Someone once said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”. Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing. Based on my years of experience and visits to London, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate statement. We have so much in common, but besides the linguistic differences, there are lots of little ways that we’re just slightly out of synch. The light switches work the wrong way round; some candy bars are the same but called different things; we call it a bathroom, they call it a ‘toilet’, etc, etc. And then there are their magazines, and man, have they got us beat. They are to magazines what the Japanese are to toys, and I scoop loads of titles up every month and read each one cover to cover. They just make ‘em better, always going that extra inch, from supplements to specially produced CD compilations attached to the covers. This trend goes back as far as I can remember, when I used to track down issues of Smash Hits and they had key fobs (key chains) or badges (buttons, see what I mean?) taped to the cover. But they really go the whole hog with their mag swag when it comes to titles aimed at the youngsters. From Spidey to Batman: The Brave and the Bold to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, all of those properties get their own magazines, and they include super cool toy premiums with each issue. Fortunately, or unfortunately as it turns out, for me someone at the BBC decided to produce something in that vein for Doctor Who. And the goodies are great!
I’m pretty sure ‘Doctor Who Adventures’ launched right after the revamped, Russell T. Davies produced juggernaut took the world by storm. The magazine kind of serves as a children’s version of the over 30 year old Doctor Who Magazine (formerly ‘Monthly’), except it comes out every two weeks and is a pretty slim read. On average it’s about 30 pages or so, filled with story recaps, set visits, puzzles, jokes, games, cut-out-and-make-it items, and the occasional dip into the show’s history, showcasing previous Doctors and monsters. Christopher Eccelston’s tenure was so brief that there ended up being very few issues produced featuring his Doctor, but from issue #1 on, the premiums were stellar. Things like back to school kits, consisting of a large tin pencil case with an image of the Doctor and the show’s logo on the cover, a TARDIS ruler, pens, pencils and the like. Once David Tennant showed up, the magazine really gathered steam and the free gifts got more elaborate, with things like games, a sonic screwdriver that squirts water, canvas wallets, sticker sheets and badges galore. It seemed that as the show got more popular, the magazine got more bold with it’s give a ways, which led to me picking it up more often.
I suppose at this point I should explain just where you can pick Doctor Who Adventures up in the US…
Well sadly, you can’t. For some silly reason, its makers must not think the show has a strong enough collector base to import it. Let’s face it, there probably aren’t enough kids in the US that follow the show to make it worth while to get it onto the magazine racks. So I rely on friends in the UK, or the almighty ebay to find the issues I’m interested in. I DON’T pick up every issue, not by a long shot, but I keep an eye on it, and when a toy shows up I’m interested in I track that issue down. So, you’re probably thinking these items must be pretty Class ‘A’ for me to do that kind of work, and what’s more, pay upwards of $9.50 an issue (not including postage-don’t ask), right? Well, yes and no…
When I was thinking of writing this piece, I started to dissect just why it was that I was so interested in collecting these toys. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of several things. First, there’s obviously the great affection I have for Doctor Who, and the ‘nostalgia factor’ plays a big part in that. Which leads me to Reason #2: from the first picture I saw of Issue 1’s cover and free gift, I was reminded of the launch of Doctor Who Weekly way back in 1979, which featured free rub down transfers of the Doctor and various baddies. (This leads me to a related side note. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who and have followed the magazine lo these many years, do yourself a favor and track down a copy of ‘Vworp Vworp’ magazine. It’s a fan made tribute to and retrospective of DWM, and both issues released have been filled with interviews with writers and artists that have contributed to the monthly throughout the years. The first issue came with a sheet of rub down transfers of Matt Smith’s Doctor and villains, and Volume 2 comes with a Weetabix homage, in the form of stand up Who character figures and four different game boards. To call the effort a labor of love doesn’t do it nearly the justice it deserves. Spectacularly done all round. Anyway, back to DWA….). Lastly, I think it’s because I have always had a fondness for the drug store rack toys I grew up with, and these little treasures are about as close as Who has ever come to covering that toy category.
