Ten Great Doctor Who Spin-off Stories

TV For most people including some fans, Doctor Who consists of the television series that began in 1963, was dumped in 1989, was resurrected briefly in 1996, then came back properly in 2005.

Except the show had a life off-screen, in books, in audio dramas and comic strips, hundreds of stories, far more than even appeared on television or all kinds, very often set in gaps between seasons with a web of new monsters and companions, plenty of which has gone on to be thought of just as affectionately as anything which appeared on-screen.

Most of these masterpieces have since fallen into obscurity; as novelist Paul Magrs pointed out on his blog recently, while the 60s tv episodes are being released on pristine dvd, nearly a decades’ worth of novels are being ignored, even though they should be ripe for reprinting.

Partly this is because of content which in some cases is more akin to Torchwood than The Sarah Jane Adventures, but there are some genuinely great pieces here, well worth foraging for on the rare occasions that they appear on ebay.

This is not an exhaustive list. These are not the greatest stories simply because there are so many of them. But I’ve tried to choose things which stray just a little bit further from the norm, which rather than just trying to recreate the television series, attempt to go a little bit further, see how far this flexible format can really stretch.

When faced with writing this, I might have let my nerdier excesses get the better of me. You have been warned …

The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons (BBC Books)

The pure historical, or a story in which the only sci-fi elements are the Doctor, his companions and the TARDIS were part of the DNA of the series until the mid-60s when poor ratings in comparison to the alien invasion episodes led to them being dropped, so it was a treat in the 1990s when BBC Books published a number of them as part of their Past Doctors series.

The Witch Hunters has the First Doctor and his four original companions granddaughter Susan and her teachers Ian and Barbara materialise in Salem Village, Massachusetts, 1692 during the witch trials.

At first, the non-interference ethic which was a key element in this period is in full effect (and similarly discussed in the nu-Who story Fires of Pompeii), but then Steve Lyons forces the post-modernity of the story up a notch by taking the TARDIS team into the future to watch an actual production of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and uses it as a catalyst for the heroes to reassess their time travel responsibilities.

Lyons is renowned for authentically capturing the essence of whichever era he’s writing about but in this case he also adds a depth that was originally absent from what was ostensibly a kids programme.

The Witch Hunters allows the TARDIS crew to experience the loss of innocence and realistic reactions denied them on screen whilst simultaneously riffing on playwright Miller’s themes. And he never looses sight of what continues to make these early shows so charming, the Reithian ethic to educate and entertain.

Season 6B (various, BBC Books)

If you’re a Doctor Who fan for long enough (though this is certain true of most franchise followers) you’ll come across obscure but fun quirks in the spin-off material.

The concept of Season 6B, that is a series of adventures set between the close of the Patrick Troughton’s final season (six) and Jon Pertwee’s first (seven) began life as a fan rationalisation of apparent continuity errors in the television series caused by Troughton’s appearances in multiple Doctor stories (The Two Doctors mainly) none of which seemed to fit within the general run of his episodes since he never travelled alone (there are other things buts lets keep it simple).

Well, they said, what about if, before the Doctor was exiled to Earth and regenerated, his fellow timelords sent him out on missions for them on the hush-hush? If he was doing that for long enough it accounted for why he looks so much older in those later stories and sometimes doesn’t seem to be behaving quite right.

Season 6B became the catch all term for any Troughton story that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else and then as is the way of these things, those fans became published writers who attempted to legitimise its existence by producing works which could only be set in this period.

Then, and this is where the situation becomes really “interesting”, legendarily prolific Doctor Who author and former script writer/producer Terrance Dicks produced the late BBC Books World Game which “canonised” Season 6B once and for all, describing how the conclusion to Troughton’s final story The War Games offered the ‘official’ version of events but in ‘reality’ (or the Doctor Who version of it) the Doctor was indeed sent out on missions for the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency – get it?), a rare example of an old series legend embracing the way the fans view their programme.

Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop (Virgin Books)

Oh yes. What was good enough for Quantum Leap and Red Dwarf became good enough to Doctor Who in the mid-nineties. Who Killed Kennedy tells the story of a cub reporter, James Stevens, in the 1970s investigating the movements of UNIT, the secret military organisation, their mysterious grey haired aristocratic scientific advisor, his beared adversary and ultimately their connection to the assassination of a president.

Partly written in the first person from the point of view of the reporter, Bishop’s novel also features the Kennedys as characters dealing with established events within the Doctor Who universe.

A love letter to the Earth bound Pertwee period, this misleadingly titled novel spans the decade, twisting itself in and out of television and spin-offs alike, with Stevens becoming the unseen second person in on-screen telephone calls and the connecting tissue that draws hitherto unconnected stories together.

Companions are reintroduced and killed off, and another secret governmental organisation, C-19, mentioned just once during the 80s, is fleshed out to become almost but not exactly like Torchwood and has to have been an influence on the later tv series.

Fairly controversial in fan circles on its original publication, it’s become something of a classic because it treats its source material with just right balance of respect and satire, with Bishop, who until that point was best known for writing for 2000 AD, demonstrating a remarkable knowledge of his subject. Who Shot Kennedy is a continuity heavy artefact it’d be interesting to hear what a new fan who might not know their Mars Probe 7 from their Monoids would make of it. Hopefully they’ll just embrace the epic sweep and look forward to filling in the gaps in the experience from the dvds.

The Stuff of Nightmares by Paul Magrs (BBC Audio)

A surprising amount of publicity greeted the announcement that Tom Baker, everybody’s favourite Doctor, the Doctor for adults of une certaine age, was returning to the role after thirty years (give or take the odd cameo). That was followed by general disappointment when a preview of The Stuff of Nightmares was released, a short scene between Tom and visiting companion, retired UNIT officer Mike Yates played by Richard Franklin, in which neither actor seemed to be putting in much of a performance, sounding like they were reading from a script.

On listening to the whole thing, it becomes apparent that what Magrs has written for Baker is a fireside chat, in which the Doctor regales his friend with tales of sentient alien hornets and madcap escapades.

The first of a series of five, The Stuff of Nightmares is a suitably bizarre story of stuffed animals coming to life and attacking the general populace, with the Doctor eventually piling the menagerie into his country home (like Season 6B a well established non-tv idea) where he spends his days fending them off with fire pokers, his wits and whatever else he has to hand, aided and abetted by his dower housekeeper Mrs Wibbsey, a harridan of a woman played by Louise Jameson (who cheered 70s Dads up playing Leela in the tv series). The hornets are in control and as the play continues it becomes apparent that he’s been fighting them over and over again across time.

It takes a bit for Tom to get warmed up, but once he gets his bearings, decades drop away and you can well imagine that it’s the younger man whose picture is drawn on the cover of the cd having these escapades. Baker clearly enjoys wrapping his lips around Magrs’s verbose script and probably injecting his own jokes and humour just as he always did.

As ever, it’s the asides and one liners which makes this such a joy; during one particular animal assault he makes a startled discovery “I realised I was being attacked by the cast of the Wind in the Willows!” and whole of the play is like that, luxuriating in Tom’s mischievous voice.

Spare Parts by Marc Platt (Big Finish)

The Cybermen’s origin story. New or non-fans are often surprised to hear that the Cybermen aren’t universally liked. It doesn’t make much sense, especially since they’re in almost as many stories as the Daleks and the idea, humanoid cyborgs with their emotions removed is such a horrific idea.

The problem is that as time went on they became little more than massed foot soldiers either for some other form of evil or as an added threat when the story was already chock full of invaders hell bent on the destruction of the Earth! Or something.

They also looked ridiculous, striding about in their silver painted moon-boots and biker gloves often taking several episodes to construct a bomb that didn’t work or falling over.

