May 6th, 2012
All is not well at the Wenley Moor underground atomic research station: there are unaccountable losses of power-output; nervous breakdowns amongst the staff;
and then—a death!
UNIT is called in and the Brigadier is soon joined by DOCTOR WHO and Liz Shaw in a tense and exciting adventure with subterranean reptile men—SILURIANS— and a 40 ft. high Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest, most savage mammal which ever trod the earth!
Terrance Dicks is possibly responsible for the literacy of more 30-to-50-year olds in the UK than any other individual alive.
I’m using this essay to talk about Doctor Who And The Cave Monsters, by Malcolm Hulke, but really it’s standing in for a whole range of books — over a hundred of them — which changed my life and that of many of my friends.
From the very start, Doctor Who has not been solely a TV show, and for a large part of its history — sixteen years of it, to date — it’s not been on TV at all. From 1964 on, Doctor Who has been what we would now call a ‘multimedia franchise’, expanding to feature comics, films, records, toys, and most importantly for our purposes books. Even now, in terms of number of stories produced, the thirteen on TV every year come a distant third after about forty audio dramas and thirty books annually, although the comic strip still lags behind the TV. But those are new stories, and here we want to talk about the Target novels.
Until relatively late in what is now referred to by most people as the ‘classic series’, television was unrepeatable. Home video only became available in the 80s, and even then it was only an option for the relatively affluent, and unlikely to be under the control of the children who were still ostensibly the show’s audience. As a child growing up in the 80s, I only managed to ever tape one Doctor Who story to watch again — Revelation Of The Daleks — which I managed to watch three times on our Betamax recorder before my parents taped over it with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a wound that still hurts, decades later). Commercial videotapes of the show only started to be issued in the mid-80s, and only really started with any frequency in the 90s.
So if you wanted to experience a story again, or a story that you’d missed on TV, the only way to do it was to read a novelisation. Almost every Doctor Who story from 1963 through 1989 was issued in a series of books by Target publishing (rebranded as Virgin books towards the end of the run), coming out roughly monthly from 1974 onwards, with the stories in a semi-random order.
The bulk of these books were by Terrance Dicks, who at his peak was turning out a novel a month, and his books were serviceable, in a way that Enid Blyton or other super-prolific children’s authors are. His books were ruthlessly hacked together, the scripts cut down to their most basic plot and the dialogue held together with a series of stock phrases (“a wheezing, groaning sound”, “The man was that mysterious traveller in time and space known as the Doctor”), for exactly 126 pages of quite large type, in three-page chapters titled things like “Escape…To Danger!” or “The Final Battle”.
That’s not to say that Dicks’ books were bad — they were exactly what children needed. A rollicking boys-own adventure with lots of small, easily-understood words, and a light touch. They work. Gideon Defoe, the author of the successful The Pirates! In An Adventure With series of children’s books, has said “the pirate books are really one long homage to Terrance Dicks”, and the books bear that out (the Pirate Captain, for example, is described as having “a pleasant, open face, all teeth and curls” — a combination of Dicks’ phrases for the fifth and fourth Doctors). Dicks’ formula worked.
The other people writing for the Target range (mostly other Doctor Who scriptwriters, but occasionally members of the production team or even actors) tended to keep to that formula, and it was a wonderful one for very young children. My friend Alex Wilcock tells the story of how he learned to read — his mother bought him Doctor Who And The Cybermen by Gerry Davies, and started to read it to him, but got bored and told him to finish it himself. And so he did. The combination of a constantly-moving plot and bare-bones monosyllabic descriptions meant that tens of thousands of children grew up on these books.
But some of the other writers for the Target range wanted to do more. Some of them even went over 126 pages — even with quite small type! And one who went further than most was Malcolm Hulke.
Hulke had been Dicks’ mentor, and had had a long career in TV before Dicks brought him in as one of the regular writers of the TV series during Jon Pertwee’s era. Doctor Who And The Cave Monsters is Hulke’s novelisation of his own script, Doctor Who And The Silurians, which itself was a major advance in the series’ ambition, when it was broadcast during Pertwee’s first series.
The story was based on an idea by Dicks, originally. The two men had been discussing the then-new status quo of the series, with the Doctor stuck on Earth, and Hulke had said “You do realise that leaves you with only two stories? You can only do mad scientist or alien invasion stories now.”
Dicks had thought for a while and then responded “The aliens were here first, and they want their planet back.”
