Love Letters to Doctor Who: the 2018 Target novelisations

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Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: Copies of the 2018 Target novelisations with an Eleventh Doctor Minifigure and Sonic Screwdriver

By Rogan Clark

Being a child of the New Who generation, I’ve never had much exposure to the Target novelisations that many people would swear on. I had Doctor Who books, sure, but they were asides to the televised narrative, existing in that semi-liminal space of the ‘expanded universe’, hanging somewhere between “Good, but not a real story” and “So this is what Martha was doing for a year!” (Martha’s Story is one that sticks out in my memory, for some reason). 

I can, however, understand the rationale behind why you’d make this group of four novelisations. You can expand on a lot of things in the transition between television and book, whether or not it be explaining character motivation, adding in deleted scenes, or just showing things that would be difficult to do on television. All four books do these to some extent, telling more than any of the stories do on television, with some doing it better than others. Rose and The Day of the Doctor were both written by the original authors of these television stories, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, and perhaps it shows in how they have the most changes from the televised versions. The other pair, The Christmas Invasion and Twice Upon a Time, are Davies and Moffat stories respectively, but are turned into books by two other prolific Doctor Who writers across different media, Jenny T Colgan and Paul Cornell. They stick relatively closer to the original scripts. I’m going to be reviewing these books in the order of their original air-dates, and note that I’ve seen all of these stories in the last year or so. 

Rose

The common perception of the television version Rose held by most modern fans I’ve talked to seems to be that it’s a strong story, hampered by a few choice 2005-era effects and the central mystery being slightly ruined by the fact that we already know the Doctor far too well. The novel completely gets around the first issue, even as it pays homage to it in the rich descriptions (thankfully, Davies didn’t remove my favourite scene where Mickey has his fateful encounter with a garbage bin), and counteracts the second by showing us a lot more of the lives of our characters, contrasting them with how little we know of our protagonist. Or, perhaps not, because Rose is our protagonist here, not the Doctor. It was a good choice back in 2005 to focus on the companion as the way to relate to the Doctor’s world, and it stays good here, allowing us to see the development of someone who doesn’t start out in the centre of the action, so to speak. 

This novel’s strongest selling point is easily its fleshing out of many characters in Rose’s life. This isn’t to say the TV version fails at this, as it gives you all you need to know in what is already a busy forty-five minutes, but the novel benefits from both an extended length, and allowing extended monologues and digressions on character’s backgrounds. As such, Jackie is given more depth than “worried mother”, for the first time outside Love and Monsters. Doctor Who uber-fan Clive has a backstory invented from whole cloth, relating him to a red-shirt from Remembrance of the Daleks, which seems like the kind of fan-service that belongs in a Moffat-era story, not the Christopher Eccleston series. However, that backstory provides enough insight into his character that his death truly means something. Even Wilson, almost-nameless chief electrician who dies before the credits even roll on TV, has a chapter to himself, in an inspired touch stolen from an earlier Target novel, or so I’ve heard. The one who benefits the most from this is Mickey, whose band (Bad Wolf, would you believe it) brings both LGBTQ representation to a thirteen-year-old piece of TV that could use some, as well as comedy, pathos, and even a little bit of romance. I love Mickey, and I always have since I first watched Doctor Who many years ago, and this just makes me wish some of this backstory had been on TV. 

It’s not just the characters that get expanded, the entire plot is more developed. Deleted scenes are included, since no budget cuts are forcing them out, the massacre at the end is more gruesome than could probably be shown (I love the paragraph where he shows how literally every molecule of plastic, even the ones inside people are fighting back, for an example of something that would be impossible to show on TV but is easily put in a description), and Davies sneaks in a lot more continuity gags than you’d get away with in the first episode of a “reboot”, as well as  few sneaky nods to the future. Overall, this does lead to a detriment of the book as a starting point to someone new with Who. 

While I feel as though Rose the show works as a first episode, Rose the book feels like you need some backstory with the show. But, of course, that’s the point. This is a love letter to the fans of a new generation, letting them experience an old story in a new light. It’s my favourite of the group, and I’m hoping that shows in this review. 

