The return to public consciousness of the Doctor Who novelisations, which were originally published by Target books in the 1970s and ‘80s, has come as a surprise to me, but return they have, both as paperback reprints and as a series of audiobooks.
On the face of it, the availability on DVD of most of the programmes from which these books were drawn would appear to make them redundant. If it had been possible to record episodes off the TV in 1963 I don’t suppose they would have come into being. But for those of us who grew up in the seventies, the regular appearance of these was, apart from the twenty-five minutes a week watching the programme, one of the two big thrills in the life of a Doctor Who enthusiast, the other being, of course, the gorgeous weekly comic strip, which ran, virtually unbroken, for over 700 weeks. Even when Doctor Who was off the telly, there was a new installment of the comic serial to look forward to on a Saturday morning, and a new Target book every month. Target books and TV Comic: they were the cornerstones.
The Target books were perfectly decent children’s books. No doubt parents would have preferred their young ‘uns to read Robert Louis Stevenson or Anne of Avonlea, but there we are. Kiddies don’t choose what their parents want them to choose. (Actually, I’m not sure than Anne of Avonlea is all that great.) For large numbers the favoured reading was Enid Blyton, though Blyton was, to me, maddeningly dull. More gripping, possibly, though I have never read them, were the books by Ruby Ferguson about a girl called Jill and her pony. I knew a guy who read the Jill books to his boyfriend in bed, a chapter a night. Eventually they broke up, but not until they’d reached the end of the ninth and final book. Apparently Ruby Ferguson would in each new book plug the earlier ones. (“You will remember how in Jill’s Gymkhana…”) Jill books may seem a tad girly, but remember that many of those punkish kids who bought 2000AD also secretly read their sister’s copy of Misty. Anyway, there were laddish choices available, like Biggles books and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators. I never read these either, though a boy at school was heavily into The Three Investigators and always had one of the series in his satchel.
If you were a science fiction kind of child, the Target Books were more likely to be your thing than the Jill books, or even Biggles. A whirligig of colour and invention and all-round splendour. Lovely cover art. Until I was cast in the series, I read every one of them. They still have real charm. So I was extremely pleased when Michael Stevens at Audiogo asked if I would like to read one. Well, of course I bloody would!
At first I was a tiny bit disappointed that I was not asked to read a book by Terrance Dicks. Terrance was the ultimate Doctor Who noveliser. (Is that a word?) He wrote, I should think, two thirds of them. His adaptations were always elegantly, crisply done. I would still like to record one, just because he is who he is, but I don’t imagine he would ever listen to it. He told me that he has piles and piles of Doctor Who audiobooks and never gets around to playing any of them. Terrance is a big fan of pot noodles and eats one every evening and I would have thought this was the perfect time for a chapter of a Who audio, but no doubt he has other priorities.
Disappointment evaporated swiftly when I took a look at the volume in question, which was The Visitation, by Eric Saward, adapted from his own serial. I worked from a photocopy of a secondhand paperback, with 50p penciled on the corner of the first page.
I had The Visitation in my hands at least a week before I was due to turn up at the studio, so I was able to live with it for a while, read it maybe half a dozen times, try out voices and varieties of pace. Everyone knows that The Visitation serial is a Doctor Who gem. The book is a gem too. I’m told that Eric Saward doesn’t like it much, feeling he wrote it too fast. Maybe he did. He was a full-time script editor and I imagine the novel was turned it out in snatched hours. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed both privately reading it,( the first time I had read a Target book since I was eighteen years old,) and then recording it. It is tremendously atmospheric and pictorially evocative.
I can see that from a certain ‘fannish’ angle the most interesting adaptations are those written by the original scriptwriter which expand and augment his script. Coming from the horse’s mouth such additions have the whiff of authenticity. The terrific opening chapter, the arrival of the android and the slaughter of the family, is written in part from the POV of animals. I remember particularly a fox. This is quite risky but it works. The novel departs from the serial in one major respect: the character of the actor/highwayman Richard Mace is a long way from the excellent Michael Robbins, who played him on TV. I suppose the novel brings the character closer to Eric’s original intent. Physically, he is repeatedly described as ‘portly,’ which doesn’t create a picture of Michael Robbins, who wasn’t.
Off to the Audiogo studios in Bath, The Visitation with notes scrawled all over it in my bag. Just me and a lovely woman the other side of the studio glass. Audiogo booked me for two days. We started at ten thirty on the first day and finished at three thirty. Allowing for coffee breaks, when I sipped Nescafe from a Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion mug, and a lunch break, we recorded the entire three and a half hour piece in about four hours of intense, exhilarating studio time. This is not remarkable. Most Doctor Who audio novels are polished off in a day. But, like every actor, I wanted a second go. I suggested we record the whole thing again the next day, thus having two takes to choose from. I was told this would be a complete waste of time. So I spent the second day pottering around Bath.