Hulke took this idea, along with his own obsessions (dinosaurs, humanoid reptiles, and extreme left-wing politics), and created one of the finest stories the series had seen to that point (and one of the finest it’s ever done) — a seven-part story in which a race of intelligent reptiles from the era of the dinosaurs (stated as the Silurian era in the TV show, one of several major scientific blunders which still didn’t manage to make the story any less compelling) who have been in suspended animation are revived by a big scientific project going on above them.
What made the story work wasn’t Dicks’ original concept, but the way the story managed to be an actual tragedy — right from the beginning, the ending of the story (with the Silurians destroyed, in an act of genocide which has unfortunate effects for the series — it’s clearly portrayed as the Brigadier doing something unforgivable, but he has to be forgiven by the next episode) is inevitable, as the result of the intransigence of leaders on both sides. Hulke portrays the military and political minds as incapable of seeing the obvious, even when it will lead to thousands or millions of deaths. In a particularly nice touch, he has the Silurians, the aboriginal peoples whose land has been colonised, try to kill the humans using germ warfare, much as white settlers supposedly tried to wipe out Native American populations using smallpox.
But where the TV story is merely a very good Doctor Who story, Hulke aims for greatness in the novel, and given the parameters in which he was working (the book had to be comprehensible to very young children) he succeeded. It’s not great literature — the writing style is too workmanlike for that, and the plot too simplistic — but within the confines of writing under 150 pages of melodrama, he manages to make the book have some genuine moral complexity, and have believable characters, something that is much, much harder than it sounds.
The simple technique he uses is to have every scene seen from the perspective of a minor character, where one is present — often a character who is on the ‘villainous’ side. The Doctor, the central figure in the TV series, is of course still present in the novel, and still the centre of the plot, but he’s never the centre of our attention — he’s just an annoying, arrogant prick who even more annoyingly happens to be right, swanning about like he owns the place. And the other characters sparkle as a result.
Instead of the “Young Silurian” and “Old Silurian” of the TV credits, we have Okdel, who has a strange compassion for the little furry creatures they left behind when they went into hibernation, Morka, who loathes them for their unreptilian emotions like fondness, and K’to the scientist who isn’t particularly interested either way, except in a scientific sense.
Major Barker, a character who in the TV series is just a blimpish fool, is here behaving that way because he’s been driven almost mad by his own actions in shooting a captured IRA prisoner when on duty in Northern Ireland.
And perhaps most impressively, Miss Dawson, a character whose role in the TV series is mostly to listen as one of the human villains explains the plot to her, and then die, gets this description:
Miss Dawson had been the one left at home to look after their ailing mother. True, she had had some interesting research jobs in London, but whenever she saw an advertisement for an electronic scientist needed abroad, or even in another part of Britain, her mother’s health had mysteriously taken a turn for the worse. The years rolled by, and people stopped calling her a ‘young woman’ and said instead ‘such a faithful daughter’. Sometimes she met men who seemed to want to marry her; but her mother always knew somehow, and promptly became ill again so that Miss Dawson even had to stay away from work to look after the old lady. In her heart Miss Dawson feared the moment when people would stop asking, ‘Why don’t you get married?’ and replace it with the dread, ‘Why didn’t you get married?’
For a children’s book, based on a TV show where none of that was even hinted at, that’s a remarkably subtle and moving bit of characterisation.
The TV version of this story was popular enough that they essentially remade it three times — two years later, with Hulke scripting again, as The Sea Devils, then in 1983 as Warriors Of The Deep and in 2010 as The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. While the first of these is watchable enough, all the latter two do is detract from the power of the original. The book, on the other hand, improves on it immensely.
Most of the Target novels are out of print now — you don’t need to read the books now that you can get all the stories on special edition DVDs with added CGI and commentary tracks and a humorous comedy sketch by some people who used to work on Doctor Who Magazine — but six of them came back into print in 2011. Most of them are fun enough as pulpy adventure, or for nostalgic fans who want to remember spending all lunchtime in the school library reading about Cybermen while the rest of the school was playing outside, but Doctor Who And The Cave Monsters still genuinely works as a book.
For the whole of the 1990s, the only new Doctor Who being created was in a series of novels from Virgin publishing (which we will be dealing with in due course) and were it not for this book, and the other ones Hulke wrote, that series, and thus the revived TV show, may never have happened.
But when it came out, Doctor Who was first and foremost a TV show, and it was about to become very different, as we’ll see next week…