On Target – Doctor Who in print
“In the nearly eight hundred years of his being, much of that time spent in travel, the Doctor had arrived at the working hypothesis that experience was no substitute for books. He had a healthy respect for anything his fellow creatures felt was worth committing to print, although the profuseness of their publications often made him wish that reading could be got through more quickly and writing be made less easy, perhaps with a universal rule that all books should be hand carved in granite with a pin.”
Castrovalva Christopher H. Bidmead
As you meander through the pages of the Doctor Who Forum, you may come across references to the “Target Novelisations” of the BG years. They may be an alien concept to many, but they were of massive importance to me and many others as we grew up. It occurs to me that whenever I’ve mentioned the possibility of someone trying them, I automatically leap to the defensive.
“Don’t expect great literature”, I always say, as if someone who picked up a novelisation of a TV show or film is in danger of approaching them that way.
Well no defensiveness from me today. They were bloody marvellous. In the anniversary year for Doctor Who it would be criminal to neglect a medium that created fans, kept the light on in the wilderness years and, fundamentally, was a true reflection of the show we love. So – what was great about Target?
1. It was Doctor Who when you wanted it
Remember the excitement that greeted the discovery of new episodes including Enemy of the World a few weeks ago? That was the excitement of my young self when a new Target book of a story I was unfamiliar with was released. New stories to explore.
Before the download. Before the DVD. Before even home Video, things sucked. Big Time.
You missed an episode of Who, and that was it. Your chances of seeing how the story played out were gone, lost to the ether. Tell the young people of today what it was like, and they’ll stare at you in mute disbelief. You lived in the Stone Age , Dude. Through the medium of books, the Doctors past exploits came to life. The books gave me access to the rich history of the show, and revealed the adventures that the BBC’s short-sightedness had reduced to nothing. Even when VHS came along, the books were often the best option for the pocket money generation of fans.
2. The Writers
When Star Trek had its stories novelised, they went to James Blish who knocked out very short stories of all the episodes. He had nothing to do the series. How I laughed, because Target seemed to have a cottage-industry approach of acquiring writers who were associated with the show itself, or so it seemed.
In truth it probably hadn’t occurred to them to do otherwise. The Target imprint had been launched by acquiring the rights to publish 3 earlier novels written by David Whittaker (original Script Editor and Writer, who novelised The Daleks and The Crusaders) and Bill Strutton (who novelised his own story, The Web Planet, as The Zarbi).
For the new range, they approached retiring Script Editor Terrance Dicks who jumped at the chance, and often helped bring in other writers to the range. His philosophy was simple – approach the original writer and, if they didn’t want to do it, either he or another Who related writer would. The fixed fee for writing was split 50:50 between the novel writer and the original writer (“I do all the work, you get half the money”, he joked to them).
L-R: Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts & Terrance Dicks, Philip Hinchcliffe, Ian Marter.
So you had legendary figures like Dick’s own mentor and Who scribe, Malcolm Hulke, his own long time collaborator Barry Letts (Producer) and Letts eventual replacement as Producer, Philip Hinchcliffe. You had Script Editor and co-creator of the Cybermen Gerry Davis. You even had actor and writer Ian Marter (who played Harry Sullivan , companion to Tom Baker with Elisabeth Sladen). These, you automatically felt, should be the people you could trust with the story of The Doctor. They were family, with their own quirks in print.
Great Uncle Malcolm (a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain) produced his own stories which dealt thoughtfully with conflict of philosophies with plenty of shades of grey, and adapted a couple of others which dealt with the dangers of the corporate world. He also loved to use the format to introduce elements of back story to even minor characters – to flesh them out in a way that the old series rarely did. His novelisation of Colony in Space (released as The Doomsday Weapon) gave a hollow view of a dystopian Earth unseen in the TV show – the one the human colonists on a new world had escaped from, and that the corporate members of IMC (Interplanetary Mining Company) served.
