Books

Book Review: Doctor Who – The Target Collection (2021)

Ask any Doctor Who fan of a certain age and the likelihood is that they have a pile of battered Target books stashed away somewhere in their home. Back in the dark days before VHS or BBC iPlayer, the only way to relive an episode of Doctor Who after broadcast was to seek out the novel adaptation produced by Target Books, a long-running series of paperbacks in which classic Doctor Who stories of old were given a new lease of life in print form. Read by both newer fans who were perhaps too young to have seen the original television version on its initial broadcast and those who were keen to experience the story again after many years, the Target novels fast became the most treasured pieces of Doctor Who merchandise for decades!

The initial run of Target novels came to an end in the early 90’s, but in 2011 BBC Books revived the brand for a series of reprints, before publishing brand new novelisations in 2018, allowing fans to not only revisit classic adventures that weren’t previously adapted to the page, but also relive more recent stories in a new and exciting format. Now, another seven Doctor Who stories from various periods of the show’s history get the Target treatment, including three never-before-novelised classics from the 70s and 80s. Our resident Whovians Pete Messum and Matt Dennis give us their verdict below and you can order yours here!

The Pirate Planet

Up until recently, The Pirate Planet represented a significant gap in every fan’s Target Book collection. One of five Doctor Who serials that were never novelised due to rights issues, it’s taken forty-plus years for a novelisation of the much-loved 1978 serial to materialise. Thankfully, the wait has been worth it, if this new novel is anything to go by.

Writer Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame) is sadly no longer with us, but James Goss channels the renowned author’s wry style in such an uncanny manner that Adams himself could well have written it himself! Goss captures Adams’ voice immediately, and whilst this version of the novel doesn’t differentiate much from the original episodes, the imaginative and witty descriptions throughout provide great entertainment value.

Those who prefer their Target books to have a bit more original material are best advised to check out Goss’ previous novelisation of The Pirate Planet from 2017, which adapts Adams’ original draft scripts and contains a lot more material that never made it into the finished programme. However both are worth a read, and this new ‘as broadcast’ version of the novel remains a breezy, laugh out loud adaption of one of the Tom Baker era’s most imaginative and barmy stories. Indeed, there be treasure here! MD

Resurrection of the Daleks

Resurrection of the Daleks is primarily remembered as being the only TV serial to see the Fifth Doctor battle the dreaded Daleks; the actual story itself is a convoluted mess, with paper thin characters, underdeveloped storylines and an overall sense of misery that pervades across the whole thing like a dark cloud. But it’s been nearly forty years since the original TV broadcast, and now writer Eric Saward has been given the opportunity to revisit his story in a new format, freed from the constraints of a shoestring budget, and now able to create something truly special.

Alas, this novelisation, much like its TV counterpart, feels like a bunch of interesting concepts stuck together rather than one cohesive story, and juggles so many narrative threads that it forgets to develop any of them to a satisfying extent. Saward expands on some aspects of the story – the Daleks feel like individual characters, Lytton is given a prior history with the Doctor and one section explores all the various parts of the TARDIS – but the novel as a whole feels like a first draft. Sentences feel unnecessarily convoluted, plot holes are numerous and plentiful, and Saward frequently rushes through important exposition, character development and key story beats. Resurrection may run at a brisk 180 pages, but it feels overstuffed.

On the one hand, it is a fairly faithful adaptation, although the infamously terrible “I can’t stand the confusion in my mind” line is changed to a less amusing, but equally rubbish “the confusion in my mind is too strong”. But while Resurrection is likely to please fans of its TV incarnation, the end result is underwhelming and unengaging. For years I have wondered “what is Resurrection of the Daleks actually about?” If this novelisation is anything to go by, nothing. PM

Revelation of the Daleks

It’s fair to say that after his work on Resurrection, I was a little wary going into Eric Saward‘s novelisation of Revelation of the Daleks, but suffice it to say that as soon as I started reading, I was hooked. The unsettling atmosphere, the macabre sense of humour and spine-chilling story remain intact in a novel which perfectly balances translating the TV scripts to prose whilst also expanding upon the narrative to suit the new medium. An extended opening allows us to spend some more time with the Sixth Doctor and Peri before their adventure begins on Necros, providing some welcome character development after their initially tense dynamic. The Doctor feels just as brash and pompous, but also more considerate of his companion and more determined to fight the evils of the universe (the plot in no small part helps by having an especially malevolent villain to go up against). Peri, meanwhile, does feel a little more developed than she was on TV, with Saward focusing on her backstory and her plans for when she leaves the TARDIS, which makes for a tragic bit of dramatic irony.

