Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Free Doctor Who Books (…With A Small Catch)

One of the many lovely things about Doctor Who being a big TV success again is that people are buying the books in huge numbers, too. Right now, you can also get some for ‘free’ – some online, some with a magazine (requiring cash). So, should you? For me there were two golden ages where Doctor Who novels really seemed to matter: the scintillating New Adventures, aimed at older readers, which came to an end ten years ago yesterday after keeping the series going once the television dropped it; and the cheery Target novelisations of the original TV series itself. Happily, these are the very book ranges from which you can now obtain a selected few for free. Read on to find out just how and, perhaps more importantly, which ones you should try to lay your hands on…

Now, BBC Books have been publishing their own range of novels, nicely produced hardbacks featuring the two latest Doctors. In fact, there are three new stories of the Doctor and Martha just out in the last week or so, and while I’m particularly looking forward to reading the one with childhood terrors the Zygons, I’ll get to them shortly rather than dashing out for them on day of publication. So far, you see, this line’s been… OK. Aimed at children like the Target novels, but of a length closer to that of Virgin’s New Adventures, I quite enjoy them, but as far as I’m concerned they’ve not yet hit their stride. The best of both of my favourite book ranges can punch alongside the TV series; these BBC Books so far look very feeble alongside the new series. They lack either the depth and inspiration of the New Adventures – whose authors included half a dozen of the new TV series’ writers – or the crisp, well-told stories of the Target novelisations. Well, with one exception, which I’ll come to later and contrast with the least appealing of the new books.

Doctor Who – The New Adventures Ebooks

Rather than indulging my love for the New Adventures novels, I’m going to skip past those swiftly and then look in a bit more detail at some of the Target books. The reason for that’s simple enough; the magazine with Targets attached won’t be on newsagents’ shelves for long, but four of the New Adventures, and four other books from the same stable, have been redone as Ebooks on the BBC website and are in general likely to be around for a while. Having re-read a couple in the new online editions (I recommend Lungbarrow; not my favourite of those available, but intriguingly rewritten as well as supplying author’s notes, not to mention saving you a fortune on eBay), today I’ve picked out another in celebration of the range that came to a tragic end a decade ago with So Vile a Sin. The one I’ve just started on is Nightshade, an early novel by the League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss (both a writer and an actor for Doctor Who on TV these days), and though hardly the most groundbreaking of stories, it has a place in my heart as the first bit of Doctor Who to scare me since the ’70s. This chilly paean to Quatermass and Doctor Who like Mr Hinchcliffe used to make now has new illustrations, notes by the author and, most excitingly of all, even MP3s of the long-deleted Cybertech ‘soundtrack’. Ever since the lovely Mike Fillis gave me a copy, I’ve loved that ‘Nightshade TV Theme’…

Anyway, you can pick the Ebooks up at leisure, but pop into your nearest newsagent and, with luck, they’ll have a Doctor Who-related magazine or two. The one with the free Target novel attached is SFX’s latest special, SFX Collection – Doctor Who: The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to New Who, and in the way of these things it’s more a free magazine to pick up with a book bumped up to about the same price as the new BBC ones; for the most part, it’s not the most enthralling read. Far more worth dipping into is the latest Doctor Who Magazine special, a fabulous pile of gossip labelled In Their Own Words Volume Three, 1977-81, but don’t let that put you off. Mini-reviews of the magazines at the end, but before then, at last to the point. The SFX specials come with a choice of fifteen novels. Which should you pick?

First off, I suspect there’s very little quality control gone into the selection of free books in the SFX goodie bags. I imagine they simply found a supplier with a pile of remaindered books and picked out at least one for each Doctor (original series vintage), which is as fair a way to do it as any. They’re definitely not the best – perhaps one or two might be at the top end of the range – but, again with an exception or two, they’re not the worst of them. The mix of quality is about as thorough as the mixture of Doctors. There are a good few monsters around, too, though while Cybermen appear, you won’t find any Daleks. And there’s a good selection of authors, with most of the Target regulars represented (omitting only Ian Marter, a bloodthirsty childhood favourite) to illustrate the styles that came round most often, not to mention the clichés: if you buy more than one, look out for recurring chapter titles such as Attack, Escape or Trapped! Here they go, in the order in which the original stories were broadcast…

The Free Target Doctor Who Book Selection With SFX

Doctor Who – Marco Polo

Starring the Doctor (William Hartnell)
A greatly extended very early story of the Doctor’s encounter with the famous explorer in China makes a surprisingly short novel by comparison, though John Lucarotti does quite a good job of it. It moves more quickly on the page than the TV’s weekly variations of ‘see the sights of Cathay / the Doctor breaks into the TARDIS / Tegana’s discovered to be a baddie / he sets Marco against our heroes’, though less stylishly. I enjoy the additions of all Kublai Khan’s endearments to his Empress (Richard never responds to them), and it’s interesting to compare the two ‘versions’ – here, written once the TV series had been going for a couple of decades, important points are redrafted to give the regulars more of a starring role, presumably because everyone expected it by then, as if making little changes to bend it more into the shape of a Who story. A nicely characterised little adventure in history, if you pick this one up.