The Big Finish audio adventure Spare Parts did much to repair their image, just as Genesis of the Dalek reinvigorated the Daleks, by stripping away the general uselessness to return to the original idea of a race seeking perfection and sacrificing their humanity in the process. Landing on their home planet of Mondas, the fifth Doctor and Nyssa realise that as the sphere drifts through space and slowly becomes uninhabitable, the entire population is going to receive cybernetic implants in order to survive which will have the side effects they’ve already seen in the races’s future. The Doctor is essentially a tourist at this race’s destruction.

This is body horror at its darkest as instantly likeable characters are slowly operated on and become beings with a vague notion of their original life, whose relatives, like those at the bedside of coma victims, cling onto the hope that the person they know is still in there, somewhere, behind those dark lenses. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because Russell T Davies and script writer Tom MacRae borrowed the guts of the story for the new series episodes Rise of the Cybermen & The Age of Steel (Platt is mentioned in the credits).

Remember the heartrending scene in which the Doctor reanimated the memories, within a cyberman, of a woman who was recently married? A version of that appeared here first and it’ll break your heart all over again. A classic.

Doctor Who and the Pirates by Jacqueline Rayner (Big Finish)

As with the Cybermen, the Big Finish audios have done much the rehabilitate the image of Colin Baker’s Doctor. The carrot permed multicoloured misfit is often blamed for the ultimate cancellation of the television series first time around (even though it had as much to do with the choices of the production team), but the audio writers have markedly softened the character, making him far more loveable if not always less self-righteous, whilst still embracing the element of camp inherent in this incarnation, not least because of the ever so theatrical Mr. Baker.

Doctor Who and the Pirates is the epitome of this approach, dropping the Doctor and audio companion, retiree historian Evelyn Smythe, into a retelling of The Pirates of Penzance with the songs intact. It’s a Doctor Who musical! Baker sings!

Continuity Errors by Steven Moffat (Virgin Books)

It’s difficult to know what to say about a short story like this without giving so much away that it becomes pointless tracking down the heavily out of print Decalog 3 anthology in which it’s printed. Across the series’s history, shorts fiction has been the place where writers have experimented with this most flexible of formats, often as we’ve seen in Season 6B, attempting to explain continuity errors or plugging gaps in the unfolding text.

Elements will seem incredibly familiar to fans of Moffat’s later writing for the television series. It’s set in a massive library and the Doctor finds himself in the grip of the flow of time when he attempts to borrow a book.

Except this is the Seventh Doctor and this was published alongside the Virgin New Adventures when he was at his most malevolent and manipulative and spent far too much of his span bending time to his will. His companion Bernice, looks at him with a mix of admiration and disdain.

It’s fascinating to read Moffat dealing with the characters who were at the forefront of the franchise back then. The McCoy version lived on for nearly ten years after the series was cancelled in novels and comic strips, and fits perfectly with the kind of story Moffat likes to tell in which TARDIS travel isn’t simply an intergalactic coach tour but can have real effects on real people, themes present in all of his later television scripts.

Neverland by Alan Barnes (Big Finish)

Or the one where the Doctor tells his companion he loves her. And means it.

When I tell people that Paul McGann is my favourite Doctor, if they’ve only passing interest in the series they tend to raise an eyebrow and say “But he was only in that American tv film wasn’t he?” which is my cue to tell them, well no. Since the TV movie, the Eighth Doctor has stormed a trail through comics, novels and audio adventures with McGann reprising his role in the latter.

When the first two series of these plays were released earlier this decade they felt like the proper continuation, he was still out there, travelling time battling aliens, still trying to find a decent cup of tea, accompanied now by Charlotte “Charley” Pollard, Edwardian Adventuress (played by India Fisher, best known outside fan circles as that posh voiceover woman on Masterchef).

It wasn’t just that McGann was able to lay to rest the opportunity missed in 1996; it was that the quality of the writing and performances were in the main so spectacularly good, with McGann sounding just like I’d hoped the Doctor always could, funny, clever and comfortingly bohemian. Many of the scribes who worked on these ten went on to pen new television series and the guest casts included the likes of Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) and Mark Gatiss. They were linked by a strong story arc too.

