❉ Finn Clark sheds a welcome spotlight on a frequently under-appreciated strand of ‘Doctor Who’ stories.
There’s virtually no point writing a book about ‘Doctor Who’ at this point unless you have a very clear point of view. With both the fictional and behind the scenes history of the show already so well-documented, a neutral episode guide – especially an unofficial one – is virtually asking to be ignored. Thankfully, strong opinions are one thing ‘Doctor Who’ fans absolutely do not lack, which has produced some excellent books in recent years. Just in recent months, contributions to that list include Paul Kirkley’s second volume of ‘Space Helmet for a Cow‘, the anthology ‘Hating to Love‘ and multiple releases in the ‘Black Archive’ series.
Finn Clark’s ‘Time’s Mosaic’ series approaches ‘Doctor Who’ from a different angle, but the viewpoint is no less singular than the writers of the aforementioned books. With a stated goal of including the multiple of spin-off stories, if anything it’s a bit more ambitious than some of those books. And if the execution doesn’t quite match that ambition, the end result is enjoyable nevertheless.
It somehow seems fitting that ‘Time’s Mosaic 5’, focusing mainly on Peter Davison’s Doctor and related offshoots, is the second release in the series. Starting with #9 and Eccleston’s tenure (plus ‘Torchwood’) made sense as an accessible jumping-on point, not unlike the way the ‘About Time’ series began with the Pertwee era in the early 2000s. From the start of the 21st century version, Clark has jumped back to the Doctor who not only made an indelible impression on him as a youngster but to him also prefigures the current model of ‘Doctor Who’ in some respects. There’s a tendency to underrate Davison’s Doctor, especially relative to his immediate predecessor. Even when his popularity is acknowledged, it comes with caveats related to flaws in his era’s production style, which of course have nothing to do with the actor himself.
For his part, Clark is having none of that. That’s not to say that he doesn’t find flaws in his stories, as anyone who likes Sarah Sutton as Nyssa should be advised of before reading. Rather he offers unapologetic defenses of stories he truly enjoys, even when they’re among the most frequently derided like Terminus. As with all the Doctors whose stories were produced by John Nathan-Turner, Davison had his share of easy targets. What distinguishes this book is a genuine enthusiasm to highlight their virtues while still being honest about their issues. Though the repeated harping on Sarah Sutton starts to feel gratuitous by the time the book gets to Snakedance, the critiques are generally good natured as in this take on The King’s Demons: “Is it pointless and a bit dull, or rather nice and in its way event lovely? Answer: both, because it’s by Terence Dudley.”
Shortly after what is arguably the most thoughtful review of The Five Doctors ever committed to print come the sections on spinoffs. It’s here that Clark displays both the best and least of his approach. Considering the degree to which the Target novelizations defined a generation’s perceptions of ‘Doctor Who’, these books deserve more attention than they’ve generally gotten since the early 1990s. Though some writers get a bit of (usually gentle) kicking, he makes a very good case for their importance in the story of telling ‘Doctor Who’s’ story. His take on The Five Doctors serves as a highlight for this section as well, illustrating how the Target books could sometimes make a greater impression than their televised ancestors.
Likewise, the discussion of the Davison Doctor’s comics appearances, especially those in ‘Doctor Who Monthly’ (as it was known back then), sheds a welcome spotlight on another frequently under-appreciated strand of ‘Doctor Who’ stories. Clark also makes a compelling case for why the spin-off material devoted to Sarah Jane Smith belongs in this volume – and does a fine job analyzing it. Where he seems to lose focus – or, more precisely, what highlights the biggest issue with the book – is the brief section devoted to the relatively obscure character of Erimem.
Discussing a character who lives mainly in Big Finish’s audio stories without actually discussing those stories just feels wrong. The writer’s concern about the sheer volume of material produced by Big Finish over the years is understandable, but giving these stories little more than a passing mention feels discordant in a book whose stated intention is to embrace the whole story of ‘Doctor Who’ across all media.
The lack of attention to Big Finish’s contributions is especially surprising considering Clark’s obvious affection for Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor. While the Big Finish stories haven’t been transformative to Davison’s reputation to the same degree they have have for Colin Baker and Paul McGann, we’re at least a decade past the point where any survey of his time as the Doctor can omit Spare Parts and still be considered comprehensive.
Those caveats aside, this volume remains appealing and in its own way quite important. Over time consensus about which stories are best risks calcifying into dogma that others are simply terrible. The consensus isn’t necessarily wrong, and the dogma may contain a great deal of truth, but critical analysis can get lost along the way and important aspects can be taken for granted. ‘Time’s Mosaic 5’, with its sincere and considered cases both for and against certain stories (often in the review of the same story), is a valuable reminder that opinions about ‘Doctor Who’ can and should be as varied as the show itself.
❉ ‘Time’s Mosaic 5’ by Finn Clark is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £6.99 (Ebook), £14.95 (Paperback) or £17.95 (Paperback & EBook combo).