Doctor Who is Back on Target Again!

❉ We Are Cult’s Si Hart rounds up the latest additions to the much-loved Target library from BBC Books.

“It’s really wonderful to have the Target books back… Every author who’s written for the new range has brought something new to their work. It may not always be quite what we imagined it was going to be, but that was always the joy of the novelisations?”

Forty years ago, this July on my sixth birthday, I was taken into town by my Dad to spend my birthday money. There was only one thing I wanted to buy, Doctor Who Target books. My Mum had been reading the books we’d borrowed from the library to me for a while, but I desperately wanted my own ones, all the ones the library didn’t have. I was immediately attracted by the covers, but very soon the stories gripped me too by all those wonderful writers; Ian Marter, Malcolm Hulke, Christopher H. Bidmead and of course the master of the Target novelisation, Terrance Dicks.

They were very much a staple of my childhood reading and the range grew up with me as I hit my teenage years and the books became more complex and slightly more challenging. There were always the nagging gaps though and a sense of unfinished business. The collection could never be complete because there was no way we’d ever get the Douglas Adams stories novelised and the Eric Saward ones were locked out too. We’d come close to getting them back in the mid-90s, but that came and went and the time of the Target books passed away.

It’s been a source of joy then to this old fan to witness the ongoing love for these books as the old generation rediscover them through the reprint series and the talking book versions and the new generation discover just what it was about them that we older fans loved when we were small.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling that the lack of novelisations was something that the new generation of fans really missed out on when the series returned to our screens in 2005. In this era where all the stories are so instantly available though, perhaps they weren’t needed in the same way we needed them in the ’70s and ’80s? Therefore, it was something of a surprise when the first batch of new Target books were commissioned for release in 2018. What a triumph they were and here we are in 2021 with a slightly delayed batch of seven new Target adventures for the shelf.

Following the same format of releases as the 2018 books, the new batch has a mix of Classic and New Who releases. Satisfyingly for us collectors, with the release of The Pirate Planet, Resurrection of the Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks and The TV Movie this time round, we now have a complete set of Target books for the classic series. Meanwhile our new series collection expands with Dalek, The Crimson Horror and The Witchfinders finding a place on our shelves.

Some of the releases aren’t technically new ones. Eric Saward’s two Dalek novelisations from 2019 receive their first paperback releases here. I think it’s safe to say that these two are perhaps the most disappointing of the new Target range so far. Resurrection of the Daleks is in many places a strange version of the story, obsessed with mentions of the Terrileptils, a rather fay Supreme Dalek and a frankly baffling ending with Tegan jumping off Tower Bridge unscathed.

Revelation of the Daleks is the better of Saward’s books as you feel he is more enthusiastic about the story. The novelisation does make the obvious side-lining of the Doctor and Peri from the main plot even more obvious as the book cuts back to them not making much progress in arriving really slow down the storytelling. It’s very much a case of be careful what you wish for, as lovely as is to have them completed, neither of these books stand up in comparison to Saward’s earlier Target adaptations.

Far more successful is Gary Russell’s version of The TV Movie. I rather unfairly dismissed this when it was first released in 1996 as I was expecting a New Adventures-length version of the story with lots added to it. Instead, this is very much in the style of earlier Target books and is much better for it with hindsight. Russell fleshes out the story and in this version many more of the original references to the past which were removed have been reinstated. I especially liked the new reference to The Doctor visiting Ace at her A Charitable Earth office as seen in the recent trailer for the Season 26 Blu-ray boxset. With an added cameo from an ex-companion who is now Lord President of Gallifrey and the Doctor’s trip to Skaro to collect the Master’s ashes there’s a new depth to the opening of the story that gives the Seventh Doctor a better send off. It’s not a criticism when I say that is the closest book in feel to the work of Terrance Dicks. It’s a superior adaptation.

James Goss’s adaptation of The Pirate Planet was originally released in 2017, based very heavily on the original drafts of the story by Douglas Adams. While this was rather brilliant, there were many things within that version that were very different to what we saw on screen. In this version, just as he did with his City of Death Target book, Goss revisits his work to present a version much closer to that seen on TV in 1978. Gone are the references to Romana being called Romy and the very over complicated resolution to the Part Three cliff-hanger from the earlier version. Despite this, it remains a very witty and fun read. Goss emulates the Adams style very well in his writing and this is a novelisation that is really enjoyable.

