Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion – Doctor Who 52 Extra: D

Introducing Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion

Shop window dummies that come to life, the Doctor given a new ‘family’ on Earth and a touch of bitchy soap opera… No wonder this was such an influence on Russell T Davies that he wrote the introduction for the new edition. Terrance Dicks’ first book novelises the thrilling TV story Spearhead From Space, making it more thrilling still from the title on through – one of the best Doctor Who novels ever written, and creating an irresistible monster that never quite made it to TV: “something between spider, crab and octopus…”

Robert Holmes’ 1970 adventure Spearhead From Space is one of the best-known Doctor Who stories – it introduced Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, the Autons and even colour to the series, was among the first to be released in video, DVD and book form, and with its mixture of action, horror, comedy and really aggressive department store sales windows, inspired Rose, 2005’s even more radical relaunch. It was first broadcast before I was born, so I grew up loving the Third Doctor’s adventures in their Target Books adaptations, and only caught up with the TV versions on VHS about two decades after transmission. The Pertwee books are arguably Target’s golden age; the TV originals rarely matched the pictures the novels had conjured in my head. I still think of this as the ‘Pertwee gap’ where this Doctor’s novelisations far outstripped his TV stories, and Spearhead From Space, too, gains a great deal by becoming The Auton Invasion… But in this case, it doesn’t mean that Spearhead From Space is a disappointment. It’s one of my favourite TV Doctor Who stories. The first two books Target commissioned were for me the two best Third Doctor stories, and they made them better still. The Pertwee gap here means that The Auton Invasion is simply fantastic.

Five Reasons To Read – or Listen To – Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1 – The Nightmarish Nestene. If you see this story on TV, you remember the Autons. If you read the book, you imagine the Nestene. You might say this is a spoiler to start with, save for it being on the cover and difficult to miss (and not just on Chris Achilleos’ original 1974 cover, either)…
“Standing towering over them was the most nightmarish creature Liz had ever seen. A huge, many-tentacled monster something between spider, crab and octopus. The nutrient fluids from the tank were still streaming down its sides. At the front of its glistening body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and hatred.”
Much of Terrance Dicks’ book description simplifies: the not-meteorite energy units are green spheres rather than complex polyhedrons; the factory receptionist expressionlessly doll-like; the walking dummy Autons much more blank. It’s effective. The repeated emphasis on Autons looking like half-finished waxworks, or having an enormous but peculiarly horrible hand – “It was completely smooth and white, and there were no fingernails” – that drops away to fire sizzling bolts of energy from the empty wrist instantly conjure mental images without complicated detail. The exception is deep within the factory that builds the Autons, where a body is growing to house the controlling majority of the Nestene Consciousness, the group mind animating all the living plastic for the invasion. The book teases this repeatedly to build anticipation, most effectively at the close of Chapter 6, where the Autons become more threatening yet and a series of short, understated sentences at the end give closure to an earlier attack. The audiobook version has much less in the way of music and sound effects than later Target CDs, but both steady narration by Caroline John (scientist Dr Liz Shaw on TV) and a strange alien glugging sound build up particularly eerily there too.

The book climaxes with the Doctor and Liz Shaw reaching the heart of the factory, where something enormous heaves, seethes and bubbles in a great tank (which the fascinated Doctor walks round “as if contemplating a swim in it”). On TV, a few limp tentacles emerge – then, in the sequel a year later, just a fuzzy video effect – without being entirely convincing. In the book, there’s no disappointment when the whole side of the tank shatters open and the “huge, many-tentacled monster something between spider, crab and octopus” rears unforgettably into our imaginations.

Where the cover paintings of most Doctor Who novelisations take pictures from the TV show as their model, Terrance Dicks’ Nestene created not just a nightmare but a challenge impossible for many artists to resist. Chris Achilleos paints one lurking on the cover, then gives it much more detail in a starring eruption as the finale to his internal illustrations, followed by other artists competing with further editions. The first sequel, Terror of the Autons, took similarly vivid descriptions from Terrance and let Peter Brookes’ imagination soar into a comic-book Cthulhoid horror that wraps its way around the front of the book, with Alan Willow having a go of his own inside the pages – then the second edition boasted Alun Hood’s horribly photo-realistic glaring eye, writhing tentacle and ickily teeth-like suckers. Even the back cover excitedly talks up
“a malignant, squid-like monster of cosmic proportions and indescribably hideous appearance.”
And yet Terrance’s description provides what’s still the most unforgettable mental image of all the Target books, inspiring artist after artist and proving that however powerful the design in front of your eyes, the most memorable horrors remain the ones you imagine.

