Doctor Who novels – and my life with them

The following is a text version of a ‘back page’ comment I made during Who Wars #35. Click on the link to listen to the episode and hear me tell the following story in my own voice towards the end of proceedings, around the two-hour mark. Or if text is more your game, please keep reading…

Day_of_the_DaleksIt’s curious, given how much of a voracious reader I’ve been throughout my entire life, coupled with my never-ending love of Doctor Who, that I actually have a rather varied (read as: patchy) history when it comes to novels based on the series.

First up, there were the Target novels. So-called among fandom because, quite simply, the book imprint on the spine was a target symbol with the word “Target” written underneath.

(And yes, I know that’s a well-known fact that barely needs mentioning for those of us who were there at the time, but I’m beginning to realise that there are Doctor Who fans out there now, including those who like to read the new novels from the BBC, who have never actually seen, let alone held, an actual Target novel.)

On Target

For what it’s worth, I adored the Target novels. Between 1973 and 1991, Target published almost every classic Doctor Who television serial as a novel, with the holdouts being stories it couldn’t get permission to novelise – notably some of the stories written for TV by Douglas Adams in the late 1970s — and even those impediments have been overcome in recent years, but I digress.

As I recounted on an episode of the Blue Box podcast, when I think of the Target novels, I can mentally transport myself to Australian newsagents and bookstores of the 1980s. In my mind I can still smell the print and paper unique to these publications. And wasn’t there always someone kneeling on the floor with a box of new releases almost every time I was in the store? I would hover, wondering what marvellous new novelisations would emerge from those boxes. Magic days.

Of course, a large part of the magic of the Target novels was that they were representations of stories I’d never seen. Even growing up in a country like Australia, where Doctor Who repeated on the ABC year after year, there were plenty of episodes that didn’t screen regularly (or sometimes at all), as the majority of repeats were stories pulled from the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee eras.

What the Target novels enabled me to do was visualise stories from the Hartnell and Troughton eras in particular. This was so exciting — I felt like an archaeologist! In some other cases they filled me in on Pertwee stories that hadn’t been screened due to the only copies available (at the time), being in black and white. In yet other cases, there were still a few Tom Baker stories I hadn’t seen. Ditto for Peter Davison who, despite being “my Doctor”, was an era that wasn’t repeated all that often. Miss a story and you might not have a chance to see it again for a year or two. Maybe more…!

So my life with Doctor Who novels started off in a passionate, all-consuming way. Take one boy with a burning desire for new Doctor Who; a series of easy-to-read novels that deliver it; sprinkle the ability to read an adult novel in a day, let alone this easy-to-read fare… it was a perfect match.

Doctor Who in a novel-only format? Yuck!

What happened next in the Doctor Who novels is where things started to go a little haywire for me. You see, Doctor Who had disappeared from TV in 1989 and Target was taken over by Virgin Books in 1991. Soon after it began publishing The Virgin New Adventures (or “NAs”) and The Virgin Missing Adventures (or “MAs”). As you can probably guess, this was an ongoing series of novels featuring the last TV Doctor (Sylvester McCoy’s dark take on the Time Lord’s seventh incarnation), and a second series that covered stories slotted into the eras of past Doctors, fleshing them out a little.

I was on holiday in London the first time I saw some of the NAs and I felt really… odd… when I saw them. To me, at that time in my life, if a Doctor Who story hadn’t happened on television, then it hadn’t really happened. Thus, the Target novels were fine; they were based on things that had happened on television. But Doctor Who in a novel-only format? Yuck! What madness was this? Of course, it didn’t really help that the show had been off our screens for two years and I was getting well into my teens, so there was a lack of interest in general, to some degree. But I remember, distinctly, the intense snobbery I had towards these ‘pale imitations’ of the grand old show.

Little was I to know that twenty-something books in, released on the stroke of 1994; Kate Orman would pen an NA called The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Kate had been a significant fan fiction writer here in Australia — even contributing stories to fanzines I wrote for, and at least one that I ran — and was something of an idol for me as a teenager with pretensions to write, even before she had this gig. Had I known she was going to get involved, I might have seen the series in a different light; I might have made more of a connection between fan fiction (which I genuinely loved), and these professional novels. It’s hard for me to say, to be honest, but I do think about it sometimes.

Suffice to say, however, if I wasn’t getting into the ongoing adventures of the last TV Doctor, I certainly wasn’t getting into the adventures of past Doctors – the MAs – either. In many ways, those novels seemed an even harder stretch of the imagination. “This takes place between when and… when?” With the classic era often portraying adventures as coming one after the other, it seemed to be pushing the boat out to suggest that all these other, huge adventures had been going on and yet, on television, it seemed like little time (if any), had passed between those stories at all.

So between 1991 and 1997 for the NAs and 1994 and 1997 for the MAs, I stayed right away from Doctor Who novels in general. Even though, as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, there were some wonderfully adventurous and far-reaching stories written for the range by folk who went on to make their mark on Nu-Who such as Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and, of course, Russell T. Davies. Others were existing TV writers or would go on to Big Finish audios. I wish I’d read them.

Enter the EDAs (and PDAs)

Before either the NAs or MAs finished, however, we did have the 1996 telemovie. This gave us the wonderful 8th Doctor who, as fate would have it, wouldn’t go on to have a long career on television, but who would be an incredible blank slate for novel writers to flesh-out and tell stories about.

