You really have to be a ‘Doctor Who’ fan of a certain age to appreciate just how important Target Books were in the 1970s. Picture, if you can, a world without DVDs, Blu-rays, downloads, torrents and all the other mind-frazzling ways fans can just get their hands on stuff these days; technology we take for granted in the 21st century would have seemed as outlandish to a 1970’s ‘Doctor Who’ afficionado as any of their hero’s colourful exploits. Because in the 1970s if you wanted to remind yourself of an old ‘Doctor Who’ adventure you had to have seen it and remembered it. Back then you couldn’t go online and pick up a 4 part William Hartnell adventure on a spruced-up digital disc for not much more than the price of a cheap curry; you saw the show on TV or you didn’t. It was that simple. The arrival on the bookshelves in 1973 of ‘Doctor Who’ paperbacks in bright, shiny covers, bearing the distinctive ‘Target Books’ logo, was not only the beginning of a massive merchandising phenomenon which lasted for the better part of two decades (and continues today in the form of the BBC’s original novel series) but was also a massive revelation for the show’s young fans, offering up an easy way to enjoy the show’s dark, rich past without, at the time, much hope of ever actually seeing any of it.
Of course ‘Doctor Who’ in book form wasn’t a new idea. Three novels had been published back in 1965 and, whilst successful, they hadn’t paved the way for further titles. Target Books reissued those three novels with attractive new covers - and then sat and watched as the money rolled in as ‘Who’ fans lapped up their series’ past. It didn’t matter to them that none of these books featured then-current Doctor Jon Pertwee but rather starred the barely-remembered first Doctor in three of his earliest televised exploits, particularly his exciting first adventure with the Daleks. Target Books, quickly realising they were on to something and that ‘Doctor Who’ had a long history and potentially a healthy future, made plans to capitalise on the success of their three reissues with ‘original’ novelisations of more recent TV episodes, as well as the best stories from 1960s.
The early Target books have been out of print for some time (but they’re not difficult to track down in second-hand stores if you know where to look) so BBC Books have snapped up the rights to some of those early titles and repackaged them, with their original covers and new shiny gold logos, with special introductions from modern writers associated with the show - Russell T Davies, Gareth Roberts, Neil Gaiman - and the legendary Terrance Dicks, former series script editor who found himself writing most of the novelisations Target released over the years. This first batch of six releases takes the Target story right back to its beginnings and even if you’ve already got these books in one edition or another you’ll find it hard to resist snapping up these pocket-sized new volumes - and if you’re a newer fan it’s fair to say these books are pretty much essential if only for the chance it affords you to imagine you were there in 1973 when this was the only access to archive ‘Doctor Who’ it was possible to imagine.
I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’ (original title, ‘Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks’ - imagine that!), written by the TV series' first story editor David Whitaker from Terry Nation’s scripts, is the best ‘Doctor Who’ book ever written and I’ll race you to the Lake of Mutations if you don’t agree. Stunningly written with a maturity way beyond the age of its intended audience, this is a darker and bleaker telling of the Doctor’s first encounter with the Daleks, infamously rewriting the show’s own history by dumping the cavemen adventure which launched the series on TV and crafting an entirely new introduction where Ian Chesteron meets Barbara Wright after her car has crashed on foggy Barnes Common and the pair stumble across the mysterious Doctor and his everlasting matches and his peculiar Police Box. For many fans this remained the true origin of the series and that first viewing of ‘An Unearthly Child’ years later was one of the show’s greatest surprises. Whitaker, writing in the first person as Ian Chesteron, beautifully depicts the confusion and fear and disbelief of the discovery of the TARDIS and its capabilities and he evokes a real sense of the exploration of the unknown as the TARDIS travels to the blasted post-Neutron bomb wasteland planet of Skaro and its mutated war survivors. Bold, and pioneering stuff, this really is as good as ‘Doctor Who’ fiction gets, even now, nearly fifty years after its first publication.
If ‘The Daleks’ is the best ‘Doctor Who’ book (and it is), then Whitaker’s ‘The Crusaders’ runs it a close second. Working from his own scripts from the second season story ‘The Crusade’, Whitaker does for time travel what he did for space travel in ‘The Daleks’, with a poetic first chapter in which the Doctor neatly explains to his companions the consequences and responsibilities of travelling in Time before sending his characters off into a middle-ages adventure full of escapes, captures and dark intrigue managing throughout to create a real sense of ordinary people experiencing the past. ‘The Crusaders’ is an enthralling read and it’s hard not to wish that the underrated Whitaker hadn’t written more prose fiction beyond the worlds of ‘Doctor Who’.