2 – All Doctors Are Gits. The Doctor and the Autons both look human, but the book goes to even greater lengths than the TV version to emphasise that they aren’t – from the very first, poacher Sam Seeley sees both the ‘meteorites’ and the Doctor landing, and it’s the Doctor that frightens him more. But that’s not my favourite parallel for the Doctor here. The comatose Doctor is brought in to the local cottage hospital, and you can tell Terrance had written soap opera, on top of tea and bullying bosses as signatures of normality. The original script had plenty of hospital scenes, but the book expands them with full-on soap gossip, rivalries, and everybody on the make (just like Sam, a doomed businessman and even an army corporal later in the book).

A nurse gets the worst of it to start with, trembling at Dr Henderson’s sharp tongue when he shrieks with anger over the two hearts on the Doctor’s X-ray, then when Henderson’s “old enemy” Dr Lomax in Pathology rings to complain too, she “almost dropped the ’phone from pure terror”. In just a few pages, Terrance sketches in a history of bullying medical horrors, with Caroline John’s reading on CD making it all even more entertaining. But that’s nothing to when the hospital’s senior Surgical Consultant Mr Beavis shows up with his “high-handed, lordly manner” that terrifies even the doctors – not least our own favourite one, when he overhears that Beavis regards him as “some kind of interesting freak. Probably plans to open him up and sort out his innards for him.” Which rather reminds me of some of the more careless consultants when I was hospitalised last year, so it serves him right when the Doctor nicks his car to get away.

I always wonder, though – are we being lulled into liking the new Doctor because every other doctor in this is a total git or a complete monster? Or are we being warned by implication that this Doctor’s imprinted on them just after rebirth and thinks doctors ought to be arrogant workplace bullies?

3 – Terrance Dicks. One of Doctor Who’s most significant writers, Terrance Dicks wrote several TV stories and was the show’s script editor (similar to today’s lead writer) for five years, but it’s with Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion that his even greater role began: he went on to write nearly half the Target novelisations, amid hundreds of books altogether.

Terrance’s first novel is still for me his best. He puts in enormous creativity, and you can see immediately that he’s a natural prose as well as script writer – people often talk about his deceptively easy style, but I’ve read an awful lot of Doctor Who authors and few of the others manage Terrance’s ‘effortless’ flow even when they’re trying. His style’s all the more effective for having plenty of action and humour, but understating both. Crisp, dry and with deft touches of horror and sketched-in one-line character backgrounds to help us empathise (often immediately before they’re blasted down), he’s aware that he’s writing in part for children but is never patronising, though occasionally simplifying, such as calling the more advanced doppelgänger Autons “Replicas” rather than “facsimiles” (it would be another decade before the term facsimile would be in common use, but even then associated with sinisterly smooth businessmen who want to take over the world). He’s responsible for generations finding how exciting reading can be.

One of Terrance’s best-known devices is his use of simple, memorable descriptions – and reusing them. Chapter 6 contrasts a comedy car sequence and a very different action-based one, and here we get the first but not the last outing in one of Terrance’s books of a soldier emptying a full clip of bullets into a monster, plainly seeing a line of holes appearing across its chest – but there’s no blood, and the thing just keeps on coming (Terrance considerately also has the man recognise that it’s not human, to reassure us that the army don’t just fill you full of lead when spooked). The Doctor’s driving, by contrast, is already ridiculously accomplished and appalling for the passengers. But it’s not just set pieces like those that recur: fanatical alien villains are already “exultant”; doomed characters already stare “in horrified fascination” or react “with unbelieving horror”; multiple ‘Doctor who?’ puns even come with in-character laugh-tracks. All these will become very familiar, though he’s not yet settled into a pattern of short, punchy chapters each ending in their own mini-cliffhanger: compared to the rest, the final chapter is enormous and would make at least three in one of his later books. But his most famous description is here, when the TARDIS materialises right back in Chapter 1:
“…a strange wheezing and groaning filled the air.”

