The recent Radio 4 documentary, 'On The Outside It Looked Like An Old Fashioned Police Box' looked at the Target novelizations of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Quirky and compelling, the programme was clearly a labour of love for writer/presenter Mark Gatiss and producer Simon Hollis. So we were quick to catch up with them and get the low down on windswept holidays, purple spines, Doctor Two and oh yes, Doctor Who...
Which came first for you? A passion for the books or a love of the TV show?
Mark Gatiss: Oh the TV show, of course. My first memory is 'Spearhead from Space'. The Autons (not quite) crashing through the shop window. But the books very not far after.
Simon Hollis: The TV programme always came first - I was hooked before I learned to read. But the Target books were the first books I ever bought myself, out of my own pocket money. I particularly loved the covers, especially The Three Doctors and Doctor Who and The Web of Fear.
Did any TV adventures disappoint you after you'd read the book first?
MG: Hard to say because most of the ones I hadn't seen no longer exist! I do remember being very sad that the brilliant last line of 'The War Games' book wasn't in the TV version. After the Doctor has been exiled and forcibly regenerated two Time Lords ponder whether they've done the right thing. They agree that the Doctor would never have fitted in with them. 'Shame', says one, 'he'd have brightened the place up no end'.
SH: Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon is the novelization of the rather plodding 'Colony in Space'. The book had a better title (obviously) and the cover was particularly fine, a Chris Achillios montage with this giant pair of demonic claws exuding cosmic energy under the image of Jon Pertwee's head. It just looked great; it was tighter plot-wise too. When I finally saw 'Colony In Space' I thought it hadn't done the novelization justice!
Doctor Who and the Visitation. Photo cover. Good thing or a crime against nature?
MG: Having seen the painted original I can understand Peter Davison's reluctance to approve it! But generally, a shame. The photo covers were very bland when you think back to the glories of the older books.
SH: The move to replace commissioned art with dull photo stills was a pity, and some of the 1980s covers were just unforgivable. I remember the novelization of Arc of Infinity, with bad photo cut outs slapped onto a single colour background, just looked, well, terrible. Stupid new 'futuristic' typeset too. They don't compare to the earlier editions of the Target range.
How would you have been described in one of those early Target novelizations?
MG: "A too-tall man with a beak of a nose and sparse reddish hair".
SH: I think in the best Target tradition it would be about the eyes - "funny and sad at the same time" (as often they are) but having them "mask a keen intelligence" would be good too.
Which was the scariest book? (Genesis of the Daleks surely, because the blurb said something like 'Even the Doctor can't win every time' which implied he was going to fail, tragically).
MG: I think 'The Web of Fear' frightened me the most. It was also the one I most wanted to see for real. Something to do with the purple spine and the soldier caught up in the Yeti's beam of light.
SH: I never found the books scary in their own right, as I read them out of sequence with the TV series and never doubted the Doctor would, erm, prevail. For example, I knew Patrick Troughton's Doctor would survive his encounter with the Yeti in 'Doctor Who and The Web of Fear', because Tom Baker was alive and well on the telly.
Mark's love of Doctor Who is well-known, but what drew you to the project, Simon?
SH: First of all, it's absolutely great that Radio 4 commissioned it. There's more to the story of Target books than nostalgia for Doctor Who fans who grew up with them. I think the idea of a novelization once doing the work that DVDs and video do now is fascinating. That's exactly what Target books were doing, as Terrance Dicks says quite clearly. And I wondered if there wasn't more to the art of writing novelizations of TV programmes than people give credit for, that Novelization is always looked down on by its snooty older cousin, Adaptation! They got children reading too - myself included. So on a more personal level, rather like Mark (I suspect) I spent large chunks of the 70s on wet family holidays, sitting in the back of cars in windswept parts of the British Isles with my nose stuck in a copy of 'Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars' and didn't look up till we'd got home and back to a television, where I could watch more Doctor Who. The Target books meant a lot to me.
And what was the best bit about producing this doco?
SH: The best thing about working on the programme was working with Mark. His understanding of the concept and whole history of Doctor Who is fascinating, very funny and with a panache worthy of his own favorite Doctor! On a more technical side I loved putting the feature together, drawing from the sounds and music of the classic series, passages from the audiobooks, the television dialogue and mixing these with the interviews and Mark's script.
And finally, we asked Mark and Simon the inevitable question. Over 150 books to choose from, but what was the best Target novelization.. ever ever ever..?
MG: Nostalgically, 'Planet of the Daleks'. But 'Inferno' is brilliant and David Whitaker's first Dalek story but probably 'Fury from the Deep' or 'The Myth Makers' - which is just a brilliantly clever comic read.
SH: The Three Doctors, the concept of which I found fascinating. Wonderful cover. I loved reading the dialogue between them, of Doctors Two and Three standing in front of the image of the First "like guilty schoolboys in front of a headmaster" (or something like that). I also loved the fact that Jo Grant thinks of this new version the Doctor that pops up as 'Doctor Two'. I remember thinking that was lucky, as he was 'Doctor Two' in the series actual chronology too. I was about six and I wondered if I was the only person to have worked that out, and felt very pleased with myself.
With big thanks to Simon Hollis and Mark Gatiss.