13 April 2015

Target: Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child

Beginning my intended marathon through sixties Doctor Who by way of book and audio is Terrance Dicks' novelisation of An Unearthly Child, and what a good place it is to start.

Being a child of the nineties, I only became aware of the show when it relaunched under BBC Wales' administration. Before long though, I was paying regular visits to my local Oxfam, who usually had a healthy supply of Target novels, Missing Adventures and the BBC 'Past Doctor Adventures'. Over a period of about eighteen months, I acquired quite a number of these books, and read them all. I often didn't really understand what it was about - or much at all about it, to be honest - but it was still fun. There's a small, dull, barely-worth-mentioning anecdote which I'll bring up when I cover The Daleks' novelisation. I don't own anywhere near the full collection of any of these ranges, but thanks to the generosity of friends the programme has introduced me too, I have a way around that.

An Unearthly Child's general reputation is that the first episode is sensational, and the remainder mind-numbingly dull. Uncle Terry's telling of the tale would have you believe otherwise. This is a relatively... uncomplicated book. It reads much like a transcript reformatted, rather than being a deep, expansionary novel. It feels like this novelisation was a hurried job from the beginning, but the way Dicks writes (with blissfully short paragraphs and easily-followable prose) makes up for this. The general plot, from what I remember of the original, is pretty consistent. In this, though, the two warring personalities at the heart of the tale - Kal and Za - are given a greater emphasis.

Dicks' handling of the regulars is surely an element of the book that I can't avoid scrutinising. Overall, these are recognisably the same leads as on television, but they all feel a little off. In keeping with the opening era of the show, Ian is the main character throughout. It's his perspective we follow; when he blacks out or sleeps, we miss all the action whilst he's out of it. And when the four are referred to as a group, it's usually in the form of 'Ian and his companions'. It's a nice touch from Dicks to try and evoke the tone of these first episodes. However, the menace and distrust in the group feels a bit heavy-handed for the most part. My memories of the TV telling are that there was a quiet air of suspicion pervading throughout. Of course, without actors to give a sly sideways glance, it's difficult to write such a subtle line with the appropriate disregard. 

The author does of course know the title character inside out by this point, but he gets the Hartnell Doctor a little out-of-character sometimes. Susan is probably the most faithfully-recreated of the bunch, and I liked the way Dicks subtly addressed the mismatch between her supposedly being a genius and having seen everything with being perpetually terrified. Barbara doesn't translate well at all, however. She's given very little indeed to do in this story, and when she is, it's with a real attitude. In fact, she's a right miserable old cow from start to finish in Dicks' hands, apparently treating everyone as if they were naughty schoolchildren, practically begging for a detention. She's not a pleasure to be around at all - a far cry from Jacqueline Hill's inquisitive, cautious and rather charming history teacher. Indeed, given that it's her first experience of real history, Barbara show remarkably little a) culture shock or b) interest. I certainly hope this isn't the case with The Aztecs.

The cavemen story is actually quite interesting here. The addition of three supporting characters - Old Mother, Hur and Horg, in order of decreasing importance - helps, and the mix of personalities makes for good reading. Although a lot of the dialogue is arguably dire, it's still an engaging part of this opening gambit. I also found it interesting to note that the resolution, if this story has one, is entirely to do with the intratribal politics, and nothing to do with the Doctor and co. The book ends with the party finally escaping back to the TARDIS and setting off for anywhere that will get them away, the tribe left to fend for themselves. It's an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. Almost pleasingly so.

This is a breezy and thankfully short novelisation. It's nothing to write home about really, but is a nice look back at the first adventure. Far too little is made of the first 'episode' for any of the atmosphere or mystery to be properly evoked, but Dicks at least has a decent stab at it. It must have been thrilling to read the first Doctor Who story before videos invaded the homes of Britain. This is a good start to the series, and leads nicely into the next story, but is still a little slight for my liking. I commend its brevity in other respects though as it makes it significantly more pleasurable for someone like me who isn't a natural reader.

Worth getting your hands on this, if you can.

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