Sci-Fi Review: Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child (1981, Target Books)
Indulge me, if you will, in a brief 2nd-person fantasy.
The year is 1973. You are the head of publishing for Target Books, and you have just purchased the rights to create novelizations of the iconic BBC television program, Doctor Who. The show has been on the air for a decade, so you have ten years' worth of episodes to pick from (although a few of them, due to legal wranglings surrounding permissions from the original scriptwriters, are off the board for the time being).
The question you now face is this: What's the best order to present these stories to the public, and how should they be numbered and released?
Keep in mind, this is in the days before home video recorders are a thing; where you could count the number of television stations available on two hands and still have fingers left over; where distributing television programs so people could watch them at their leisure was a pipe dream; and where it made no sense to 're-run' a program since that would take up air time which could be spent broadcasting something new.
In today's world of physical media releases, broadband streaming services, DVR recording devices, on-demand smartphone apps, and (shhhh!) pirated downloads, the notion you couldn't just watch what you wanted to watch when you wanted to watch is utterly foreign. Back then though, if you wanted to experience Doctor Who, you had two options: you tuned in during tea time on a Saturday evening to see the latest episode, or you waited until next week and hoped you hadn't missed anything vital to the resolution of the story.
Being able to actually sit down and read a Doctor Who adventure was a mind-blowing notion! You could re-live the experience any time you liked, fill in the gaps on stories you missed, maybe even see scenes the creators originally envisioned but were unable to film thanks to the show's budgetary or time constraints. On the list of "best inventions ever", 'Sex' still takes the top spot, but 'Reading Doctor Who episodes' comes a close second.
At least in my house. Your mileage may vary.
In any case, it's this dream, all this and more, you are poised to bestow upon a grateful public comprising millions of fans. How do you best release these books into the hands of people who will love them and devour them over and over? Think long and hard about this, and once you've reached your decision, scroll down to see if your it meshes with reality.
If you're at all rational, your thought process went something like, "Let's begin by publishing the very first story broadcast for television, and work our way through the rest of the serials in chronological order, which gives us a nice buffer to continue producing the older titles while new episodes of the show are coming out."
This is the logical course of action. Start at the start. Begin, as they say, at the beginning, right?
The Target publishing and numbering scheme is something only a headcase could concoct. While common sense would dictate chronological story publication and sequential numbering, the system Target came up with defies classification.
The first three books published in the Target line (Doctor Who and The Crusaders, Doctor Who and The Daleks, & Doctor Who and The Zarbi, all released in May 1973) got one thing right: they were all adventures featuring William Hartnell's original incarnation of the Doctor. Beyond that, things go off the rails spectacularly enough to make one wish it had been a literal train wreck so there would be pictures to show the non-believers.
These books corresponded to the 14th, 2nd, and 13th stories broadcast respectively, but Target didn't number their books in the series by broadcast order or even by the order in which they were published. Oh no. They numbered them alphabetically by show title...and only then for the first 73 releases.
Subsequent books were shotgunned in wherever there was room in the lineup regardless of their title, which Doctor was involved, or what year they were first broadcast. Thus, the first three books in the Target library are actually numbers 12, 16, and 73 if you're arranging them numerically on your shelves, but a good portion of the First Doctor adventures were not published until the show was well into the Sixth and Seventh Doctor eras of the 1980s.
The book Target designated as #1 in their series is Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, a Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) adventure. It was the tenth book in the line to be printed, and was not published until November 1974, more than a full year after Target began churning them out. Between Abominable Snowmen and the three titles mentioned above, there are six consecutive books based on Third Doctor (John Pertwee) stories! Those books are numbered 6, 9, 18, 23, 15, and 54 in the Target line respectively.
Confused yet? It gets better.
How long would you estimate it would take for Target to get round to publishing the very first Doctor Who story? At some point someone sat down in a conference room and said, "Listen, we really must do the right thing and get Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child on shelves, because it's the premiere entry upon which the entire franchise was built." At which point everyone else seated around the table would grumble and nod in embarrassed agreement, someone's aid would phone prolific scriptwriter and one-time series script editor Terrance "Uncle Terry" Dicks, and get the ball rolling.
That's basically what happened. In, uh, October of 1981. It was the 67th novelization produced by Target. The entire world had to wait eight and a half years from the time Target began the series and eighteen years from the show's original transmission on 23 November 1963. Incidentally, it's book 68 according to Target's numbering scheme. By this point, logic and Target were not only not speaking to one another, but were involved in an acrimonious, long-running conflict which continued up until 1991, when Virgin Books acquired Target and closed them down to prevent further damage to the space/time continuum.
