Books By some measure, in the year two thousand Doctor Who was experiencing one its most fertile periods of the wilderness years. Big Finish was in full swing having quickly shifted to a monthly release schedule after the unexpected interested in their initial releases (available on cassette and cd back then) (for goodness sake), BBC Audio (the old name for AudioGo) began properly releasing the narrated missing episodes on audio, The Robots of Death fired off regular dvd releases of the available stories, BBV was still producing the odd thing notably The Rani Reaps the Whirlwind and at BBC Books, the Eighth Doctor novels had reached a crucial moment with the partial reboot in The Burning with its ensuing "Earth arc" and the past Doctors range was heading into ever more experimental territory with Iris Wyldethyme making her debut in that line with Paul Magrs’s Verdigris and Dave Stone’s split-era curate’s egg, Heart of TARDIS. It was at the point of being made by fans for fans and everyone seemed happy with that.
In the middle of all that, BBC Books also saw fit to look at the slightly more bonkers history of the programme with the publication of Short Trips and Side Steps. The first Short Trips anthologies had been publishing in 1998 as an almost direct continuation of the Decalogue series from Virgin Books, allowing authors to turn ideas what weren’t long enough for a novels into shorter prose. Both of the first two books were pretty freewheeling in their own way, with direct sequels of television stories written in the first person or extrapolations of such fan concepts at season 6B, which back then meant a suggested series of missions for the Second Doctor before his exile to Earth rather than Mels, magnifying glasses and a minotaur. But they were still resolutely in keeping with the aims of the BBC’s existing two lines, especially the Eighth Doctor pieces which seemed designed to offer some psychological underpinnings to that series’s earlier, more simplistic instalments.
But Short Trips and Side Steps (edited by range stalwarts Jac Raynor and Stephen Cole) was different. Short Trips and Side Steps took a long look at Doctor Who’s history and wondered what would have happened if some of its more bonkers licensing excesses, the World Annuals, TV Action comics, the stage shows, Dimensions in Time had actually been viable versions of the programme, rather than what’s now usually considered apocrypha. Mike Tucker and Robert Perry’s Storm in a Tikka is a sequel to Dimensions which dovetails into Search Out Space. Countdown to TV Action by Gary Russell celebrates the version of the third Doctor who lived in a country house and travelled around in the car called Betsy. Justin Richards’s The House on Oldark Moor is another adventure for the TARDIS crew who featured in the 60s movies. The Ultimate Adventure’s Crystal, Zog, Jason return with their friend the Sixth Doctor return for Face Value by Steve Lyons. Season 6B’s back again too. Or is it?
About as free-wheeling a selection of Who prose ever published it had a precedent in Perfect Timing, a charity anthology produced a few years before produced by many of the same writers. That also took the view that all of Doctor Who in its media various incarnation was fair game, the authors intermixing stories about characters from “comics, novels, videos, cereal packets and more”. One of the stories is about how the Doctor’s final companion, upon witnessing his death decides to continue in his name with “all that entails” which sounds magnificent (PT is sadly unavailable now). Short Trips and Side Steps never quite scales the heights of some those stories, in which writers usually paid to write Who fiction within strict rules let rip with their best and worst fan fic excesses, there’s still enough experimental meat to set it aside from much of anything else in publication.
In the midst of the homages, are new alternatives. A future Doctor modelled on Merlin with his companion Guin. A Fifth Doctor and Peri story seemingly modelled on Wild, Wild West. A body swap story for the Sixth Doctor and Peri (yes, indeed) and one of my particular favourites, The Not-So Sinister Sponge, written by Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts in their earliest collaboration. There’s an element of in-jokery inherent in the anthology which would presumably befuddle some of the not we, especially Lawrence Miles’s final piece which is actually shorter than this sentence. But for someone like me who was just beginning the crawl back into the Whoniverse, it was like an entry drug reminding me of the merchandise I’d sold on, the stage shows I’d missed and just how flexible the format is, as we’ve discussed already capable of becoming all kinds of things while still inherently Doctor Who.
The Short Trips anthologies would later be revived by Big Finish, mixing in some of the spirit of the Decalogues so that the short fictions appeared within some kind of umbrella story or overarching thematic connection as well as Perfect Timings as they invited in characters from other licensees (thanks to authors retaining the copyright on their own characters), but they eventually ended (and now sell for hilariously large prices on ebay). Big Finish in general also continued the spirit of Short Trips and Side Steps in particular with audio adaptations of the stage shows and creating a new sequel and by heralding in the Eighth Doctor’s various companions on the audio anthology A Company of Friends while introducing a new one. No further adventures for the Cushing incarnation yet, but surely Cribbins would be game for something in the style of the The Lost Years recreations of previous unproduced stories?
But part of me wishes BBC Books would revive them again themselves especially in the digital age, with the Puffin releases and their own recently announced ebooks demonstrating that there’s a potential market for them. Particularly in this anniversary year, why isn’t BBC Books turning out anthologies mixing the various eras of the show, short pieces featuring the first eleven Doctors alongside new adventures for Sarah Jane and gang along with Torchwood? I’m now enough of a fan to notice that weirdness that the nature of nuWho licensing means that this year’s celebratory releases aside, only the newest incarnation features in new merchandised stories, nothing for 9th or 10th, which in old Who terms would have been like only putting out TARGET novelisations of Peter Davison stories when he was the Doctor. If nothing else, Short Trips and Side Steps reminds us of the franchise’s rich history and how much can be gained from investigating it.