The history of Doctor Who spans 50+ years of TV broadcast, radio plays, print publications, video games, and several spinoff series, which means that there are lots of places for newbies to dive in, and not all of them are easy starting points. For those first approaching Doctor Who through print, the short story collection 11 Doctors, 11 Stories is one of the best ways to do it (and is also a fine read even for established Whovians.)
For the uninitiated, Doctor Who follows a Time Lord known as The Doctor as he travels through time and space, usually with one or more companions, but always with the aid of his trusty Sonic Screwdriver and intermittently trusty TARDIS (a.k.a. iconic-blue-police-box-slash-time-and-space-traveling-machine). As a Time Lord, he cannot die, but rather regenerates into a different form whenever death-like circumstances require it.
He might also be the most powerful being in any of the series’ universes, simply because he can speak total BS and use it to world-rendingly save the day: He’s been poisoned? No prob, he’ll just eat some walnuts and ginger beer and then burp it out in a cloud of magic Time Lord smoke. The day generally looks hopeless? Give him some complicated space-and-time-pseudo-science babble and a random mundane object and THAT MESS IS FIXED. The Doctor Who canon never formally acknowledges this superpower, just as it never acknowledges the fact that the time-traveling structure of the series renders every bit of tension that happens null and void when you even try to think about it. That said, its consistency is a hot mess, but it’s also a fun, whimsical, and refreshingly optimistic series, and that alone makes it worth a try.
As of this writing, the series has moved up to its Twelfth Doctor (well, Thirteenth, but that’s a tale for a decided Whovian), which is one reason why this anthology is such a good starting point. Each story in the collection follows a different one of the then-eleven Doctors and thus provides a good series primer. The stories themselves have impressive pedigrees for the YA sci-fi and fantasy crowd, coming from the pens of Neil Gaiman, Patrick Ness, Eoin Colfer, Philip Reeve, and others, which gives the anthology the added benefit of exposing readers to some of the finest writers in this genre, all in one place.
Unfortunately, this pedigree doesn’t always equal absolute goodness. The first two entries are easily the anthology’s weakest. Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor opener “A Big Hand for the Doctor” suffers from a bland, action-oriented plot. Action has never been one of Doctor Who’s strengths, considering that the Doctor’s favorite battle strategies consist of running or distracting enemies until he can drop a convenient plot bomb. There is no plot bomb in this story, either, which makes it seem like a huge waste of the infinite BS possibilities of the Doctor Who universe. The story also features a lot of random, misplaced elements that feel like they belong in another story, sometimes because they literally do; the Gnommish language from Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series makes an inexplicable appearance, and a late story twist credits the Doctor’s adventure with the creation of another classic, beloved story that, in the context of this adventure, is also inexplicable. Overall the entry reads like Colfer forgot that he was assigned to write the thing and so turned in the first draft that he scrawled out, which is disappointing because 1) when he’s writing in his own worlds, Colfer is one of my favorite writers, and 2) the story could have been pretty cool if fully developed. As for the Second Doctor, I literally remembered nothing about Michael Scott’s “The Nameless City” when I sat down to write this review (two days after reading it).
Fortunately, the rest of the anthology vworps in like the TARDIS on a good day and saves everything. BSery aside, the real strength of the Doctor Who series is its ability to craft clever, quirky storylines around whatever random props the BBC had lying around its lot at the time. Obviously, a book does not have the same type of budget limitations as a TV series, but the stories in this anthology are written in keeping with the series’ rag-and-bone spirit.
Marcus Sedgwick’s Third Doctor tale “The Spear of Destiny” is a prime example of the series’ strengths. I mean, it’s got museums, Vikings, uniquely Whovian explanations of how certain historical events really went down (you know, time magic and stuff), and plenty of well-placed twists. You can’t really go wrong with that, and it doesn’t.
