Doctor Who – Target Books

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, if you missed an episode of Doctor Who on Saturday night, that was it. There might be a repeat later in the year, but there were no videos or DVDs available to watch the stories you missed. Getting information on older stories was even more difficult. Without the Internet, lists of episodes and seasons were non-existent. It was as if the history of the show had been sucked into E-Space.

There was one salvation: Target Books. These thin volumes of about 120 pages were our 75p key to lost adventures. The range covered almost all of the televised serials, albeit sometimes with subtly altered titles. Although you just had to turn on the TV to watch the show, viewers might think twice about buying a book called The Silurians (retitled as The Cave Monsters). These changes didn’t always add interest. Terror of the Zygons is a much more exciting title than the B-movie one used for the final book:

Excitingly, the books often added information to the on-screen adventures. These appeared as short prologues, like The Creation of the Cybermen:

Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distant planet of Telos sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics – the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel.

from Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet by Gerry Davis (c) 1976 Gerry Davis

Another classic example is this background to the world of the Sontarans by original script writer Robert Holmes (uncredited on the novel):

[Linx’s] home planet, Sontara, was on the further side of the galaxy. To reach it would entail a long voyage through largely hostile zones where he would need to maintain constant vigilance. Linx decided to take an energy burn while he had the opportunity.

He flicked the desk monitor to active and unclipped his feeder hose from the control module. Fumbling slightly, he connected the small hose to the vent behind his neck. On entry into the Space Corps all fliers underwent mechasurgery. A probic insertion in the trapezius enabled them to live as cyborgs, drawing energy from the burners that powered their starships.

from Doctor Who and the Time Warrior by Terrance Dicks (c) 1978 Terrance Dicks

How many children’s books would use the word ‘trapezius’ today?

Over time, many members of the Doctor Who crew novelised the Time Lord’s exploits. Some were written by the original authors (Malcolm Hulke), others by the producers (Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe) and in a couple of cases by actors from the series (Ian Marter).

One name above all is synonymous with the Target range: Terrance Dicks. It’s a name that resonates with a whole generation of British schoolchildren. His work displays a clean, understated style that makes the books an easy read for a young audience. Take for example, the suspense generated by these opening lines:

He was a dead man running.

He ran blindly, desperately through the swirling green fog, deep sobbing breaths rasping into his tortured lungs.

from Doctor Who – Death to the Daleks by Terrance Dicks (c) 1978 Terrance Dicks.

Apart from the great writing, the Target Books are also notable for their glorious covers. The books did not include a photo section in the middle, like film tie-ins of the time. Apart from line drawings interspersed in the text of a few titles, the cover was the only visual reference available for the readers. Drawn by artists such as Jeff Cummins, Roy Knipe and my favourite of all, Chris Achilleos, the covers were magnificent. A large part of Doctor Who’s continuing success must be down to their artwork, because this was often the only time we saw monsters from past serials. Just compare this cover from The Carnival of Monsters with the real plesiosaur from the original TV show.

The books did one more great service to the series. They allowed us to read adventures that no longer existed on film recordings, having been wiped by over-enthusiastic officials at the BBC. One of the best ways to encounter the second doctor is through novelisations of lost adventures like The Abominable Snowmen. You don’t even need to be a collector to pick these up. New editions of the books have been reappearing over the last few years, courtesy of  BBC books, and they have kept those traditional cover drawings that served the series so well.

Doctor Who The Abominable Snowmen Cover by Chris Achilleos (c) BBC books

The question now is: who are the readers of these reprints? Is it a new generation of Who fans? I suspect it’s more likely thirty- or forty-somethings revisiting their childhood. Not everyone needs a Tardis to travel back in time.

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10 responses to “Doctor Who – Target Books

  1. Great last line. My dad owns all the old books, not first editions or anything like that but owns all the old style books, it’s just a shame some of the later ones feel a bit rushed, but the amount of colour and the dramatic pictures still make them seem really exciting.

    • Thanks! They really give me happy memories. I have some of my originals but I had to give a box load to my local charity shop recently. Unsurprisingly, those books didn’t hang around for long before being snapped up.

    • The thing I most dislike in the modern series is the age of the doctors. Why do they all have to be so young? I thought Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee were perfectly cast as a centuries old alien.

      • And there are some fine older actors out there who could do a great Doctor Who. When the series came back, there were rumours that Bill Nighy might take the main role. I’ve always thought that Martin Clunes would do a great turn, and he would continue the tradition of casting comic actors in the main role. The problem with a younger doctor is the series feels too much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for my liking…

  2. I grew up on these, and I suspect you’re right about the target audience.

    I recently rewatched some of the Tom Baker episodes and what struck me with them was how unashamedly they were SF. There were spaceships, mining colonies, aliens whose biology tried to make sense (even if they didn’t much really), stellar empires and much more. NuWho, which has its merits, is much more a fantasy series like Merlin or as you say Buffy (which actually I think was very good at its height).

    The current doctor for me is actually pretty good, it’s the scripts which I’d say are problematic. There’s sometimes a painful lack of internal logic and consistency, even intra-episode, which has led to my rather giving up on the new series which is a shame given I actually like the cast.

    • That’s so true. The other thing is that they always want some universe-shattering event to end the season, which then makes it harder to start again with the smaller-scale stories.

      Matt Smith is good but I think think that they should have completely rebooted the series if they are going to use a younger actor. A bit like the back to basics approach that they took with Daniel Craig’s James Bond.

      With all the ideas and alien races that have been created for Doctor Who, a whole new series could have been spectacular, without being weighed down with the character’s past. Star Trek did this very well with the 2009 reboot, using parallel universes as a way of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      I love those Tom Baker stories too!

  3. Thanks for the link to this, a very enjoyable read. Looking at the comments it seems that we got what we were looking for – an older Doctor. Looking forward to Capaldi but hope he’s not as grumpy as Troughton looks on the cover of the Abominable Snowmen – he looks totally hacked off.

    • Isn’t it funny that everyone was asking for an older doctor two years ago and now he’s here? Just from first impressions, Peter Capaldi looks like he’s going to be a bit Pertwee-esque, which would suit me just fine.
      Troughton does look thoroughly miserable on that Snowmen cover, which is funny because I always think of him grinning when I think of the show.

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