And there I was, waiting in the wings. I’d gotten over Doctor Who being off the air; I’d warmed to the idea that Doctor Who could be told in an exclusively novel format (although I didn’t want to start buying the dozens and dozens and dozens of NAs and MAs already out there), so it was quite exciting when The Eighth Doctor Adventures (or EDAs), emerged onto the shelves of bookstores.

See, just as others had rushed to embrace the 7th Doctor in the EDAs, then grown a little tired after so many books, I was the complete opposite. I had fresh eyes and the 8th Doctor was a clean slate for the novel writers. While I know many people who couldn’t get into the EDAs for precisely that reason, I actually found it made things more interesting. And the people telling the stories were novelists who, once again, featured the likes of Kate Orman. This time I was going to be Johnny-on-the-spot. This time I was in the right place and would read the series from the start.

I was so excited, and shared this passion for the EDAs on a regular basis with the members of a mailing list called the Jade Pagoda. A group which still exists these days as a Yahoo group!

For a period of time I even got into The Past Doctor Adventures (or PDAs) as well. I was like a pig in… well, you know what. The only thing that stopped me from continuing with the PDAs was, honestly, the cost of getting two books a month (books are priced quite stupidly in Australia, especially in “specialist” sci-fi stores), otherwise I would have happily continued with both.

Now, at this juncture, you might be asking, “Rob, how on Earth did you have time to read all these books?” For some of you right now, reading two, adult-size, full-length novels every month would take all your spare reading time. Yet the beauty of this period of my life was that I was commuting on a train for an hour or two, both morning and night. In this environment, I would knock through novels, magazines, newspapers, basically anything in print, with a shocking turn of speed. It was an effortless way to always be up to date with whatever I wanted to be reading. I loved that feeling.

End of an era

The novels lasted for years, and I continued with the EDAs all the way to their climactic, 73rd release, The Gallifrey Chronicles by Lance Parkin in June 2005. As I mentioned, I had dropped out of the PDAs earlier, but I still kept my eye on them and they came to an end with their 76th title, Atom Bomb Blues by Andrew Cartmel, in December of the same year. An era was over. What would come next? Would I continue my mad book-reading ways? Was I still excited by Doctor Who novels?

Well, in the first instance, we knew what would come next as the New Series Adventures (NSAs) began in May 2005, right before the EDAs ended. This was a series of three 9th Doctor novels — The Clockwise Man, The Monsters Inside and Winner Takes All — which were to be followed by another three releases in September 2005. This was — very clearly — a new way of releasing the novels, compared to the EDAs and PDAs. It was no longer the case that there would be two novels in the same month, including one featuring a past Doctor. Indeed, the series would only concentrate on the current television Doctor and release far fewer titles, overall, in any 12 month period.

This was a shame, when you consider that the previous schedule — which saw books coming out of our ears every month — came from an era when not as many people were interested in Doctor Who. Yet, now that people were flocking to the series and thousands of new Whovians were being minted every week in schools, colleges, universities and homes across the UK and the wider world, the book range was going to deliver far fewer titles. If you’re thinking, “What the?” I’m right there with you.

Interestingly, however, even this reduction in numbers wasn’t enough to tempt me to get into them. You see, my days of commuting by train had ended during the EDAs and I’d actually struggled towards the end to be up to date during the month of release. When I looked at the 70-something EDAs I’d read, I felt I’d come to the end of a big journey. Did I really want to start another?

And so came another swing away from the novels. I ignored the six Eccleston novels that were released. I ignored 30 Tennant novels. I ignored around 18 Smith novels. Actually, I tell a lie, during the Smith era I pondered getting back into the novels, but because the collector in me was saying, “If you get these novels, you should collect those 36 Eccleston and Tennant ones, too… what’s $500 between friends?” and because I soon realised I was thinking about buying a series of books featuring Amy Pond, my all-time worst companion of the modern era, I went off the idea.

I was still off the idea when, in September last year, the range dropped three novels featuring Capaldi as the Doctor, with Clara as his companion. The novels sounded nice, but there was still nothing leaping out at me to buy them. Funnily, however, something strange has happened since that time (and just before the recording of Who Wars #35). Out of nowhere, I started to think about the NSAs out there. “Think of it, Rob,” my brain was convincing me, “You LIKE to read… it’s been AGES since you read a series of Doctor Who novels… these are in HARDCOVER which you love… there are only THREE to get at this point in time… you think Capaldi is a GREAT Doctor and, although you’ve gone off her a bit during Series 8, Clara is still STREETS ahead of Amy Pond… this is a no-brainer!” And so I started reading the NSAs, starting with the first of the Capaldi novels.

And there you have it. I’ve had phases in my life where I’ve read Doctor Who novels until they came out of my ears. Conversely, I’ve had periods where it’s the last thing I wanted to do. Heck, between the EDAs ending and picking up the first of the Capaldi novels quite recently was a 10 year period for me. 10 years! What on Earth had I been doing? And if you want to hear what I thought of that first novel, The Blood Cell, do tune into Who Wars #37 and I’ll tell you all about it. Keep coming back and you’ll hear me report in on all the Capaldi NSAs over time. Heck, I might even get adventurous and go back to the earlier novels, too. But no promises on that. So much to read, so little time.