Late afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a train, and not a good one either. A red rattler. It’s noisy, there’s no heating and my seat’s lumpy. It’s going to be a long trip home from Sydney. Three hours.
It’s the end of a day’s shopping. My mum, y’see, likes to escape from the country and head for the big smoke. Dad can’t abide cities. So I’m my mother’s travelling companion. It’s 1986 and I’m 12.
I’m happy to trail around behind her on these occasions, as long as I get to go to the Galaxy Bookshop. A specialist sci-fi bolt hole and a haven for nerds of all varieties. Like the TARDIS, it periodically shifts locations, but I’m always able to find it. I’m a Target seeking missile, and it has more Doctor Who books per square metre than any other store.
Galaxy was always worth the trip because they flew books in from the UK, ahead of the Australian release schedule. Doctor Who books you couldn’t get anywhere else! Beyond exciting. On this particular day, I’ve secured book 108, The King’s Demons. Oh yes, I know the numbers.
I’m a King’s Demons fan. Saw it on the telly. It stars my favourite Doctor. It’s set on my birthday! It has a shapeshifting android! It’s a long trip home, but for me, it disappears. I’m engrossed.
Back in 2017, we’ve just got four new Target novelisations of new series Doctor Who stories. I wonder what new fans will make of them? I, like all fans of my vintage, love and revere the original range. To new fans, our attachment to these strange little novellas must seem fusty and archaic… no matter how many times we might say, “but before there were videotapes, they were our only record of the TV stories!” I mean, referring back to the age of videotape must, in this digital age, seem like quaint nostalgia indeed. But the stories we read as kids have an uncommon hold on us, and with so many Doctor Who novelisations to collect and devour, is it any wonder that hold is so unshakable? I hope kids reading the new series books get an ongoing chance to find out.
The list of things so commonly said about the Target books – their ability to bring the TV stories back to life, their ability to inspire kids to read – never seems to include something intrinsic to the experience of reading them. They were utterly inconsistent. Their covers kept changing. Their logos kept changing. Their authors kept changing. Their numbering made no sense. Stories they adapted came out in random order. (I know, right? So annoying. I hope that had no lasting effects.)
And the quality… oh, the quality of them jumped around like nobody’s business. Early books were artful embellishments on the originals, courtesy of some of the TV show’s best writers: David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. But they later settled into a regularly pedestrian mode, where Dicks wrote most of them in an economical, almost perfunctory way, only occasionally interrupted by more visceral efforts from Ian Marter, and even more occasional efforts by other TV show alumni.
In 1982, though, the same year The King’s Demons was being made, things began to change. Those occasional books by the un-Dicks were distinguished by being written by the TV stories’ original authors, who seemed to be striving for something more engaging than Dicks’ standard 128 pages of gently expanded script. Steve Gallagher’s Warriors’ Gate was an intelligent deviation from the TV original. David Fisher’s The Leisure Hive a tongue-in-cheek retelling, imitative of Douglas Adams. The Visitation, Full Circle and Logopolis, all written by their original authors, all showed there were smart, idiosyncratic alternatives to Dicks. It was a watershed year.
Consider now 1986, the year The King’s Demons novelisation was published, and extend it at either end by a couple of months. This is the golden age of the Target novels. Donald Cotton’s masterful adaptations of The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters.Robert Holmes’ only novel, a razor sharp expansion on The Two Doctors. Rehabilitations of The Twin Dilemma, Timelash and Galaxy 4. Marter’s best in The Invasion. A epic sized Fury from the Deep. A range in such rude health, it could afford to experiment with an original novel celebrating, of all characters, Turlough. Even Dicks was regenerating, with stylish adaptations of The Mind of Evil and The Seeds of Death. The King’s Demons is another notable entry in this renaissance.
No wonder young Spandrell collected them devotedly each month. For once, the range was approaching something close to consistency.
Late afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a plane, travelling for work. Aged 43, I’m re-reading The King’s Demons and thinking about the story it emerged from.
The TV version, loved by young me, now feels inconsequential – a whimper that ended celebratory season 20. Even its big move, the introduction of a new robot companion, is undermined when the shiny mannequin has to be shuffled quietly off stage because all it can do is lean precariously and say its lines at the wrong times.
No wonder it’s not allowed out unaccompanied. When released on VHS and DVD, it’s been forced to fill out twin packs with other, more substantial stories. Like Kamelion, it seems The King’s Demons can’t stand up on its own.
But the Target books are great equalisers. The King’s Demons might be an underwhelming appendix of a TV story but in book form, it commands the same shelf space as any other story, four, seven or ten parter. More than most, in fact – at 153 pages, it’s luxurious by Target standards.
Inside those pages, Terence Dudley elaborates and embellishes. For him, this is no small deal. He relishes historical detail and obscure vocabulary, and wraps it all in elegant, if occasionally pompous, prose. Freed from the limitations of TV production, Kamelion’s a fully functioning technological wonder, the Master’s disguise is foolproof and the Doctor sounds just like Jon Pertwee. On top of it all, it finds time to mention the Doctor’s bum.
I smile at its sheer audacity. This mouse of a TV story that roars as a book, finally legitimised. My journey home evaporates. I’m engrossed again.
LINK TO Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: both feature historical figures (kind of).
NEXT TIME… I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism! Praise the Company, it’s The Sun Makers.