Back on Target – Dalek and The Witchfinder novelisations reviewed

Image Credit: James Ashworth

Image Description: Copies of the Target novelisations of Dalek and The Witchfinders

By Thomas Barker

When, in early 2018, there came the wonderful announcement that the Target Collection would be relaunched with NuWho episodes joining its ranks, along with the odd missing Classic serial, I was beyond delighted. My initial forays into the range had not been as formative as those of some other fans who had grown up with the range in the 1970s and beyond, but I had certainly enjoyed reading my 2011 reprint of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks; complete with illustrations and Neil Gaiman’s introduction. It seemed fitting that one of my first Targets happened to be the first novelisation of a Doctor Who story ever published, even if it only joined the Target library officially with a 1973 reprint. I have even fonder memories of reading a tattered John Peel’s Mission to the Unknown from a school library, but that’s for another day.

To be asked to review two of the latest entries – Rob Shearman’s Dalek and Joy Wilkinson’s The Witchfinders – was a great task. Upon reading (or, in the case of Dalek, re-reading) them they prompted me to consider what task a novelisation performs and how these latest entries provide a great compliment to the excellent televised stories I have become so used to replaying for years. They exemplify why some of the best ways of telling Doctor Who stories may in fact be in prose, or, at the very least, allow for the televised 16:9 or 2:1 aspect ratios to be widened to expand rich worlds beyond the screen.

Dalek – by Rob Shearman:

It felt rather appropriate for Dalek to be novelised, completing the format set offered by its audio source material, Jubilee, and the television episode aired in Series One.  If the Daleks always survive, then it is fitting that Shearman’s Dalek also gets the opportunity to beam itself into my brain in as many ways as possible. The novelisation adds to this in more than one way, with Nicholas Briggs’ narrated audiobook, complete with Dalek modulation, providing the icing on the cake for my second readthrough. It seems part of Dalek’s DNA that a story about a lone Dalek can be told in many different forms, while the core conflict of Dalek and human identity glows in whatever format Shearman puts his magic words to.

Having recently read Terrance Dicks’ fantastic 1976 novelisation of The Web of Fear, it struck me how different (but similar) the ‘70s-80s approach and the 2020s approach to novelisation are. Dicks, the most prolific of Target writers, once claimed to “see the task of the novelisation as reproducing the effect of watching the TV show in the reader’s head,” adding that without budget restrictions, it could sometimes be improved upon. Web was novelised in 1976, some eight years after transmission, and served as a gateway for fans to either relive or acquaint themselves with an otherwise unviewable story. Until the first Doctor Who home video release of Revenge of the Cybermen in 1983, stories weren’t watchable again. The novels filled this space, with Revenge’s novelisation coming out in1976, just one year after broadcast. These texts resurrected either the fading memories of fans familiar with the episodes or kindled new excitement for younger ones, passing down the action and, in some cases, key lore in a pre-digital age. Dalek, however, saw a 16-year gap between transmission and novelisation. This gave plenty of time for fans like me to load in our DVDs, Blu-Rays, and launch iPlayer to relive the episode whenever and wherever we wanted. It has earned its place in many a fan’s top ten lists ever since. Had I missed Dalek and wanted to catch up as a newer fan over a decade later, many options would present themselves. This is not to suggest Targets were transcribed Infostamps devoid of any literary merit (incidentally, Titan Books released a fair few script books in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Dicks’ Web, in my opinion, improves on the original six-part serial by using its hindsight to detail the first meeting between the Doctor and the Brigadier while enhancing the eerie atmosphere by detailing the advance of the web with brilliant Dicksian flare. While Dicks and others had tight turnarounds – Dicks’ An Unearthly Child was purportedly the product of two weeks’ work, adapting Anthony Coburn’s scripts quickly in order to coincide with the ‘Five Faces of Doctor Who’ repeats in November 1981 – hopefully Shearman and other modern writers have had much longer to craft their adaptations! They also have more pages, as while Dicks and his contemporaries may have adapted a six-part story into under 128 pages, Shearman and his contemporaries are instead adapting a 45-minute story into a novel approaching 200 pages. Briggs’ narration for Dalek, meanwhile, reaches four hours and 48 minutes, leaving the audiobook at least six times as long as the televised episode. Those reading Dalek are very likely to have seen the story; those reading Web perhaps had not (until recently, anyway). So, what does Shearman do with his novel? He expands on the original critically-acclaimed episode to create an expansive piece of fiction in its own right, taking the best bits of Dalek, along with even the most minor of characters, to create something you’ll want to read again and again.