For those of you that know not what I speak of, rack toys really came into their heyday in the almighty 1970’s. They were mainly featured in drug stores, grocery stores and other retail outlets, and they served as a cheap way to satisfy the kids’ toy needs. Everything from Planet of the Apes to DC and Marvel heroes to cartoon legends like Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny were served up as rack toys. If it was remotely popular in the 70’s and early 80’s, it was made into a rack toy. What they all had in common was that they weren’t the sturdiest pieces of plastic ever made, generally falling apart in a matter of days. And what’s weirdest about them is, once a company like JaRu grabbed, say, Battle of the Planets and made a few show specific items, they’d move onto generic items. Getting more specific, if said company made a helicopter toy for Batman, they’d then move onto a pair of binoculars with a Bat-symbol sticker on them. (This gets increasingly bizarre with the juxtaposing of license and item, such as a Mr. Smith science lab set. Huh??). They’d do this over and over again, for every license they had, from medical kits to play money, from ‘radio phones’ to signal guns. Changing only card art and property idents, companies that made rack toys certainly got their monies worth out of their licenses, and made lots of kids very happy. As an adult, I find myself strangely drawn to these pieces of garish tat. (I always get a kick out of discovering pieces I hadn’t realized existed, like ANYTHING made for 1941, and then obsessively try to hunt them down).
For a show that had a bit of a merchandise surge in the 70’s, and that was not always associated with, shall we say, truly ‘quality’ items, it’s kind of amazing to me that Doctor Who never got the rack toy treatment. The mind reels with all kinds of fantasy items, and I do wish the DWA folks would start making items for the classic series as well. Meantime, here’s a taste of what they have done that’s brought a smile to my face. Starting with this beauty, the TARDIS bank.
The magazine has been very smart about getting mileage out of the TARDIS, making all kinds of items featuring the Doctor’s Type 40 beauty. They’ve made journals, pull back mini ones and rubber key chains. I have a real weakness for TARDIS merch which has gotten so bad, while on a recent trip to London and about to buy a wind up replica, my wife said, “Honey, do you really need another phone box?”.
The only Doctor Who icon to beat the TARDIS in repeated representation is of course, the Daleks. If there’s a way to make a collectible out of it, Doctor Who Adventures magazine will surely find it. From inflatables to pencil toppers, they’ve done it all. Here’s my favorite so far, the Build-Your-Own-Dalek:
It’s a wind up toy when finished, and even comes with a teeny little screwdriver to help with your project. They’ve released it in white and red, and it’s very reminiscent of a toy that might have been made back in the 60’s when Britain was Dalek-mad. Recently they re used a Dalek mold and put out this lovely set, a Paint-Your-Own-Dalek set, with two of the baddies, paints, a brush and a cut out background on the back of the box. You can’t get terribly detailed, but if you’re a collector, chances are you’re not opening that box anyway!
The last gem I wanted to show off was the DWA version of little green army men: the Monster Packs. They’ve done individual packs of Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen and one set that was a mixture of all three. This one is my favorite, combo Dalek/Cybermen Army Pack. There was a special Christmas issue a while back that came with army packs and background cards and cut out figures of the Doctor to set them up with. If this doesn’t scream ‘rack toy’, well I don’t know what does.
So there you have it. You’re now clued into a cool piece of Who merch, and privy to another mild obsession of mine. It’s funny what we latch onto as collectors, isn’t it? As I’ve mentioned before, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest or prettiest piece on the market. Sometimes the quirkier, the better. The cool people at Doctor Who Adventures Magazine may not even be aware of it, but those neat toys they’re making are being scooped up by kid and grown up alike. If you’re reading this, I, for one, am grateful for the effort. Now please get to work on a 4th Doctor ‘Dress Up’ set and monster packs of his enemies!