Revelation‘s supporting cast are just as fun and memorable though, and greatly benefit from more exploration in this new format. Jobel is just as, if not more creepy, Tasambeker more sympathetic (if incredibly naïve) and Orcini is given an interesting arc over the course of the story. It’s a shame that Takis and Lilt’s double-crossing is brushed over so casually near the end, but alas the real star of the show is Davros, whose blend of megalomaniacal rages and witty remarks (“that would have created what I believe is termed consumer resistance”) makes for a terrific villain. Much like the TV version though, Davros’ escape after the events of Resurrection is glossed over, the Daleks themselves feel flat and devoid of character, and the giant statue of the Doctor filled with blood is a bizarre narrative contrivance designed for a cliffhanger moment that this novelisation doesn’t even utilise.

Revelation of the Daleks certainly isn’t perfect, and includes some interesting quirks – the number of Terileptil references across Resurrection and Revelation alone are baffling, and Saward constantly refers to the Necros Daleks as “gold-sphered Daleks”, which gets a little repetitive – but for fans of the story, it’s a joy to read from start to finish, and a great way to revisit such a wonderfully morbid tale. PM

The TV Movie

While the show’s classic years are fondly remembered as cheap BBC science-fiction, for one night only in 1996 Doctor Who was a big-budget American-produced TV movie. Plans for a continuation never quite came to fruition, but amongst the many bits of merchandise spawned from Doctor Who: The TV Movie was a novelisation by Gary Russell, following in the long tradition of the Target books. Twenty-five years later, the novel is officially part of the Target collection, complete with a few tweaks since its original publication.

After a completely re-worked opening sequence (which greatly expands on its on-screen counterpart), the story quickly starts to feel more familiar, retaining the emphasis on the characters rather than the mechanics of the plot. At points the novelisation feels like a half-remembered version of the film – filling in some of the narrative gaps, exaggerating some of the scary stuff and making it seem a little bit better than it actually was. Gary Russell seems to almost be script editing the story, in much the same way that the legendary Terrance Dicks did with his own Target novels. Some of the more controversial elements are toned-down (the “half-human” revelation is now simply a joke the Doctor makes, not a big secret revealed by the Master), but Russell’s descriptions of the Master’s decaying body make for some creepy on-the-page body horror.

Doctor Who: The TV Movie has always felt like a good “popcorn” instalment, fun to watch but rather nonsensical. Gary Russell‘s novel manages to take the fun, unique energy of the film and turn it into an equally fun but perhaps more engaging rendition of the story. If nothing else though, it’s great to see the Eighth Doctor join the Target collection at long last, and for fans of Paul McGann‘s incarnation of the Time Lord, this is indeed worthy of celebration. Just remember to dress for the occasion! PM

Dalek

Dalek is arguably one of Doctor Who‘s best episodes – a crowning achievement of an episode that boldly reintroduced and reinvented the Doctor’s greatest enemies for the 21st Century. I was transfixed by the story in 2005, and in 2021, it’s still a terrific piece of television, so it’s fair to say I met the announcement of a Target novelisation from screenwriter Robert Shearman with a little trepidation (although I was still ecstatic). How could such a visual story work as well on the page? Ultimately, Dalek the Target novel is a completely different beast from its TV counterpart, telling the same story but completely reworking it to suit its new medium. Dialogue is changed, or moved to different scenes, and the whole thing is completely restructured in a new and interesting way.

