|As a writer, sometimes you get commissioned to write a piece that ultimately doesn’t run or quickly disappears from view. Unpublished is where I resurrect those stories.|
Originally published on Finder, March 2019
I read every Sixth Doctor Target novel over a weekend just because
Decades-old Doctor Who paperbacks still have something to teach us, folks.
After kicking off the Just Because project of monthly idiocy by taking a day trip to Kuala Lumpur and then shedding both weight and sanity on the Vogue Wine Diet, I wanted an easier task for March. My original plan fell through (don’t ask), so I settled on gorging myself on a smorgasbord of ancient Doctor Who novels.
I love Doctor Who. Partly that’s because the ABC endlessly repeated every colour episode of the original series at 6pm on weeknights throughout most of the 1980s. But an equally big factor was the existence of the Target novelisations of those stories.
In total, between 1973 and 1994 Target produced 156 adaptations of transmitted Who stories, selling 13 million copies in the process. I bought as many as I could afford, read every one stocked by my local library, and spent time on my holidays hunting them down in any bookstore or newsagent I could find. In an era when video releases were scarce and black-and-white repeats non-existent, it was the easiest way to get my Who fix.
I now own a copy of every single book in that 156-title run. However, because the novels weren’t published in series order, I’ve never read them in a way that matches how the show was actually broadcast. With a challenge due for March and the fact that Jodie Whittaker won’t be back as the current Doctor until 2020, a Target books binge seemed the obvious path.
Would books I loved as a teenager (and aimed at youthful readers) still stand up now I own DVD copies of every episode and am closer to retirement age that I am to the originally-intended audience age? And would they make sense given they weren’t written with any real regard for continuity?
For the task, I chose the stories for the Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker between 1984 and 1986. This was largely a pragmatic decision: Baker had the shortest run of any Doctor, with just eight transmitted stories. That equates to 14 novels, for odd reasons we’ll get to.
The important point is that seemed doable in a weekend. Had I chosen Tom Baker (no relation), the scarf-wearing Fourth Doctor and easily the best-known in the role after a seven-year stint, I’d have failed in that time limit.
So here’s what I read, in (more or less) transmission order. I’ve also noted the publication date, which highlights how these books weren’t published in any order relating to their original broadcast. There’s a total of seven authors, most of whom also wrote the original scripts the novels were based on. Where that’s not the case, I’ve pointed it out.
Three things to add:
- One Colin Baker story, Revelation Of The Daleks, was not ever adapted by Target, due to rights disputes over the Daleks. Weirdly, BBC Books is finally publishing an adaptation later this year, but that doesn’t count as a Target release. Plus, it’s written by Colin Baker-era script editor Eric Saward, who (spoiler alert) was easily the worst author during my binge, so I can’t get excited about it, even if it is shamelessly cribbed from one of my favourite novels ever, The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.
- Doctor Who was put on hiatus after Season 22 (Baker’s first full season), amidst rows with the BBC over its content and ratings. During that period, there was one radio show featuring the Sixth Doctor, Slipback, which scored a Target adaptation. Three stories originally commissioned for Season 23 were also eventually adapted by Target as part of a “The Missing Episodes” series. I read all of these, in roughly the order they would have been broadcast, as well as Slipback, because I’m a completist.
- The eventual actual Season 23, The Trial Of A Time Lord, was transmitted as a single 14-part story. However, it was commissioned in four distinct blocks, and the novel adaptations follow that same pattern. They were also released in a ludicrous order (part 3, part 1, part 4, part 2) over a two-year period.
Anyway, enough of the production trivia. What was the literary experience like?
On the upside, the books are easy reading. Young adult titles didn’t need to be doorstops in the 1980s, so none of these took me more than an hour to read.
Happily, the stories that are generally regarded as the best TV productions by fandom result in the most readable books. The best of the batch by my reckoning is The Two Doctors, which incidentally turned out to be the 100th Target adaptation.
Robert Holmes was a prolific scriptwriter for Doctor Who over two decades, but this was his only novelisation. It’s witty and engaging, expanding on what we see on screen and neatly handling the narrative which sees the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) return to work with the Sixth Doctor, and then nearly get turned into a cannibal.
Philip Martin’s three contributions, all featuring the infamous reptilian Sil, are equally enjoyable and well-structured. Somewhere in the middle ground are the titles by Pip and Jane Baker, Glen McCoy, Graham William, Wally K Daly and Terrance Dicks. Dicks wrote more Target adaptations than any other author, so he’s always functional even when he’s uninspiring. The Mysterious Planet is snackable, but not a patch on his The Day Of The Daleks.
The wooden spoon undoubtedly goes to Eric Saward. Slipback comes across as third-rate Douglas Adams written in a hurry, and all the other adaptations suffer from mammoth digressions about every character other than the Doctor and his companion Peri. Why would we care?
Saward also has an annoying habit of indirectly quoting dialogue and summarising conversations, rather than reporting what characters actually say – an odd habit given he was the show’s script editor, and thus presumably had to regularly edit and write dialogue. The fact he wrote the first two titles in the list made for tough going at first.
The real lesson here, though, isn’t the relative merits of these long out-of-print quickies. It’s the joy to be had by sitting down with a pile of paperbacks.
I’m no Luddite (the Luddite uprisings are background for The Mark Of The Rani, incidentally). My Kindle goes on my travels with me everywhere, and I’m very grateful for it.
That said, there was something glorious about reading actual print books. I never had to worry about my battery running out while on a train. I never got distracted by notifications. I could easily tell how long it was before I’d get to the end of anything written by Eric Saward
So what I learned, first and foremost, is that I should be revisiting more of those Target titles, in their gloriously ageing yellow original copies. Just because.
The story behind the story
As the opening paragraph indicates, in 2019 I wrote a series of ‘Just Because’ columns for Finder. All the others remain online, but some over-zealous publisher deleted this one at some point, for reasons now lost to the mists of time (ahem). So I’ve bought it back here. Just because. And mostly because I still love Doctor Who.