4 – The Auton Invasion. You can probably tell from the title where the book’s heading, and it’s a stunning tour-de-force. Like the similarly outstanding Remembrance of the Daleks novelisation, it makes even the series’ most thrilling action sequences seem broader, bigger-budget, and more compelling. Auton dummies coming to life behind high street windows is such a vivid image that it relaunched Doctor Who twice on TV – as well as being remade in multiple pop videos and even Pringles ads – but for me the one that still most enthralls me is on the page.

The Doctor and Liz have worked through the night on a device that could disrupt the Nestenes, but in the London dawn the city is coming to life in more than the ordinary way:
“Soon a normal, bustling London day would be in full swing. But this day, in London, and in cities all over the country, was to be like no other. This was the morning of the Auton invasion.
“In the shop windows and in the department stores the mannequins stood waiting. A policeman patrolling along Oxford Street cast a casual eye at the window display in one of the big stores. A group of window dummies, dressed in bright, casual sports clothes, sat under a beach umbrella in a cheerful seaside setting. The policeman thought longingly of his own holidays. Only another two weeks… As he passed on his way the mannequins posing round the table stirred and came to life. Jerkily at first, they rose from their beach chairs and rugs. The tallest raised its hand in a pointing gesture. The hand dropped away on its hinge to reveal a gun nozzle.”
One street and one copper draw us in, but the action telescopes swiftly out to the whole country. Autons blast people down in the streets of every major city; the police are overwhelmed by thousands of calls; it’s so serious that Terrance even mentions ITV as well as the BBC issuing urgent warnings to stay inside and barricade your home, before Autons destroy transmitters along with phone exchanges and fire stations. But the really effective part is when he widens the scope to full-on fifth columnist paranoia, with every response going wrong as ministers and senior officers give confusing or deliberately damaging orders – before their hands drop away to reveal Auton guns. It’s leavened by a few scattered examples of ‘hope in the ordinary people’s pluck and bravery’, but for the most part the invasion is pages of grim despair:
“Chaos… panic… confusion… Then, one by one, the outside ’phones went dead.”

5 – Where Do Autons Come From? …Actually, I wish you’d not told me.
“And Channing smiled a terrible smile.”
The book’s main villain is “Channing”, the new partner at a plastics factory. On TV the guest star makes him eerie and detached, perfectly alien. Here he’s an unnaturally smooth businessman, immaculately dressed, with regular, handsome features, utterly bland until he looks at you with those blazing eyes – as if he’s empty but for an animating will inside him. Like a waxwork come to life, the book suggests, or like Tony Blair with Margaret Thatcher’s eyes. He spends the novel dominating factory manager Hibbert with his alien will and revering the thing in the tank that is to come after him. And however terrific the Auton Invasion itself, for me the most gripping moment in the book is the revelation when Hibbert finally manages to free his mind enough to ask him a question…
“‘But what’s going to happen to us—to Man?’ The full horror of it suddenly came over Hibbert. ‘You’ll destroy us.’
“Channing’s voice was soothing. ‘Not you, Hibbert. You are our ally. You have helped us.’
Hibbert said dully: ‘And you… you’re not human.’
“‘I am part of the whole, Hibbert. Nestenes have no individual existence. This body is merely a container, Hibbert. You should know that. You made me.’
“And Channing smiled a terrible smile.”
That always gave me a thrill of horror when I was a boy – and others, too. Russell T Davies’ lovely Introduction to the 2011 edition not only talks about meeting his first fan through Target books (though his “doomed to never marry” shows how far we’ve come already since), confesses to childhood theft and praises Sir Terrance, as he should be, but picks that same line as the one that gave him chills and thrills. Can you spot the lines in Rose that came directly from this book, rather than the TV version? A young Alan Moore uses the same terror at the heart of his Auton tale Business As Usual (pairing him with Alan Davis before V For Vendetta). And the Terrance turns of phrase that I’m willing to bet stuck in a young JK Rowling’s head aren’t just stock descriptions like Professor Flitwick’s “shock of white hair”; at the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort, too, smiles a terrible smile…

What Else Should I Tell You About Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion?

