‘Target Trawl’ by Nick Mellish reviewed

❉ ‘Target Trawl’ tells the story of the range via the fiction itself: how it changed and developed over the years.

One of Doctor Who fandom’s rites of passage is the marathon: a pilgrimage through Doctor Who’s entire televised history. It’s an endeavour beautifully recounted in the Running Through Corridors books, Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke’s joyful romp through the show’s history over the course of one Who filled year.

While it’s no mean feat of stamina to survive the Everests of tedium such as The Mutants, The Monster of Peladon or The Armageddon Factor and keep going all the way to Resolution, it pales into insignificance beside the ultimate quest: the Target marathon. You need to commit more than 25 minutes here and there for that. I’ve never done the pilgrimage, but in halcyon pre-university days I once embarked upon it myself, running through the range in six months in celebration of its apparent completion with the Troughton Dalek stories, instead of revising for exams. Reader take note: always do the revision. It’s less fun but it’ll get you further in life. Also, never be such a naïve fool as to think the seeming impossibility of rights issues and authorial desire won’t clear up the last, pesky unadapted Saward Dalek stories in the future.

I never had the mad idea of documenting that pilgrimage though. Enter Nick Mellish, by his own account a naïve student at the start, who not only went for the marathon but has been writing a regular column about it in the fanzine Whotopia for the past thirteen years. Fanzine readers will know how remarkable it is not only for a zine unaffiliated to a fan club to survive that long, but for a single writer to complete the journey he started with the turn of a single page back then.

In celebration of this feat Whotopia’s editor, publisher and general bon vivant Bob Furnell has issued a collected version of Mellish’s columns via his Pencil Tip Publishing imprint. Sensibly, they’ve opted for the most logical structure of publication order, thus neatly bypassing the twin madnesses of Target’s retroactively imposed numbering and the jigsaw of mismatching pieces of chronological order of broadcast. Instead, publication order allows us to tell the story of the range via the fiction itself: how it changed and developed from reprinting three Sixties Hartnell novelisations, through the more straightforward novelisations of the late 1970s, to the more complex and ambitious adaptions of the range’s final years. It’s the other half of the story told in The Target Book, the front of house history to complement David J Howe’s comprehensive behind the scenes story.

It’s an approach which yields some fascinating results, with Mellish being particularly sharp on how stories being novelised in an almost random order leads to some jarring chronological shifts: the time traveller with days like crazy paving indeed. The early Target books remain sacred cows to some degree: Mellish comprehensively dismantles the reputations of The Zarbi and The Doomsday Weapon but conversely finds much to praise in other early work of Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. It’s rightly noted how remarkable David Whitaker’s early adaptions were, making it even more of a tragedy that we were robbed of his return to the range by his untimely death. The Cave Monsters is held up as a gold standard of the early range, which tells you from the start that Mellish’s judgements are trustworthy and that some cows are sacred for good reason.

The other element brought out by the chronological approach is how writers change and develop across the range. Mellish is meticulous in noting the arrivals and departures of the range’s stalwarts, and their last entries are used to analyse their contribution to the range, so while you might think there’s little to be said about the book of The Space Pirates, the entry’s very much worth it for its assessment of Terrance Dicks’s overall contribution. Similarly, The Rescue is fascinating for its analysis of Ian Marter’s distinctive style. Talking of Marter, it leads to my only minor nitpick. While a stylistic decision to cover the notoriously bland mid-period books in a series of brief reviews is a smart and funny decision, it leads to The Ribos Operation getting short shrift where the mismatch between the tone of the original story and Marter’s more hard edged style makes it one of the range’s most fascinating failures.

The original run of columns covers only the television stories adapted by Target, but for those of us who might feel grumpy, he rounds up the odds and ends of the range in a series of appendices: the Companions books, the Missing Episodes, the audio adaptions and the twenty-first century books which have filled the holes in the original Target collection and brought four of the BBC Wales stories to the page. The assessments of those last four stories are highlights of the book, with the review of Rose being a clever look at how different the story is when written to introduce new viewers and when it’s being written in light of well over a decade of resounding success for a fan audience. You may not agree with Mellish’s overall assessment but like the best critics, even if you disagree with his verdict it’s very much worth reading for the general point, one which neatly brings him back to a running thread about the very earliest novels.

What’s wonderful to see is how Mellish has developed over the years into a consistently interesting writer capable of finding talking points in even the blandest of books, and how he’s always been the best type of critic where a love and engagement with his subject matter isn’t allowed to blind him to quirks and faults: Donald Cotton and Malcolm Hulke’s fine work doesn’t stop him exploring why certain of their books are deeply flawed.  Mellish is a charmingly knowledgeable guide who wears his depth of knowledge of Doctor Who on page, screen and audio lightly. While there’s plenty of self-deprecation early on, it’s pleasingly less present as we go on: Target Trawl is a book which is a fulsome expression of the talent of someone who’s quietly been a sharp, intelligent presence on the fringes of fandom for years.

❉ ‘Target Trawl’ by Nick Mellish is out now from Pencil Tip Publishing. Available to purchase at: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/penciltippublishing

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