Ian Marter, belying his on screen image as sweet buffoonish Harry, became your slightly cool older cousin, with a passing interest in body horror and casual violence. He actually got into trouble in Australia with his adaption of Enemy of the World which dared to go into slightly more adult language and graphic horror. It should be pointed out to those concerned parents though that that was his style. My young self would have laughed in the face of any adult who passed judgment on what was suitable for my eyes.
And you had a parade of authors who took the opportunity to novelise their own work. This became more prevalent as time went on. With a couple of exceptions which I won’t dwell on, many seemed to have a good time, reintroducing elements that had to be ditched in producion, or enlivening a story with insights to their alien protagonists. The first novel David Aaranovitch wrote was Remembrance of the Daleks – notable for additional characterisation and presenting the Daleks point-of-view. Ian Briggs novelisation of The Curse of Fenric expands the story through new documents as you follow the trail of the Flask across Europe. You learn, through a lost tale of the Arabian Nights, how the clever “El Dok-tor” trapped the evil Djinn in the flask in the first place.
In a memorable translation of the screen Leisure Hive, David Fisher revelled in a Monty Python style to develop the back stories of his alien races, the Foamasi and the chivalry obsessed Argolin, whose particular philosophy, celebrated in ballads and song, was explained:
“The Saga of Herell the Hapless and Mako the Mighty was typical of the genre. Herell, a young knight newly initiated into the rituals of chivalry, was challenged to a duel by Mako, a one-legged giant. He had lost his leg several years before in a previous duel. Herrel decided the odds were unfair. Not only was Mako ten years his senior, but since the chosen weapons were to be huge two handed swords, Mako’s lack of mobility placed him at an immediate disadvantage.
Only the most agile could hope to succeed with such weapons. Before the moment of combat Herell therefore hewed off his own leg and, sword in both hands, hopped painfully towards his opponent. When Mako’s squire pointed out that his master was minus a right leg, and the advantage was still not equally balanced, Herell angrily struck off his other leg and prepared to fight on two bloody stumps. Mako, not to be outdone, cut off his own left leg. Both combatants died of shock and loss of blood without stricking a blow at each other.
This was regarded as one of the most glorious moments of Argolin chivalry.”
The Leisure Hive David Fisher
L-R: Changing Styles, The Curse of Fenric, The Leisure Hive, Oh dear – the photo montage period, Don’t the Nestenes and Mara look scary?, Doctor Who and the (Wrong) Cybermen.
3. The Covers
The cover art of both Chris Achilleos and, later, Andrew Skilleter could beguile a young mind and entice you inside. There was genuine uproar, amongst the readership, when the publishers decided that screen shots would do at one point. Pressure from their vocal readership soon put paid to that.
You can still see the impact of Achilleos today if you own an AG DVD box set. Just open up the booklet, and each contains a tribute to his work, showing new Doctors and enemies in his style.
They could also give false impressions those covers, with depictions of Nestenes and The Mara that went beyond the practicalities of the technology available in their respective episodes. Or indeed, presented the wrong type of Cyberman for the episode in question.
We had it slightly easier than some foreign territories as the books migrated overseas though. People in the US must have been shocked to discover that the Doctor who fought the Zarbi on the Web Planet had white hair, instead of a brown and curly mane. Pity also any Japanese fan who went to watch the show based solely on the books that had been translated.
L-R: “The Zarbi, in an exciting adventure with Tom Baker”, “Doctor Who and the big bloody space-time battle”, “The Auton Army Invasion”, “Shuddering! Underground Monster” and “Be Fearful of the Ultimate Weapon!”
4. They made little rebels of us all
How we laughed at Targets attempts to indoctrinate us by numbering their books in alphabetical order. What kind of idiot would store their novelisations alphabetically?! No – you filed your books to reflect the order the stories were broadcast. That was the easiest way to find the book you wanted. We also knew that the numbering system, consisting of books to date in alphabetical order, and then subsequent numbers as they were released out of any chronological or alphabetical system made a nonsense of the whole thing anyway.
