Brief Encounter was the umbrella title for an occasional series of vignettes that appeared in the Doctor Who Magazine family of publications from 1990 to 1994. The series tried to investigate characterisation and mood more than plot. Towards this end, it combined characters who had not been paired on television. While many of the stories featured the Doctor, a number did not, preferring to examine the lives of companions or villains at a time other than known adventures with the Doctor.
Brief Encounter's mandate was to ask "what if?" questions.
- What if this companion met that companion?
- What if this incarnation of the Doctor met another incarnation's assistant?
- What if this villain met that monster?
- What if we explored a tiny emotional beat in the life of a known character?
Examples of stories resulting from asking these sorts of questions included: a pedestrian collision between Sarah Jane Smith and Dodo Chaplet, a chess match between the Celestial Toymaker and Fenric, and a wedding anniversary of the Brigadier and Doris Lethbridge-Stewart.
A largely forgotten corner of the DWU
Brief Encounter's "what if?" format was meant to challenge reader's perceptions of the then-fledgling "Doctor Who universe". At the time, original, professional Doctor Who prose fiction had only just begun to be published on a regular basis. However, its publication in the pages of a physical magazine posed obvious problems of access. As time went on, it was increasingly difficult for later writers to even read these vignettes —much less incorporate their content into later works. Some of the concepts were thus later contradicted. For instance, according to the Brief Encounter Down to Earth, Liz Shaw's first trip in the TARDIS was with the Fourth Doctor, who had deliberately found Liz to apologise for not saying goodbye to her. The later novel The Wages of Sin clearly states the Third Doctor did indeed give Liz a trip in the TARDIS with Jo Grant and that there would have been no need for the apology the Fourth Doctor offered in Down to Earth.
Further frustrating the series' longterm impact on DWU fiction was the fact that many of them were simply whimsical. Amongst the more imaginative ideas covered in the series were:
- the implication that the Third Doctor watched Peter Cushing in Dr. Who and the Daleks
- the clear inference that writer John Lucarotti is himself a character in the DWU
Beyond anomalies of content are questions of style. It's not unusual to find Brief Encounter stories which were written in the first person. Though not completely unknown in other prose work, it's still generally rare to find stories in the DWU which give such a personal perspective. Even the Doctor occasionally narrated proceedings — as in An Unfulfilled Dream — which is almost never the case in longer-form prose material.
The stories were quite often written by professional writers. They notably included the final work of television writer John Lucarotti and the first of Paul Cornell. On at least one occasion in 1991, however, the series was the focus of a DWM competition, in which amateur writers were encouraged to submit their own "brief encounter" for possible publication. Andrew Cartmel, the Seventh Doctor's then-recently-disemployed script editor, judged the competition. He pronounced a Seventh Doctor/K9 story the winner of the under-15 category and a poignant meeting between the Doctor and a six-year-old Katarina the winner of the all-age group.
History of the format
The series began in DWM 167 with a very deliberate nod to the anniversary of Doctor Who: Since Issue 167 was the November 1990 edition, Brief Encounter launched with a story by John Lucarotti, someone who had written during the First Doctor's era. The one-page, illustrated story became the norm for the series as seen in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, clearly distinguishing it from other, longer stories that the magazine occasionally published. Future instalments would stick to this format, or perhaps add a second page.
The series would also travel to a few of the DWM specials and the first couple of editions of the Doctor Who Yearbook series. However, the series was over by July 1994 in DWM proper and it didn't extend past the DWMS Holiday 1992 special issue and the 1993 yearbook.
Nevertheless, short stories by the same calibre of professional author continued in the Yearbook series well after Brief Encounter died. Therefore, some reference works have lumped stories in, say, the 1995 yearbook with the Brief Encounter series. Such grouping is unjustified. These later Yearbook stories never got the Brief Encounter masthead. Moreover, they were far longer than the typical entry in the series — often extending to five or six pages. They also used combinations of characters that would be expected from watching the television series; they were just another adventure for a particular TARDIS crew. Indeed, short stories after the 1993 Yearbook had much more in common with stories in the annuals of the 21st century than they did with the Brief Encounter series.