‘Hating To Love’ reviewed

❉ Nine writers re-evaluate the 52 worst Doctor Who stories of all time with acute insight.

The publications of Watching Books have always been a beguiling mixture of personal reminiscence and acute insight. This new addition to their range is no different, and it comes highly recommended by this bitter and twisted old git.

‘Hello…um…my name is Death To The Daleks, and I’m not really sure what to say here. All I know is that I never meant to turn out this way…it all looked as though my life would turn out so well. An innovative tale of the influence of extra-terrestrial life on Earth’s development, a desperate struggle for survival on both an intimate and a galactic scale, and the latest return of the show’s greatest monsters…it all seemed so fresh, so promising back then.

‘But then…Terry Nation got an unexpected tax demand. He made me. And he made me as he made me so often – with a weary resignation that, while I wasn’t his real love, I paid his bills. It all spiralled downward from there – farting saxophones on the soundtrack, space survival rations consisting of Smash potato and frozen peas, a supposed genius-level bio-mechanical brain represented by some flashing control panels from The Goodies and a sphere in a little plastic box…Daleks destroyed by spears or by inane self-destruct commands…supposedly sinister Antibodies fresh from the Frankenstein Reject School Of Comedy Zombie Shambling…and – oh God – the Deadly Ornamental Floor Cliffhanger. I meant so well…I’m so sorry…please help me…’

It’s easy and entertaining to imagine some form of self-help group for unloved Doctor Who stories. The ones that have lousy reputations, that get critically beaten like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. Fandom has many inbuilt tendencies, and one of them has always been to make lists. And, as fans like to show themselves as intelligent, erudite sorts, one of their inclinations when making lists is to list THE WORST STORIES EVER, just to demonstrate what discerning types they are. Sometimes they’ll take a stab at an isolated yarn, sometimes they’ll brutally character-assassinate whole seasons, or even whole producerships. The better fan critics will at least provide eloquent reasons as to their views. The mediocre ones will simply proclaim ‘it’s crap’ and leave it at that. But the very worst of them will do nothing more than parrot tired and unchallenged ‘wisdom’, handed down with loving scorn by fan historian after fan historian before them.

And, while informed criticism is always to be welcomed, the simple recitation of a sacred litany of contempt learned by fan after fan, with never an attempt to evaluate for themselves, is a foolish and damaging conceit.

Enter the ever-welcome presence of Mr J R Southall, ably assisted by an eloquent and perceptive team of writers, as the Watching Books imprint presents its latest doorstop for the intelligent reader, Hating To Love.

Its mission is a simple one – to gather the list of those tales from all eras of Doctor Who which have met with mass and prolonged mockery, as well as some less obvious suspects which were nonetheless subject to excoriating reviews and vindictive dismissal before being granted final access to the pantheon of misunderstood greats, or at the very least the not-half-as-bad-as-you’d-been-led-to-believe. And, having done so, to thoughtfully and enthusiastically display why such short shrift was either seriously wrong, or in the absolute analysis badly misguided. Whether the story in question be a universally-disregarded clunker such as The Twin Dilemma or Fear Her, a previously-misinterpreted great-or-at-least-good such as The Deadly Assassin or The Moonbase, or seemingly just plain silly such as The Time Monster.

The authors all rise commendably to the challenge of not just defending, but championing, the unloved lame ducks and pariah dogs of the show’s history from the beginning to the present. They bring varied approaches to their re-evaluations, and refreshingly so, but if they do share any common tendencies then these are twofold: enthusiasm, and insight. It takes a clear pair of eyes and an independent mind to look at the apparently unsalvageable and to see the value of what lies within. Like so many Wombles of the fantastic, these writers pick up the apparent garbage so casually discarded by the less discerning, and examine it carefully, finding the good and the useful, and then letting that discovery stand forth as a proud rebuttal to those who dismissed it without a second thought.

Can such an ambitious aim ever be entirely successful? That is the question. Informed or ignorant, every fan has a story or a group of stories which they’d rather had never existed. It would take a very skilled debater, for example, to bring me to admit that there is anything of worth in The Runaway Bride, Dragonfire, or Colony In Space. For all of my own attempts to be open-minded and even-handed, there are a good few yarns throughout the history of the show that I couldn’t ever envisage myself enjoying on any level at all, even that of mockery. And I suspect that this will probably always be the case, much as I try to prevent myself from falling into such a dour and dispiriting trap.

So, the cynical may conclude, this whole book is a Quixotic endeavour in the most literal of terms. A quest that can never entirely succeed.

But, comes the riposte, what is so wrong with dreaming the impossible dream? Only through such willingness to expand our horizons, through having the courage to at least consider the possibility that we were wrong, may we both better ourselves and salvage the supposedly irredeemable. Whether we choose to do so in the grander schemes of changing the World for the better, or on the smaller but no less valid level of seeing something that we’ve previously dismissed out of hand with newly-appreciative eyes.

The publications of Watching Books have always been a beguiling mixture of personal reminiscence and acute insight. This new addition to their range is no different, and it comes highly recommended by this bitter and twisted old git.

And do you know what? Although I stand by every criticism of Death To The Daleks that I made in my opening paragraphs, only recently I found myself defending, even championing, it staunchly online. It’s not the greatest story ever told, but as a slice of H Rider Haggard in Space, it really isn’t too shabby at all…some strong performances, clever concepts, and a rattling good adventure tale decently, if not brilliantly, told. How about that?

One of the greatest things that any of us can do is challenge our own, frequently unfounded and knee-jerk, prejudices. In its own little way, Hating To Love does exactly that. Read…and love.

❉ ‘Hating To Love: Re-Evaluating the 52 Worst Doctor Who Stories of All Time’ Edited by J.R. Southall is published by Watching Books.

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  1. Sorry, lots of waxing the lyrical, but that review told me nothing that the cover didn’t.

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