Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bleak September's mist and mud

What? Busy. Shush, you.

Doctor Who - The Reign of Terror, Ian Marter
Let us not think of it as "DW does the French Revolution" - as has been said before, Who's writers and producers didn't waste a whole lot of time on accuracy in their historical stories, even in the show's earliest days as a semi-educational drama serial, whereas they did (knowingly or not) spend a fair bit of time mimicking other popular shows and films, and in the 1960s we can add books as well. So let's instead think of The Reign of Terror as "DW does The Scarlet Pimpernel", which is what's really going on here. The debonair double agent running dignified toffs out from under the noses of the lazy, drunken, brawling, farting and scratching proles - call it tribute, call it send-up, but don't show it to your history teacher and call it homework.
Ian Marter played one of Tom Baker's companions and subsequently novelised several DW stories from various eras of the show. He earned acclaim for his ability to beef up even the wateriest of stories (see below), and some notoriety for his tendency to labour the gore and violence. Know, then, that this book is 160 pages long - about 35 pages past the DW average at time of publication - and printed in a font much smaller than that normally used, and although the story is surprisingly gore-free, it doesn't stint on the violence. One notable detail that Marter includes - believed to be historically accurate, but understandably not shown on TV - is that of Robespierre being shot in the jaw. (He was cured of his toothache shortly thereafter.)
Barbara, now widely recognised as the Greatest Companion Ever, gets a brief speech (really more of an outburst) in which she takes Ian Chesterton to task for simplistically viewing 18th century France in terms of "good" aristos and "bad" revolutionaries, but it's soon glossed over and the book as a whole doesn't exactly echo the sentiment. If you approach The Reign of Terror simply as an Orczy pastiche, or can bite your tongue against the stereotyping, it's a rich and engaging read.
Amusing side detail: Marter compares both Susan in this book and Vicki in The Rescue to Joan of Arc. The reference might be considered appropriate here, but it's a bit odd in the latter context. Either St Joan just had one of those faces, or Marter had a bit of an obsession with France's most iconic schizophrenic.

Doctor Who - The Rescue, Ian Marter
Here Marter takes a two-part story whose entire purpose was to introduce a new companion - a story that might be described as a whodunnit with only one suspect, at that - and turns it into a textured, well-paced, standard-length DW novelisation. It was old-style pulp on TV and it still is on paper, but it's an enjoyable read.
Reading two of Marter's novelisations consecutively, I'm inclined to think that the New Adventures series of novels that kept DW going during the '90s owes more to him than is generally acknowledged. Fans tend to point to late '80s scriptwriters like Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt as the range's chief heralds - the fact that they went on to write some of those novels may be a factor - but in terms of adding depth to the novelisations, not to mention pushing the violence more towards the PG-13 end of the scale and sneaking in the occasional discreet sexual reference, I think Marter got the drop on them all. It's most evident in a space opera such as The Rescue, which also includes sly references to pop-culturally named planets and an alloy with military applications known as "reaganium" - very New Adventures touches.
I say "adding depth" - I should perhaps give a nod to David Whitaker at this point. But I don't think anyone would suggest that David Whitaker was the unsung pioneer of the New Adventures.

Doctor Who - The Romans, Donald Cotton
And so we make our first encounter with Donald Cotton, the PG Wodehouse of DW writers. I don't make the statement lightly - Wodehouse's influence on Cotton is pretty obvious, admittedly more so in his other two novelisations, which we'll come to in the October book post. But Cotton's also a stylist, and this is the book in which he shows it. It's quite slim compared to other DW novelisations, but that's what happens when you relate the events of a frothy four-part historical farce as a series of letters and journal entries written by various major and secondary characters.
It's a unique experiment in the DW novelisation range, and a resounding success as far as I'm concerned. A bit more variation in format and tone would have done the range a power of good, especially where the Tom Baker stories are concerned. Cotton would have been just the person to write up Tom's penultimate season, if Terrance Dicks hadn't already been through it like a dose of salts. As it is, this book stands alone, although it could just be that the other novelisations don't want to get too close to that radioactively pink cover...