Some of the more visual moments – the “ELEVATE” scene, the massacre under the sprinklers, the Dalek’s demise – don’t have quite the same effect in this version, but Robert Shearman uses the new format to expand on the supporting cast, making Dalek feel more like an ensemble piece. There’s a selection of interludes focused on different characters, each building to a specific point in the story, giving more dramatic weight to the smaller moments. Van Statten seems even more pathetic, Goddard is given a whole new backstory which was never even hinted at on TV, and Adam is somehow even less likable (good luck to whoever attempts to adapt The Long Game). But the real joy is that Shearman delves into the mind of the Dalek, allowing us to understand its thoughts and desires, and the pain that motivates it to kill. To say too much would ruin the surprises of the novel but suffice it to say that the Dalek dominates this version of the story just as much as in the TV version. The “sucker me to death” scene packs even more of a punch!

If there is one issue – and I hesitate to call it an issue – with this reworking of the story, it’s that the Doctor no longer feels like he has equal screen presence with the Dalek. It’s as though we’re witnessing the story through the Dalek’s perspective, and with the two separated for much of the narrative, it’s hard to keep a decent balance. The Dalek’s strange connection with Rose Tyler is explored in greater detail, and while I would have liked to have explored more of that aspect of the story, it does lead to a still-brilliant climax. It feels somewhat obvious to say that this new version of Dalek is simply Dalek as a novel, but the story is reworked in such a way that it feels perfectly suited to its new format, and not simply a direct translation of the TV version to the page. Despite my initial trepidation, Robert Shearman‘s novel is…absolutely fantastic. PM

The Crimson Horror

Mark Gatiss‘ adaptation of his own 2013 episode The Crimson Horror is a strange beast. The majority of the book mostly presents the story we saw on television, right down to the smallest detail. Yet the first three chapters of the book have little or nothing to do with the main plot, aside from a rather loose name-drop thrown in at the end. This additional tale sees the Doctor meeting Jenny Flint for the first time whilst working with Madame Vastra to solve a strange decapitation, which in turn leads them to a bizarre Victorian talent competition. It’s entertaining in it’s own right, but as part of The Crimson Horror, it feels largely peculiar and inconsequential to the main event.

Despite this, Gatiss has clearly relished the opportunity to translate one of his best TV scripts into prose form, his enthusiasm for language, black humour and gothic Victoriana evident on almost every page. Gatiss utilises the Victorian setting of the story to full effect by setting his chapters out like that of an epistolary novel (similar to Dracula), with the tale unfolding mostly through diary entries. Gatiss portions out the majority of these entries to the character of Jenny, which fleshes her and the Paternoster Gang immensely, offering up glimpses of their home-life, their histories and their innermost thoughts. However, the diary aspect seems to disappear at times, leaving one to wonder whether the book would have been better had Gatiss fully committed to the conceit.

Likewise, events seem rushed towards the end of the book, and whilst there is, in essence, an unrelated short story included to bolster the page count at the start, one can’t help but wish that the main plot had received similar additions and attention. An entertaining read all in all, but those expecting a fleshed out version of the original episode may be left seeing red! MD

The Witchfinders

As the most recent episode of Doctor Who to make the leap from screen to page, Joy Wilkinson‘s The Witchfinders is a fine choice for the Thirteenth Doctor’s Target debut. Easily the most atmospheric story in Series 11, its tale of witch hunts, walking cadavers and sentient mud is one well-suited for a spot of nightlight reading.

Aside from a rather grisly prologue and a neat little epilogue (which contains an unexpected connection to another recent episode), the novel doesn’t add much in the way of new plot threads to the source material. Wilkinson instead uses the book to develop her characters further, delving deeper into their own respective points of view and further expanding upon each of their backstories. Willa Twiston, Becka Savage and King James each receive a significant amount of fleshing out as a result, as does Yaz. Elements of her recently established history from Can You Hear Me? are cleverly used to tie her into the narrative more, giving her a more personal stake in the persecutions she witnesses at Bilehurst Cragg, which in turn gives the reader that extra sense of both empathy and jeopardy as events play out.

It’s a pacy book which rockets along at a fair lick, but never once does anything here feel rushed. Wilkinson’s prose is energetic, almost breathless at times, which perfectly recreates the fast pace feel of both the television version and Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor, who immediately comes alive on the page. Another fine example of how well newer episodes of the show work on the printed page, The Witchfinders is pure magic! MD

Each of these Doctor Who Target novelisations are out now: https://amzn.to/3qyMPq3

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