Philip Reeve’s “The Roots of Evil” only adds to the momentum, setting its adventure on a space-station-that-is-really-an-enormous-complex-sentient-populated-tree-that-exists-solely-to-kill-The-Doctor (Fourth, in this case). It’s in this story and the previous that the collection begins to actually feel like a genuine entry into the Doctor Who canon, combining the series’ distinct eccentricity (All the alien names are elaborate commentaries on The Doctor’s intended fate) with a thoroughly fascinating, whimsical setting.
These elements all cumulate in Patrick Ness’ Fifth Doctor tale “Tip of the Tongue,” which may be the best entry in the anthology. In this tale, Truth Tellers have become all the rage in World War II-era Maine. These devices speak absolute truths about the people at whom the wearer directs them, which, predictably, leads to all sorts of unpleasantness. However, most of the entry’s conflict comes not from the fantastical elements, but the tensions that are inherent in its main characters being, respectively, biracial and a German Jew in a time period that was especially unfriendly to both. The story manages a delicate balance of quirk and respect for the darker elements of history (and those who suffered them), which is a mark shared with some of the finer episodes of the TV series.
Richelle Mead’s “Something Borrowed” gives readers a break from the serious, taking the Sixth Doctor on a romp through a planet modeled on the ridiculousness of Las Vegas. The fact that it involves an alien Las Vegas wedding and mini-pterodactyls tells you all you need to know about the colorful wackiness of this one.
Malorie Blackman takes readers back to the serious with the intriguing “The Ripple Effect,” in which the Seventh Doctor accidentally re-writes the universe (yep) and must decide whether to leave it as is or revert back to the original universe. This decision is complicated by the presence of the Daleks; in the original universe, the Daleks are an indiscriminately murderous race (which, after Classic Who, becomes partly responsible for the annihilation of the Time Lords and thus a whole lot of dramatic Last Time Lord angst). However, in this new universe, the Daleks are so docile and benevolent that they give lectures about bad manners! Most of the tension in this story comes from the Doctor himself, who can’t fathom a universe with such Daleks, and it’s interesting to watch his moral dilemma unfold.
After this, Alex Scarrow finishes up the Classic Who with his Eighth Doctor tale “Spore,” which is easily the creepiest piece in the collection. Much of what makes it cool can’t be revealed without revealing spoilers (and thus reducing the creep factor), but the twists behind all the creepiness rendered it another of my favorites.
The anthology enters the New Who timeline with Charlie Higson’s “The Beast of Babylon.” This story is notable for assigning the Ninth Doctor an unexpected sort of companion, and also for a clever twist that ends up setting it inside the first episode of the re-imagined TV show. Higson’s depiction of the Doctor is spot-on, too; the Ninth Doctor’s voice clicked effortlessly into my head the moment he first spoke in the story. (Not that the previous Doctors don’t sound like themselves; I’m simply not familiar enough with Classic Who to comment on the accuracy of those depictions.)
Derek Landy takes the Tenth Doctor into literary territory in “The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage,” plunging the Doctor into a mysterious world constructed around his companion’s favorite childhood book series, The Troubleseekers. Despite revolving around a fictional series of books, the story has the same charm as the TV series’ literature-related episodes (even if the reveals are a little underwhelming) and Landy’s writing style is well-matched to the Tenth Doctor’s personality.
Finally, Neil Gaiman finishes the anthology with the Eleventh Doctor story “Nothing O’Clock.” Here, a dangerous race known as The Kin has escaped from a defunct Time Lord prison and is up to no good on 1980s Earth. The story borrows from current showrunner Steven Moffat’s tendency to take mundane things and make them terrifying—in this case, people in amusing masks, innocent questions, and selling a house. Its twists and world building rank it among the best (i.e. most coherent) Eleventh Doctor tales, and the writing, being Neil Gaiman’s, is the most charming in the anthology (if you like Neil Gaiman, as I do).
As a whole, then, the anthology more than overcomes its underwhelming start. Whether you’re an established Whovian or a noob who still abbreviates the show as Dr. Who (DON’T), 11 Doctors, 11 Stories is definitely worth reading.