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TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who by Piers Britton (review)
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There is no shortage of academic studies of Doctor Who these days, and into this vortex of scholarship tumbles Piers Britton's TARDISbound. Britton's distinctive contribution is to focus on Doctor Who across media: not just the television series, but also Big Finish audios, the Virgin New Adventures, assorted BBC book ranges and New Series Adventures. His starting point is deceptively simple: Doctor Who can no longer be theorised purely as a television show (if it ever really could be; after all, its merchandising stretches back to mid-1960s 'Dalekmania').

From that initial idea, TARDISbound builds into an impressive series of thematic essays, repeatedly challenging received wisdom. I think it is a shame, though, that the question of canon - are the audios and 'tie-ins' really Doctor Who? - is fairly rapidly dispensed with. By setting the canon issue to one side, TARDISbound does not engage in detail with fan readings, conflicts and hierarchies. Instead, Britton displaces canon with the concept of Doctor Who as palimpsest, its narratives erasing earlier versions whilst leaving their discontinuous traces in place. This certainly challenges fandom to consider Who anew, but I think intricacies of canonicity might still have merited further study in a book on cross-media Doctor Who.

In chapter 1, Britton sharply emphasises that the 'hyperdiegesis' of Who 'is at best rickety' (22). The show has never cohered into a single, unified narrative world; the 'Whoniverse' is fractured, inconsistent and contradictory, and interpretive work always has to be carried out in order to set it into some sort of (provisional) unity. However, this 'failure' (and the quotation marks are Britton's rather than mine) leads to Doctor Who's 'rich and complex accretion of ideas' across time, production teams and media (17). The issue of potential failures returns again later in the book, where Britton discusses how telefantasy has often been devalued. He notes that from a perspective valuing realism the 'salient question' would be 'why Doctor Who "fails" to be like supposedly serious (realist) fiction' (155). It is a question, and a perspective, that Britton starkly refutes, arguing for the genre-specific aesthetics of telefantasy. As a result, the issue of Doctor Who's possible failure is again placed in neutralising scare quotes. Britton welcomes analysis of how the television series is aesthetically 'good' television, and what it is ethically good for, but within these processes the issue of failure is only rarely taken seriously. Doctor Who 'fails' but it does not fail; as an object of (scholar-fan) study it appears to be largely insulated from critique. Perhaps ironically, one of Britton's most critical readings of the show concerns Russell T. Davies's use of triumphalism:

With the Tenth Doctor ... the texts became more rhapsodic in celebration of his messianic status ... and more bombastic in trumpeting his 'victories' than ... ever before ... [Wayne] Booth writes of such 'resounding endings' as being among 'the seductions of conventional form' ... which massively reduce life's complexities, hyperbolically polarize virtue and vice, and produce endings characterized by impossible fulfillment.

(205)

Where BBC Wales' Doctor Who has been most celebratory of the Doctor's powers, Britton is least celebratory. In fact, he reads these positive images very negatively, as a reduction of complexity. And inversely, Britton interprets Paul Magrs's Iris Wildthyme stories via Theodor Adorno's work on 'negative aesthetics', arguing that the term

'negative' is [in] many ways an unfortunate one for the Wildthyme stories. To understand them as ethically positive is to recognize that they ... enrich and complicate [the Doctor's] ... role by extending it beyond some of the affirmative platitudes of the adventure genre.

(203)

Given that Britton begins with an acknowledgement of Doctor Who's jumbled 'skein of texts' (22), I cannot help but wonder whether his own arguments gradually become tangled up in their own continuity. Arguing for a genre-specific valorisation of telefantasy (extending beyond television), Britton is nevertheless happy to belittle the 'platitudes' of the 'adventure genre' rather than reading this via genre-specific aesthetics, seemingly contra his approach to telefantasy. And although he challenges 'traditional markers of aesthetic excellence - harmony and unity, integrity and intensity, sophistication and depth' (159), these very markers return throughout the...



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