In hindsight this is rubbish. Neither the Eighth Doctor Adventures nor the Past Doctor Adventures were going to survive the year. We knew that about the Eighth Doctor Adventures, actually, but as of May, when this came out alongisde The Clockwise Man and Winner Takes All to launch the New Series Adventures, the theory was that the Past Doctor Adventures were going to keep running indefinitely, with the Eighth Doctor range being folded into it. Indeed, in May the Eighth Doctor Range hadn’t actually quite wrapped yet, with The Gallifrey Chronicles coming out the next month, alongside Eccleston’s regeneration.
All of which is to say that while to the mainstream Doctor Who was a titanic hit that was coming back for a second season and was set to be one of the BBC’s crown jewels, to fans May of 2005 was a bewildering period in which there were in fact three incumbent Doctors, the Paul McGann era having yet to resolve, the Eccleston era ongoing, and the Tennant era announced. And the question of what the auxiliary merchandise for the series would be like was still very much an open one.
Because there were, in fact, a lot of ways the merchandise could go. It could, of course, target fans. That was what Doctor Who merchandise had been doing since the 1980s, after all. That’s why the Doctor Who Cookbook and $125 Doctor Who stained glass windows made for selling in America as pledge awards for PBS existed – because adult fans could be trusted to buy this crap. And certainly this type of merchandise still exists, as apparently there are people who want to spend fifty pounds for a box set of the Pandorica chair and a River Song action figure. Or, for that matter, thirty pounds for a Winston Churchill action figure bundled with a Dalek with tea tray accessory. (And that’s just the new series. You can also, these days, spend thirty-five quid for action figures of Peri and Sil from Vengeance on Varos)
A reasonable person might have expected this to be how all of the new series merchandise would work: high end collectors items for the undiscerning Doctor Who fan with an excess of disposable income. This was basically how the novels had worked in the wilderness years, with Virgin and then BBC Books pumping out two books every month in what was actually the biggest flood of new Doctor Who material in the series’ history, especially once Big Finish got in on the act with audios.
And then there was the second tradition – that of, basically, all of the merchandise prior to the 1980s. This merchandise mostly fell into two camps: expensive stuff you got at Christmas or for your birthday, and deliciously cheap stuff you could buy with your pocket money. Implicit in this is that the target audience for the merchandise was primarily kids.
We haven’t actually talked about Doctor Who as a kids show much since the Hinchcliffe era, where the interplay of quite dark horror and childhood television watching formed a major part of our analysis. There’s an entire rhetoric of thought about Doctor Who being for children that’s difficult to grapple with. On the one hand it’s unmistakably the case that Doctor Who is a children’s show, both in structure and, when it’s a healthy and popular show, in terms of a large portion of its actual material audience. On the other, a large portion of its audience isn’t children, and since we’re all here it probably wouldn’t do well for us to slag ourselves off as idiots who are making too much of a kids’ show.
It is often difficult to reconstruct childhood engagement with Doctor Who. It is something we tend to understand only years later, after the children have grown up and channeled their memories of Doctor Who into something else – often, as it happens, more Doctor Who. And childhood memories of Doctor Who can often be misleading: the Troughton era, for instance, is remembered for its monsters and not the parts that, to a modern eye, are far more memorable. But we can still reconstruct certain facts. And one of the most basic facts about childhood engagement with Doctor Who is, historically, the Target novelizations.
Again, those interested in seeing those books covered in more detail can consult past entries, particularly those on The Smugglers, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and Battlefield, all of which dealt heavily with the novelized versions of those stories. But the short form is this: starting in 1964 with David Whitaker’s novelization of The Daleks, and properly getting underway with Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, published together at the start of 1974 in a manner not entirely unlike the triple release of The Clockwise Men, The Monsters Inside, and Winner Takes All, one of the most important forms of Doctor Who merchandise – indeed, by most sane accounts the most important – was a series of short books adapting television stories to prose.
The reasons for their importance was varied, but had much to do with the fact that they had a sort of breathlessly functional prose provided by Terrance Dicks and that before the invention of the VCR the novelizations were the only way to re-experience a story after transmission. And, perhaps more importantly, with the fact that they were quite cheap. The result was that children grew up on these books, and in several cases the books are actually better remembered than the stories they adapt.
So when it came time to design tie-in books for the new series there really was a choice. On the one hand was the still-existent fan-centric model of merchandise, whereby the books would be aimed at particularly obsessive adult fans. On the other was the older for-kids tradition of inexpensive books. But each had their problems. The BBC Books line had been in serious trouble even before the new series was announced due to the fact that they were overproducing underwhelming material and hemorrhaging readers as a result. But the novelization model was equally underwhelming in the age of the DVD set and the dawning age of streaming video. A key part of why the novelizations worked was that the stories they adapted were impossible to experience in any other way. In 2005, that was clearly not going to be the case. (One of the injunctions repeatedly given by Davies to everyone on the series was that no matter how well the series did, they should at least aim to have something they’ll be proud to own the DVD set of – a concept that’s baffling to try to apply to any previous era of Doctor Who.)