5. Terrance Dicks
Whenever someone asks me which author I own the most books of, I may say Pratchett, Banks, Heinlein or Dick, but I’m never entirely truthful. Because probably the most number of books I own by a single author is Terrance Dicks (over sixty).
Unfairly criticised by some adult fans, I think Dicks should be celebrated as one of the heroes of 70s childhood literacy. I don’t think he ever forgot who he had in mind when writing the books he did. He makes the publisher imposed page limit of much of his time (a mere 120 pages) work for him with a style and brevity that’s pretty much as inclusive as JK Rowlings early Harry Potter books.
His brief descriptions of his protagonists actually became understandable written caricatures of the incarnations, setting a house style adopted by other writers. He introduced the world to the words “chameleon circuit” through the books first.
He could also write well, with some spectacular openings. Can I ask you – as a young child, wouldn’t you read this and desperately want to continue?
“Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man. His clothes were tattered and grimy, his skin blotched and diseased over wasted flesh. On his head was a gleaming white helmet. He walked with the stiff, jerky movements of a robot-which was exactly what he had become.
The robot man moved through the shattered rubble of a once great city, a fitting inhabitant of a nightmare landscape.
In time he came to a river, a sluggish, debris-choked polluted stream which had once carried great ships. He quickened his pace, sensing that the water would provide the thing he sought-a way to end an existence of misery and pain.
When he came to a gap in the embankment wall, he marched stiffly though it and plunged into the water below. He fell, like a log or a stone, making no attempt to save himself. Dragged down by the weight of the helmet, his head sank beneath the grimy waters.
There was something inhuman about the manner of his death-but then, he had not been truly human for a very long time.”
Dalek Invasion of Earth Terrance Dicks
Dicks went through a period when he found himself, due to scheduling errors and other writers commitments, being contractually obliged to write a book a month for a year. This period did see a drop in quality as he raced through stories. It also includes what almost amounts to a written production error in Robots of Death when the character Cass is said to “loom over” the Doctor during an interrogation scene. It’s a remarkable achievement for a character who was discovered murdered in the previous chapter.
So the Target range. Brilliant, engaging, with occasional periods of disappointment and frustration. They were the perfect mirror for the little show that spawned them.
Other book ranges would come, and continue to this day, featuring untelevised stories of the Doctor. A Target book though – that was like an artefact, the holy writ. It would be churlish to go through the anniversary year and not say a big thank you to Terrance and all the other writers who contributed to them and who gave this young reader, and I bet many others, an invaluable gift. The gift of reading for pleasure.
Additional bits and pieces
- A few years ago Mark Gatiss narrated a lovely radio 4 documentary about the Target phenomenon in a one-off special On the outside it looked like an old fashioned Police Box. I hope it’s one of the archive shows that Radio 4 extra is going to repeat next month. If you can’t wait, or are overseas, then there is a YouTube rip in three parts. Part one, two and three (many thanks to @wolfweed for the link).
- In Australia, the Splendid Chaps did a live show discussing Doctor Who in book form as part of Darebin Libraries’ Geek Week. The resulting discussion is available in a free podcast here.
- Over the last two years 12 of the Target novels have been republished with additional introductions by TV and prose writers like Russell, Stephen Moffat, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock and Stephen Baxter. Old Who for a new generation. Some books also live on as audio books, as this feature will explain.
- David Aaranovitch has written a new introduction for a re-release of Remembrance of the Daleks, which is the only novelisation featured in a celebratory release of past treasures.
- @WhoHar referred users on the Faces strand to this site, which has a couple of free e-books to download from the period, and other spin-off books. Well worth a trip.
- The Target range benefited from very large print runs due to demand. They can often be spotted on markets, second hand book stalls and charity shops. Try your children with them. Try them yourself.
- If you are interested in seeing more of those covers @wolfeed presents this link to Chris Achilleos website. Andrew Skilleter also has a site with a gallery and short film of his work.
- Thanks to @Juniperfish for this link to an interview with Neil Gaiman and Terrance Dicks who give their thoughts on the 50th anniversary.