The return of ‘Doctor Who’ is in many ways a remarkable thing. Today, it’s tempting to forget just how unlikely the show’s comeback once was, given the false-start with Paul McGann and the 1996 TV movie. The wilderness years, followed by the magnificent re-launch in 2005 is the subject of Paul Kirkley’s excellent ‘Space Helmet For A Cow: The Mad, True Story Of Doctor Who – Volume 2: 1990-2013’.
Across this twenty-three year period, ‘Doctor Who’ went from its lowest point, cancellation by the BBC and choosing to ‘rest’ it. However, the release of ‘New Adventures’ books and the on-going publication of videos of the classic series proved that ‘Doctor Who’ continued to have an audience. The show limped towards its thirty-year anniversary and was ‘celebrated’ with the production of 3D, ‘EastEnders’ mash-up ‘Dimensions In Time’. I recommend only watching this while drunk, preferably accompanied by the drinking game rules (‘Who was that terrible woman?’ ‘It’s YOU, LOVE!’). Fast forward three years and the US co-production was broadcast. The TV movie, despite performing well in the UK, was not a hit in the US and not picked up for series.
What then? The fledgling Internet provided a home for ‘Doctor Who’ and barely-animated audio productions such as ‘Death Comes To Time’ and ‘Scream Of The Shalka’ keep the flame alive. That is, until in September 2003, as part of a deal to come and work at the BBC, Russell T Davies declared ‘Doctor Who’ would return to Saturday night and then the world went mad. I remember seeing the news and not quite believing it, reading and re-reading the story on the BBC website. It was an incredible time if you were fan, trust me.
It’s this sense of despair followed by jubilation that underpins Kirkley’s detailed analysis of ‘Doctor Who’s history. I’ve only described part of the story above, once the show went back into production it was and still is a very different beast to the classic series. In fact, it’s a rollercoaster. ‘Doctor Who’ became a massive hit immediately and was then hit with the news of its departure of its lead actor. Christopher Eccleston’s arrival and departure as the Doctor happened in an instant and it’s hard to recall just how dizzying it all was. David Tennant and Billie Piper became genuine stars with the arrival of series two and kids were once more in love with the show.
Kirkley writes about these mad times with wit and charm. His style is light and engaging and, while you would obviously go to the likes of ‘Doctor Who: The Complete History’ or an Andrew Pixley article for in-depth discussion, Kirkley’s book is a compelling overview. If there’s one criticism, it’s that given the short length of time between now and the show’s comeback, there’s still many stories yet to tell about the production. For example, it was only a month ago that Eccleston spoke candidly about his distrust of Davies and the other producers.
That one point aside, this is just as good as ‘Volume 1’ and a great reminder of the ups and downs of ‘Doctor Who’s more recent past, there’s many good tid-bits for fans to enjoy, such as RTD personally guaranteeing Big Finish’s licence when BBC Worldwide were wondering if they should scrap it and a couple being invited back on to Channel 4’s ‘The Million Pound Drop’ when the producers gave out the wrong answer to a ‘Doctor Who’ question. Kirkley also spends time looking at each individual story, including how baffling things get in series six.
In conclusion ‘Space Helmet For A Cow – Volume 2’ is a worthy addition to any Doctor Who fan’s bookshelf and a very enjoyable read to boot. As the new series marches on, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how far we’ve come and Kirkley’s book does that excellently.
(pub: Mad Norwegian Press, 2016. 304 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.98 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-93523-421-0)
check out website: www.madnorwegian.com/