The Christmas Invasion

This one feels like an odd choice for a Tenth Doctor episode. It’s not the most memorable episode (Blink or Journey’s End probably compete for that crown, for the average viewer, but I wouldn’t want to novelise either of those), the Tenth Doctor is barely in it, and it’s not a particularly exciting script, in my mind. I can only guess that, similar to Rose, it’s a new Doctor’s first story, and BBC Books wanted some kind of pattern to the releases, only to completely ignore that with the Moffat era. Nevertheless, novelising this was Jenny T Colgan’s has taken an episode than I like enough, and turned it into a book that I like enough. I’d call that a success. 

Unlike Rose, there isn’t much expansion to this one, plotwise. It’s pretty much the same, which allows our protagonist to be Rose once again – maybe that was the reason for choosing it? I do like the inclusion of the Children in Need short (Born Again?), though, especially with the added benefit of an insight into Rose’s thought processes. Having watched a lot of this show, it can be hard to picture just how shocking regeneration must seem, but it’s captured perfectly here. And that’s probably the best part of this novelisation – Colgan captures the personality and emotions of the characters perfectly, from Rose going through the confusion of losing her best friend, to the workers at the British Space Agency, who get some characterisation here by virtue of needing a POV character for those scenes in the show. Once again, representation is added, this time of the disabled variety, as well as a small romance between two minor characters, to make sure we feel the tragedy of the Sycorax ruthlessly murdering people. In a show where death can become commonplace, it’s good for both novels so far to remind us how much it does hurt everyone involved in it. 

I feel like this novel’s biggest flaw is how rigidly it sticks to the original. While there is more detail than the televised story had, including a pleasing cameo from Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, it doesn’t feel like enough. Nothing of major substance is added that made me want to come back to this over the televised story. Maybe it’s due to the length, coming in fifty pages or so shorter than Rose, or my general apathy towards the TV story. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I just don’t love it. It could have explored the world in a little more depth, but as it wasn’t originally Colgan’s script, I can imagine there might have been issues preventing that. Either way, this is a good book, but not as good as I feel it could have been. 

The Day of the Doctor

For Matt Smith’s Doctor, Steven Moffat has novelised his fiftieth anniversary epic, including within it the short released online beforehand, The Night of the Doctor. I really like the televised version, finding it to be a visual spectacle as well as an emotional exploration of what the Doctor should be. This book, I hate to say, I didn’t really enjoy. Steven Moffat’s writing can be very hit-or-miss for me, with his unending quips and innuendos usually falling into the miss side. Since this book is full of that sort of thing, as well as too much “meta-ness” for my liking, I find myself disliking the finished product, which is a shame, since there’s some very good stuff in here.

I’ll start with the good. The Doctor’s characterisation is really well done in this book, and while there are a couple of weird choices (i.e. writing the whole book in the voice of a first person narrator who thinks of himself in the third person, even if I understand why its done), there are some great character moments in here. The biggest is something we don’t even see in the original – a wagon ride to the Tower of London, where we see the event from each Doctor’s perspective, and how they might think of it given how their life is going. As previously said, it also gives us the Eighth Doctor’s swansong, and while there are a couple of decisions character-wise I don’t like, mainly his focus on making the Doctor an attention-seeker over his desire to save Cass, I love that short, and also its little addition to the name drops. I’m not sure why he didn’t add more than just Fitz, but I’ll take it. The eponymous “Day of the Doctor” at the climax of the book somehow works really well, and has a suitable tone of grandeur, in spite of leaning a touch too heavily on the “fairytale” side of Doctor Who for me in how it’s written. And the ending, featuring a certain Thirteenth Doctor continuing on her quest, is the perfect capstone to update the book into a new era of Doctor Who. So, with so much going right, how can I dislike it?