I was asked a year or so after this recording if I would like to do the audio of Full Circle by Andrew Smith, the first story my character appeared in. Yes, I said, I would very much like to.
Andrew Smith’s TV script was produced when he was only eighteen years old. This is absurdly young. But the commission to do the novelization must have been even scarier for him. A TV programme has input from loads of people, a novel is much more exposed. There are thousands of bookish teenagers turning out novels, but the chances of these ever seeing the light of day are slim. Andrew was pretty much guaranteed a published novel at the age of twenty, before he had written a word.
There are countless examples of early publications subsequently regretted. Graham Greene, for instance, had a little book of poems published while at university called Babbling April. Later, he tried to buy up and destroy every copy. A few escaped him and you can obtain this rare book nowadays for five thousand pounds. Greene also suppressed two early novels. The great surrealist poet David Gascoyne had a slim volume published at eighteen. His mother told him he would regret it, and soon he did. For years he denied that the book existed.
SF Writers do seem to start unusually young, at roughly the same age as SF readers, which is early to mid-teens. There’s no evidence that they’re later embarrassed by these youthful efforts. I was perhaps fifteen when I first read Michael Moorcock, who was both a professionally published writer and an editor when only a couple of years older. Harlan Ellison’s earliest published stories appeared in a newspaper when he was seventeen. Isaac Asimov’s stories were appearing in Astounding at nineteen and his most famous work, the Foundation trilogy, was underway soon after. All these writers have merrily allowed their teenage work to be reprinted, though they often add introductions warning of its gaucheness.
It was a real treat to find that the novelisation of Full Circle is terrific fun. Even now, it is what Christopher Bidmead would call ‘a ripping good read’. I know the serial version less well than I know The Visitation. I have seen The Visitation several times over the years. The production of Full Circle was such misery that, between its first broadcast and the DVD audio commentary, I had never seen it at all, though when I did see it for the commentary I found I liked it.
Even more than Eric, Andrew used the novel as an opportunity to expand his script and move closer to his original intention. The cover is graced with a super painting of a rubbery marshman straight from the TV, but in the novel the marshmen feel somewhat different, less like ‘Creatures from the Black Lagoon’. There is a thrilling opening chapter, absent from TV, in which the Starliner crashes on Alzarius. There is an acute sense of the dreadful machinations of small town politics which make the Starliner such an intolerable place to be. The ruler and his oily lackey are not far from reality. This seems particularly striking when you remember that Andrew Smith later became a senior policeman and worked occasionally on the edges of the political world. I wonder if he was sometimes reminded of his Full Circle characters?
Near the end there is a melancholy telepathic ‘speech’ from one marshman to the others, which is moving. There is also a sort of ‘folk rhyme,’ which, adventurously, is presented in its entirety as a prologue and then quoted throughout by assorted characters.
After reading it, I was dying to get back to Bath.
It looked less likely that Full Circle, which is thousands of words longer than The Visitation, could be recorded in a single day, but it was, just. My last gasp was uttered at twenty-five past five. Then I went, exhausted, to an attractively historic pub, and spent the evening with large chunks of Andrew’s book bouncing around my head. I dreamed of it that night.
Actors are show-offs, and one of the reasons I like doing audiobooks, as most of us do, is that they demand a large portion of what passes as one’s range, vocally at least. In the context of Doctor Who, not widely known for virtuosity, the audiobooks are the nearest probably anyone, and certainly a companion, can get to doing quite stretching work. So why not go for it? And the two novels I have read do make real demands. The Visitation bounces from a sitcom highwayman to a genocidal alien maniac. It’s like playing Betty White and Adolph Hitler in the same piece. Full Circle goes from a bunch of outsider children to wily political operators. There’s a kind-hearted old bloke who dies horribly. There are big action scenes. There are even scenes of family tension, a rare tone for Doctor Who.
And then there is the Doctor.
Probably the most madly pleasurable aspect, though not the most challenging, is getting to play the Doctor. It is a delightful fact that many Doctor Who companions can capture their Doctors uncannily well. Katy Manning’s Jon Pertwee is world-famous and Frazer Hines does a fabulous Patrick Troughton. This is not ’impersonation’ in the way of a TV impressionist. Certainly not from me it isn’t. It’s more a matter of a manner, a rhythm of speech, a way of inflecting. Having a go at the Fifth and then the Fourth Doctor, and being paid pretty well for it, is a very good gig.
Audiogo has ceased to exist and the Target books are now being recorded elsewhere, but they continue to come out. An actor who was at Audiogo to read an entirely different kind of book described Doctor Who to me as ‘the gift that keeps on giving,’ and for its actors this is certainly true. Talking to Geoffrey Beevers last year, we agreed that reading an audio book is the single most enjoyable job an actor can be asked to do.