(c) Target Books
Despite the fact that most big science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars leave me cold, or at best lukewarm, I have a great deal of affection for Doctor Who, which this coming Saturday will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast. I suspect the reason is because Doctor Who is essentially a writer’s show. Among its fans there’s as much discussion of the people writing the scripts as there is of the actors playing the Doctor, and indeed, these days, the name of the ‘show-runner’ (invariably a writer) is almost as well-known as the name of the lead actor himself. And the show’s premise, whereby a renegade character, devoid of personal ties and expelled from his own culture, wanders around in a miraculous space / time machine that can visit anytime in history and anywhere in the universe, is so loose that it allows writers to let their imaginations off the leash and write about practically anything.
Among the people who over the years have written Doctor Who episodes, or associated media for the show such as novels and comic strips, are: Dan Abnett, Douglas Adams, Ben Aaronovitch, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Robert Banks Stewart, Christopher H. Bidmead, David Bishop, Chris Boucher, Chris Chibnall, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Russell T. Davis, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Gallagher, Mark Gatiss, Brian Hayles, Charlie Higson, Don Houghton, Malcolm Hulke, A.L. Kennedy, Philip Martin, Pat Mills, Steven Moffat, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, James Moran, Grant Morrison, Rona Munro, Terry Nation, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Dennis Spooner and Toby Whitehouse. All right, there are at least two names on that list whose output I think is absolutely dreadful (clue – their surnames both begin with ‘C’) but between them these writers are responsible for a vast amount of significant cultural material over the past half-century: everything from Anno Dracula and Artemis Fowl to Wallace and Gromit and The Watchmen.
But there are two Doctor Who writing names who, in my opinion, tower above the rest. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Robert Holmes was the scriptwriter responsible for a number of stories (Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, The Ark in Space, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng Chiang, The Caves of Androzani) whose images seared themselves on my youthful brain and have lurked there ever since. Those images range from the sequence in Spearhead from Space where plastic shop-mannequins come to life, smash their way out of shop-windows and slaughter passers-by, to one terrifying scene in The Ark in Space that ended with an infected space-station crewman removing his hand from his pocket to reveal it’d turned into a knob of slimy green alien flesh. All right, that alien flesh was actually made of green-painted bubble-wrap, but back in 1975 bubble-wrap was a new invention and I didn’t know what it was.
Terrance Dicks, meanwhile, served as scriptwriter and occasional writer on the show during the 1970s. But it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series, which turned most of the TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks with attractive and colourful covers (often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos) that Dicks deserves the greatest praise. Back then, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow people to catch up with missed television. Also, the BBC seemed distinctly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who – indeed, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughon, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their storerooms. (Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of wanton destruction now.) So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, which were invariably penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose. In fact, I suspect that Dicks did nearly as much to get folk my age reading books in the United Kingdom as, say, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton.
The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they tended to make the stories seem a lot more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen. In fact, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed. What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling space-ports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets, bare, blank and a bit shaky. Alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were inevitably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming. So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.
At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation – I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter. I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so. The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth. The book was called Blood-Lust of the Sontarans. The Sontarans were those war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors. They were a sort of middle-ranking monster – I suppose in the league table of great Doctor Who villains they were the equivalent of Newcastle United.
A year later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech. My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together. There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a colourful, hopefully-Chris-Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine. This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, those demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks. The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly-evolved virus and they were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it. I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and they used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor. I should have sued.
People often scoff at the phenomenon of fan fiction, but I should point out that that was precisely how E.L. James, the immensely popular, if hardly-critically-respectable author of Fifty Shades of Grey, started out – she originally wrote fan fiction about Bella and Edward in the Twilight series. Though I have to say that unlike Ms James, my ten / eleven-year-old self was at least writing fan fiction about something that wasn’t complete shite.
Stand by for another Who-related post over the days to come…