The 1976 annual has a gorgeous frontispiece, depicting the Doctor and his companions exploring a beautiful alien landscape with monolithic ruins. However, there is something a bit odd going on. Who are the companions? In particular, who is that scraggy haired, skinny bloke? Well, apparently that’s Harry, whose face changes in just about every illustration of him throughout the annual. That sets the tone really, because 1976 was the year that the wheels really came off the annual range. In fact, the frontispiece is by far the best thing about the whole book.
The main problem is the artwork, which is not just bad, but of a standard that I can only really describe as unacceptable. We’ll get to that, but first let’s take a look at the content.
So this year we have five stories, two comic strips and fourteen features. The content worth reading is therefore a little thinner on the ground than previous annuals, and we are not even in 1971 Annual territory with longer-form storytelling. There is just simply less fiction to read, with the features the same old lucky dips from the children’s encyclopedia and obligatory crossword.
First up we have A New Life, which starts with the Doctor and Sarah very much still living the UNIT life, despite this being the first of our Fourth Doctor annuals. In fact, the whole annual feels much more tied down to the UNIT era than the final Pertwee effort. To be fair, the people who put this annual together didn’t have a lot to go on in terms of the Fourth Doctor’s era and to give them their due they make a pretty good stab at capturing Tom’s version of the Doctor. At times you can almost hear him speaking the words, although there are still plenty of strange holdovers from previous eras as well, such as the Doctor calling Sarah “my dear” a lot. It’s not long before the Doctor and Sarah head off to an alien planet, despite Sarah’s protests about “how annoyed the Brigadier gets when he’s expecting you to be on hand and then you go and do your vanishing trick”, and then they spend virtually the whole story wandering around a deserted place trying to find somebody, until the Doctor discovers everyone has been transformed into vegetation. So a slow start, but quite fun. It also sets up a theme that runs through the annual of the Doctor revisiting a planet and alien species he is familiar with, although we have never heard of them before. This is nothing new in terms of the annual range, but the difference is that this plot device is used here in almost every story. I suppose it’s an easy way to avoid introductions or escapes and captures, which the limited word count would make difficult.
Next up is The Hospitality on Hankus, which finds Harry travelling with Sarah and the Doctor. His characterisation is nailed here right from the word go, and in fact better than in any other story in the annual. Have a look at the following quote, which I think captures the banter between the two companions extremely well:
“Come ON, old girl! I know you can do it! Don’t let me down!”
Sarah spluttered. Let him down? She’d knock him down if he didn’t stop treating her like a piece of quaint mindless pottery.
The Tardis (which rarely gets all its capital letters in the annual range) gets trapped in a strange “trans-dimensional flux”, and before long we are right back in the most clichéd of annual territory: giant versions of Earth creatures:
Coming slowly towards them through the mud and the slime, it’s antler-like set of pincers opening and shutting menacingly, was a large, four-headed lobster.
Our first comic strip is The Psychic Jungle, and we are still in cliché territory, with giant snakes and spiders, all rendered in dreadful sketchy line drawings. Let’s take note of one little quote from this strip, and bear it in mind when we come to the next story in the annual, because I think something rather nasty is going on here:
“Sarah’s fears were more fanciful I’m afraid.”
“Well after all she is a woman.”
The most gloriously titled Doctor Who story ever is next: The Sinister Sponge. And yes, it is exactly what it says on the tin:
“That’s no cloud,” said Harry.
“It’s more like a… a sponge!” said Sarah, backing away as the sponge hovered close to her.
The story also throws in some killer plants for good measure, which only release their victims when they sing loudly. Once again the Doctor is somewhere familiar to himself but not to us, the planet Inscruta, and he’s looking for his old friend Elkalor. When he finds him, he’s not quite the man he used to be, and his planet has descended into chaos. It turns out the menfolk on Inscruta have had trouble with their women, who have been cheating on them with a sponge.
One of the males discovered that the women had been harbouring a giant sponge in the council hall and were communicating telepathically with it.
