When I was rediscovering Doctor Who while in my second year of college, I was quite surprised to find a novel entitled The Talons of Weng-Chiang in a local comic shop. I was aware that Doctor Who novels existed, having seen some of the New Adventures while in high school, but this novel had an older design and lacked the white spine I had associated with the Doctor Who novels.
“Perhaps,” I thought to myself as I prepared to purchase the book, “there were older novels that were released earlier in the show’s history.” You see, I had not heard of the Target Novelizations and, since I was just beginning to renew my interest in Who, I believed at the time that I had found an original story.
If there is one thing I have learned in my casual research of Doctor Who and its impact on British society, it is that the Target novelizations were absolutely essential to the spread and understanding of Doctor Who. In the early days of the show, these books were the only way to relive past episodes. They were the only way to experience previous Doctors. Being a child of the 80s, this is something foreign to me. The idea that television existed prior to videocassettes and VCRs is something that it took many years for me to comprehend. Like many Americans, my experience with novelizations came in the form of movie adaptations. I consumed these regularly since I wasn’t able to go to the movies often when I was young. Thus, the allure of the Target books made sense to me when I finally figured out what I had bought.
There is an opinion among those who regularly read books that novelizations and “tie-ins” are largely escapist drivel. Sure, there may be a well-written book in this sub-genre, but the majority are looked down upon by the literary elite. And make no mistake, there are some that are simply dreadful, but I grew up reading Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole (among others). Tie-ins and novelizations get an unfair reputation. The idea that an entire genre of novels exists for the sole reason of re-experiencing characters and situation from television and movies is rather fascinating, when you think about it. Not only is it a testament to the power of the original creations, but it shows the extent to which television and films have influence our literature. We live in an era when many authors write novels with the possibility of film-optioning firmly in mind. How many people read The Da Vinci Code and came away thinking it would make a great movie? Novels have become more cinematic, so it is only fitting that tie-ins and novelizations find more acceptance. At least they are being more honest about it.
I have read very few of the Target books. They can be hard to find in Mid-Western America. Of those I have read, I find my preference falling more toward those that don’t merely re-tell the story, but expand upon it and really embrace the format. We all know Doctor Who had a poor budget most of the time. Novels don’t have this problem. They are not bound by special effects, acting, or flubbed lines. They can clarify where the visual form of the story may have obscured. This can be especially advantageous in the historical stories, filling in the gaps of history present in the reader’s mind. This is the potential of the Target books. Not all of them accomplished them. In truth, not all the authors saw this potential or opportunity. And I can see why. If this is the only way the reader will ever experience The Keys of Marinus, then why not just adapt straight from the shooting script and be as faithful as possible to what was seen in 1964? In this case, the advent of VCRs and DVD players have hurt many of the Target books. The ones that would thrive would be those that expounded and differentiated themselves from the source material. For me, those are the better books.
So, as I await the release of The Gunfighters so I can resume reviewing the show, I turn my attention to this alternate form of Doctor Who. Originally, I had intended to read the Target books in order of release, but only focus on the stories I had already watched. This means I would only be able to review three books between now and July. I’ve decided this is a stupid requirement, so instead I will start with Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child and make my way in “broadcast” order. This gives me a larger pool to draw from, and it also allows me to cover novels whose respective stories are still fresh in my memory. Read along at home if you wish. We may turn this into a book club! Up first, Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child by Terrance Dicks.