My Life in 5 Magazines: 2: Doctor Who Weekly

Cover of the "Smash Second Issue" of Doctor Who Weekly, featuring Tom Baker and K9. Free Transfers Inside and a chance to Win £5!

In October 1979, Britain’s favourite Time Lord gained their own comic for the first time. After four decades of uninterrupted publication, Doctor Who Magazine (DWM) continues to thrive…

Issue 2: 12p (Cover-date: 24 October 1979)
Publisher: Marvel Comics Ltd

No-one who knows me well will be at all surprised to see a Doctor Who publication among the “Magazines of My Life”. I am a life-long, incurable fan of the series, and have undoubtedly spent far more time, energy and money on the programme than is arguably wise.

I’ve even written about Doctor Who. Professionally. As in, for money. Though, strangely enough, it’s never* been for the one magazine that arguably counts the most—the officially-licensed BBC Doctor Who Magazine, currently published by Panini UK Ltd which – this month – celebrates its 40th anniversary. That is, of course, a pretty unique achievement. No other TV tie-in magazine has run continuously for 40 years—including some 16 years during which the parent series wasn’t even in regular production! Nor has any other such title dived so deeply into the histories behind a programme’s production, its memorabilia and fandom.

(*This might change one day. However, I have drawn for DWM, back in the Marvel UK days. I illustrated two of the magazine’s “Brief Encounter” short stories, one of which – “Girls’ Night In” (published in the 1992 Summer Special) was co-written by visual effects expert and author Mike Tucker.)

The man behind what became Doctor Who Weekly (1979-80) – later Doctor Who—A Marvel Monthly (1980-82), later still Doctor Who Monthly (1982-84), then The Official Doctor Who Magazine (1984-85), The Doctor Who Magazine (1985), and finally “just” Doctor Who Magazine (1985-present) – was comic and magazine editor Dez Skinn. Having previously enjoyed success with House of Hammer magazine, which combined comic strip adaptations of iconic Hammer-produced horror films with editorial articles, “The British Stan Lee” turned to the then-16 year old Doctor Who as an ideal subject to hopefully repeat the “comic/magazine” trick.

“I wanted to reach as wide a cross section of the [show’s regular] nine million TV viewers as possible,” Skinn writes on his own website. “Having a strong comic strip content added something new and highly visual for impulse buyers browsing (and helped appeal to the younger readers) but we needed something for the dads too. I wasn’t that worried about appealing to the fan audience because I figured that they were completists and would buy it anyway. So, to offset the somewhat expensive comics pages, text and photo features were a logical addition, exploring the history of the show.”

Skinn had been thinking about a Doctor Who title since at least the mid-1970s, and had been only prevented from proceeding by the strip rights being already held by TV Comic-publisher Polystyle Publications Ltd. By late 1978, however, that company’s interest in the show was clearly waning: the final six months of “Dr Who” in TV Comic consisted of reprints of old strips—with the featured Second or Third Doctor redrawn, usually poorly, as the Fourth. When TV Comic finally, albeit quietly, dropped Doctor Who, an enthusiastic Skinn quickly put together a dummy issue and approached the BBC.

It was purely coincidental that Skinn did so while he was Editorial Director of Marvel UK, but the company’s strong reputation certainly helped impress the BBC (and in particular then-head of licensing Roy Williams, and his number two Christopher Crouch). The success of Hulk Comic – hooked on The Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferringo – didn’t harm Skinn’s chances either. Given all the challenges in starting a new title, while keeping numerous already-established publications running, it’s remarkable though that Doctor Who Weekly appeared on newsagent shelves just five months after the Doctor’s final adventure in TV Comic.

Understandably, when notable anniversaries come along for DWM, people inevitably focus on that first issue of Doctor Who Weekly. It’s been reprinted in its entirety at least once – as a free giveaway with issue 400, if I remember rightly – and undoubtedly set the title’s format for many years to come.

Thing is, though, the issue of DWW which arguably means more to me is the second. Professional publications dedicated to Doctor Who were not an entirely alien concept in 1979. Radio Times had published its 10th Anniversary Special in 1973, while Polystyle Publications Ltd had very occasionally produced a Doctor Who Summer or Winter Special (of variable quality). The ill-fated “broadsheet” relaunch of New Mighty TV Comic in 1976 had come with a “Complete Dr Who Comic… Free!” (Alas, it proved to be a warning of things to come, with an atrociously “adapted” reprint of a Third Doctor strip.)

What all these publications had in common, however, was the simple fact that they were, inherently, one-offs. Doctor Who Weekly, on the other hand…

Skinn later explained that he chose the “Weekly” title as a way to avoid describing the publication as either a comic or a magazine—although there was also the precedent of the company’s previous big-seller, Star Wars Weekly. For me, though, the emphasis on the title’s publication frequency was significant. Yes, each issue only enjoyed a shelf-life of seven days, but DWW was a promise of many, more Doctor Who publications to come!

Not that it was all plain sailing. Or, sales-ing. I was still in the early years of my decade-long sojourn within organised Doctor Who fandom, and the general opinion about the Weekly was at best… mixed. It went considerably down-hill following the allegedly more-“child-friendly” relaunch with issue 26 (cover-dated 9 April 1980), inspired by a significant fall in sales following the premature end of the TV show’s 17th season.

During 1980, Marvel UK’s (formerly unofficial) art editor Paul Neary, by then DWW’s chief (following Dez Skinn’s early departure from the company), wrote a short piece for the Doctor Who Appreciation Society fanzine Tardis, in which he graciously explained the different motivations between the growing number of fanzines about the show and DWW. Most obviously, that the latter wasn’t done “for the love of it”; first and foremost, Skinn had persuaded Marvel UK to publish Doctor Who Weekly because it could make them money. (Given the number of rights-holders involved, however, DWW was proving to do anything but that.)

Marvel UK could have cut their losses then, but Neary instead gambled on another relaunch, in the process switching the title to a monthly frequency. On his website, it’s clear that Skinn had/has his doubts about the merits of this move, not least in terms of the increased share of the publisher’s overheads that each monthly issue then had to bear. Nor does he seem entirely happy with the publication’s shift away from being a “comic magazine” to becoming a “magazine with a comic strip”, and one aimed specifically at the show’s fans rather than its younger, general viewers.

Truth be told, I don’t think Dez Skinn would have been invited to DWM’s recent 40th birthday party if his successor Neary hadn’t begun the evolution of the Weekly into what ultimately became the Magazine. Publications have to find their readership, or be shut down. Luckily, DWM found its own!

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