Curiously, BBC Books have chosen not to reissue Bill Strutton’s bonkers ‘The Zarbi’ (the third of that original trilogy of books and based on the TV serial known as 'The Web Planet') but opted instead to leap straight to Target’s own first two original novelisations. Indulge this reviewer for a moment as he recalls with almost crystal clarity the day he casually scanned the children’s book section of (the long-gone) WH Smith’s in St Mary Street in Cardiff and his jaw dropped at the sight of ‘The Auton Invasion’ and ‘The Cave Monsters’, two all-new colourfully-jacketed ‘Doctor Who’ books with Jon Pertwee on the cover! Fifty pence later (the books cost twenty-five pence each!) I was engrossed in Terrance Dicks’ lively retelling of Jon Pertwee’s first TV adventure ‘Spearhead From Space’, last shown on TV a couple of years before, before moving on to Malcolm Hulke’s denser ‘Cave Monsters’, his novelisation of ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, Pertwee’s second adventure. In 'The Auton Invasion' (televised in 1970 as 'Spearhead from Space' - Target's first 'Doctor Who' editor was quite happy to change TV serial names to something snappier) Dicks establishes the crisp, no-nonsense storytelling style which would hold him in good stead right across the Target range, fleshing out the scripts but never deviating from the televised narrative. Hulke, meanwhile, clearly relished the opportunity to add meat to the bones; in 'The Cave Monsters' he delves into the prehistoric background of the Silurians, making them even more sympathetic than they were on TV, and adds much more light and shade to the human protagonists, especially Doctor Quinn who first makes contact with the reptiles. Reading 'The Cave Monsters' again can only make you weep for the way Steven Moffat turned these noble creatures into just another bunch of masked, gun-wielding costumes when he resurrected them for the 2010 series.
The final two reissues in this initial batch both take the reader back to the 1960s and the era of Patrick Troughton and 'The Cybermen' by Gerry Davis (from his TV serial 'The Moonbase') and 'The Abominabe Snowmen' by Dicks from the scripts by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln and both books, whilst never attaining the heights of the other four books, continue to evoke strong memories of reading them for the first time and for his reviewer at least who dipped in and out of the series in the 1960s and for whom these were all-new stories which had previously just been titles in the famous 1973 Radio times 'Doctor Who' Tenth Anniversary secial. Despite the fact that Chris Achilleos' beautiful cover illustration depicts a Cyberman from a later era in the show's history, 'The Moonbase' reminds us of the cold, clinical, other-worldly nature of the original Cybermen as they plot to devastate the Earth's weather system by manipulating a lunar weather-contol station; the Cybermen here, cruel and calculating, are a far cry from today's version which, whilst visually formidable and threatening, tend to get wheeled out now and again for budgetary reasons rather than for any need to tell a new story about them. In 'The Abominable Snowmen' Dicks takes the second Doctor to the Himalayas in the 1920s and an encounter with an alien intelligence using remote controlled robot Yetis to terrorise a local monastery. Only in 'Doctor Who'...
With their loving introductions and handy 'behind the scenes' epilogues these new BBC rereleases, complete with the original interior illustrations most of the books featured in the early years of the range, are an absolute delight, an exercise in pure nostalgia for those of us of a certain vintage and essential reading for fans of all ages if only because the Target book range remain probably the most important piece of merchandising in 'Doctor Who's long and continuing history. Rumour has it BBC Books are planning more releases; good news, of course, but I hope they'll resist the urge to rerelease every title. There are some good books lurking out there from the likes of Brian Hayles, Ian Marter and John Lucarotti - but even Terrance Dicks would surely agree that some of his later efforts, where as the only in-house author he was churning out novelisations of Tom Baker serials month after month in a style which was little more than a pamphlet with script dialogue punctuated by cursory descriptions and the odd 'he said', 'she said' and 'they ran', weren't exactly his finest hours. The rereleased series has made a cracking start with these six titles and if you've any real interest in 'Doctor Who' at all you need these books on your bookshelf and, more importantly, in your heart.