The writer is keen to illustrate the fact that Sarah is also a women, so it is not long before she decides that a big sponge cloud is just the kind of friend she has been looking for:
The sponge hovered into view, flanked by some female Inscrutes furiously bashing pots and pans and shouting.
Harry started. To the right of the sponge, her face contorted into a snarl, was Sarah.
…at which point it is hard not to conclude that the annual was written as a cynical reaction to the presence of a women’s lib companion in Doctor Who. The whole annual is horribly anti-women.
The second and final comic strip is Neuronic Nightmare, in which the Doctor, Sarah and Harry meet a weird creature from another dimension called Skizos. It’s hard to say much more about the story than that, because it’s a confusing mess, mainly due to the terrible artwork, which has to be seen to be believed. For example, what is going on in the middle right panel on page 42? Presumably it’s Harry saying “for what purpose?” so who’s the chap stood beside him, unmentioned in the story? We have to assume one of them is Harry, because in none of the illustrations does he actually look anything like Harry at all. His appearance changes dramatically from panel to panel. At one point he is a dead ringer for Colin Baker. Occasionally he bears some resemblance to Gareth Hunt. His clothes also have a life of their own, sometimes a t-shirt, sometimes a suit and tie.
The fourth story is Avast There! and Benton’s back for a little cameo appearance! This is the one story in the annual that I actually think has some kind of a point to it. In fact, it’s absolutely brilliant.
“Golly, it’s a galleon! A galleon in outer space!” Harry gasped in amazement. “I can’t believe it!”
Yes, this is basically Enlightenment, seven years early. Harry and Sarah even have to walk the plank into space, and when the Tardis materialises at the end of it we are firmly into the kind of thing post-2005 Doctor Who does. The story is years ahead of its time, and great fun.
Finally we have The Mission, another clever story, which translates von Danekinism to the setting of an alien planet, exploring the source of an alien civilisation, which has its origins in a visitor to the planet a very long time ago. The original alien explorer left a giant robot behind, which has woken up and is on a rampage. As usual, the illustrations let the story down, with an unimaginative drawing of the robot’s foot from Robot. But it is not just the illustrations that betray a sloppy approach. Take a look at the following quote. I have emboldened some key words.
Against the walls there were several booths, and in them some Tyranians were standing with helmets on their heads. Some of them were waving their fins in a circular motion, a Tiranian sign of enjoyment.
The three of them had come to Tyrano so that the Doctor could study a new type of power the Tyraneans had discovered when investigating the effects of Zerkan gas on their most abundant element, Klarium.
Leaving aside how dull that all is (nobody cares about Zerkan gas and Klarium and all that alien technobabbly nonsense), how bad is that? Is it “Tyranians”, “Tiranians” or “Tyraneans”?
But the worst thing about the annual is surely the artwork, and the standard really has plummeted for this year’s effort. Here are some highlights, and I’ll illustrate some of them below (apologies in advance for my ropey photography skills):
- Page 5: a poorly cut out blurry photo of the Brigadier
- Page 8: a washed out picture of somebody who bears some resemblance to Jon Pertwee, shaking hands. It seems to be of no relevance to the story.
- Page 18: an illustration that is nearly all black with some odd smudges of white and the hint of a face.
- Page 35: an absolutely nightmarish picture of Elkalor’s scarred face.
- Page 37: Tom Baker drawn in the clothes he was wearing for his first photo shoot, rather than the Doctor’s outfit!
- Page 49: again nearly all black, with some white smudges of somebody doing something with a mystery object.
Feast your eyes on these:
There is also little attempt to depict any of the alien characters as actual aliens in the artwork. Most of them are just drawings of humans, despite being described otherwise in the stories (e.g. in one story the aliens are described as having fins). But yes, I have to admit some of this almost falls into the territory of so bad that it’s actually magnificent. It gives us a good laugh, anyway. Amazingly, there is still a big step down in quality to come for the annual range. Deep breaths… the infamous 1977 Annual is next. RP