I’m still late, aren’t I? If I’m not careful it’ll soon be time to run screaming from the January sales. You can probably tell that I’d put this in my two or three favourite Target novels, and often still my favourite of the lot. But it isn’t entirely perfect. It can’t help missing something that the actors gave it on TV, and while Dr Liz Shaw comes out of it fairly well – lacking Caroline John’s sarky brilliance, but neatly emphasising her scientific ability and curiosity as the outsider finding her way into this weird set-up, the proof of the pudding being that I went to primary school with two Elizabeth Shaws, but I still thought this one was fantastic – Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s characterisation is more confused.

On TV, this is possibly Nicholas Courtney’s best performance and probably his best part as the leader of the army UNIT tasked with investigating uncanny happenings – for the first half of the story, he’s the lead, and he’s an intelligent young officer, an urbane, incisive, highly efficient professional, briskly in charge and pedeconferencing decades before it was fashionable. Terrance Dicks wrote this four years later, by which time the Brig was more a comforting fixture and never threatening to steal the show from a domineering Doctor who’d often treat him as the comic relief (though with Nick always retaining some dignity). And in the novel the Brigadier keeps switching between these two poles. He’s never quite a buffoon, but we get internal monologues about what a cushy job he’d been expecting, or his moustache bristling with military fervour when he thinks he’ll get the chance to bomb something, and he loses his own sardonic jokes as he becomes the butt of the narrator’s instead. Crucially, you can see why ambitious, modern TV Brigadier would pick Liz as a scientific adviser, but not how fuddy-duddy stereotype book Brigadier would. But then his best television scene, surrounded by journalists, comes off nearly as well with a very different treatment here, while he has stone-cold serious moments silently spotting the villain or even calmly awaiting death after running out of the machine-gun bullets he’s been blazing away with to cut Autons in two. And for a character that Terrance instinctively thinks of as cosy, it’s noticeable that four chapters out of ten begin with him tearing a strip off his captain (no wonder that one doesn’t come back). The book has a similarly contradictory attitude to the army in general, even more than the script does: on the one hand they turn out to be the Doctor’s friends and shoot up Johnny Alien; on the other, a tired, jumpy sentry shoots up Doctor Alien, too, and they’re not just problematic by human frailty – an Auton Replica hijacking the chain of command implicitly suggests soldiers are brave but too easily misused by abrogating moral responsibility to the group.

Even the most establishment Doctor here gets several anti-establishment moments, starting with a Mr Benn joke, so despite Terrance Dicks overseeing most of the Doctor’s time as UNIT’s scientific adviser, you can credit him with still pointing out that it should never be an easy fit.

And, if you need one, my score:

If You Like Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, Why Not Try…

More Terrance Dicks, obviously. He’s gone down an astonishing long path with Doctor Who, with scripts from 1969’s The War Games to 1994’s Shakedown – Return of the Sontarans, probably the most successful of the straight-to-video while-it’s-off-the-air spin-offs. Mainly, though, it’s other books, his own ‘original’ novels – which usually have fun with elements from his own TV scripts, though World Game playfully rewrites the Prologue of The Auton Invasion – and the legion of Target adaptations. So I’m going to pick…

Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons. Terrance’s 1975 Auton sequel novelisation established them as Big Monsters for a generation of readers who, like me, hadn’t been born when they were on TV. This too is from a script by Robert Holmes, who Terrance has often said inspired his best books because he was simply Doctor Who’s best writer, and has nastier jokes, the Master and a much greater improvement on the TV version. I’ve previously written about it in considerable detail (and with a picture of me as a little boy, as it was something like the second book I ever bought).

Doctor Who – Made of Steel. This one’s from 2007, with David Tennant’s Doctor and the Cybermen. It’s one of Terrance’s most recent books, and the best of his original novels in about the last twenty years. Short and crisp, this “Quick Read” is hugely entertaining: Terrance does a brilliant job writing a punchy new series adventure, with a London landmark in trouble, absolutely nailing Mr Tennant’s speech and persona, borrowing its opening from the first Doctor Who story I ever saw – by Terrance – and, if you read with the right eye, giving simple but elegant put-downs along the way to both Primeval and Torchwood.

Though also see if you can find Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Business As Usual, a 1980 Doctor Who comic strip of the nastily ironic final ‘The End, dot dot dot question mark’ kind (think Saki, or Tharg’s Future Shocks), that does a very similar little Auton plot as some kind of macabre joke.

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