And so what we got was… a rather strange midpoint. The New Series Adventures are, from their very name, aimed at adult fans. Their pricing and format pushes in that direction as well – unlike the Eighth Doctor and Past Doctor Adventures they’re hardcovers running about twice the price. These are not books aimed at being picked up by kids with their pocket money. On the other hand, they’re shorter than the other two lines – only about 250 pages – and consciously written at a younger audience (remembering that, to start at least, the BBC Books line was meant to be aimed at a younger audience than the Virgin one – though it’s tough to argue seriously that that mandate held to the end of the line). So what we have are kids books that are sold to adult audiences.
The content is no saner. On the one hand The Monsters Inside is a bit of a continuity parade, sneaking in references to the Kraals, Ice Warriors, and Meeps. On the other, it has bland pseudo-Dicksian paragraphs introducing the Doctor and the TARDIS (“TARDIS stood for ‘Time and Relative Dimension in Space’. This was supposed to explain how you could disguise a massive control room inside a poky police box and travel anywhere and any time in the universe, but it left Rose little the wiser.”) and summing up the events of Rose, apparently on the off-chance that anybody who accidentally spent seven quid on a Doctor Who book without knowing what Doctor Who was. On the third hand are rather actively disturbing moments like one of the prison guards referring to Rose as the Doctor’s “bit of human skirt.”
And, of course, there’s the writers. Five of the first six books came from mainstays of the BBC Books line: Justin Richards, Stephen Cole, Jacqueline Rayner, and Steve Lyons. (We’ll deal with the sixth in just over a week.) The line was still overseen by Justin Richards, who had overseen the disastrously stupid amnesia plot line that marred the latter years of the Eighth Doctor Adventures. The Monsters Inside comes from Stephen Cole, writer of the equally disastrously stupid The Ancestor Cell. It’s not that the BBC Books lines were unmitigated disasters – actually there are some really good books out of them. But they weren’t straightforward successes either.
It would, of course, also be a mistake to suggest that the New Series Adventures were completely beholden to the past. The Monsters Inside is a Slitheen story, drawing primarily from within the existing continuity of the new series, such as it was. And, as we noted, the books are almost ludicrously deferential to the possibility that someone might be entering Doctor Who through anything other than the massively popular television series. The result is a book that feels as though it’s lacking in audience.
Which is in many ways secondary to the fact that it’s lacking in point. There’s a vague sense that this might be a book about prison abuses (another piece of evidence in the increasingly convoluted question of who this book exists for), but if so only in the most superficial of ways. Mainly it’s trying to be thrilling, which is a not entirely absurd goal, but which pales so starkly in comparison to what the television series has been doing for the past eight weeks that it seems almost bizarre to do this and call it Doctor Who. And this is tough to escape – even the covers, frankly, feel like lazy attempts to look like generic and harmless tie-in merchandise. It’s next to impossible to imagine a good K-KLAK coming out of this line.
Which is the problem this approach faces, at the end of the day. The Target novelizations were not great works of literature, but they were still basically A-list Doctor Who. Yes, some years the A-list included The Monster of Pleadon or The Android Invasion, but they were the proper Doctor Who stories recounted deftly. This, on the other hand, is the skippable Doctor Who in a world where Doctor Who is omnipresent already. If anything the thing they correspond with best are the old World Distributors annuals. But even those existed for a period where the audience was starved of Doctor Who at all, not just starved for a new episode.
These are at best for kids starved for new Doctor Who. Obsessives who simply cannot wait for a new episode of Doctor Who. And, more to the point, who have adopted Doctor Who as the thing they’ll ask their parents for. They are tools for people to commit themselves early to a phase of Doctor Who fandom, and ideally for a lifetime of it. In this regard there’s something ever so slightly unsettling about them, especially inasmuch as The Monsters Inside is actually referenced in Boomtown, giving it a curiously “official” feel that feels ever so slightly cynical. It’s a sense that Doctor Who’s main purpose is to make a lot of money. Its method in doing that might be “make good television,” and if so, it’s a rather lovely method, but it also feels ever so slightly like a Rupert Murdoch clone wearing the Reithian public service mission of the BBC as a skinsuit.
And yet there’s a possibility here. These books may be a small part of Doctor Who and a not very good one, but those have existed at every single turn of Doctor Who, including the fan-driven memorabilia era of the 1980s, and have had their odd influences on the program. Gareth Roberts nicks imagery from the Patrick Troughton Polystyle comics. Grant Morrison name-checks the Fish-Men of Kandelinga. Frobisher appears in a Rob Shearman audio, then a Rob Shearman audio gets adapted for television. The Monsters Inside includes a reference to the Meeps, from early Doctor Who Magazine comics. The Pestacons was mistaken as an important story worth novelizing. Russell T Davies worked kronkburgers into The Long Game. Odd things recur, such that we might, when some 2042 television producer finally caves to pressure to bring back the Slitheen for the Christmas special even though they only appeared in two stories nearly forty years ago, we might just get an off-handed reference to their sibling family the Blathereen.
In other words, whatever the motivation here, this is the sort of thing that has existed any time Doctor Who has been in a generally healthy state. Its quality is almost beside the point, as is the clarity of its purpose. When Doctor Who is doing well, it generates strange auxiliary merchandise. That, at least, is happening.