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton
Who was it who said that the memory cheats? This book's appalling! It actually outdoes Pip and Jane Baker for bad prose, a feat I hoped never to witness. To think, I actually cut the DVD some slack because I remembered the book so fondly - it should have been the other way around! (It should, if only the TV version had more to recommend it than drunken comedy value.)
So, Strutton takes a story - his own story, mind you - about intelligent insect people and turns it into a tale of mundane people dressed up as insects. Gone are any suggestions of distinctive movement, of the alien manglings of the human characters' names, of the imagery of opening "mouths" in a rock face to "make it speak more light" - in short, all the elements of The Web Planet that are held up as fragments of a bold and ambitious attempt to create a truly alien environment in Television Centre, all the little details that are supposed to mitigate the shabby production in which they appear. Here the Menoptra simply wander around chattering like they're holding a union meeting somewhere in the Midlands. Some fans complain of this book that Strutton keeps referring to the Doctor as "Doctor Who", but that's really the least of its faults. The characterisation is badly off all round - Ian seems to be constantly on the brink of murderous rage! And prose and dialogue are peppered with... the most infuriating... never-bloody-ending... stream of... ellipses... Seriously, I could happily read Time and the Rani right about now.
There's only one thing worthy of note here, and that's the Animus. (This may be the sole reason why I had such positive memories of the book.) On screen, it's a flapping, talking arrangement of white cloth; here, it's a pulsing, growing, all-consuming beast from another universe, and the description of a giant bladder spinning in mid-air at its heart is highly suggestive of something more than three-dimensional. But it won't draw me into its web again.

Doctor Who and the Crusaders, David Whitaker
Ah, David Whitaker, you've done it again. DW and the Crusaders opens with an amusing prologue that suggests that Ian and Barbara have been bronzed and buffed to the stature of Greek heroes by their adventures, their reactions honed to ninja perfection thanks to all the scrapping they've been caught up in. If only the TV series could have pulled this off. The TARDIS crew recline around the console room, bantering like aloof gods on the topics of morality and war; as the TARDIS comes in to land, the Doctor voices his hope that they will find themselves in the middle of a situation that will allow him to illustrate his argument to his Olympian companions. He had to tempt fate, didn't he?
This book got some stick from tabloid reviewers back in the mid-'60s for including a "kinky" scene of Saracen baddie El Akir flogging Barbara with a whip, which tells us something about tabloid book reviewers in the mid-'60s. It may live in the shadow of DW and the Daleks, but it's a fine adventure yarn in its own right, and the fact that Whitaker is here novelising his own script may count for something. (Although there's some speculation over just how much work he did as editor on Terry Nation's Dalek scripts...) The characters are well-defined throughout, with plenty of background detail, and the highly acclaimed dialogue is just as good in print as it is on screen (or on audio, as it happens). The Ian/Barbara romance introduced in the Dalek novelisation is also present - in fact, claims Whitaker, by this point they're officially an item. Yes, David Whitaker gives us Who's first in-print companion kiss. You dog, Whitaker.
Oh yes: the other thing to note is that original companion Susan has left the TARDIS in an earlier adventure unnovelised at the time Whitaker wrote this book. According to Whitaker, she's been married off to David Cameron. Let minds boggle.

Doctor Who - The Space Museum, Glyn Jones
Here's another one that I remembered quite fondly - one of my early Who readings, although it can't have been that early given the publication date. The story isn't that well-loved by DW fans, and in one of the extras on the DVD, one of the new series writers tries to defend it by suggesting that it's DW's first self-parody. "Has to resort to" is the phrase I'm toying with. It's not actually all that bad, it's just nothing special beyond the first episode, and if I'm brutally honest the first episode takes about twice as long as necessary to do what it does.
The screen-to-book adaptation is pretty direct, with a few embellishments here and there to try to suggest something more alien than the men in (you could barely call them) costumes seen in the TV version. The Xerons have no sense of smell (although they still have noses)! The Moroks are rubbish at chasing because their knees are more primitive! And so on. There's a little extra subplot of a Morok who sees which way things are going and discreetly helps the Xerons, which also helps to smooth over one or two small fluffs in the TV production. But all in all, it lacks lustre.
One interesting thing to come out of the DVD commentary is that the writer originally intended for the first episode shennanigans to be explained by something in the Space Museum itself, and not by yet another bit of the TARDIS going wrong. The book retains the "bit of the TARDIS going wrong" ending, sadly. Still, I suppose if it was meant to be a parody of DW's first couple of years, that wouldn't be out of place.

1 comment:

Andy said...

I just rediscovered your blog (I lost the link to it when my hard drive failed), and I thought I'd comment on 'The Zarbi'. As a schoolboy I set myself the task of reading all the Doctor Who target books in Doctor order - the only way to experience them all in the same format. Unfortunately I hadn't realised how turgid this particular book is and kept losing my place, losing interest, etc. It took me something ridiculous like 6 months to finish it and completely derailed my task. I made it through the rest of the Hartnell stories but got lost somewhere in the Troughton era and never went back to it.