Translating the televisual to prose sadly loses the excellent performance of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor as well as Briggs’ Dalek, even if the latter makes up for it with a modulated voice in the audiobook. Eccleston’s performance as the battle-scarred Time War veteran adds much to Dalek, but in lieu of this key advantage Shearman focuses less on the Doctor’s relationship with the Dalek by placing the titular Metaltron at the novel’s core from the opening to the very ending. Shearman’s approach is undoubtedly his own, written with an both an eye for the horror of Dalek as well as stunning pathos akin to that seen in his audio drama Scherzo. However, he follows the tradition of writers like Malcolm Hulke in fleshing out minor characters and subtly altering certain plot elements (as in 1974’s Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, another personal favourite). That said, Dalek is perhaps in another ballpark and is unlike any other Target I have read.

The conventional chapters are broken up with what could be seen as short stories with their own titles (‘The Torturer’s Tale’, ‘The Soldier’s Tale’, etc.), almost akin to an anthology such as his We All Hear Stories in the Dark. These stories take disposable characters or, in Henry van Statten’s case, key narrative players and provide welcome detail to flesh them out beyond what a 45-minute televisual feast on a Saturday night could do. ‘The Torturer’s Tale’, especially, is a harrowing interlude that is just one example of Shearman playing with themes of greed, obsession, and human relationships – all of which feed into their respective behaviours when faced with the relentless pursuit of the Dalek. Van Statten gains much from this approach, and you cannot watch the original episode now without these added details – among other facts, we learn of his rise to power, his penchant for mind-wiping staff for even the smallest inconvenience, and his uniquely aggressive business strategy. Goddard and Adam equally benefit, with the latter appearing far more calculating and snarkier than seen on television. Free from budgetary restraints, Shearman breaks open the Utah base and takes us to jails, the White House, suburbia, and even inside the TARDIS for a brilliant unseen Doctor-Rose scene. Additional characters like Sven, Adam’s predecessor and star of a Doctor Who: Lockdown! prequel, may add more to juggle but underscore the nascent sense of human competition and amorality present in Van Statten’s vault, making for at times dark reading beyond even the Dalek’s doings. They juxtapose nicely with the equally sadistic Metaltron, let loose with dire consequences for our newly-contextualised red shirts. Shearman capitalises on the characterisation perfectly, meaning we get some excellent endings to chapters that work to the reconfigured narrative’s favour. The Dalek’s murder spree takes on a slightly different air, with the sprinklers scene a particular highlight as it displays the most callous qualities of a Dalek. Even if the  narrative expansion leaves the novelisation open to charges that it dilutes the episode’s claustrophobia, it suggests that there is more beyond the confines of the Utah bunker, adding a sense of human scale only alluded to in the episode itself. These characters gain histories that become all the more tragic for becoming entangled in a Doctor Who story – and isn’t that the germ of Doctor Who in itself?

Our titular Dalek gains much from Shearman’s approach, with prose providing the ideal interiority to explore the Doctor-Dalek relationship through a fresh perspective. Short of the Dalek monologuing every thought aloud, or the Doctor psychoanalysing it every few minutes, it is difficult to see how this approach could have worked on screen, so using prose to execute it is a brilliant idea. The Dalek shrugs nonchalantly, feels murderous resolve, feels the entropy of time and of waiting, feels twisted pleasure in gaining the use of its gun, but also feels listless and very occasionally placid. Daleks are patient, Eve of the Daleks tells us, but this Dalek balances its patience with its initial restlessness, reminiscent of Davros’ in the opening monologue of his eponymous 2003 Big Finish audio.. Chapter Five covers the Dalek attitude to death – “Not something to be avoided, at worst, to be postponed” – and is one of many examples of Shearman digging deep to deliver a fascinating character study of the Dalek mind, as vicious and hateful as it is, and its mutation after contact with Rose. Performing subtle alterations (like the much-missed excision of the Cyberman head from the opening), he makes the Dalek-Rose connection slightly more explicit, seemingly immobilising her at points and allowing for Rose’s interiority to shine too. While losing Billie Piper’s performance, we do gain a brilliant insight into Rose’s thought-process, as we do for Adam. The Doctor lacks as much focus, and while unable to recreate Chris’ performance, the moments were prepared for with great internal details that are otherwise hard to convey on screen. Like in Scherzo, Shearman also gets the Doctor-companion dynamic, and especially the core of Series One: 

The universe was incomprehensibly vast, but they weren’t just tiny irrelevant specks against the scale of it – they were the Doctor and Rose, and they were vast and important too. The universe was theirs – and all they had to do was seize hold of it together…He would see the universe anew through her eyes”. 

The gorgeously written framing device comprising the prologue and epilogue is, perhaps, open to interpretation, but it is truly unlike anything I have read in a Target novelisation before and remained with me long after the book returned to my shelf. How the climax sequence could have possibly been done with a Series One budget I do not know – but maybe that’s the point? This version of Dalek, which perhaps should be subtitled ‘The Director’s Cut’ benefits from our acquaintance with the source material and with the expectation of a familiar story told anew, but this time through a prose style enabling us to get the most out of its cast of characters. It’s for this reason, among many others, that I recommend Dalek. If you want to see what prose Who can do, free from budgetary or time constraints but with a familiar and much-loved story at its core, then get this one.

