In the days before VHS, much less DVD, fans of classic “Doctor Who” could only experience their favorite or old “Doctor Who” serial via an occasional BBC repeat or the phenomeon of the Target novelizations. Launched in the mid-70’s during Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor, the novelizations of popular “Doctor Who” serials were a best-selling success in the United Kingdom and, later, around the world. The stories were transformed from television version to the printed page by a variety of writers, including many associated with the program’s production.
A majority of the Target stories were written by Pertwee-era script-editor Terrance Dicks, though later in the range the original writers were approached to novelize their own adventures. Some of the novels were a faithful retelling of the original story while others expanded the stories and characters a bit. In some cases, backstories added in the novels later became canon during the television series.
During their run, the Target novels became one of the best-selling tie-in lines of all time and are credited with instilling a love of reading in many young “Doctor Who” fans. The line came to an end in the early 90s when the series ran out of stories to novelize with the last two being the long-elusive Patrick Troughton Dalek stories. Only five “Doctor Who” stories were never given the Target treatement–three by writer Douglas Adams (though the author did incoroporate elements from each script into his best-seller, “Dirk Gentley’s Holitistic Detective Agency” and two Dalek stories from the 80s by then-script editor Eric Saward.
The novels led to the creation of the popular continuing series, The New Adventures and the MIssing Adventures in the 90s, both of which helped sustain the show while it was off the airwaves. And while the current series features tie-in novels, so far, there has not been a series of books that novelize the current stories for young readers.
BBC Radio recently ran a special called “On the Outside It Looked Like an Old-Fashioned Police Box,” hosted by Mark Gatiss, a writer for the new series and a self-professed fan of the Target novels. Most of the novels have gone out of print at this point, though you can stil finds copies at used bookstores, your local library and on E-bay if you’re interested. The BBC is also issuing a new range of audio books based on the original Target novels.
“Whenever I was off school my medicine of preference was always a well read copy of the Doctor’s adventure on the planet Spiridon – and maybe oxtail soup – because it took me light years away from my four walls in County Durham and into the Doctor’s universe. What a comfort – and genuine inspiration – those books were,” Gattis says on the radio program.
As the radio show points out, the influence of the Target novels is one that shouldn’t be overlooked in the long history of “Doctor Who.” In some cases, the serials have been lost to the ravages of time (and the short-sightedness of the BBC), leaving only the Target novel as the way many could fully experience the story.
“He had this fantastic technique of doing the main picture of the Doctor as a series of tiny black and white dots – almost pointillist, which I loved,” Gatiss says. “The cover of Doctor Who and the Daleks had a spectacular painting of Hartnell with frock coat and signet ring – and I always found this imposing, mysterious Doctor from the series’ past thrillingly scary.”
“The colours were always dazzling – like a film poster, using a montage of swirling stars and planets with the Doctor and his companions foregrounded. And always the small Target insignia on the spine,” he added.
The novels also influenced the way the show was described. Writer Terrance Dicks talks about how he took the sound of the TARDIS materializing and translated that to the printed page. The influence is seen not only in the entire Target line, where many of the authors followed suit, but also in the novels that have been published since.
The Target books were a phenomenon and a definite product of their time.