Book: Being Human: Unofficial and Unauthorised
Author: Joanne Black
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
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
- I think there are interesting parallels to be drawn and similar points to be made
- 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"?
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.
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.