In any case, now that the story of Target Books and their bizarre publishing and numbering villainy is out of the way, we can get down to business with the promised review of Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child: Story #1, Book #68 in the Target Doctor Who Library.
What a relief.
It was only earlier this year that I got my hands on a DVD containing the first three Doctor Who stories broadcast. Having been a fan of the series since the 80's beginning with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) era, this was quite exciting. I watched An Unearthly Child and found myself mesmerized by the first episode.
As a brief aside: if you aren't familiar with the television format of Classic Who, stories were broadcast as multi-part serials, with a new installment appearing every week. Thus, while An Unearthly Child is one story, it's made up of four separate episodes, each meant to fill a 25-minute time slot. Early home video releases and US television broadcasts were usually edited to clip the extraneous closings, credit scrolls, openings, and recaps so they can be watched from start to finish as a single, uninterrupted experience, but the DVD releases have these cliffhangers and recaps intact to recreate the original experience of watching the program at home. Pretty nifty!
Watching the premiere episode of Doctor Who, in all its black and white glory, is a magnificent experience, not just for the historical aspect of what you're watching, but also for the incredible atmosphere and even sense of dread it manages to conjure up. The episode opens on a deserted, fog-enshrouded London street where a lone patrolman walks his beat, inspecting storefronts, shining his flashlight (er, sorry, 'torch') into shadowy spaces, and in general making sure all is well with his area. He takes a brief glance into a scrapyard, owned by one "I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant", moves his light over the assorted piles of trash/treasure, and lingers with slight confusion on a police call box before closing the door and continuing on his route.
It's eerie. The darkness in black and white productions is always so crisp and absolute, the whiteness of the fog contrasting with the stark shadows. From the first frame, Doctor Who establishes itself as a program where anything could happen. It's a marvelous introduction to the series, and I'm pleased to see it repeated so well in the novel, where Terrance Dicks gets inside the policeman's head as he performs his rounds. The sight of the police box prompts him to think about the rumors going around about how one day every man on the force would have his own portable walkie-talkie radio, which would make the call boxes obsolete. He discards that idea like rubbish, then goes on about his business, leaving the scrapyard.
Dicks departs from the teleplay by describing how the next day, while performing his rounds and inspecting the scrap yard again, the officer notices the police call box missing and wonders, briefly, if it was somehow connected to the disappearance of the scrap yard proprietor, his granddaughter, and two teachers from the local school. He waves off the thought though:
After all, you couldn't get four people into a police box - could you?
Dicks stays fairly true to the script from that point on, introducing three of the four main characters over the next couple of pages. We meet Susan Foreman, a young woman of roughly 15 years of age, along with Ian Chesterton her science teacher, and Barbara Wright her history instructor. Barbara's been trying to figure Susan out for some time now. She can't put her finger on what it is exactly, but there's something off about Susan. She knows far too much about some things that should be beyond her comprehension, and not enough about the sorts of everyday things you'd expect a fifteen year old girl to be on top of. Finally tonight her curiosity boils over, and after telling Susan to wait while she retrieves a book on the French Revolution for her, Barbara heads to Ian's classroom to talk it over with him.
Ian feels the same way. Half the time, he says he feels like Susan's the one teaching him about math and science. She also has strange notions about the fourth and fifth dimensions, stuff far too advanced for a girl her age, and she's utterly against having visitors over, claiming her grandfather doesn't care for strangers. Barbara hatches a plan to follow Susan home and see where she lives (the address on file with the school is a junkyard with no apparent place of residence), then make sure she's OK.
What follows begins an unimaginable adventure that captured the imagination of the public so vividly that it's still around today. Ian and Barbara follow Susan, meet her grumbling grandfather, and wind up inside the police box sitting in the scrap yard (which is, of course, bigger on the inside since it's a TARDIS...). Refusing to release the two teachers, this mysterious individual who doesn't answer to 'Foreman', just 'Doctor', sets his craft in motion to travel through time and space and prove to the poor instructors he isn't the crazy, brain-addled old man they believe him to be.
The only thing is, this TARDIS is touchy and temperamental much like its owner. Some of its bits and bobs don't work like they should, especially the chameleon circuitry, which is meant to camouflage it against casual observation. The crew wind up far in the past, in the time of primitive man where savage beasts roam the forests, caves are the best form of shelter, and fire is the tool which sets leaders apart from the rest of the tribe.
