‘Doctor Who: The Annual Years’ reviewed

❉ Paul Magrs takes an affectionate look back at the Doctor Who annuals of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

“It’s a shame that these books, published between 1965 and 1985 have largely been dismissed by fans… Paul Magrs redresses the balance in this book, and he sets out to look at them all with a fresh eye and see if they’ve been misjudged all these years…”

The first Doctor Who books I owned were secondhand copies of the Dr Who Annuals 1979 and 1980. Picked up from a school fete sometime in 1980, I can remember spending loads of time looking in wonder at the pictures within them before I could read, marvelling at these mysterious stories, trying to make sense of them. I’m not certain they became any less baffling once I could read them!

Back then, these were the only new Doctor Who stories there were, other than the comic strip and long before I even knew what canon meant, these were as real to me as any TV story.

Anyway, it soon became a Christmas tradition that my Uncle Tim and Aunty Sue would buy me the new Annual each year. Tom Baker became Peter Davison became Colin Baker and every Christmas morning I couldn’t be torn away from reading the new stories contained within them. Back then, these were the only new Doctor Who stories there were, other than the comic strip and long before I even knew what canon meant, these were as real to me as any TV story.

Gradually my collection would grow, as I picked up copies from jumble sales, car boot sales and charity shops. Some like the first, I was able to swap for other stuff with friends, and later I’d pay some inflated prices to help complete the collection, something I wouldn’t manage until 2016, when I finally got hold of a copy of the second Troughton annual. They still sit pride of place on my bookshelf now, as they have done since 1980.

It’s a shame then that these books, published between 1965 and 1985 have largely been dismissed by fans. They attract a lot of derision due to their stories that often deviate largely from what we think the show is and their sometimes downright odd artwork is scoffed at as something from a simpler time when no-one really knew any better.

Paul Magrs redresses the balance in his this new edition of The Annual Years, first published in 2014. It’s an affectionate look at these books, written by someone with a real fondness for them. There’s no mocking here, Magrs is a fan and he sets out to look at them all with a fresh eye and see if they’ve been misjudged all these years.

For each annual, Magrs gives a synopsis of each story, followed by a series of reviews which tell us about what we learn about Doctor Who and his companions and what lessons we can take away from each set of stories. While he doesn’t set out to mock the annuals, sometimes there’s just a hint of wry amusement at what he’s writing about, especially appropriate for the first few Tom Baker annuals where the stories reach new heights of incredible storytelling. His knowledge of the show shines when he finds significant parallels between the Key to Time season and the story The Weapon in the 1980 Annual. This story, which Magrs considers one of the peaks of the Annual range, comes close to providing a coda to the season long story. Whether it was intentional or not is difficult to say after all these years, but I was convinced.

What his analysis of the stories finds is that the characterisation of the regulars is perhaps closer to their TV counterparts than might be expected. While occasionally Doctor Who might be grumpier than on TV or Sarah Jane might be moodier than expected; Zoe, Liz and Romana are as intelligent as ever, K9 is still smug and Leela is as ready with her knife as you’d expect. Somehow it feels right that Jamie might be out on adventures with a camera, photographing what’s going on or that Polly gets seasick or even that Adric might have actually enjoyed some adventures with the Fourth Doctor and K9.

It’s also truly amazing and wonderful to note how often Doctor Who has to hide in the leaves of a giant cabbage.

Once the Annual range reaches the ’80s, Magrs seems to enjoy the annuals less and less. Sadly, the closer the Annuals got to emulating the TV series, the more they lost their unique qualities. As he notes, the artworks becomes more straightforward, as do the stories and despite an unexpected appearance from Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and some nice stories featuring The Master, the peak of the range had long passed.

A canon-bothering meeting between Doc 5 and UNIT-era Brig!

Sales diminished through the ’80s and so, the 1986 Annual was to be the last produced by World Distributors. Marvel revived them as Yearbooks in the ’90s and of course, new Annuals and Story Books arrived with the new series in 2005, but they’ve never quite been the same as these ones. Doctor Who is too tightly controlled now to allow such liberties with storytelling to happen.

I found the section looking at the production of the annuals really interesting. There are a series of memos between World Distributors and the BBC production teams shared at the end, which reveal that throughout their production, each production struggled to get World Distributors authors to refer to the lead character as The Doctor and that throughout their relationship there were worries from the BBC about the quality of the artwork within them. Graham Williams for instance worried that The Doctor didn’t smile enough in the annuals. As he commented, “I think this artwork would be greatly improved if the artist could portray Tom Baker as the Doctor smiling a bit more…. He is, after all, a happy Doctor!”

Hang on, isn’t that Caroline Munro?!

Also, I was amazed to find out that the reason that often Doctor Who’s companions didn’t really look like their TV counterparts because the actors didn’t allow their likenesses to be used! This wonderful new fact really changed my opinion of what the artists did. Maybe we would have had wonderful artwork of Elisabeth Sladen or Katy Manning if the artists had actually been allowed to do so. That was a nice bit of research.

Also good were some interviews with some of the writers and artists involved with the Annuals. These illuminated some of the working practices that went on in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and gave a nice insight into how the Annuals came about and some of the characters that worked on them.

The ‘fannuals’

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a bit of a change in how the Annuals are viewed, as fans have got together and created a new annual to fill the gap left in the original range when no annual was produced for 1972. The new edition reviews the 1972 Fannual and finds it to be a fun read. Also, BBC Audio are doing a great job with their annual (appropriately enough) releases of collections of Annual stories read by the likes of Peter Purves, Frazer Hines, Matthew Waterhouse and Nicola Bryant, making these wonderful stories available all over again.

BBC Audio have produced three CDs of stories from the annuals so far

This was a lovely read and it reminded me of how much I adored these books growing up. I’m off to my bookshelf now to find my copy of the 1980 Annual and find out how the Doctor and Romana can possibly defeat X-Rani and her Ugly Mutants, what the Terror on Xaboi is and just why the rather phallic Electrids have returned. I think it’s going to be a glorious re-read. Thanks Paul Magrs for reminding me of the joy of these books. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of them, or even if you haven’t, please pick up a copy of this wonderful book to  find out why, after all these years, the annuals are well worth a fresh look.

❉ ‘Doctor Who: The Annual Years’ by Paul Magrs is available from Obverse Books, RRP £9.99 – £22.95. CLICK HERE for more information and to order.

❉ Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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