Russell Cook talks to the writers of the new Doctor Who Target Books, on sale from today…
“It’s interesting that after many years of being out of favour, novelisations of TV shows and films are suddenly back in vogue, despite access to everything whether by DVD or streaming” . So says Target author Gary Russell, who has clearly visited a lot of bookshops and seen a myriad of script to screen adaptations of Pixar and Disney movies, and recent Star Wars and Marvel films amongst the many on the bookshelves. Even a certain well known Showrunner, Chris Chibnall, has seen best selling novelist Erin Kelly turning his scripted words from the first series of Broadchurch into prose form. Yep, definitely back in fashion.
Everyone knows about the phenomenal success of the Target range of novelisations that took the publishing world by storm in the 1970’s and 1980’s. No? Google time. Everyone knows about the gradual relaunch of the series since 2011 resulting in the publication of new titles in 2018, Rose, The Day of the Doctor amongst them. No? Order these and the others now!
The general consensus, please BBC Books, can we have some more?
The publishers have obliged and this month issued within the cosy comfort blanket of the Target logo are seven more novelisations. For the nostalgia fans there are, finally, paperback releases of Eric Saward’s Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks which were published hardback style in 2019. James Goss has turned The Pirate Planet into all things Target and Gary Russell has revisited his Doctor Who: The TV Movie novel, adapted back in the day from screenwriter Matthew Jacob’s script, to make it novelisation friendly.
The majority of the new books have been written by writers who penned the original screenplays and who were also partial to the odd Target book or two in decades gone by.
“Oh, they were my Childhood!” enthuses Dalek author Robert Shearman. “More than the TV series in many ways, I had often been too scared to watch the programme, something about that theme music and Tom Baker’s face in the title sequence unnerved me to the core.
“That left me with the books, they were my entry point. At first I bought the ones with the least frightening covers, I made sure there was no ‘terror’ or ‘death’ lurking in my bedroom in the early hours!” laughs Rob. “These books made me very very happy, collecting them and finding new ones in bookshops.
James Goss adds to the memories, “I still have all of the books on a shelf, they are as magical a bit of childhood as a Lego Fire Engine or a scabby knee and the idea that you could carry a tiny bit of Doctor Who around in your pocket was glorious, from Barnes Common to Skaro or Vortis at the turn of a page. These books created a generation of readers. CS Lewis wrote seven Narnia books and reading them is easy, there are over 160 Target books and if you can march through those then you will be a reader for life.”
“Those books just gripped us, they were the only source of old Doctor Who” states Gary Russell. “Throw into the mix those glorious covers from Chris Achilleos, Peter Brookes, Jeff Cummins and Roy Knipe, that was the 1970s!
“The books did lose some of their appeal in the 1980s, when videos came into common existence but a good book is still a good book,” Gary emphasises. “Hopefully, one day, every story from Rose through to wherever we end up will have a Target novelisation; all sitting on the shelves of fans, next to the TV Movie one of course!”
Eric Saward and The Witchfinders screenwriter Joy Wilkinson were not readers of the Target range on original release. Eric takes up the tale. “ When I joined Doctor Who in 1981 as Script Editor, I was gradually made aware of Target Books as I saw them on the shelves in Producer John Nathan-Turner’s office,” he recalls. “Shortly after that, and I think before my first script, The Visitation was transmitted, I was asked to novelise my script. I enjoyed my stay with Target; all the editors I worked with were friendly and helpful. At that time, writing prose was a challenge, it was a challenge I enjoyed.”
Joy carries the baton forward. “Anyone who has been in the orbit of Pete McTighe (writer of the episode Kerblam!) cannot help but be aware of the Target range; his shelves are very neatly crammed with them! I always watched Doctor Who, but for some reason I never clapped eyes on one of the books until much later. But I’m very much aware of their venerable history and how much they mean to fans.”
With Target credentials established, time for the authors to share the joys of turning a script to prose.
“To start with my Target initiation came with writing Gatecrashers for the Target Storybook (BBC Books 2019),” she explains. “It came right out of the blue and was such an exciting thing to be a part of. The constraints are different with prose, as you can construct civilisations and effects sequences without needing to worry about a budget. Gatecrashers was completely different to The Witchfinders, which I’m pleased about so revisiting the TV story seemed like a fresh start.
“I knew from the beginning” Joy continues, “that I wanted to honour the TV version while finding opportunities to go deeper and wider. How the Morax came to Pendle, but I also wanted to frame the whole thing from a certain point of view whilst being across all the characters in the book but also tracking one character’s arc through the whole story.
“I was able to discover extra moments with the characters and this was a real pleasure. On TV, they were always on the run so to spend a little more time in their heads was tremendously rewarding. I also got the chance to write a TARDIS scene or two and link to other stories across the classic and new series. The finished book feels more embedded.”
Going back to the classic series James Goss published a novel of Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet back in 2017. Now to tackle the novelisation.
“The Pirate Planet novel runs to 90,000 words. To cut that down to the length of a standard novelisation that the fans have come to expect took a little longer than the couple of afternoons in bed with a pot of coffee and Curly Wurly that I’d originally envisaged” jokes James. Well, I think he is joking!
“I decided that if people want to explore Douglas’ original ideas then read the novel. To remember or experience for the first time what occurred on screen read this novelisation. I sort of started from scratch, transcribing what was transmitted then expanding on it prose wise.
“I was helped tremendously by the Target book range editor Steve Cole, he’d not read the original novel so was able to keep saying ‘what’s this? Why is this happening?’ especially if I was trying to recycle the original manuscript too much or rushing through explanations or important plot points because they were so obvious to me.