Doctor Who – Galaxy Four

Starring the Doctor (William Hartnell)
From a highly experimental period of the show where they went for big concepts but limited characters, this story saw our heroes land on a doomed planet where two other parties of travellers have crashed. The Rills are ugly but good, the Drahvins are wicked but ‘beautiful’, and that’s pretty much the whole story. It’s not the most layered morality tale. The book’s only got four chapters, straight from the TV episodes, which makes it less digestible than many; there’s some rather poor internal dialogue and a fair bit of backstory added, but it’s just not terribly interesting, with a final line that’s too melodramatic to take seriously yet not over-the-top enough to be entertaining. Fortunately, it boast a fabulous cover, easily Andrew Skilleter’s campest work, featuring ‘beautiful space women’ against a blazingly colourful planet. It’s worth getting for that alone.

Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet

Starring the Doctor (William Hartnell)
“The last thrilling adventure of the first DOCTOR WHO,” as the back will tell you, this is also the first story with the Cybermen – back when they even had names, plus a particularly bonkers planet pictured gloriously on the very striking cover. Right from Gerry Davis’ often-reused Cyber-intro, this is an exciting, macho tale (James Bond clip and all), with little changes to make it up-to-the-minute and beyond – for 1976 – as the Cybermen attack a polar military base. These Cybermen are nowhere near as eerie as on TV, but if you like your blood-and-thunder…

Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Starring the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)
Ahh, well, this is the first book I ever read, and I love it to bits, even if it’s a bit flat and pretty much The Tenth Planet again (though like several of the very early books, this adds pictures – even if only the one of a Cyber-silhouette and the one of them rising into space are much good – but has even less brain). On TV, this story was made as The Moonbase, and could be called the first ‘production-line’ Who story with no innovations; the book’s similarly functional, but from the opening of the TARDIS as a ship in a stormy sea, rather endearing. With the Doctor accompanied by Ben, Polly and Jamie, it’s rather a strong line-up, and Polly gets a stunning ‘the deb strikes back’ moment as she destroys Cybermen with The Nail Varnish Remover of Death. I was so impressed when I read about it that my Mum had to stop me playing with nail varnish remover to try to dissolve things… Read it to see why it was so particularly suitable for me to learn to read while alone in hospital.

Doctor Who and the Mutants

Starring the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
At last we come to a book with the brisk, crisp, deceptively simple style of Target top writer Terrance Dicks. For reasons that passeth understanding, one of the biggest rivalries between Who fans is the vitriol thrown between those who champion Jon Pertwee and those who favour Sylvester McCoy. Yep, some things are a mystery even to as dedicated a fan as me. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, both have stories that tend to be rather disappointing on screen (with glorious exceptions), but they come alive in the books. For Sylv, it’s the magnificent New Adventures; with Pertwee, his stories are vastly improved as the best of the Target novelisations. The Mutants is perhaps the definitive example of a Pertwee novel told with gusto that was a terrible disappointment when I finally got to see it, and arguably the best script by Dave Martin (who died just a few weeks ago) and Bob Baker, even if it’s always felt more like one from Malcolm Hulke. It tells the future as if it’s history – picked up by the New Adventures, too – in a resolutely anti-colonialist / anti-apartheid parable, which only really lets itself down with the Star Trek ending. Still, with the book you get a great monster on the cover, but escape the rotten actors, dodgy effects and seeing aliens that organically evolve frocks, sequins, rainbow lighting and shoulderpads (who said drag queens were unnatural?).

This book also makes me a little bit sniffly, remembering when I first got it. It was in a swap for a weirdly exciting ‘spaceship thing’ I’d found on some waste ground – in truth a GAS RING – in Mrs Rigby’s classroom at primary school, from my friend Jon Good, another Who fan and brilliant cartoonist who died much too young. So I always think of him.

