Doctor Who is 50 this year. There is a new series with Matt Smith in the role, a Mark Gatiss scripted drama about the early days of the show, and a special episode featuring a coming together of some of the actors who have played the Doctor over the years. Whether that means wheeling Tom Baker out of the pub or casting Russell Brand in his place we don’t yet know.
I can still remember the incredulous excitement I felt in 1983 ahead of the show’s 20th anniversary special: a team up of all first Five Doctors! Except the First Doctor, William Hartnell had already died so a lookalike was cast in his place. Tom Baker was also absent, possibly off in a sulk, or in Soho somewhere. He was replaced in promo shots by his Madam Tussauds waxwork and in the show with footage from the great lost Douglas Adams adventure Shada.
I got that tingle of excitement again last week when I lined up all eleven Doctors, featured in the beautifully packaged 50th Anniversary series of novels from BBC Books.
These reprints date mainly from the turn of the century, a time when the Doctor existed only thanks to the continued obsession of a group of grown-up (sort of) fans. Mark Gatiss, Sherlock writer / actor / strangler (it says here) and now one of the show’s regular writers was one of the faithful, beginning his career writing original Doctor Who novels. He’d been inspired as much by the original Target novelisations of his childhood as he was the TV show.
‘It’s still possible to transport some of us of a particular age back to a magical childhood time when all nights seemed wintry and dark, the football results never ended and Doctor Who was the best show on television. And during the eternity between seasons we always had the Target books. They gave us exciting versions of stories we had seen and glimpses into a strange and mysterious past where the Doctor had been someone else. Whenever I was off school, my medicine of preference was always Planet of the Daleks (and maybe Oxtail soup)’.
The BBC was a few years off re-commissioning the new series, but in the interim the character hadn’t gone into cold storage it continued to develop in the hands of these new writers. But as Jaqueline Rayner, author of the Paul McGann adventure Earthworld writes in her introduction much of the thanks go to the efforts of one dedicated member of staff.
‘The entire operation was controlled from one desk in BBC Worldwide. Doctor Who didn’t even have its own office, just a tiny corner of the children’s Books department, and it was from here that the amazing Steve Cole coordinated fiction, non-fiction, audio, video and anything else that came along in a practically superhuman feat.’
Steve Cole even managed to fit in his own Doctor Who novel – an inspired William Hartnell story called Ten Little Aliens, which he pitched as ‘Agatha Christie meets Starship Troopers’.
‘I had some fun with the form of the novel; after all, in William Hartnell’s pioneering era, Doctor Who’s format was perhaps at its most elastic. Every chapter title in the book is an Agatha Christie title, and early on you’ll find a Who’s Who of the space marines in the style of an electronic news mag. Looking back I was a glutton for that extra work; witness the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ section of the novel, a chance to get right inside the head of the interlinked characters and pick up clues as to Who-dunnit’.
It’s fascinating to look back at the books from these wilderness years and see authors trying out ideas that would become staples of the modern series. As Jonathan Morris author of the Tom Baker adventure Festival of Death remembers.
‘Nowadays it’s not unusual for Doctor Who story to involve lots of ‘timey wimey’ elements, with the Doctor and his companions crossing their own time streams, meeting people in the wrong order, and even getting forewarnings of their own deaths. But back in 1999 these things hadn’t really been done before. Festival of Death did it first’.
Eight years and three Doctors into the modern era, there’s been no let-up in the stream of original Doctor Who novels. The most recent offering in the 50th Anniversary series is The Silent Stars Go By, featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor. It’s an apt choice for the series, paying homage to one of the show’s classic monsters, the Ice Warriors. As author Dan Abnett explains it also exists as part of the on-going history of the series, acting almost as an echo of the very early days.
‘I realised I had a strong and evocative response to the earliest eras of Doctor Who too, to the Harnell and Troughton incarnations, even though I had not seen them at the time. My gut response to the early days is as a place of immense, cosmic mystery. I had seen, as a child, glimpses of the Hartnell and Troughton periods. It was a mysterious and alarming place, coldly immortalised in black and white, somehow more eccentric and frosty, strange and unearthly than anything that came after’.
It’s comforting to realise that Doctor Who now exists in its own time continuum, with past adventures, the missing years, and the modern era all co-existing thanks to the work of these talented writers.