Most of the focus from fans is going to be on the brand-new adaptations.  Rob Shearman, Mark Gatiss and Joy Wilkinson all make their Target debuts this year. Joy Wilkinson’s marvellous version of The Witchfinders has been reviewed by Bryn Mitchell here so, I’ll be focussing on Dalek and The Crimson Horror.

As at the end of the original run of Target books, there’s something very special about an author coming back to adapt their TV episode some years after it was broadcast. Both of these authors take a different approach to their novelisations. Shearman chooses to expand the TV episode by focussing on the characters and looking at their backstories and how they came to be involved in the story, while Gatiss gives us a whole new adventure with the Doctor and the Paternoster Gang set sometime before The Crimson Horror, both of which work really well.

Like The Daleks before it, The Crimson Horror tells the story in the first person, mostly from the point of view of Jenny Flint, member of The Paternoster Gang. This is great fun and Jenny’s voice is authentically captured by Gatiss and her narration is fun throughout, with just the right amount of awe, excitement and humour at all that is going on around her. The occasional sections written by Strax are even funnier, especially so his addiction to sweets of all kinds! Gatiss even takes the reader inside the Doctor’s head for a chapter, where he perfectly captures the Eleventh Doctor’s gadfly character.

The prelude adventure takes us to the world of the Victorian theatre, very much evoking The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s exciting and weird, drawing the Doctor into an investigation of headless corpses and a talent show. It’s full of the Victorian colour that you’d expect from Gatiss and is a fun diversion. The story of The Crimson Horror begins about 100 pages in and is dealt with surprisingly quickly. The characters of Miss Gillyflower and Ada jump off the page as much as they did on TV and overall, this is another fun novelisation.

The real gem of this set of releases though is Dalek. In many ways this is quite a traditional Target adaptation, very much in the Malcolm Hulke style. Every character, other than the Doctor and Rose, has a chapter devoted to them, massively expanding their backstories and adding a depth and texture to everyone we thought we knew from the TV episode. This adds so much; from the psychotic tendencies of Goddard, Van Statten’s loveless and austere upbringing and Adam’s precocious moments in his childhood, you feel you really know what drives everyone in the story, even if you don’t actually end up liking any of them very much.

Perhaps his greatest contribution is the chapter from the Dalek’s point of view. This is something Saward attempted in his two Dalek story novelisations, but there is no comparison to what Shearman achieves here. If you thought you knew why a Dalek hates everything and everyone around it, think again. The book takes a deep dive into the Dalek psyche in a way that’s never really been tried before. It’s a disturbing and deeply dark exploration of what drives the Doctor’s greatest enemy. A magnificent piece of writing that is right up there with the very best Doctor Who fiction ever brought to the page.

The covers of the books once again emulate the early work of Chris Achilleos. While this gives the new range a sense of cohesiveness, they do feel rather lacklustre this time round. While Resurrection of the Daleks has a terrific cover which feels suitably exciting, both Revelation of the Daleks and The Crimson Horror feel rather lacking simply because they’re not as colourful as the others. Maybe it’s time to branch out and look to emulate the exciting work of Jeff Cummins or Alister Pearson for inspiration next time round as the Target books art was far more varied and interesting than the very earliest Achilleos cover art.

It’s really wonderful to have the Target books back. It’s a treat to have that that same feeling of excitement back as start each new book now I’m a 45-year-old that I felt aged 5, 10 or 15. Every author who’s written for the new range has brought something new to their work. It may not always be quite what we imagined it was going to be, but that was always the joy of the novelisations. You might go from a workmanlike Saward to a stunning Sherman but they still feel like they belong in the same range that I grew up with. Isn’t that an utter delight?

❉ The Target Collection: ‘The Pirate Planet’ by James Goss (based on the scripts by Douglas Adams), ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ by Eric Saward, ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ by Eric Saward, ‘The TV Movie’ novelisation by Gary Russell, ‘Dalek’ by Robert Shearman, ‘The Crimson Horror’ by Mark Gatiss, and ‘The Witchfinders’ by Joy Wilkinson,  published by BBC Books on 11th March 2021, each with newly commissioned cover artwork by Anthony Dry. Each title RRP £7.99 (Paperback).

 Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

Images: BBC Books/

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