It’s September 10, 1966. The Beatles are at number one again with the double-single of Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby. Also in the top ten are the Troggs, the Beach Boys, and Napoleon XIV. Over the course of the next four weeks we’ll also see The Small Faces take #1 with “All or Nothing,” Jim Reeves will take it with “Distant Drums,” and Roy Orbison, The Seekers, Sonny and Cher, The Supremes, The Who, and Manfred Mann will also pop around the top 10. Not on the Top 10 but still enormously important, since we last saw Doctor Who, The Doors released their debut album. Also, the first episode of some American sci-fi show called Star Trek aired, which is surely just some cheap Doctor Who knockoff or something that we can safely ignore. And over in reality, while we were sleeping the Cultural Revolution began in China.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who has returned for its fourth season with The Smugglers, filmed, as with Galaxy 4 and Planet of Giants before it, at the end of the previous production block, and thus in many ways the last story of Season 3 more than it is the first story of Season 4 – especially given the degree to which the next story represents, shall we say, a decisive break from what has come before.
As a result, it is possible that The Smugglers is actually the most undisputed story in Doctor Who history. Not undisputedly anything in particular – simply undisputed in a broad sense. Neither loved nor hated by much of anyone, this may simply be the Doctor Who story about which people care the least. It’s not terribly hard to see why – it’s a completely missing story (Season 4, in fact, is the only season of the show with no complete stories at all), a historical (never a recipe for widespread acclaim), and was novelized all the way out in 1988. And on top of that, it’s a story that just misses the milestones over and over again. It’s the second to last Hartnell story, the second to last historical, the second story featuring Ben and Polly… Just about the only thing it has going for it in terms of major milestones, actually, are that it is the first historical since The Aztecs to feature no major historical figures, and that it is the first completely missing story to be novelized by Terrance Dicks.
Which, actually, is enough to make it absolutely crucial, at least in terms of how we’re experiencing the story. Yes, it was a painfully late novelization, long after Terrance Dicks had passed his peak in terms of the novelizations. (In fact, it’s his third-from-last novelization) But that’s beside the point. Yes, there are other good novelizations from earlier in the series, including Ian Marter’s novelizations. But somehow it seems unthinkable to introduce the Target novelizations properly with anyone but Terrance Dicks.
A younger fan, or one more used to other science fiction shows, might reasonably ask why the novelizations are so important. Not a lot of other science fiction series have important book series at all, little yet ones that are just adaptations of the TV shows. But for Doctor Who, the novelizations are genuinely vital. Part of this is that for sixteen years of the program’s history, it was a series of novels, at least in terms of its newly produced content, and that it was the existing tradition of novelizations that, in part, allowed that to happen.
As a concept, Doctor Who novelizations have been around since 1964 when David Whitaker’s adaptation of the first Dalek story, Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks, was published by Frederick Muller Ltd. In 1973, Target Books republished that book and adaptations of The Crusade and The Web Planet, and then in 1974 started publishing its own material with Terrance Dicks’s adaptation of Spearhead from Space and Malcolm Hulke’s adaptation of The Silurians. The line ran into 1990, at which point it ended due to a lack of anything left to novelize. However, by that point the owner of the imprint and thus the Doctor Who license was Virgin Books, who went on to publish the New and Missing Adventures, about which we’ve already talked.
But more importantly, the novelizations were, in effect, the first things to make it possible to revisit classic adventures. Before VHS releases, and in a time when at best the BBC might run the occasional classic story as part of a special set of repeats (the famed Five Faces of Doctor Who series, for instance), if you wanted to revisit a favorite story, the absolute only way you were going to manage that was if you could get the Target novelization. As the 80s went on and VHS became a viable medium for the preservation of Doctor Who, the novels started to take a backseat, becoming fannish collectables (even if, in many cases, the books were quite good – the novelizations of the 7th Doctor stories are particularly interesting). But, crucially, they weren’t that to begin. They were absolutely part of how fans experienced Doctor Who, in an era before “fandom,” and it was Terrance Dicks who most defined the line.
As much stick as Dicks gets for his writing style (which is, admittedly, formulaic), there are some things we need to acknowledge. First of all, the odds are very good that Terrance Dicks has done more to foster childhood literacy with the Doctor Who novelizations than you will ever contribute towards that cause in your lifetime, and for a lot of people, more than they will ever contribute to any public or charitable cause over their entire lifetimes. Literally thousands of people learned to read from Target novelizations stashed away at schools across Britain. Second of all, if you can bang out a good novelization of a Doctor Who story at Target length limits in a weekend working only from the script, well, frankly, I suspect you’re lying. Which is to say, Dicks routinely worked under crappy conditions and turned out pretty acceptable books regardless. (As for the criticism that the books are short and threadbare, try reading one as you watch. Dicks expands as many scenes as he cuts down. The root problem is actually that four episodes of Doctor Who don’t take more than about 130 pages to novelize.)
Third, and perhaps most important, Terrance Dicks’s biggest problem as a novelist is that nobody can write 64 Doctor Who books without repeating one’s self a bit. On his own merits, frankly, Dicks is a capable wordsmith with some surprisingly deft touches. One thing that is quickly clear to anyone who reads even a handful of Dicks novels is that the man is a genius at beginnings. I mean, here’s just a few highlights from Dicks’s opening sentences (shorn of their titles, just to make that frisson of unfamiliarity Dicks is so good at stand out)
- It moved through the silent blackness of deep space like a giant jellyfish through the depths of the sea.
- Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.
- Through the vortex, that mysterious region where time and space are one, sped a police box that was not a police box at all.
- It moved through the darkness, swift and silent despite its enormous bulk.
- Next to the crumbling Palace of the Emperor, on the edge of the sprawling ruins that were the capital of Skonnos, there rose the Power Complex.
- Night falls suddenly in the rain forests of the upper Amazon.
- In the gloomy, cavernous underground Hall of Learning, the assembled Gonds were waiting.