TV This week's guest blogger is James Smith.
The launch of The Doctor Who New Adventures happened in an oddly liminal time. The TV series had ended two years before (although no one was actually admitting this yet) and the Target Books range too was coming to a natural end. This was not simply a result of the TV series’ cessation either. It was also a consequence of Target’s active push, over the previous half decade or so, to novelise as many of the then as yet unadapted TV stories they could. In the latter years of the 1980s Target books came out every month. A rarity even in what we think of as the range’s heyday. The books were both a source of regular income for Target and a regular fix of printed Who adventures for fans. In 1990 there was no new book in April, May, August or December. Because there couldn’t be. The material wasn’t there adapt, print and sell. Target were in a strange position. With no TV series fans would surely have lapped up adaptations of old stories in larger numbers, but the adaptations of older stories were, basically, done.
There was demand, but no supply.
By the end of 1990 there were only seven Doctor Who serials of which Target had not published an adaptation. Four Dalek stories, three Douglas Adams stories and Battefield. Battlefield, scheduled to be last book of 1990, was delayed (something that would happen with future Ben Aarnovitch books featuring the Doctor Who logo) and eventually came out in 1991, a month or so after the New Adventures started. The other six were beset by rights issues. Although Target supremo Peter Darvill-Evans hoped to resolve these issues as soon as possible, it’s worth noting that half of them have still not been novelised now, more than two decades later.
Darvill-Evans had already looked into novelising stories which had been abandoned before production (leading to the The Missing Episodes subrange that produced three titles in 1989-90) and found slim pickings. He arranged a novelisation of the 1976 Argo record Doctor Who And The Pescatons and attempts to novelise the stage plays were defeated by rights concerns.*
Original novels were the next logical step. Peter would later intimate that The Missing Episodes books had proved fans would buy books not based on TV stories. Indeed that they had in part happened in order to prove such a thing. (He was probably very wise to not underestimate the innate conservatism of fandom.) Armed with this knowledge, he visited John Nathan-Turner at his office in Wood Green, a few stops on the Hammersmith & City Line from Virgin’s premises in Ladbroke Grove
Despite not having a show to make JNT was still in situ in what had been the Doctor Who production office. Like everyone else connected with Doctor Who in 1990, he was trapped in liminal space. (There was no one else at the BBC willing or qualified to deal with the series’ licencing. JNT remained on staff until the drama department’s staff producer programme was wound up at the end of 1990). After their discussion Nathan-Turner was amenable to giving Darvil-Evans a licence to “continue Doctor Who in book form” (a direct quote) and advised him to abandon his idea of a linking theme of a “hunt for a missing Ace”. (JNT disliked the McGuffin and considered the relationship between the characters to be a strength of the series’ final years. Having a plotline that ensured they would barely interact up was counterintuitive.)
Demand? Meet supply. Beginning in June 1991, the initially bi-monthly series quickly became an all year round concern. The New Adventures, for many fans at least, and certainly for this one, replaced both Target books. The bus ride to the local W H Smiths to pick up that month’s guaranteed Target release continued. They were just now Virgin Books, not Target books. The stories now came in a narrative order, not leaping up and down the history of the TV series, and they were (initially only a little) longer. Other than that only the Doctor Who logo and the price point had changed. And neither very much.
However, there is another aspect to this. Let’s go back to that direct quote from the licence. “Continue Doctor Who in book form”. Even during the six years they co-existed DWM never pushed the Worlds Distributors annuals, despite them being the only long-lived source of licenced non TV Doctor Who stories. (It only occurs as I type this that this may have been because of commercial rivalry). This was firmly not the case the Virgin books. DWM and the NAs shared covers, characters and continuity. When Bernice was introduced to novels she was added to the comic strip as well and received a ‘Travelling Companions’ article as all the TV companions had done. DWM treated the Virgin Books as it had previously treated the TV series. It became, in effect, a tie in magazine to the novels, which were the current form of (what we were in those days pleased to call) “the show”. Its past, as represented by the VHS releases (which also began in earnest at this time) was also engaged with, but the Virgin Books were The New Doctor Who Adventures, the continuation of the series. The first, last and only time this has happened in the history of Doctor Who spin-offs.
It is this, as much as their overall high quality that distinguishes the New Adventures from all other non-TV Doctor Who. They had no rivals. The one possible rival, the DWM strip, chose to play along (and consequently underwent a renaissance of its own). They form an ongoing narrative that picked up where the TV series left off. They marched forward in an unexpected direction, which nonetheless grew naturally out of the final years of the TV show. In that strange liminal zone of the early 1990s, when no one would admit that Doctor Who on TV had ended, the books were seen as a stop gap by some and as the legitimate heir by others. They themselves were brought to an end by the BBC deciding to bring the licence for original Doctor Who fiction in house, just as the Universal TVM co-production was announced. The idea of original Doctor Who novels, a risky, odd, unusual prospect when Darvil-Evans conceived it, was now worth, well, let’s be honest, stealing from him. Even when the series returned in 2005 its tie-in fiction would consist of new stories running parallel to the TV show, not novelisations of it. Before Timewyrm Genesys there were not original Doctor Who novels. After it, there are hundreds.
Some may prefer the EDAs that followed the disastrous creative and commercial train wreck that was the 1996 TVM to the NAs. Yet there is no denying that the EDAs copied the NAs model and to be fair, no one has ever really tried.
It is worth noting, however, that amongst 1992’s New Adventures are two written by people who scripted 1989 Doctor Who TV episodes and two written by people who scripted 2005 TV episodes. If there is a bridge between Survival and Rose, it’s the Hammersmith Flyover.
* (The Pescatons too would sneak out in late 1991, in a manner that would be oddly replicated a decade and change later when the last EDAS and PDAs hit shelves after the launch of the 2005 TV series.)