Space Helmet For A Cow: The Mad, True Story Of Doctor Who Volume 1 (1963-1989) by Paul Kirkley (book review).

June 25, 2015 | By | Reply More

I almost didn’t make it through the whole of ‘Space Helmet For A Cow’. Paul Kirkley’s writing style in the first chapter was at best consistent and at worst highly irritating. However, I am glad that I persevered as the book is actually an entertaining and informative history of ‘classic’ ‘Doctor Who’ production with a style that, once it had settled down, told a familiar story in an engaging way.


It’s a familiar story to me anyway. ‘Doctor Who’ has never been a certainty as its production lurched from year to year, often from team to team in the late 1960s. In fact, while many fans are quick to point out the faults of the show in the 80s, the presence of John Nathan-Turner at least produces some consistency. Kirkley calls it a ‘mad, true’ story and it is both, with the truth often out-weighing the fiction. ‘Doctor Who’ was the product of many, many individuals blood, sweat and tears and while I still believe there is room on shelves for a definitive production history, ‘Space Helmet For A Cow’ has as good as stab as any at defining the first 26 year run.

Kirkley has done a good job of distilling hundreds of ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ interviews and other quotes from biographies or DVD extras as the primary source material for the book. As such ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ gets a few paragraphs of unreserved praise, that Kirkley cites in the hope they’ll forgive him for his liberal use of their content. Even for the dedicated fan, trying to memorise issue after issue’s worth of interviews would be tricky, so Kirkley has provided the reader with a service, using these quotes to punctuate the history. That this is all annotated is another good sign, unlike many ‘Doctor Who’ guides that take quotes for granted and don’t make references.

Another area where the book works well is in it the painting of the key participants. Both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were 100% dedicated to the show, believing in its ethos, putting the younger viewers first and taking great pains to ‘be’ the Doctor whenever they could. They were also brash egoists and used their popularity to get (or at least in Baker’s case, drink or shag) whatever they could from it. William Hartnell may have had very dodgy racist views, but he looks the picture of humility compared to some of successors. While Kirkley doesn’t have the room to do quite the autopsy that Richard Marson’s ‘JN-T: The Life And Scandalous Times Of John Nathan-Turner’ did, you at least get a flavour of the TV production’s more sordid side.

Finally, there’s the style I mentioned at the beginning. The book’s opening chapter on Hartnell’s run on ‘Doctor Who’ is pitched towards the comedic rather too heavily. Jokes, puns and ‘pretend’ quotes are over-used and, as such, I became a little irritated with it. This does, however, settle down and the rest of the book is still amusing, but in a more levelled way.

I enjoyed ‘Space Helmet For A Cow’ after the initial hiccup of the opening chapter, it takes a long and at points very confusing story and brings it to life in a vibrant way. I look forward to the follow-up, especially if Kirkley decides to spend some time covering the ‘wilderness’ years, which in terms of ‘Doctor Who’ critical history probably need a volume of sorts in its own right.

John Rivers

June 2015

(pub: Mad Norwegian Press. 271 page enlarged paperback. Price: £19.95 (US). ISBN: 978-193523-417-3)

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Category: Books, Doctor Who

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