In the opening story, Storm Warning, The Doctor saved Charley from an airship disaster but unlike many of his companions in the past, her removal created a rip in time, through which all kinds of nastiness seeped through and it slowly became clear that the timelord might have to sacrifice his companion to save the universe.

Neverland was the culmination of that, an epic so big it barely fitted on its two cds, in which the timelords, presidentially led by his former companion Romana (with Lalla Ward reprising her role), after an epic chase between TARDIS’s, finally catching up with him and setting off a chain of events which ultimately sees him lose all sense of identity. Huge in scale, the play culminates in a scene where the Doctor has to choose between shooting Charley dead and saving the universe and as she’s pleading with him to do the deed, explaining that the few extra months he’s given her and wonderful experiences are more than enough, that he makes the admission which she reciprocates.

Listening back again all of these later, I can hear that it’s ambiguous, he could just mean the love between friends, but at the time it was thrilling and heartbreaking as the beach scene with Rose in Doomsday and the mind-wiping climax of Journey’s End.

Meet The Doctor by Russell T Davies

With such a short life onscreen, the Christopher Eccleston model had precious little time to establish himself as a presence off, with just a few comic strips, six novels and an annual, most of it still in the process of trying to get used to the show being back and the audience for the stories skewing backwards to children again after years of playing to an aging fan choir.

Unlike the McGann era which eventually ran to hundreds and hundreds of tales with only one on television, Eccleston’s version appeared in just twenty-five including his thirteen tv appearances.

For old timers like me, the most exciting two pages written in that era was the Meet The Doctor feature in the 2006 Christmas annual in which Russell T Davies naughtily hinted at his great contribution to the mythology, the Great Time War between the timelords and the Daleks.

In just three columns, Davies pulls together continuity from the television series old and new, the audios, the novels and the comic strips essentially validating their existence in relation to the new series underscoring that he believed as much as we did that when the show left television it simply continued elsewhere biding its time until it blazed back into the corner of the living room again.

It also does that ability the show has always had of implying epic galaxy spanning battles just off screen (or in this case pages). We might never discover the identity of the Dalek Puppet Emperors or what happened at the Omnicraven uprising, but our imagination can be set into overtime just as it was during Star Wars when we heard about the clone wars (until George Lucas spoiled everything by showing them to us). And then, magnificently, two years before it meant anything on screen he describes a cave painting depicting the time war under which are written just four words: “You are not alone…”

The Time of My Life by Jonathan Morris (Doctor Who Magazine comic strip)

With four years on screen, the David Tennant model has had plenty of time to establish himself as a presence off with comic strips being published in three different magazines, forty odd novels, four annuals and three storybooks, most of it comfortable with finding a space between the expectations of children and their parents.

Plenty of room for some amazing tales with the Tenth Doctor being granted the meeting with The Brigadier he’d otherwise miss out on, and in this gap year countless new companions that in some cases are as tangent as Rose, Martha or Donna.

Set just after Journey’s End, The Time of my Life grants Donna the farewell she was unable to give on-screen. We’re presented with extracts from adventures we’ve not seen before, meeting the Beatles, fighting sentient dogs and vampires and to describe any more would be to ruin these nine pages utterly. Throughout its history the Doctor Who Magazine strip has been a wild, experimental, post-modern dream and this no exception, as Morris and artist Rob Davies somehow manage to render a televisual montage sequence on the page.

It’s a tribute to the character, something the strip has done each time a companion has left the show, at least since it returned. Morris captures the character perfectly and its easy to imagine Catherine Tate reading these words (some of the other spin-off material overlooks the character development gifted to her in that fourth year, rendering her as the shouty, sarcastic nitwit from The Runaway Bride).

The success of the strip is demonstrated on the final page which is just heartbreaking as perfect a marriage of words and images as the comic strip has achieved and as will all of these stories you’re left with the reminder that the best of Doctor Who hasn’t just been seen on television.

[Originally posted at http://scyfilove.com/]

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