Doctor Who and the Green Death

Starring the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
Target’s other great scribe was Malcolm Hulke, and this was the only story he novelised that he’d not written the original script for. You can’t spot the joins, though, as it’s full of well-drawn characters with rounded lives and a homily for the way we live today. This was a particularly effective homily, as a TV tale of big-business-will-poison-you that people remembered as ‘the one with the giant maggots’ becomes, in novel form, the story that turned me into a green liberal before I was ten. Reading it now, of course, I notice all the self-contradictory, romantic socialist propaganda instead. Sorry, Mac! That bit didn’t work, but never mind. The TV story is truncated in parts to make way for character, but that’s all to the good (even when he drops my favourite scene), and the gay relationship is even more obvious than on screen. So this is rather a good one to pick, even if the pictures are rubbish…

Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom / Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin

Starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
Ooh, bargain! I’m looking out for this one, as it’s two books stuck together, though I haven’t spotted an SFX carrying it yet. The Seeds of Doom’s by fantastic Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and though he’s merely a functional prose writer, it’s still pretty tense and fast-moving. Missing an actor’s charismatic turn as the villain, as a whole less stylish but also less insanely macho than the TV story, there’s possession, horror and an enormous killer plant to enjoy, though oddly it loses most of the comic relief. Famously, one of the chapters is titled ‘Cottage Under Siege’; find a copy to see whether that’s actually true.
The Deadly Assassin is another Terrance Dicks, based on a script by the great Bob Holmes, and, well, this was the greatest story of them all on TV. In the book, it still fires off a great many ideas but doesn’t display so many remarkable styles as the disorientating, brilliant TV story as the Doctor returns to his home planet but finds himself a hunted fugitive. Though the satire is toned down here, the repeated hallucination of the early chapters is still strikingly effective, as are the action sequences as the Doctor is hunted through a surreal wilderness and, of course, the story’s complete re-imagining of the Master, a villain who’d become rather a cliché and was given a whole new lease of life (or living death). It’s far from the best of the novel range, but the crisp storytelling based on such an extraordinary script still makes it an impressive read.

Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll

Starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
Again, Terrance adapts Bob, but this time it benefits from the page, with the dialogue, setting and a rather effective little prologue all standing out rather better than in the slightly lacklustre TV story. Part of the quest for the Key to Time, though that’s not a huge part of the plot, it’s a tale of industrial beastliness to alien ‘natives’ and not the most original in the world, but, hey, the characters work rather well, and there are religious maniacs and a huge giant squid to enjoy – even if Terrance takes the edge off the nasty ending! The Doctor’s casual brilliance seems perfect, too. Appropriately for a story all about money and religion, I knelt in WH Smiths in Stockport and read the whole book when it first came out, refusing to buy it in protest at the outrageous 10p price hike to 85p. Sigh…

Doctor Who and the Armageddon Factor

Starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
A slightly abrupt Terrance retelling of a Bob Baker and Dave Martin story that suffers without its guest star’s bombastic charisma – the character’s an intriguing mixture of Churchill and Hitler – but is improved by losing all those beige corridors. This is the climax of the Key to Time series, and quite exciting, really. All about the horrors of war, it’s sometimes a little too enthralled by it to get that across, and at times it seems like a cover version of Genesis of the Daleks as well as echoing elements from other of the Key to Time stories. It sags a bit in the middle, though much less so than on screen, and some of the mythic elements of the story come over rather better; on TV, this was a striking mixture of absolutely brilliant and quite disastrous, but the ending wins it for me when the Doctor realises that no-one should be trusted with god-like power… Not even God.

Doctor Who – Castrovalva

Starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Christopher H Bidmead (a writer not known for his shy hesitancy in singing his own stories’ praises, known to one friend of mine as Jesus H Bidmead) adapts his own script for the Fifth Doctor’s first story here, a beautiful scientific fairy tale that’s curiously text-dense for a Target novel. There are masses of long paragraphs of description or internal dialogue, and in a typeface that’s not as easy to read as some, though the story’s rather interestingly told. I’ve always been tickled by a line summing up a feeling I know all too well:
“He stared with the distant gaze of a man watching his departing train of thought from an empty platform.”
Doctor Who – Time-Flight

Starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Peter Grimwade was a superb director, but though he was one of the few Who directors who wrote stories as well, asked to express his vision in script form… Well, let’s just say this story isn’t universally loved. I remember reading this book in the hope that it would give it a new life seen as it was in his head (though the dialogue would still be terrible). Did it? Well, no, and I still can’t work out just what he thought he was doing other than advertising Concorde, but while it’s still no epic it massively improves on the TV “crap”. Thankfully, the writing style makes a fairly feeble story bearable. The Doctor’s a bit daft, the Master’s a ridiculous cackling loon, and with help from and for Earth authorities, posh male companions and the Master plotting a diabolical scheme with aliens, it’s like a Pertwee story lost in the ’80s. Quite entertainingly written, but empty.

