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Review: Doctor Who - The Pandorica Opens and Being Human: Unofficial and Unauthorised

Posted on January 17, 2011 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Doctor Who: The Pandorica Open - Exploring the worlds of the Eleventh DoctorBeing Human: Unofficial and Unauthorised

Book: Being Human: Unofficial and Unauthorised
Author: Joanne Black
Price: £14.99
ISBN: 978-0956100030
Pages: 300
Publisher: Classic TV Press
Published: Way back in December. Sorry. Postal problems.

Book: Doctor Who: The Pandorica Open - Exploring the worlds of the Eleventh Doctor
Author: Frank Collins
Price: £14.99
ISBN: 978-0956100030
Pages: 251
Publisher: Classic TV Press
Published: Way back in December again. Sorry. Postal problems.

Let's go a little bit different today and review a couple of books from Cambridge publishing company Classic TV Press (hopefully no relation to Cambridge's Classic TV magazine, which folded before its first issue) that have been written by a couple of bloggers. As a bit of a contrast, one is on Doctor Who, the other is on Being Human, and one is really very good and one is really very bad. Take your bets on which is which before the jump.

So I'm reviewing these two books together because

  1. I think there are interesting parallels to be drawn and similar points to be made
  2. As I said, one's very good so it'll be hard to say much beyond "this is very good and you should buy it if you have an interest in the subject" and one's very bad and there'll be too little to say except "don't buy this, particularly if you have an interest in the subject", without just needlessly putting the boot in.

So first, the commonalities. They're both by Classic TV Press. They're both quite thick tomes. They're both written by bloggers. They've both had about tuppence ha'penny spent on design.

Now, blogging is obviously a very different art from writing a feature article for a magazine which is again a very different art from writing a book. Blogging can be quite bitty, doesn't really support long text or else the reader will generally leg it before the end, and frequently doesn't go into very great depth. Books, by contrast, tend to be the exact opposite of blogging.

Being Human: Unofficial and Unauthorised
Would that Joanne Black, a blogger at "Not Just About Shoes", had realised this. Being Human: Unofficial and Unauthorised is largely an exercise in ADHD. You will never find a section on something longer than a page. You will never find a sentence longer than 20 words. You will never find anything covered in any real detail. You will not find anything new in the information sections except that revealed from some other source. And weirdly, you won't actually get much personal opinion either.

The book covers the background to Being Human, the pilot episode, the first two series, the books and even the BBC blog. Episode summaries are of the form:

"Gilbert is rather keen on Annie and arrives clutching a mix tape to impress her in true 80s fashion. Unfortunately it is not really her style, '…a mix of Euro Goth and French chanson.' Right."

Episode reviews are sketchier:

"The attempt to distract Annie from her pending wedding day by introducing her to another ghost is inspired. It isn't just any ghost but the ghost of the 80s… Alex Price talks about the details that created Gilbert on the Being Human blog. Having been given the Walkman headphones and Casio watch, he was also presented with proper Y-fronts!… He fades out talking about VPL…"

There is however a regular section for each review on how many times Russell Tovey's bare backside gets seen and a list of all the music tracks in each episode.

The books fare no better. The extent of personal opinion offered on Mark Michalowski's Chasers (review length: 3/4 of a page) is:

"Unfortunately Kaz and Gail are not terribly well fleshed out and Kaz in particular suffers from being a New Age stereotype"

"George's annoyance with them is done beautifully - it feels just as Russell Tovey would play it."

Really, that's the extent of the insight we're getting here - not much more than plot summaries followed by a "that was quite good" and "that wasn't very good" (for an "unofficial" book, the punches are being pulled incredibly), interspersed with information gleaned from the Internet and a few whimsical style points.

This could almost have been made to work if Classic TV Press had bothered to hire a decent book designer who could have used some design to, say, break things up into boxes, add some graphics and make this more interesting and fun. But Classic TV seems to have been able to afford a few illos from a black-and-white illustrator and little more, not even a few stock photographs, to make this more enticing, so unfortunately it has to rest on its text alone.

This could have been an interesting book, even if not terribly informative, if Black had ventured some detailed opinions and allowed herself to be critical. Instead, we have something that reads like the collected pages of a fan blog assembled in her spare time (not that I should throw too many stones from inside this glass house). Not worth the money at all, and dare I venture that sometimes "official and authorised" will give you a better book than "unofficial and unopinionated"?

Rating: 3/10

Doctor Who: The Pandorica Open - Exploring the worlds of the Eleventh Doctor
Frank Collins's (he of Cathode Ray Tube and Behind the Sofa fame) book is a far different beast. It's a proper book for one thing, not just a bunch of blog entries in disguise. However, the book it puts me most in mind of is Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, a serious piece of media criticism put out during the 80s – since this is one serious piece of media criticism.

The Pandorica Opens does nothing more - and claims to do nothing more - than go through each episode of the first Matt Smith/Karen Gillan/Steven Moffat season of Doctor Who, analysing each episode in turn. Properly. That's about 20 pages per chapter of analysis of the themes and imagery present in each story, with no cast lists, credits, or random sections on bottoms and "things I read today on the Internet" to pad it out. It's proper media criticism.

