor Who’, it’s fairly easy to find one that’s well researched and informative or fun and irreverent. Finding a book that meets all those criteria, though, is a much harder proposition. During the “wilderness years” the high-water mark for such works had been ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, which was noteworthy both for thoughtful attempts at reconciling inconsistencies like what years the UNIT stories take place in and identifying fashion victims and double entendres across the original run of the series. Last year, that older volume received serious competition in the form of SFX magazine writer Paul Kirkley’s history of the 1963-1989 run, ‘Space Helmet for a Cow’.

Kirkley’s approach calls to mind the Doctor’s one-time declaration that he’s serious about what he does but not necessarily how he does it.

The target audience for ‘Space Helmet for a Cow’ was seemingly fans who felt ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ took itself a bit too seriously. Kirkley’s approach to telling the story of those original 26 seasons called to mind the Doctor’s one-time declaration that he’s serious about what he does but not necessarily how he does it. Mixing interviews and other sources with his own sense of loving irreverence, Kirkley presented the show’s history in a way that felt fresh even for hardcore fans who came in knowing most of the backstory. He continues this winning approach in the newly-released second volume, covering from 1990 to more or less the present day.

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His account is especially lively when discussing “the wilderness years”. For a time when very little ‘Doctor Who’ was actually being produced for television audiences, that dozen or so years was as dynamic a period as any in the show’s history. Whether discussing the ‘New Adventures’ novels, the ultimately fruitless quest to produce a movie version or Philip Segal’s dauntless efforts to return the series to TV if only for one night, the numerous story threads are nicely balanced so the overall narrative ever feels cluttered. It also benefits throughout from Kirkley’s humorous interjections about some of the more unusual twists along the way, such as Sylvester McCoy’s first post-Survival return to the role of the Doctor in 1990:

“On May 14th, Sylvester McCoy turned up at Television Center and went to his dressing room to change into his Doctor Who costume. Don’t worry – he hadn’t got confused and forgotten the show had been cancelled: he and Sophie Aldred were there to record a schools science programme, ‘Search Out Space’, in character as the Doctor and Ace. All they needed to do now was to explain to school kids who the hell the Doctor and Ace were.”

This style remains equally entertaining as the new millennium beckons and Paul McGann’s one night stand as the Doctor turns into a new series on audio from Big Finish, setting the stage for a 40th anniversary surprise that no one would have seen coming in 1993. Though the relaunch and ongoing success of ‘Doctor Who’ onTV has been scrupulously documented over the past decade or so, Kirkley still finds plenty to say. This ranges from a thoughtful examination of Christopher Eccleston’s departure to an imaginary crossing of paths between he and his successor inspired by an amusing bit of trivia.

“In Cardiff, Tennant had taken up residence in Eccleston’s old apartment. (“Hi – instructions for the dishwasher are in the kitchen drawer, the stop-cock is under the sink and I’ve left the sonic screwdriver in the bedside cabinet. And sorry about the mess – left in a bit of a hurry.”)”

The show’s return to ongoing production enables another highlight to come to the foreground – Kirkley’s opinions on the stories themselves. While these were dotted throughout the early part of the book (“Of course, once people had the chance to watch it for themselves, they realised The Tomb of the Cybermen wasn’t quite the masterpiece they’d been led to believe – but it was still a hell of a lot better than Silver Nemesis“), they’re a regular fixture from 2005 onward.

Like the best reviewers, even if you don’t agree with his view (e.g. his take on Rise of the Cybermen/The Age Steel), you can still appreciate the thinking behind it. In that light, his take on one of the ‘Unbound’ stories from Big Finish comes to mind. Though I’m a fan of both writer Robert Shearman and star Derek Jacobi, their collaboration on Deadline has always left me a bit underwhelmed. However, Kirkley’s view that in this play “Shearman reminds us just why the 40th anniversary of this mad, ridiculous, wonderful show is worth celebrating in the first place” is reason enough to give Deadline – and a few other stories discussed in this wonderful book – a fresh look.

With so much having been written about ‘Doctor Who’ in recent years, it’s fair to ask whether any new book is worth your attention. The two volumes of ‘Space Helmet for a Cow’ are enjoyable reminders that, like the show itself, the potential to discuss ‘Doctor Who’ is limited only by the attitude and imagination of those doing it.


❉  ‘Space Helmet for a Cow 2’ by Paul Kirkley will be officially released by Mad Norwegian Press on 6 December 2016. ISBN: 9781935234210. Retail price: $19.95.

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