Lots of people find the last three episodes of An Unearthly Child far less interesting than the first, and originally I fell into this camp as well. The introduction to the characters is so well done the subsequent scenery and story of survival among the cavemen feels drab by comparison. Dicks' novel, on the other hand, does a great deal to upend this notion. With the only constraint imposed upon him by Target being a maximum page count (most of these books ran 128 pages with few exceptions) and instructions to follow the storyline of the screenplay, he plunges into the minds and thoughts of the various tribe members as they encounter these people in "strange furs" who can seemingly produce fire at will.
The hostility and enmity between the current tribal leader Za (whose father died before passing on the secret of how to make fire to his son), and his rival Kal (who is the only surviving member of a different tribe, but is a fierce warrior possessed of considerable cunning) is well-executed, with both men always looking to obtain favor over the other and willing to use almost any means or make any promise necessary to come out ahead.
While Susan and the Doctor have a fairly good idea of what's going on and where they are, Ian and Barbara (along with the reader, naturally) have to figure it out as they go. Where are they, and more importantly after the Doctor is taken prisoner by Kal and brought to the tribe, how do they get him back so they can return to the TARDIS and get away from this era where they not only don't belong, but also risk death from both the tribe and the creatures which prowl the jungle?
if there's a downside to this novelization (beyond the fact it showed up eight years later than it should have), it's the strict page count to which Dicks had to adhere. The first 79 pages of the book comprise the first two episodes, which leaves Dicks just under 50 pages into which to cram the remaining two, and the story suffers for the required rush.
That said, you really have to appreciate just what Dicks manages to do in this story, fleshing out bits that couldn't be shown on television for obvious reasons--the scene where Za fights a sabertooth tiger is far more exciting in print than on film, since they weren't about to release an actual big cat on an actor.
The rest of the story's strengths are down to Anthony Coburn's original script, which gives us an intelligent, cunning, resourceful, and alien Doctor. Far from the Humanity's Defender persona the character has developed in the current "new Who" era, this Doctor is a visitor, an observer, and a condescending one at that. He has to rely on his human companions, especially Ian, to demonstrate compassion. While the companions serve as a convenient plot device to relate information to the audience, Coburn's screenplay shows they could be more than just the confused sidekicks they could have been.
Barbara and Ian serve to counterbalance the Doctor's initial xenophobia with regards to other species. Far from being dead weight, they keep the Doctor grounded, providing a constant reminder, especially in the early shows, that he's toying with real lives beyond just his and Susan's. If your first exposure to the Doctor was David Tennant or Matt Smith, the scene where the Doctor decides the most logical and expedient solution to a problem is to commit murder will leave a sour taste in your mouth. "That's inhuman!" you'll want to scream at the book, and you'll be correct...and miss the point. The Doctor is not human, and this is just one of the many ways Coburn chose to underscore that detail. Early Doctor Who adventures are surprisingly brutal when compared to the whimsy later writers and actors brought to the part and the stories.
The story also showcases the Doctor's intelligence and cunning. While Hartnell bought a beyond-his-years spryness to the part, the fact remains the Doctor's first screen appearance is within a white-haired and over-the-hill body. While Ian was there to provide the physical excitement, and Barbara and Susan the screams, the Doctor can't rely on brute force to overcome problems, and thus has to out-think his opponents. It's this component of his character, the need to come up with the outside-the-box solutions and provide his enemies with enough rope to hang themselves that would become a series staple. They're first demonstrated here, as the Doctor tricks Kal into revealing he was the one who committed a murder by using Kal's pride against him. It's a fantastic, underplayed moment that you won't see coming until it's too late, and Dicks transcribes it perfectly.
The novel, just like the TV program, ends on a cliffhanger where the TARDIS lands on a different alien world and the group walks out just as the radiation counter flips to life and swings to the 'Danger' zone. In case you aren't already in on the joke, Dicks name-drops the planet and the enemies the Doctor and his companions are about to encounter, which is OK since episode 2 was already novelized back in 1973 as part of the original batch of three. Spoilers for a fifty-five year old story, but it's...the Daleks! (Gasp! Swoon!)
No matter how you look at it, it's impossible to concede An Unearthly Child is anything but as close to perfect as one could hope for. If you've never seen the episode, the book will make you want to read it. If you have seen it, the book does a grand job filling in little bits here and there that make the story that much better. Why Target chose to leave this story until 1981 I'll never know, but if you're looking for a good place to start reading classic Who, this is an ideal choice: it's short, it's brilliant, and best of all it's very inexpensive thanks to a slew of printings (mine's a fourth printing from 1984; there may have been more beyond that).
Four-and-a-half spinning blue police box lights out of five for the Doctor's first outing.