Here's a random smattering:

"The Doctor, Amy and Rory are all representative of the masculine and feminine aspects of both a life and a society that struggle to find their own connections."

"He plays 'gooseberry' again to a heteronormative couple… Yet, even as he uses cruelty as a form of kindness to motivate her, his queer, almost childlike behaviour comes to the fore when he takes a gulp of wine and then immediately spits it back into his glass."

"It also nods to the sub-genre of husband-and-wife action-caper films… that, as proposed by Lachlan MacDowall in 'Professional Killers at Home' in Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture…"

"…this interruption symbolises what Susanna Paasonon, in Figures of Fantasy: Internet, Women, and Cyberdiscourse calls…"

This is a proper book. If you thought there was a single piece of imagery unmined for its meaning during the first Matt Smith season, don't worry, there wasn't - Frank's spotted it for you already and he manages to do it intelligently and without retreating into the language of academia except where necessary. He takes in not just the episode itself, but the stated intentions of the writers and producers and is able to draw on the history of the show as well.

If I had a criticism of the text, it's that I wished it was perhaps a little more fun - Doctor Who isn't a serious show so and while Frank mixes the intellectual and the emotional very well I'd have liked something to liven the mood more often.

Where the book is flawed is once again the design. Although there are at least photos in this book - although, for some reason, the worst one has been stuck on the cover - this is clearly something a designer somewhere has thought: "This is a serious book. It shouldn't be easy to read." So the leading is very tight, the font sizes small. Paragraphs can last an entire page, sub-headings turn up only ever third page or so. Poor Frank's work is done no favours and when you consider that it's 50 pages shorter than Black's book, despite the vastly deeper text, you can see he's been shortchanged.

Worth getting if you have any interest in understanding Doctor Who at a deeper level.

Rating: 9/10

So what have we learnt? Be careful over which blogger you get to write a book? Hire a journalist if you want some insight into something? A good designer can make or break a book? Whatever it is, I hope Frank gets to write another book and that Classic TV Press will at least keep producing books like this, since some of the incumbents have been producing lacklustre efforts for years.

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  • I'd agree that the margins are almost too narrow.

  • MediumRob

    "You still miss my main point: with small press there simply isn't the money for a designer."

    No, you're missing mine. It's irrelevant to the average reader whether you're a small press or not. People are not going to buy your book out of charity. There is no prize just for taking part in the marketplace.

    Consumers are (largely) only interested in the book and whether they should pay £15 for it. If you don't hire a designer and you do not have design expertise in-house, the book will not look as good or be as easy to read as it could be - irrespective or whether you can afford it or not - and that affects whether I can recommend to people whether they buy it or not. I'm not going to tell people to buy a book simply as a "thank you for trying".

    As it is Frank's writing is excellent, but despite knowing (or at least guessing since I don't know your exact business model, staffing level, etc) the constraints you're operating with, I was disappointed by the design and found it harder to read than it should be. It actively made me not want to read the book. And that's what I have to put in a review.

    PS If you can't fork out £100 and drop a pic or two just for a designer to look over some proofs and give you his or her advice, your margins are maybe just a little too narrow, don't you think?

  • You still miss my main point: with small press there simply isn't the money for a designer.

    I'm glad you appreciate what we're doing, but greater appreciation of the constraints would be nice. Under your model Frank would be paying us to publish the book and we still wouldn't be able to cover production costs. In other words we wouldn't have a business.

  • MediumRob

    Hi Andy. Thanks for dropping by. Let me answer a few of your points with my own points...

    "I think the problem here is that you are comparing apples with oranges."

    Well, I am and I'm not. Clearly they're aimed at different audiences. However, this review is aimed at the readership of this blog and I'm telling my audience whether I think they'll like it or not, and if not, why not.

    "I find your comments about 'information gleaned from the Internet' are unnecessarily harsh as elsewhere her intitial scene-setting chapters about the pilot and moving from there into the first series have been praised."

    That's nice. I actually knew _all_ the information in those chapters from reading… the Internet. And there were a few things I knew that weren't included, simply through the process of having been to Q&As with Toby Whithouse. As I said, there wasn't anything new, nothing originated for the book.

    "As to the DW cover, it was the best hi-res photo we had that 'said DW' and had the characters in costume - simple as."

    It's a shot of Matt Smith's and Karen Gillan's backs. At a distance. You've not worked on a picture desk, I take it?

    "A designer somewhere? Classic TV Press is two people for god's sake and Frank was consulted every step of the way as alternatives were discussed and rejected."

    If you are doing a design job, you are de facto a designer. If you cannot afford a professional designer - and there are plenty of freelances working on hourly rates out there - then the book's design will rest on your shoulders. If you have no design training, the design will likely as not be poorer than one done by a professional designer. That's why you pay them - to improve what you yourself cannot do.

    "Frank was far from short-changed - the colour plates for example were an unneccessary luxury but we felt his tome deserved them despite the bottom line."

