It was good fun being a Doctor Who fan in the 1990’s. Maybe this was because there were no new television stories to be ripped to shreds (apart from the quickly forgotten American TV movie). So DW fandom stopped complaining about the present and began to really dig into the past.
A hefty and lavishly illustrated hardback (The Early Years by Jeremy Betham, 1986) had already stoked my interest in the series’ first faltering steps, but it was this modestly priced, modestly sized paperback published in 1994 which really took my breath away.
To be a DW fan back then meant that studying the sacred texts (The Making of Doctor Who and DWM especially) was a solemn duty. Slowly the nascent fan would begin to drink in all the lore and history – which stories were classics, which were turkeys, how jabolite was used, the companion who lost their knickers the most, etc, etc.
One of the most important lessons concerned the first few months of the show. We all knew that things looked dicey in the early weeks until the Daleks arrived in the second story – after that, the long term future of the show was assured.
Um, not quite.
The heart of The First Doctor Handbook was the Production Diary. This laid bare just how hand-to-mouth those early years were and how often the series teetered on the edge of cancellation. I seem to recall some info had already appeared in The Frame, but most of it was new to me.
Frankly, it’s an astonishing and eye-opening read (one day, when all the files are available, I’d love to see the production history of the first 26 years of the series tackled in a single volume, or indeed a number of volumes).
The Production Diary might account for a large chunk of the book, but the interview material (both from and about Hartnell) is also of interest. More information about Hartnell has become available since, but this deftly edited selection of quotes still stands up well.
The Handbook also includes an obligatory episode guide which is somewhat of its time (The Gunfighters receives a firm thumbs down for example).
I have far too many DW books (including a fair few I’ve rarely touched in decades) but The First Doctor Handbook is one I do find myself coming back to every so often. For anyone interested in the painful birth of the series it’s a must read.