Doctor Who had had its own magazine for two years by the time Blake’s 7 Monthly launched. After just over a year of being published weekly, the magazine went monthly. On the cover of issue 57 it is simply titled Doctor Who, but inside it’s clear that the contributors now consider the magazine to be called Doctor Who Monthly. As such, like some of Marvel’s other monthly magazines, it gets the lovely cover tagline of “A Marvel Monthly”.
The publication is still going today as Doctor Who Magazine and I’m a regular reader. Having started buying it after the show returned in 2005, I’ve always been curious about the magazine’s earlier years and how it developed. A look at the Weekly issues shows that it was aimed at a fairly young readership but this has soon changed and the language used now indicates that it’s aiming older.
Let’s take a look at some of the features from October 1981.
Doctor Who Letters
There was a time when magazines would publish the complete details of its letter writers: name, age and full address. I’m relieved that this has changed by October 1981 in Doctor Who Monthly.
Among the letter writers printed in this issue is Rusl Davies of West Glamorgan. If the name and location weren’t enough to conjure up an image of future showrunner Russell T Davies, the voice in the letter sealed it for me, perhaps partly because I read his Production Notes articles in the magazine 25 years later. Young ‘Rusl’ would have been 18 at this time.
Rusl feels that “since issue 50 or so, [the magazine] has truly found its own voice, with a perfect balance of articles”. As the magazine went monthly shortly before that with issue 44, this does sound perfectly reasonable. He includes some pleasing turns of phrase, adding, “From now on, provided there are no massive alterations, you can take the superlatives for granted.”
He’s mostly happy with things, but it seems the magazine has recently made a change as he implores, “But where are the back page colour pin-ups? bring them back, I command thee!” The back page has now been commandeered by an advert and the monetary benefit to Marvel for a full page colour advert must outweigh the desire for pin-ups, although unfortunately this now means the only colour photographs in the magazine are those on the cover.
I commented on the cost of Marvel’s magazines when looking at Blake’s 7 Monthly. There is at least one reader who is willing to pay more for some colour pages. Peter Hale of Emsworth is jealous of his brother’s copies of Starburst and says he “would not mind paying about 10p extra” for a couple of colour pages. Perhaps Blake’s 7 Monthly‘s higher price will be alright after all.
Rusl also requests that the magazine avoids photographs that cross the centrefold because they are never printed properly aligned. They have yet to pay heed as this is in evidence across issue 57. A dark patch on the contents page also renders the editorial address largely indecipherable. Even before reading the rest of the magazine though, I knew Rusl was probably right as I’ve previously come across early issues with text disappearing off the edge of the page. I know much of the typesetting for newspapers was still manual at this time and have assumed that magazines were also similarly constrained, though I’m not entirely sure.
The Gallifrey Guardian is the magazine’s news section and I find this and the letters’ page the most intriguing parts of these old issues. I feel slightly itchy about this version of the Gallifrey Guardian having so many different fonts on a single page – there is a different one for every headline.
Doctor Who is between seasons and the next one – Season 19 – is due to start in January with new Doctor Peter Davison. If I was to time travel properly to October 1981 right now, I’d be pleased by the scheduling as Doctor Who will help fill the Blake’s 7 hole in my life once it’s off the air again. I’d also be cheered by the news here that Fiona Cumming (here as “Cummings”) is directing Castrovalva because I enjoyed her directing in Series C of Blake’s 7, especially for Rumours of Death.
Midweek Slot For New Series
The big news this issue is that Doctor Who is moving from its traditional Saturday evening slot and will instead be shown twice in the week. The justification that this has worked well for Blake’s 7, Star Trek and Sapphire and Steel seems reasonable and the magazine considers a move to around seven o’clock “Promotion indeed”.
Whether the BBC saw it that way is another matter – it seems more likely that they realised the old time slot had been a disaster. Season 18 went out at five o’clock and “did not fare as well as it might have done”. This is quite the understatement; the average episode ratings for Season 17 had been the best Doctor Who had ever had yet fell by more than half for Season 18 to become the worst ever. They did improve slightly and it’s telling that the Audience Appreciation Index scores weren’t too different. The change of time slot would pay off for Season 19, which achieved much improved viewing figures.
There is good news for viewers missing robot dog K-9 as the BBC has commissioned his own show. It’s currently going by the title Sarah and K-9 but the 50-minute special will eventually be broadcast in December 1981 as K-9 and Company.
This is significant for being Doctor Who‘s first spinoff, which Doctor Who Monthly notes. It’s great to read the excitement in the piece here as I grew up with Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures while being aware of the Virgin New Adventures books and an ever-growing catalogue of Big Finish stories, so I suppose I’ve taken Doctor Who‘s expanded universe for granted a little. I also love the opening to this story that describes the announcement as having occurred, “following a fierce campaign of letter writing by ardent fans of the Doctor’s mechanical friend”.
Although producer John Nathan-Turner hoped for a series, nothing more would come of K-9 and Company. I’d always assumed the viewing figures were poor, but at 8.4 million they are better than any episode from Season 18 and appear perfectly decent for a 5.45pm broadcast.
Matrix Data Bank
The font on this page is the smallest for any feature in the magazine. There seems to be a lot they want to fit in to its single page. One thing to note for Doctor Who Monthly in comparison to Blake’s 7 Monthly is that it does credit some of the contributors for its features and the Matrix Data Bank‘s questions are being answered by Jeremy Bentham.
