Yesterday, the Doctor Who Fan Police dragged me away to Stangmoor or Stormcage or somewhere when it became clear that I’d never actually finished reading Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment by Ian Marter. I’d made several attempts when I was a kid, but never actually got all the way through it. I have an excuse though; it was never the story I thought it was.
To be fair, the story I thought it was doesn’t exist. Roy Knipe’s cover art led me to think this was a tale of the Doctor landing on a planet and discovering a colossal statue of a Sontaran, towering above the landscape. Then each time I started it, I remembered that this was in fact an adaptation of The Sontaran Experiment, which thanks to ABC’s tendency to frequently repeat Tom Baker’s early seasons, was a story I’d seen many times.
This reminds me of the time a casual viewer of Doctor Who told me his favourite story was the one with the golden Cyberman. I told him there was no such story, and that given the Cybermen’s unfortunate allergy to gold, constructing such a Cyberman would be tricky to say the least. But still, this viewer was insistent; gold Cybermen, it happened and he loved it.
I let it go, though for some time afterwards I did wonder whether he had simply imagined the whole thing, or perhaps if his television had some colour imbalance. But then one day, I idly pick up a copy of Doctor Who and the Cybermen, the Skilleter covered one, and the penny dropped. Another case of novelisation cover confusion.
Chris Achilleos’ covers were often to blame. No matter how many times I read Doctor Who and the Three Doctors, Omega never shot rays from his fingers to bore into the heads of the titular three Doctors. Varga, star of Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors never had the ability to generate sparkly energy with a wave of his clamp like hands. And, most disappointing of all, the Yeti of Doctor Who and the Web of Fear never did shoot beams from their eyes which entrapped helpless soldiers in halos of light. This last egregious misleading of young readers was so convincing that when Skilleter painted a new cover for the reprint, he also featured a beam emanating Yeti. These things catch on, obviously.
But back to Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment. Like all Marter’s novelisations, it’s a vivid, sometimes florid, read. Marter’s books were always genuine embellishments on the original stories. He always left the basic plot intact, but often played fast and loose with the dialogue. He would also include additional incidents throughout, which kept the pace moving but didn’t veer the story off course. In a way, it’s that misleading cover problem all over again for those who read the book first and watched the story second. Where Mr Marter, a reader-viewer might have asked, is the part where the Doctor hallucinates about the TARDIS being invaded by rats? Why does the hovering, tentacled robot become a static box on scissor lift legs?
The effect is a confusion about which version of a Doctor Who story is the authentic one. Let’s compare The Sontaran Experiment to the story which followed it, Genesis of the Daleks. The Dalek story was novelised by frequent adaptor Terrance Dicks, and his most common style was a straightforward retelling of the story, following the TV story as closely as possible. If you watched and read to Genesis of the Daleks (or even listened to it on LP), you essentially heard the same story multiple times. The story was reiterated; we know Genesis because it’s been drilled into us. Not so The Sontaran Experiment where we’ve heard two different versions of the story. There’s an air of mystery about it.
For another variation on this, we might look at novelisations which vary significantly from their TV originals, but unlike The Sontaran Experiment were written by the original screenwriters. Take for instance, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, Malcolm Hulke’s retelling of his own Colony in Space. In that instance, we might consider the embellished book version of the story to be the author’s preferred version, as he’s been freed from the strictures of TV production and can re-tell his tale unfettered. That feels different to Marter’s retelling of The Sontaran Experiment where changing the original can be seen as implicit criticism.
Marter was a unique voice in the Target range. If you saw his name come up on the release schedule you knew you were in for something special. He was not just an inventive adaptor of others’ work, he was an alternative to the sparse but efficient prose style of Terrance Dicks. He also developed a reputation for injecting a little more adult content into the range. His adaptation of The Enemy of the World included the word ‘bastard’ and his take on The Invasion is peppered with gory detail.
And in The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment we have the only examples of an actor who inhabited the fictional world writing the book version. In both books, he resists the urge to make them all about his character, solid upright type Harry Sullivan. Marter’s early death in 1987 prevented him from providing further novelisations, and maybe even entries into the New and Missing Adventures lines, which could have been the intermittent treats his Target contributions were.
Digging out my copy of the Target novel made me think about Marter, but it also gave me a chance to play on old game of “make fun of the back cover blurb”, which I’ve reproduced below. (Look, give me a break, I don’t get out much.)
Landing on Earth, now a barren, desolate planet, Sarah, Harry and the Doctor are unaware of the large, watching robot. The robot is the work of Styre, a Sontaran warrior, who uses all humans landing here for his experimental programmes. (They go out late on Friday nights on BBC4)
What has happened to the other space explorers who have come here? (Well, as you’ve just said, they’ve been subject to Styre’s experimental programmes.)
Why is the Sontaran scout so interested in Earth and in brutally torturing humans, including Sarah Jane? (Bloody good question. Ostensibly it’s to uncover the human race’s weaknesses so that they might be exploited when the Sontarans invade. But as the planet’s uninhabited, it seems a bit pointless.)
Will the Doctor be able to prevent an invasion and certain disaster, and save both Earth and his companions? (Spoiler alert: yes).
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘Linx!’ Sarah Jane exclaims on her first sight of Styre, mistaking him for the Sontaran she met in The Time Warrior. The subtitles get that first one right. But when she repeats it in Part Two, it turns to ‘Yikes!’ Ah, Commander Yikes, that lesser known Sontaran.
Also on the Part Two subtitles, Erak suddenly announces, “I’ve got cramps!”. That may well be true, but he’s scripted to say “It’s no use, Krans!”
LINK TO A Christmas Carol: the descendants of human colonists are the supporting cast in both.
NEXT TIME… We bung a rock at The Abominable Snowmen.