Saturday, February 03, 2007


Squinting For Bargains

While peering fuzzily around London the other day, I spent some of the time I might profitably have used researching glasses looking for other bargains. Doctor Who bargains, particularly, though also the odd bit of chocolate. I know it’s a little late for the January sales, but there are still a few decent sales around. The reductions on Doctor Who toys were disappointing, but if you want to pick up The Doctor Who Storybook 2007 or Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2007, hurry and you can still find them at many bookshops for £1.99, or even 99p. Going fast!

When I was a boy, The Doctor Who Annual was a regular Christmas fixture. I loved them, though they tended to be a bit bonkers. The stories were bizarre, the pictures surreal (not least because they’d usually only paid to use Tom Baker’s image and came up with strange new versions of other characters), and they had only the faintest connection to anything in the proper series. My favourite remains the 1977 Annual, largely for the stunning and deeply weird artwork. These days the rights have reverted to the BBC, so they’ve started including them in pdf form on some of the DVDs: you can find the 1977 Annual on The Hand of Fear, while I’ve reviewed the ludicrously violent 1971 Annual as part of the Inferno DVD.

The Annual made a comeback in 2005 with the return of the TV series, with that summer seeing publication of The Doctor Who Annual 2006 from Panini, publishers of Doctor Who Magazine. It was fun and much in the style of the old Annuals, with thrilling adventures in time and space both in comic strip and text form joined by puzzles and informative features (including an outrageously fannish extrapolation of the canon from one Russell T Davies), though – unlike the way they used to work – this one had lots of pictures from the proper series and was largely accurate, which was forgivable if not quite in the spirit of the thing. This clearly sold so well that last year the BBC decided to produce the Annual themselves, while raking in more cash by still licensing Panini to produce their Annual-format The Doctor Who Storybook 2007. So it was distinctly dubious for the BBC to label theirs Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2007, as if Panini’s was some unofficial knock-off instead of something from which the BBC were getting a great deal of money. Still, it worked; for the first time in many decades, The Beano Annual was knocked off its plinth as biggest-selling Annual, and Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2007 replaced it. I don’t know the comparative sales figures for The Storybook, but how do the two compare in terms of quality…?

Well, at first glance The Storybook looks classy and The Official Annual like a piece of cheap tat. And that’s pretty much true, but I felt a little better-disposed towards the latter after actually reading it. Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2007 is the one with the hologram of Christopher Eccleston morphing into David Tennant on the cover, the smaller number of pages, the very large type and the minimum of creative input. There are no text stories, and the two large, friendly comic strips – though with a certain stylised quality to the artwork – are cheap knock-off reprints from Doctor Who Adventures comic, which is really cheating. They’re also the only artwork in there, with everything else just photos – a sign of it all being put together in a hurry. So what’s there to like about it? Well, I have to admit I got quite caught up in the fun of the games and puzzle pages (that maze was jolly difficult, you know) and the Know Your Enemy files were very entertaining (just like the old Doctor Who Weekly). And who could resist the Is Your Teacher An Alien quiz? There’s even, in the style of the old Annuals, a genuine factual feature on the planets of the solar system – though, tragically, it became out of date between being sent to the printers and reaching shop shelves…

The Doctor Who Storybook 2007 has had far more care and creativity poured into it. Each of the text stories (and the comic strip, not reprinted from anywhere else) is lavishly illustrated by a different artist, so the whole thing looks gorgeous and has plenty of scary bits. It even opens with a flippant ‘letter from the Doctor’ in the style of the old Doctor Who Weekly. I loved Tom Macrae’s scientific fairy tale Once Upon a Time, accompanied by strikingly stylised art from Adrian Salmon, and was also rather taken by Andy Walker’s art for Gravestone House (regular readers of its author, Justin Richards, will not be surprised to learn that it features the walking dead). Nick Briggs’ No One Died provides some lovely moments of horror and striking mental as well as pictorial images (but can Nick draw?). And I’d also go with Steve Moffat’s disturbing Corner of the Eye, which is different in feel in several ways. I won’t spoil the twist, but the most refreshing difference from several of the stories is that, told to write a story for children, too many of them have said, ‘Hey! Why don’t I write a story with a kid in it? That’s original.’ When I was a boy, I tended to feel those sort of stories were talking down to me, and now I’m a bit bigger these feel a bit forced. So it’s a good collection, but not stunning.

The Storybook definitely wins for me, then, but I can’t help feeling it had something missing. A quiz or two, perhaps, or a fact-file. Definitely a game in the style of snakes and ladders (perhaps to escape a werewolf), and some vaguely Doctor Who-themed brain-teasers for which you have to turn to the back to find the answers. In fact, what it needed was a filler or six to break up the stories – exactly the sort of thing found in The Official Annual, which this year was nothing but filler pieces. So the ideal 2007 Doctor Who Annual could be made by tearing one of each in two and gluing them together (tip: don’t do this in the shop). Alternatively, you could just buy both, as of course I did, and did for Richard’s nephew. That’s who Annuals are for, after all.

Of course, if your local bookshop has sold out of both of these, most of them still have plenty of Beano Annuals lying around, though I’ve not looked at those. Everywhere also seems to have such huge piles of unsold Superman Returns Annuals that I almost took pity and bought one. But not quite.

I did also have a look around to see if anyone had reduced the price of Character Online’s fabulous but extensive and rather expensive line of Doctor Who toys. No luck, it seems, though Woolworth’s have two of the items on sale. One is the ‘Animatronic Cyberman’, reduced from £29.99 to £19.99, a foot-tall monster on a plinth that’s apparently designed as a ‘room guard’ and which turns from side to side and speaking when activated. I’m sure it’s meant to look very ferocious, but unfortunately a silver, over-muscled figure that gyrates from side to side on a plinth and sounds like Cher is impossible not to think of as an ‘Animatronic Disco Bunny’. I’m not sure how many varieties it comes in, either, as I’ve noticed a couple of boxes with the brain-exposed Cyber Controller, one of which was labelled an ‘Animatronic Cyber Leader’ (though, confusingly, I’ve seen none with the black ‘handlebars’ of a Cyber Leader). The other ‘sale’ item, down from £49.99 to £29.99, is the ‘TARDIS Cooler’. This is essentially a tiny fridge with a TARDIS-shaped door, and is possibly the most bizarre piece of Doctor Who merchandising ever sold. Who would buy such a ridiculous thing? Oh, I admit it. I did. Bargain!

Points down to Woollies’, though, for now selling Cadbury’s Melts only at full price. Before Christmas they were doing them at two for £2, and I bought rather too many of the ‘Deliciously Dark’ variety. If you’ve not seen them, these are flat sticks of Dairy Milk filled with dark chocolate truffle, and they’re extremely nice. They also have the advantage that, unlike a bar that I’d just guzzle, there are eight individually wrapped Melts in a pack, so I don’t eat them all at once. Well, not all the time. I was even considering buying a cigarette case in which to carry a supply around with me, but at £1.29 for a pack they seem a little pricey… Still, with Easter a mere two months away (start that countdown for Doctor Who), at least they’re doing ‘buy two, get one free’ on Mini-Eggs, so I won’t starve.

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