The Witchfinders – by Joy Wilkinson:

If Dalek expanded the premise of the source material to create a great piece of fiction, irrespective of links to an existing Doctor Who story, then Joy Wilkinson’s The Witchfinders does similarly to great effect. The 45-minute story effortlessly expands to cover over 170 pages packed with added details that make its themes sing from the pages. This perhaps addresses criticism that the televised episode was a victim to its runtime and needed just a little bit longer to fully address its themes. I did rewatch The Witchfinders shortly before reading its novelisation and continue to consider it one of my favourite Chibnall era episodes (though I am a sucker for any historical), and thankfully the Target merely confirmed my opinion.

Where I found The Witchfinders Target the most compelling was in Wilkinson’s development of the episode’s discussion of gender, and the importance of solidarity between women in the face of oppression. Not only do we get more interiority for the Doctor, whose psychology and sense of what makes her tick is on full display, but we get a great and important acknowledgement of the challenges faced in her new body while operating as a woman in the seventeenth-century:

For the first time she was confronted with the brick wall her new body could smash into, blocking her out of power, making her invisible, inaudible…”

The exasperation took a backseat to fear. The kind of fear she’d sworn wouldn’t be an issue for her, because she was a kick-ass Gallifreyan travelling the galaxies, not a chick getting chatted up at a bar or walking home down a dark alley. But it turned out time had played its tricks with her and it only took a moment for all her powers to vanish, so that suddenly she was seen as ‘just a woman’ in the presence of powerful forces with evil intent.”

These powerful passages hint towards the Doctor’s vulnerability, explicitly discussing the issue head on while linking further to Wilkinson’s added explorations of the episode’s other themes. Wilkinson also develops an underplayed part of the televised story: Becka’s populist appeal to the villagers. She deploys promises of a return to better times in ways reminiscent of modern politics, thereby consolidating her grip over the villagers. These issues feel all the more salient in 2022, and benefit from the prose which is, at times, bleak (but important) to read:

Willa watched from afar as Becka capitalised on the darkening mood of her people to push the benefits of stability, continuity and the promise of a return to happier times, skilfully rebranding herself as their figurehead, the rightful queen of Bilehurst Cragg”.

The Target feels slightly more precise in who, or what, is in its crosshairs and benefits from the added backstory given to Becka, the Morax, and Willa. This is without sacrificing the energy and pacing behind The Witchfinders that made the televised episode so entertaining for me, and prose affords the opportunity to move beyond budgetary and time restraints – especially when considering the new opening to the novel. Further details, such as those surrounding Yaz’s school bully, Izzy Flint, and Yaz’s own policing skills link well to themes established in other Chibnall stories, providing suitable fan-pleasing moments and tying character threads together. As Series Eleven marked a fresh jumping on point without continually referencing the Doctor’s past, these additions (published years after broadcast) feel slightly more organic in prose form and, as such, do not disrupt the tension and pacing as they may have on screen. The epistolary approach to Willa’s story acts similarly to Shearman’s interludes in Dalek by breaking up the chapters without disrupting the pace, and exhibits the benefits of translating the televisual to prose. This especially pays off in the final few pages – though I won’t outright spoil what happens! Both novels benefit from using the medium to do something a little different, as Moffat’s The Day of the Doctor did in its own way, too. I can happily rewatch The Witchfinders, but the novel provides something of an extended edition with added texture and refinements, perhaps making this edition the ultimate way to experience the extent of what the story has to offer.

Above all else, Joy Wilkinson’s novelisation is so much fun to read, written as it is with a warmth that makes it a real page-turner. It flew by, despite exceeding the episode’s length. As with Dalek, the key plot points are rendered with panache and flair (as with King James’ entrance), making that moment of recognition as you visualise the scenes unfold all the more satisfying. You may lose Alan Cumming, like you lose Eccleston, but the voice is just as clear and accessible in my own head – just like Dicks would have wanted. If a Target is partially about watching the TV show in your head via the book, then The Witchfinders deftly achieves this while also anchoring its wider themes through some excellent description and focalisation that made it a pleasure to read (though there were some minor printing typos in my copy). I’m also glad that what I took away from it on broadcast has, it seems, translated into a novelisation just as well. There’s also a happier ending that, while not contradicting what happens on screen, is probably a wise choice that I would have given a lot to see first time around. I would be interested to know what in the novel was intended to appear on screen initially and what was conjured up when writing this adaptation.

As David Barnett has written of sci-fi novelisations in general, “the best novelisation writers add depth, backstory and extra dimensions to what we see on the screen, flesh out ideas and sub-plots that are wrapped up in a pithy one-liner in the movie, or end up on the cutting-room floor”. Both Dalek and The Witchfinders have these qualities in spades. All the more reason to celebrate the Target range and support it, allowing for many more NuWho stories to break free of any restrictions while staying faithful and on good terms with the source material.

Tides 48 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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