“Hopefully” concludes James “people who read this version will then pick up the novel, I think we’ve ended up with something fairly unusual. Time in the future then to compare the two versions, in bed of course with an extra strong pot of coffee… and a Curly Wurly!”
Between the end of the classic series and the revival in 2005 there was the TV Movie. Gary Russell wrote the original novelisation twenty five years ago, but at that time it was not part of the Target family, the range had ended, or so we thought, for good, in 1994.
“Back in 1996”explains Gary, “ It was a boyhood dream come true to write a novelisation, at that time I suspected it was going to be the only opportunity. To see it rereleased now with that little tricolour log on the spine has permanently lit my face up with joy.”
Gary goes on to remember the original writing of the novelisation. “It wasn’t easy!” he now chuckles “Philip Segal, the Producer of the movie actually sent me over the series bible which he’d created plus the 200 or so page design document and various versions of the script. The BBC however wouldn’t allow me access to any of it, bar one page of the design paperwork which showed the device that the Master puts on the Doctor’s head to force his eyes open. The only clip that I saw was a rough cut of the scene in the back of the ambulance where the Master spits acid into Grace’s face.
“Obviously” confirms Gary “all the location, character and costume decisions were pretty inaccurate apart from what little I could glean from that 45 second clip”.
So a revisit to the original manuscript then Gary?
“Yes, you could say that!” he laughs “I now have access to the finished movie, plus a couple of other versions, I enjoyed tweaking things and improving the text. Also, my knowledge of San Francisco is better now as I’d never set foot in California when I wrote the 1996 version. You will notice that this time I don’t refer to the Bay as a river and I get the characters of Wheeler and Curtis the right way round. Also, at the time, the BBC insisted I cut quite a lot of the references to the show’s past, such as the first six Doctors and earlier versions of The Master. They thought it might confuse younger readers not familiar with the show’s past.
“Some of those are back in now and a few have been rewritten and enhanced for the 2021 audience. I perfectly understand why I had to do that back in 1996 but we are 25 years later now and a lot of water has passed under a lot more Golden Gate Bridges!”
Leaving Gary to mull on The San Francisco Experiment we move on a decade to 2005 and Rob Shearman’s Dalek.
“I’ve never responded so fast to an email in my life when I was asked to do the novelisation for Target” Rob explains “The greatest difference I found between working on a script and working on a book is that the script is intensely collaborative, and that’s the fun of it, you never feel you’re struggling on your own.; whereas a book is always so much more introspective. But the funny thing is, because Dalek was broadcast so very long ago, watching it back for the first time in years it seemed like I was seeing the work of a very different writer. I felt like I was still collaborating in a way but weirdly with my younger self!”
Rob goes on to explain the challenges and fun he had adapting the screenplay. “Dalek is a very visual episode, and a lot of the action is basically just people running up the stairs, it’s a big chase really, and the Doctor spends the majority of the episode standing in a room. In a way though, that was very liberating for me as novelist, the claustrophobia of the tale forced me to cast my net wider. I wanted the adventure to stay as a fast paced chase and it would have been a mistake to have created a whole new set of subplots which caused that to stutter. Instead I was able to break out of the narrative to tell quirky and unexpected stories about the characters in ways that I hoped would better explore the themes of the adventure from new perspectives.
“We also get to see a Dalek’s childhood! I hope I got it right” concludes Rob, “enough new to surprise, enough old to reassure and remember.”
The two classic series Dalek stories Resurrection and Revelation of the Daleks never received the novelisation treatment during the heyday of Target in the 1980’s.Their publication has completed the run of the televised classic series adventures, those empty spaces on fans bookshelves are now fully employed.
“I’m really pleased that the stories are now out in paperback. It has been two years since I wrote them” Eric confesses. “ I started on Revelation very shortly after finishing Resurrection and it felt like I’d just written one very long book!” he smiles “ Resurrection was really a warm up as I hadn’t written that much prose for ages. Yes, I followed the scripts and I was surprised how tightly written Revelation originally was. There was a pace to the story that pleased me and maybe I’m being arrogant here, I wasn’t sort of surprised by anything thinking ‘Oh my God that bit or sequence is awful, I wish I hadn’t written that’ which is reassuring.”
Are we to expect straight script to page novelisations or did he flesh out the original stories for prose form? “In a way”, confirms Eric “ I have expanded on the originals and there is a new character that appears towards the end of Revelation as I felt the Doctor needed a bit more interaction plot wise so Alex was created. As for his role in the story you will have to buy the book, in fact, buy both of them!”
There we have it, tales from the writers all involved in the wonderful world of Target Books. To paraphrase Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave, the stories and tales stay with us all.
Over to Robert Shearman to sum up all things Target.
“In a funny way the Target book makes me feel more ‘proper’ than seeing my name in the opening credits of the broadcast episode!” he says. “This seems like a big present to my twelve year old self that I get to be a Target novelist; he would never dare to hope for something like that. And for this fifty year old version of me, I still have my complete collection of Targets, every single one of them, in my office, and the joy of being able to place my Dalek novel alongside them is one of the happiest moments of my adult life.
“It’s up there with my wedding day, but don’t tell the wife!”
With thanks to Joy Wilkinson, Robert Shearman, Gary Russell, Eric Saward and James Goss for taking the time to answer my questions. Sadly, Mark Gatiss couldn’t make it; he got himself trapped in a Chronic Hysteresis, in other words, filming commitments!
Very special thanks to Morgana Chess of BBC Books.
Check out this interview with the Target Book writers Mark Gatiss, James Goss, Gary Russell, Eric Saward, Robert Shearman and Joy Wilkinson on Forbidden Planet TV, hosted by Andrew Sumner, recorded 9th March 2021
• Signed bookplate editions of these Target Books are available from Forbidden Planet – while stocks last