Sylvia Finch from Exeter asks why there are so few women involved in Doctor Who‘s production. The reply is, frankly, crap. Sylvia is told that there are plenty of women working in make-up, costumes and as assistants to male producers and directors, plus – hey, we started with Verity Lambert! The show has had two female directors in the past and has another coming next season, so why aren’t you happy with that? Anyway, there aren’t really many female scriptwriters, especially for science-fiction. Hope this is of some comfort when you see the names on the credits each week, Sylvia.
Trevor St. John from Coningsby wants to know “why animated optical effects are not used in Doctor Who in the same way that they are used in feature films and American science fiction series”. I feel for you, Trevor because there is no glossing over the fact that watching Doctor Who at this time might be a bit of a comedown after you’ve been to see Star Wars. A few years later, it’s understandable that he’s wondering why the BBC still can’t do the same things on Doctor Who. I like that Jeremy’s reply manages to get around the matter of budgets by instead focussing on the differences between shooting on film and videotape. He tells us that the series uses the “Quantel Image Processor, [and] the new generation of Colour Separation Overlay machines” and can do pretty much anything it wants. He stresses that “it is only ever the inhibiting factor of time that can make some effects look less convincing than they could be”.
Comic: Doctor Who and the Free Fall Warriors
This comic reminded me of Blake’s 7 Monthly‘s Mission of Mercy because it is similarly centred around a big space battle. The Fourth Doctor is travelling with various aliens, having been invited aboard a ship of stuntmen, which partly explains why we never see his TARDIS. We don’t see much of the Doctor himself either and he isn’t really involved in the story, so I was a little disappointed – I felt like I was following the exploits of some random aliens, all while waiting for the Doctor to jump into action, and he never did.
I assumed that all the Marvel UK comics would have the same artistic style but this one is different from Blake’s 7 Monthly. The drawings themselves aren’t quite so realistic here and rather than using different shades to represent tone, this comic uses lines, dots, or cross-hatching. Dave Gibbons is credited as the artist for Doctor Who and the Free Fall Warriors but Blake’s 7 Monthly gives no credit for its comic contributors. Doctor Who Monthly readers certainly appreciate the comic as Rusl Davies’ letter calls the magazine out for missing the credits off the previous issue’s comic.
Doctor Who Episode Guide
My idea of an episode guide is the BBC website’s Doctor Who: The Classic Series section. I know the exact web address from 15 years ago, despite it having changed, and, despite it now being archived and certain links being redirected, I still use it because that’s how my head organises Doctor Who from 1963-1989 and I know where to quickly find production codes.
Besides episode guides, that BBC sub-site also contained photonovels and within months of discovering Doctor Who I was able to eagerly consume the Second Doctor’s missing stories through text, telesnaps and the occasional video or sound clip. The magnificence of this struck me as I looked at Doctor Who Monthly‘s episode guides and realised how little access there was to these stories at that time. The magazine provides a short synopsis of each episode and some useful factual information like broadcast dates, cast lists and production codes.
This issue covers from The Evil of the Daleks to The Enemy of the World and in 1981 not a single episode from any of them existed in the BBC archives anymore. We can all have a small cry about the fact that just six years earlier ABC in Australia sent copies of them all back and the BBC junked the lot, along with several others. I’m not sure when the magazine’s readers would have first known about the extent of this.
It’s nice to know from here in the future that 16 out of these 29 episodes would eventually be returned, with two stories now complete. In 1981, the closest anyone can get to them is through a Target novelisation and The Evil of the Daleks would not be published for another 12 years yet.
Elsewhere in the magazine, there is another regular feature called The Doctor Who Archives and this focuses on a single story but provides far more in-depth details about the plot.
Interview: John Friedlander
I found this interview with sculptor John Friedlander fantastically interesting. He was responsible for creating numerous monsters while working for the BBC’s Visual Effects department. The magazine gives eight pages to his interview and much of it is occupied with large photographs of his creations.
The feature goes into detail about whether rubber or fibreglass or something else was used, and how Friedlander took the cast of an actor’s face. I was interested that he usually just took a cast of one person and that the masks were not custom-built for every actor. The impression throughout the interview is that the department was massively constrained by costs and had to become more creative. There also seem to have been internal wranglings between different departments within the BBC that Friedlander eventually got frustrated with.
There is a double spread for this competition that offers readers some impressive prizes, including three black and white portable television sets. A black and white portable was smaller and considerably cheaper than a regular colour set. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but I think the competition ones might by from Pye. In 1981 you could get a 12 inch Pye set for £65.99 (around £254.80 today), while a 14 inch colour one would set you back £199.99 (£772.20 today). Nonetheless, that £65.99 is still a large sum at the time so this would be a fantastic prize, especially for younger readers.
These sets were ‘portable’ in the sense that you could run them off a car battery, with the expectation that you might take them camping for instance. However, they also made a useful second set at a time when more video game consoles were entering the home.
Anecdotally, I know that some Doctor Who viewers were banished from the main living room television set when they became outvoted on the evening’s viewing during the 1980s. As a result, some were watching in another room on one of these black and white sets because the rest of the family wanted to watch The A-Team. I love The A-Team, so I’m sympathetic to both sides.
It’s interesting that while Doctor Who Monthly seems like it’s providing more for older readers, it is also still aware that it has a younger audience too. That’s made clear here by the results of a previous competition that are split into “Under 10s” and “10 and over”.