Monday, 21 April 2014

DWAITAS: 4th Doctor Sourcebook

The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook was always going to be the most challenging for Cubicle 7 to pull off, at least among the first seven of the series. There are a number of reasons for this, starting with the simple observation that there are far more televised stories for this era than for any other. Each of the first three books spent an average of about four and a half pages per story, filling out the remainder of the 160 pages available with a broader overview and rules.

The 4th Doctor has 41 televised stories: you can immediately see why the arithmetic there is going to pose a problem.

Many multi-volume guidebooks of Doctor Who history have addressed this issue by splitting the era between two volumes. Cubicle 7, however, have taken the approach of just giving us more. This volume is a full 256 pages, over half again the length of the others. It's also noticeably jam-packed with content to an even greater extent than in the three we've already seen. 

However, sheer length alone is not the only problem with bringing the 4th Doctor era to life. The audience is likely to be demanding, since this era is widely acknowledged as the best and most popular of the entire classic run. In polls to determine people's "favourite Doctor", only the 10th regularly offers up any challenge (and which of the two comes out on top largely depends on the demographics of your poll respondents). Looking specifically at the classic era, polls of "favourite DW stories" are dominated by Tom Baker, with over half of the entries in any top ten typically coming from this period.

So there's a lot to live up to, but there's also a considerable variety. The Pertwee era has a cohesion because, the very first story aside, there was a single show-runner (Barry Letts) for its entire duration. Although it's not quite so clear cut during the '60s, Verity Lambert had a similar influence on the Hartnell era, and one can at least make the case that Innes Lloyd had more of a lasting effect on Troughton's stories than others managed. But with the much longer Baker era, there are two show-runners who had an equally big influence, and they really weren't trying to do the same thing. (For completeness, I should add that Letts was still around for Robot, which is probably why it feels like a Pertwee story, and there's also somebody else in charge right at the end).

In short, we have the "Gothic horror" of the first three seasons, under Philip Hinchcliffe, and then the much lighter, more humorous tone of Graham Williams in the second half of the run. It's a contrast that means that, for example, City of Death is really quite a different thing from Genesis of the Daleks. Not only that, but the Baker era relies less on recurring foes than its fore-runners did, so that a higher proportion of stories bring in something entirely new - and often never seen again.

So how does the Fourth Doctor Sourcebook handle all of this? One of the most obvious effects is that, even with the extra 96 pages, there are signs of saving space everywhere. The previous two volumes filled up four chapters before they got round to discussing the stories: one each for characters, rules, recurring villains, and general themes. Here, that's condensed down to two, with only the characters retaining their own chapter. It's not quite as condensed as the First Doctor Sourcebook, but it's less than we got in the previous two books.

Similarly, the section on the themes of the Baker era concentrates primarily on the first three seasons - Hinchcliffe's time as show-runner, rather than Williams'. It makes sense, not least because these are regarded by many as the absolute pinnacle of the classic show's run, but also because, to be honest, it's easier to identify the Gothic aesthetic of seasons twelve to fourteen than it is to nail down Williams' approach.

Most of the character sheets for the companions are back to being a half page again, as they were in the First Doctor Sourcebook, and there's only one or two paragraphs describing each. Sarah and Harry don't even get that much, with the reader referred to other books in the range if they want more than the character sheet. Ah, well, it'll give me more to say when I restart my "Companions as PCs" series.

Speaking of which, I received some mild criticism for pointing out in my 3rd Doctor Sourcebook review that, Jo aside, the companions there are rather more effective than PCs would be. This isn't the place to defend that, and it wasn't intended as a major criticism anyway. But I will nonetheless note that the same is true again here (and, no, Sarah's stats haven't improved, so it's probably not spent experience points). More importantly, though, I feel it's worth mentioning that K9, and even more so Romana, are absolutely miles ahead of any PC generated using the rules.

Of course, they should be: it's how they're portrayed in the show. If anything, it's a bonus, since having Romana, in particular, be so effective reduces the potential problem of the Doctor's player simply over-shadowing everyone else. But if you are using both of them in a game, it's probably wise to think carefully about how you'll handle the game balance before adding in some additional character.

But after these two introductory chapters, we're into the discussion of the stories, which, as always, forms the meat of the book. Again, the need to squeeze everything in becomes apparent here. Gone is, thank goodness, the full-page splash art that had to appear once every three stories, regardless of reason or logic. This is all one chapter, with no wasted space, and everything used to give just as thorough a description of the stories as we had in all the previous sourcebooks. Nothing is sacrificed that you actually need.

And it's here, in fact, that it also become clear that the shorter introductory section wasn't short-changing us at all. Precisely because of all that variety that I mentioned up above, the best place to describe each story is with that story. We don't need a chapter on recurring villains, for instance, because there are only three (Daleks, the Master, and the Sontarans) and there's plenty of time to describe what you need to know about those in the stories in question. And there's also room to discuss the unique monsters, of which there are many.

This section is well done, avoiding falling into the trap of overly literal "how you'd run this story as a game" advice. Because, let's face it, most of us wouldn't, and, if we did, we'd probably need more than a book like this could provide us with, anyway. Of course, the story descriptions need to be here - we need to know which one we're talking about, if nothing else - but far more interesting is discussion of how the particular themes in the stories can be used in your own adventures. How you can do something similar, not something the same. And that's the vibe I get from this. (It was noticeable in the First Doctor Sourcebook, too).

Of course, there's always something more that could have been added. Given their popularity, for instance, Jago and Litefoot are noticeable by their absence from the stat blocks. But there's only so much one can fit in, and I'd argue that all the material you really need - stats for things that are genuinely alien, for instance - is in here. Even important NPCs are easy enough to reconstruct if they're basically just human.

Some further points to mention. There's a two-page discussion on the Key to Time season, as an overview of that story arc, in addition to the material on the individual components of it. There's three scenario suggestions for entirely new stories, which are really rather good. On the down side, there's a surprising amount of black-and-white stills in the book. They're probably publicity shots from the Radio Times, or something of the sort, but they do rather stand out from all the colour.

And there's one other thing I wasn't expecting: an appendix.

See, there are, as I mentioned, 41 televised Tom Baker Doctor Who stories. But, as every fan knows, there was a 42nd story, too. No, I don't mean Doctor Who and the Pescatons, for which you can all be jolly thankful. I'm referring instead, of course, to the un-broadcast and never completed seventeenth season finale, Shada. It gets exactly the same treatment as the episodes that did air, and it's very welcome to see that it hasn't been left out, as one might have thought.

I started out this review by saying that the 4th Doctor Sourcebook was always going to be particularly challenging. I must admit, I was apprehensive that, this time, they wouldn't be able to do the era justice. But, you know what, I think they have. This is actually a great sourcebook, and they've really squeezed in everything that you're likely to need.

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