For a start, the narration is annoying. This book has a narrator, supposedly the Curator/Tom Baker giving a lecture to some students, but it to me, it comes across as an attempt at making the book ‘better’ by adding in meta-cleverness, when a plainly told story would read a lot nicer, especially since practically everyone reading this will have seen the TV story already, so we don’t need a lecture on how regeneration works, or some such. River Song is also in this, and while you think I’d like the addition of such an important character to these years of the show being added, every scene she’s in makes me uncomfortable. First, she and the Doctor take a bath together, which is just weird, and feels like a bad example of pushing what you wouldn’t get on TV. In her second, she wipes the Doctor’s mind because she feels it’s best for him. The whole discourse on why that’s wrong is the only thing I like in Hell Bent, and playing it for heart-warming points like this just leaves me sour for the rest of the book. Add to this repeated mentions of Chapter Nine, which are alright at first but quickly outstay their welcome, and the whole book feels it contains all of the things I don’t like in Who – overused running gags, overabundant focus on sex and romance, and meta-gags masquerading as something new. Like I said, there are some good moments, but they didn’t counteract my dissatisfaction as a whole. I can see why some might like it, but overall, it’s not for me. 

Twice Upon a Time

This was the most recent story broadcast when these books were published in April. Steven Moffat’s script was novelised by Paul Cornell, most noted for his David Tennant-era two-parter Human Nature/The Family of Blood. I’m not the biggest fan of the televised version of Twice Upon a Time. It mischaracterises the First Doctor for laughs, the ‘villain’ stretches my disbelief too far, and it makes five minutes of plot last fifty. Does the book fix all that? No, but it tries its best, and it’s mostly successful. As with The Christmas Invasion, it has a shorter length than the two novelisations written by the same writer as the televised original, but precisely because there’s so little plot, the pages are filled with interesting introspections, little fixes to minor questions, and this makes reading it a much better experience. 

The story gives every character some chance to explain their thoughts and motivations, and it works really well. Both Doctors’ hesitations at changing are given more depth, with the First being terrified of his identity being torn apart, while Twelve sees no reason to go on while all he ever seems to do is suffer, being reminded of happier times with companions (or possibly companion) past. I’m still not the biggest fan of Testimony as a concept, but through it, Bill receives a great deal of development, including an actual relationship with Heather, as opposed to the Deus Ex Machina hook-up that was always my biggest gripe with The Doctor Falls. Nardole also gets a future, but his is a little less interesting than I’d hoped, even if I do love all his dialogue here. The Captain is a little underserved, but his thought processes during the gun stand-off with the German soldier are well-written, and he seems like an honourable man, even though Cornell either chose or was forced to keep the dialogue mostly the same. Which means the First Doctor gets presented as a massive bigot. While Cornell tries to salvage it with a monologue from Twelve, where he namedrops Barbara for one thing, it still feels like unneeded character assassination to someone modern viewers might not be familiar with. 

Being honest, the biggest hurdle to me liking this is that I’m not a big fan of the original. Novels can sometimes work wonders, but when I don’t like the plot of the original, I’m unlikely to like it here. But the additions work to make it a more enjoyable experience, giving depth to characters, even if I don’t like their motivations. And, of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the debut of our Thirteenth Doctor, beautifully written, and making me wish for a sequel novelisation (The Woman Who Fell to Earth by Chris Chibnall next time, Target?). Seeing regeneration for the second time in these books, from the other side of the process, is just as well done, and the metaphors employed work brilliantly. 

And that’s the ultimate point of these books. Regenerating an old medium into something for new readers to enjoy, and ultimately, I did. If this was the only way to experience stories again, I’d be mostly happy with them, The Day of the Doctor not included. As a collection, they add interesting background flavour, develop characters we never got a chance to meet on TV, and work as a reminder for why, even when DVDs and Blu-Rays and Netflix are everywhere, books probably won’t be going away any time soon.

Tides 42 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

2 comments

  1. Doctor Who uber-fan Clive has a backstory invented from whole cloth, relating him to a red-shirt from Remembrance of the Daleks

    Once a New Adventures author, always a New Adventures author…

    Like

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