Monday 20 March 2023

Book Review: Travel Without the Tardis

Before you read any further, please prepare yourself. A statement which can only be described as a bombshell of epic proportions is about to follow. And that jaw dropping revelation is thus: fans of Doctor Who are a curious bunch. It may come as a shock, but the truth is that spending your days dreaming about grappling with Zygons, heading off for a pint with Duggan and solving the puzzles of the Exillon city are niche aspirations.

To put a positive spin on such a state of affairs would be to point to the clear evidence of a fertile imagination but – to so called normal people – Whovians remain a peculiar crowd. And I can say this without prejudice as I’ve been a lifelong fan of the series since 1986. Little did I know, however, that as I was digesting Gallifrey’s finest for the first time in Trial of a Timelord, one of the most eccentric helpings of Doctor Who merchandise had recently been released. It was a book unlike any Doctor Who book before or since. And that book was Travel Without the Tardis.

It's unthinkable for anyone to claim to be a fan of Doctor Who and not know about the institution which is Target Books. For just over 20 years, Target put their printing presses into overdrive with novelisations of past Doctor Who serials. Starting in 1973 – with simultaneous releases of Doctor Who and the Crusaders/Daleks/Zarbi – Target published 165 Doctor Who books with authors including Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke, Ian Marter, Eric Saward and Phillip Hinchcliffe amongst many others. And the Who fans gobbled them down with a ferocious appetite not usually seen outside convention canteens.

It’s unsurprising, really, as the majority of Target’s novelisations came either before the advent of home video recording or before commercial releases of the serials. Therefore, these paperbacks – emblazoned with the classic Target logo – represented the only way fans could relive or discover the Doctor’s classic adventures. But not all of Target’s Who releases were exclusively fiction. Titles such as The Doctor Who Quiz Book (1981) and The Making of Doctor Who (1976) are self-explanatory as to their contents, but the very title of Travel Without the Tardis is a confounding proposition all of its own.

I first started collecting Target books in the late 1980s – buying them mostly from market stalls and charity shops – but I didn’t get round to reading any of them for a few years as they were a bit intimidating for a six-year-old. Never, though, did I stumble across Travel Without the Tardis. I suspect it wasn’t a big seller and it wouldn’t be until 2015-ish that I was even aware of it. But it called to me in a way which the very best curiosities do.

Written by a pair of American fans – Jean Airey and Laurie Haldeman – it promised a textual jaunt around Britain on the search for filming locations from Doctor Who. This alone was an intriguing premise, but the denizens of Twitter told me it was immeasurably stranger. Something about Leeds Castle was frequently proffered as evidence of the book’s hilariously absurd nature, so it was time to take a look.

The first quarter of Travel Without the Tardis is squarely aimed at planning a trip to Britain from abroad – with a strong emphasis on those making a transatlantic journey. Collections of paragraphs dispense advice on selecting airlines, the best ways to travel around the UK and the (apparent) peculiarities of British money – the pound coin seems unusually baffling for Misses Airey and Haldeman. And, within reading a few pages, the book has set down its offbeat foundations.

Who references are regularly slipped in wherever possible, an example being when discussing free medical care in Britain: “Being zapped by a Zygon would qualify, but problems caused by drinking too much wine with Solon wouldn’t (unless you lost your head)” These asides are charming eccentricities and do much to mark the book out as an idiosyncratic work. The most entertaining part of this preparatory section is the guide to British terms. It’s here the reader is informed that when Brits say “widdershins” they mean “counterclockwise” – because, yeah, we’re always saying that – and, unbeknownst to me at least, shandy is an alien concept to Americans.

The remaining sections of the book are dedicated to traversing Britain on the trail of locations from Doctor Who. It starts with a selection of London tours, but it’s a somewhat perplexing guide. A visit to the Royal Albert Hall is detailed even though the book is keen to stress that it’s never featured in the series. Likewise, navigation to the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery is provided without any actual Who links. Maybe the authors needed to fill some space, maybe they were practicing their tourist guide skills.

Following this ‘An American’s Guide to London’ Airey and Haldeman start getting their teeth into solid location work. The next 70 pages take readers on a tour of the country stopping off at a myriad of locations including Aldbourne (The Daemons), East Hagbourne (The Android Invasion), Middlesex Polytechnic (Mawdryn Undead) and Land’s End (The Smugglers). It’s debatable as to whether each and every location had been visited by the authors – it would be a herculean effort for even a native to complete – but I don’t doubt that they had visited Britain.

Clearly, though, they had not visited Leeds Castle (The Androids of Tara) as they suggest getting a train to Leeds, Yorkshire as opposed to its actual location near Maidstone. It’s a mistake which causes much mirth amongst fans and one which serves up an egg for the face of Target’s editing team. Several pages are also dedicated to overseas locations – for the more affluent travellers – so trips are detailed for visits to Amsterdam (Arc of Infinity), Paris (City of Death), Lanzarote (Planet of Fire) and Seville (The Two Doctors). Closing the book is a checklist of items to pack and a bibliography of useful addresses and phone numbers for travellers.

My copy of Travel Without the Tardis cost me a cool £10 from Ebay – at some point, judging by the price scrawled on the front page, it had been available for 20p so a massive 4900% markup over the years – but it’s worth every penny. Much of the information is, 35 years on, inevitably dated but this imbues it with a certain charm. This is a Britain where pubs have restricted opening hours, phone boxes are crucial and British Rail is a behemoth of a monopoly. It’s also a world where the absence of smartphones means travel books are an absolute necessity. Now, of course, you could google “Doctor Who locations” and you'd have everything you need in a few seconds. For free. 

I doubt Travel Without the Tardis was a big seller, but for a visiting Whovian in the 1980s it would prove highly useful. Charming and eccentric, it’s the embodiment of classic Who and a glorious, fading Polaroid of a Britain long since gone.

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