What's happened to the Doctor Who Annual?

Books  In the past week I've finally managed to get my hands on a copy of this year's Doctor Who Annual thanks to Blackwells.  It's fair to say I was whelmed.  Again.  Now I'm obviously not the target audience for these volumes, anyone over the age of ten probably isn't, but compared to the editions of even yesterday it feels threadbare, particularly in the area of original fiction.  

Amid the factual pieces and games there's a charming single story which allows veteran writer Steve Cole to tick the fourteenth Doctor off his list, one of the rare few.  A version of the Doctor with David Tennant's face has a rematch with the Sycorax, so there are plenty of callbacks to The Christmas Invasion.  

It's marked as "A Brand New Adventure" which it would have been on the day of publication, 7 September 2023.  But some kids opening and reading it on Christmas Day might have been a bit disappointed they also received the anthology, Ten Days of Christmas, which also features the same story, topping and tailing a series of Tenth Doctor stories and listed on the cover as an "exclusive" which was published a month after this.

It's not quite the same.  Whereas the whole story is as prose in the anthology, the annual offers a comic strip adaptation of the second half.  It's drawn by Doctor Who Adventures vet John Ross with his bold, brash, colourful style.  Nevertheless it is a pre-print of material which was due to be published again month later and could potentially have led to some parents paying twice for the same thing.  How did we get to this point?

Some history.  As probably everyone reading this will know, Doctor Who Annuals have been in publication since the mid-60s and this isn't the first occasion material has been reprinted.  Elements of annuals reappeared in omnibus form.  The first spin-off fiction I came across was at Speke Library, who had a copy of the Adventures in Time and Space anthology which collected material representing most of the previous annuals.  But it was a separate publication to the annual publications.

When the show returned, the 2006 annual included material written by the new showrunner and stories by all of the writers from the first series, all of whom had previous contributed to spin-off ventures so knew what was required.  Steven Moffat would later adapt his story What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow into the best Doctor Who story ever made that isn't Caves of Androzani, Blink.

The annual was a massive success for Panini, also publishers of Doctor Who Magazine and so the license was obviously handed over to someone else, namely the BBC Children's Books imprint of Penguin who've been producing it to this day.  The 2007 annual was a more simplistic affair with the flavour of the Doctor Who Adventures magazine in publication at the time, to the point of including a reprint of a strip from issue 2.

Russell T Davies was quite cross about this and rightly so.  Unfortunately I've been unable to trace the source for his annoyance, be it in a Doctor Who Magazine interview, Production Notes or The Writer's Tale.  I'm sure I haven't hallucinated it.  Either way he said that he'd make sure that it wouldn't happen again and it didn't.

Up until the 2020 edition, even after he'd left the show, every annual included some kind of original Doctor Who story, comics or prose or both varying in length and complexity.  Paul Lang, the senior designer of  Doctor Who Adventures, continued the tradition of publication even after it ended publication by essentially creating a new hardbacked edition of it each year which continued right through to the Thirteenth Doctor's first year.

But in the Doctor Who Annual 2020, something changed.  Published in 2019 (so pre-pandemic), this had a rather perfunctory episode guide (mixed with some puzzles) bracketed by two lengthy prose stories, nicely illustrated by George Ermos and Lauren Wills.  But the reader might be forgiven for finding them familiar - they were both reprints from books originally published in 2018, an excerpt from David Solomons'  The Secret in Vault 13 and The Rhino of Twenty-Three Strand Street from David Rudden's anthology Twelve Angels Weeping.

At the time this seemed like a rip-off.  Avid fans who read every new book as they're published will have seen these before and although the pictures are rather lovely, there'll be some kids or their parents who will have paid £7.99 for second hand material and what amounted to adverts for other books and even if they wouldn't have otherwise noticed, the adverts for those publications at the end of each story would have indicated such.  

After years and years of brilliant or at least unusual Christmas treats going into 2020, buyers of the annuals were handed something which had been re-gifted, shameless reprints from earlier sources and that's continued.  To be fair the Amazon and Good Reads pages for the book suggest that people were happy enough with their purchase with a fair few five-stars around.  But actual reviews often note that these stories are reprints and isn't it a shame?

The 2021 annual was a slight improvement.  The synopses within the episode guide are written as first person diary entries by the Doctor and the fam and at the end there's a section which ties in to the next year's Time Lord Victorious event, with River Song in her Melody Malone alter ego introducing the various characters and races who'd be appearing.  This is all new material even if it isn't a story exactly, more like another advert for all the other product.

But then the only fiction in the 2022 is a four page retelling in photo comic format of the first episode of the Daleks! animated story which was the Doctor Who YouTube channel's contribution to Time Lord Victorious, ending on a cliffhanger and a suggesting that readers should go there to see the conclusion.  Another reprint of existing material in a slightly different form.  Screenshotting the thing and adding speech bubbles is a technical and design achievement, but what's it for?

Fair play to the Official 60th Anniversary Annual 2023, which includes a blisteringly fun (almost) complete history of the Doctor written from the thirteenth Doctor's POV, wittily recapping some of the show's madness over the years, suggesting that Sixy did indeed regenerate after falling off his exercise bike and under the subheading "the wilderness years" noting in the wake of Seventh:

"everything went a bit quiet for a while.  There are no visual records of any of my adventures for a long time - although there are written archives."

There certainly are kids, a whole era of adventures, "Too Broad and Deep for the Small Screen" and in some case too pornographic, but I digress.  

Except the centrepiece of the book, at a moment which should be celebrating Jodie Whittaker's final year in the role and looking ahead to the future of the series, is "Clara Oswald and the Enchanted Forest" by Jasbinder Bilan featuring a character which hadn't been in the show for over five years which at the end we discover is pre-print from the Origin Stories anthology.

Which means since the comic strips in the 2019 edition, the hasn't been any original fiction exclusive to the Doctor Who Annual and in some cases, it's entirely possible that someone could receive books containing the same stories on Christmas Day which I'm sorry to say is a rip-off by the publisher, Penguin Random House UK, that otherwise has a sparkling track record in new Doctor Who fiction, from their new TARGET novelisations to the aforementioned anthologies.  Serious, they're otherwise brilliant.

What editorial decisions have led to this shift?  If it's budgetary, it's hard to see why they can't justify commissioning a writer or two to create new stories on top of the sterling design work, for what is sure to be one of their biggest sellers of the year at £9.99 a pop even if the paper and printing does cost more these days.  If it's because of a crush on deadlines, plan earlier.  If it's creative, a way of offering a shop window for other publications which might not have the same cache, well, that's just cynical.

There's a possibility that someone reading this, assuming they've come this far will know the answer to this and there's a perfectly reasonable explanation and honestly, I wrote most of this as a way of finding that out.  If, as ever, that I'm entirely off-base I'll be happy to edit this or even take it down.  I've tried desperately not to criticise individuals but the whole annual as published entity and everything which leads to it being like this.

Why does this matter?  Apart from diminishing the legacy of the annuals and making them something less than (especially now Panini's separate "Storybooks" or "Brilliant Books" don't exist any more), I'm just thinking about what it will be like for some parents and kids each Christmas.  Annuals used to be special events and at a cost of £9.99 this year, it feels like Penguin, outside of the editorial matter, are taking advantage of readers by not giving them value for money and instead offering up something they might already own.