Doctor Who – The Twin Dilemma

Starring the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)
The Sixth Doctor’s first outing, just about the only thing this story had going for it on screen was Colin’s verve and enthusiasm. Well, it looks better in the book, but was the hackneyed script exposed? Actually, no. Half of the book’s taken from the first episode, which is hugely expanded and characterised while the rest’s cut down in the biggest departure from the televised story of any of these books. Adaptor Eric Saward was the most macho and bloody of Doctor Who script editors, and here he attempts to marry that style with pastiche Douglas Adams. It’s hardly an unqualified success, but at least it’s interesting.

Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannerman

Starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
A whimsical story that on screen was a showcase for ’50s music and not one that ever appealed to me; it should have been played like the TV Batman, but instead of arch, was wide-eyed and took itself terribly seriously. Just not very convincingly. And as for the ‘funny genocide’… Perhaps it would have been better with a straightforward ‘the Doctor’s holiday’ approach and drop the villains? Anyway, does writer Malcolm Kohll bring out the lighter, wittier touch this story needed when adapting his own script in a book? Nah. There’s a nice little prologue, but after that everything goes wrong. Dreadfully written, the only thing anyone’s ever remembered it for in my hearing is the misprints. If you avoid one, it should be this.

Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
Now, this is more like it; Stephen Wyatt does an entertaining job of adapting his own much more successful piece of whimsy, one that a lot of people rave about. Scary clowns, futuristic hippies and strange gods fire the imagination (even if the Norse mythology doesn’t tie up to the next book, peculiarly), though the end’s a little too pat. It’s a good read, though I’m not quite sure about the writing style; he addresses the reader directly a lot of the time, which I always raise an eyebrow at. Not bad, though.

Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric

Starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
This Second World War vampire tale was another absolutely terrific story on TV, and a very popular book – certainly a big influence on the New Adventures. I wonder why Ian Briggs never wrote one of those? It’s certainly very good, though the book’s no match for the TV version (the author improves his own Dragonfire rather more). There’s a lot of inventiveness here, with the story fleshed out with fragments of other styles such as Norse mythology, The Arabian Nights, Beowulf and Dracula. It’s probably the best of the books on offer as a book… It’s just that it’s better style on DVD.

So, if you see them on the shelves, which one will you choose?

If you see this next one of the new BBC Books at your local bookshop, though, I really wouldn’t advise it:

Two New Doctor Who Books – of Varying Quality…

Doctor Who – The Price of Paradise

Starring the Doctor (David Tennant)
I said earlier that the new series-linked Doctor Who novels from the BBC have so far been a comparative disappointment, flabbily talking down to their readers rather than the crisp, well-told stories of the Target novelisations, with one exception; I’ll come to that in a moment, but first, the least appealing of the new books. This one’s by Colin Brake, an eco-parable about the damage we do by not living in harmony with nature on an idyllic planet that’s already been thoroughly taken apart by Richard on young Millennium Dome’s blog (look out particularly for what he says about human sacrifice, how fusion works, and why the ‘allergy’ idea had no sense of proportion at all). For me, it started all right – a bit bland, but serviceable – but as the ‘point’ became obvious, it just went horribly, horribly wrong. When I was a kid, Doctor Who seeded a lot of my political ideals. Goodness knows what I’d have got if I’d read this one. Look at the series: the Doctor’s a traveller in time and space, always interested in new people and places, and helping them out. It’s easy to lift out of that internationalism, individual freedom and environmentalism, and the new series has added more strongly than ever before an optimism about humanity (as well as our dark side). This story? Don’t travel anywhere – it’s wrong and evil. May as well dump the series, eh? Humans – they’re wrong and evil. Our very souls are unclean. Even the orphan who fits in slavishly is just racially evil. Then the ‘natives’ are entirely characterless, with the planet the real personality, and what is its character? If I was feeling generous, it’s that God’s still in charge in Eden, and a jealous god – but, no, this is Doctor Who and the BNP Planet. It’s revolting, and entirely out of step with the ethos of a series that’s all about openness to new things and seeing the best in people. Oh, and it opens by paraphrasing ’80s blandster Phil Collins at his most sanctimonious. Think twice: if you want an eco-parable, find a copy of SFX with The Green Death stuck to the front and leave this well alone.