    Design is more than simply the inclusion of photos. Actually, put the Being Human book and Frank's book side by side: you'll notice how much more space there is in the BH book for the text to breathe. As I said, the leading is particularly tight on Frank's book which makes me think you've upped the font size without adjusting the leading accordingly (+2 leading over point size usually works well).

    Look, I appreciate what you're doing but the simple fact is that if you don't have design expertise and don't hire a designer, your book will not look as good and will not be as easy to read as one laid out by a professional designer. If it were, an entire industry of professionals would be out of a job (and I have enough designers as friends to know how annoyed they get at the idea that anyone can do their job).

    More so, I can't really tell readers to buy a book that costs £15 without mentioning the fact it's poorly designed and hard to read. That's the point of a review - to let them know these kinds of things.

    But as I said in the review, the text of Frank's book is great and if you're into Who, it's very much worth reading. I'm glad you went to the effort of publishing it. I just think it's a little let down by the design.

  • I think the problem here is that you are comparing apples with oranges. Feedback we have received so far is that Who fans lap up the Who book and Being Human fans lap up the Being Human book. The majority of BH fans are of quite a specific demographic and outlook and want to read a more accessible and lighter book, so Joanne's style was a deliberate commission. Having said that, despite what you claim, there is a heck of a lot of opinion in Joanne's book - although obviously less than in Frank's - and we also like how it's set out to boot. I find your comments about 'information gleaned from the Internet' are unnecessarily harsh as elsewhere her intitial scene-setting chapters about the pilot and moving from there into the first series have been praised.

    Unfortunately it has become very clear to us that no-one understands the margins when it comes to small press - there just isn't a budget for a designer or to use stock photos (do you know how much a single quarter page stock photos costs?). However, both books were very tightly edited. As to the DW cover, it was the best hi-res photo we had that 'said DW' and had the characters in costume - simple as. I love the idea of "a designer somewhere has thought: "This is a serious book. It shouldn't be easy to read."". A designer somewhere? Classic TV Press is two people for god's sake and Frank was consulted every step of the way as alternatives were discussed and rejected.

    We would have liked a bit more time on Frank's book and you are dead right to pick up on the para's issue -but we had to take a view on that and hit the printers in time for Christmas for obvious reasons. As an aside, the point size of Frank's book is actually larger than for any other book we've done so I find that comment particularly odd. Furthermore Frank was far from short-changed - the colour plates for example were an unneccessary luxury but we felt his tome deserved them despite the bottom line.

  • MediumRob

    "Appreciate the enthusiastic review. I take on board the point that the book should have perhaps been a 'little more fun' and other reviewers comments about putting more personal opinions in there to balance out the research. Achieving a balance is something I am conscious of, especially if there is another book!"

    I think you did very well!

    "The sub headings and paragraphs are as I set them out so I've perhaps only myself to blame in that respect. I broke the chapters into three or four subheadings and I more or less determined the length of paragraphs. Just lack of experience, I guess."

    Cough, editor, cough. Seriously, speaking on behalf editors everywhere, if the author hasn't put enough headings and paragraph returns in to suit the way the text has flown in the book, it's the editor's job to put ones in himself or herself (and get the author to okay them). That's what editors are for. And if Classic TV can't afford a editor, that's not your fault either ;-) (and they might want to think about how many lost sales an unappealing design might cost versus a few hours of an editor looking over some printouts and putting in some appropriate headings where necessary. It pays off in the long run...)

  • Frank Collins

    Appreciate the enthusiastic review. I take on board the point that the book should have perhaps been a 'little more fun' and other reviewers comments about putting more personal opinions in there to balance out the research. Achieving a balance is something I am conscious of, especially if there is another book!

    I understand the comments about the design of the book but I think under the circumstances, and speaking for myself here too, as we were prohibited from using official BBC images, couldn't afford to licence stock imagery, and didn't have money to commission a designer, we did what we could with what we had available.

    We were kindly allowed to use many of the images that set reporters donated and we're very grateful they did. It would have been a very dull book without them. I'm OK with the cover and the use of images.

    The sub headings and paragraphs are as I set them out so I've perhaps only myself to blame in that respect. I broke the chapters into three or four subheadings and I more or less determined the length of paragraphs. Just lack of experience, I guess. Again, that's something I can address when it comes to the next one and I agree that great walls of text may not invite you in to read in this instance.

    But this is the first experience I have had of writing anything of this length so it was very much a learning curve and while it may have its faults, and many of them are things that can easily be improved through experience, I'm very pleased with it and glad that many of the reviews have been positive thus far.

    'Proper media criticism' will do me for now and I'll happily take all the other positives you offer here along with your other points.

  • OHH! I am SO glad that I knew exactly which one would be the good one (I've been reading Frank's stuff and his reviews for BTS have always been some of my go-to pieces). You're right about design, which is a real shame because his content deserves better. I hope he picks up on this review as well.

    I really need to buy my copy of this because I am exactly the sort of reader who devours media crit of this quality.

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