Doctor Who – Made of Steel

Starring the Doctor (David Tennant)
At last, a new series book by Terrance Dicks, and you know what? It really works. I thought Only Human and The Stealers of Dreams from the new BBC Books were very good, too, but this book has one huge advantage: it isn’t huge. From the £1.99 Quick Reads series like last year’s rather good I Am a Dalek, aimed at getting people reading who usually don’t, this reads as if it was effortless to write. After reading so many other people trying to pull off the same sort of thing, it patently isn’t! Now, I like my Who novels long and deep, or short and crisp, and Terrance doesn’t do ‘deep’. Straightforward, undemanding and entertaining, at 99 pages instead of 250 this is the perfect length to capture the feel of a TV episode, while the others are too long for what they’re trying to do but too unambitious to deliver anything ‘bigger’ and just plod on. I’m hoping Richard will come along with a full-length review, as he’s done with a lot of the new novels – so I won’t nick his brilliant observations about the title or why the Cybermen bicker – but here’s a whistle-stop tour. The Doctor brings Martha back to her own place and time, only to find survivors of Cybermen from the battle of Canary Wharf in last year’s TV season finale Doomsday. Guess the London landmark where they’re hiding out (I hooted)? Much of it recalls old Doctor Who as much as new, but there are simple but elegant lampoons of both versions of the series, as well as amusing dismissals of Primeval and Torchwood (while the whole thing shows up Cyberwoman terribly. But then, so do most things). It’s not a great part for Martha, though she’s good when she’s in it and her history with the Cybermen adds to the story, but Terrance surprised me by absolutely nailing David Tennant’s speech and persona as the Doctor. The way he deals with a bullying military policeman had me punching the air, though describing them as “gorillas” is back to Terrance’s ’70s novels, along with the stock ‘ambitious woman’ characterisation. On the whole, though, it’s enormously refreshing, perhaps the most entertaining Who novel Terrance has written for about a decade and a half, and certainly the best of the new series novels so far. With the new series moving along at a hell of a lick on TV, perhaps the novels all need the discipline – hark at me! – of being much shorter.

One of my biggest disappointments with Doctor Who publishing last year, incidentally, was that – unlike the 2005 series – there was no script book. I like televised Who stories on my bookshelf, as well as on the telly. If they’re not publishing the scripts any more, they could hardly do better than get Terrance to briskly novelise them. After all, it’s worked before.

…And Those ‘Doctor Who Special’ Magazines Themselves

SFX Collection – Doctor Who: The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to New Who

As long as you pick up one of the right Target books with it, the book’s the main thing to get this for, but it’s not bad. It’s just… Not terribly interesting. Less an in-depth guide to the new series than a cross between tepid description and DVD commentary, it covers the 2005 and 2006 seasons, plus Torchwood and Sarah Jane Smith, with the aid of pie charts not very amusingly depicting the ‘Anatomy of an Episode’ – though it did make me laugh about Cyberwoman. It looks a bit tacky, too (one of the few striking pages is an advert for all the Doctor Who DVDs; see if you can spot which one is missing. It’s like the ‘odd one out’ puzzles in Battles in Time comic). On the bright side, the micro-guide to spin-off websites isn’t bad, and there’s one thing entirely worth buying it for right near the end. There’s a joint interview and photos with Doctor Who’s original producer, St Verity of Lambert, and current creative supremo Russell T Davies. Lovely!

Doctor Who Magazine – In Their Own Words Volume Three 1977-81

And finally, the other new magazine special edition on the shelves. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very promising either; interviews from three decades of Doctor Who Magazine selected and cut down to reprint the best bits. Amazingly, it’s brilliant, and though I can’t remember the last time I read a magazine cover to cover, I did here. Covering all but the earliest years of Tom Baker, this is the best of the three they’ve done so far, despite losing most of the amusing photo-captions, brilliantly assembled and highly entertaining (just be careful before you show some of the anecdotes to children). Look out in particular for the way lines from different interviews are chopped together so they seem to answer each other, often to ironic effect, and for anything by the barking but startlingly honest Tom Baker. In other news, directors are unfairly bitchy about scripts, writers named Chris praise their own scripts to the skies, and Graham Williams and Douglas Adams come across as having died far too early (and poor Graham seems to have been under a curse as Who producer. The Curse of Callaghan, perhaps). The highlight, though, is none of these things, nor even the great selection of pictures. It’s the still jaw-dropping selection of interviews from Lalla Ward, variously Romana in the series, Richard Dawkins’ wife and (very briefly) Tom Baker’s. This magazine would be worth reading for her eye-watering account of Tom’s proposal alone…

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