September 29th, 2013
The battered wooden door was hesitantly opened, and a man stepped out. He had an elegant, curious face, with eyes that darted around his surroundings. And at the moment he was frowning a dangerous frown. He wore the sombre black tailcoat of an Edwardian gentleman under a heavy cape, with a Keble College scarf thrown over one shoulder. He would have merited hardly a glance on the streets of Edwardian London, but he looked somewhat out of place in the twenty-first century. This was the adventurer in time and space known only as the Doctor. Although he looked human enough, he was actually an alien from a far-off world. Among the many strange and wonderful things about his alien nature was his ability to regenerate, to replace a worn out or fatally injured body with a new one, which brought with it a whole new personality and oudook on life. It was something all his people, the Time Lords, could do. This form was his ninth.
Scream Of The Shalka, released in February 2004, is the last ever Doctor Who novelisation (apart from the rather special case of Shada), and so as good a place as any to mark the end of “the classic series”.
It’s a novelisation by Paul Cornell of a story he wrote himself, for the BBC website, originally broadcast in 2003 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the series (and released on DVD in September 2013 as part of the wrap-up for the fiftieth). The BBC had made several half-hearted attempts to “do Doctor Who on the Internet” prior to this — there’d been a serial originally pitched for Radio 4, Death Comes To Time, which had killed off the McCoy Doctor (completely ignoring the fact that McCoy’s Doctor had already been killed off in the TV Movie), an animated version of Shada with audio by Big Finish, and a new animated Colin Baker story, Real Time (because it was for Real Player, do you see what they did there?) also in collaboration with Big Finish, but this was the real thing.
This time, they were relaunching Doctor Who properly. They got Paul Cornell, the most prominent of the writers for the books, to write a story featuring a new Doctor, to be animated by Cosgrove Hall, and with an A-list cast — Richard E. Grant as the Doctor, Derek Jacobi as the Master, and Sophie Okonedo as a one-off companion. (A little-known actor called David Tennant also had a tiny part).
This was going to be the big, new, return of Doctor Who. A new ninth Doctor, new stories, in a new medium.
And then, half-way through making it, it was announced that Doctor Who was returning to TV, in a new version written by Russel T. Davies, and suddenly the big return was just a side-show, an irrelevancy before it was even finished. The level of care in the finished product can be seen from the line readings Richard E. Grant gives, which sound like he’s reading the script for the first time.
But still, it was a new episode of Doctor Who, and so it had to have a novelisation.
Which tells you something about the difference between the “classic” series and the post-2005 series, just as much as the description Cornell gives does. The pre-2005 series had a Doctor who was dressed in vaguely Edwardian clothing, who spoke with an RP accent, who had his stories adapted into books. That’s just the way it was.
And so Cornell turned in a pitch-perfect pastiche of his old friend Terrance Dicks, complete with wheezing, groaning sounds, short sentences, and the strange traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor. The book is a loving tribute to the Target novels which were, for those of us who grew up before widespread adoption of video, one of only two ways to experience a Doctor Who story again (the other way, as my friend Alex Wilcock has often pointed out, was to have nightmares). Not only does Cornell write the entire book in Dicks’ style, he also starts the book off with one of Malcolm Hulke’s old tricks — an introductory chapter that isn’t in the original, seeing the first arrival of the alien menace, which has a viewpoint character who quickly gets killed off. Dave’s death in chapter one is very much of a piece with the short life and death of Shughie MacPherson in Doctor Who And The Dinosaur Invasion.
And this is fitting. While Scream Of The Shalka was conceived of as the “new” Doctor Who, it had been overtaken by events, and the novelisation was issued in the Past Doctor Adventures range of stories about old Doctors, rather than the then-current Eighth Doctor Adventures. It was, like much of Doctor Who itself, a vision of the future that had already been overtaken by events and consigned to the past.
The book range continued for a while — the last Eighth Doctor story, Lance Parkin’s beautiful The Gallifrey Chronicles, actually didn’t come out until several months after Christopher Eccleston’s run on the TV had ended, and it included a little aside by one character about how the Doctor’s timeline was so messed up he had three ninth incarnations (referring to Eccleston, this story, and the Comic Relief sketch Curse Of The Fatal Death, written by Steven Moffat). But Scream of the Shalka stands as a marker — the final point where anything other than TV was the dominant form of Doctor Who.
These days, both the webcasts (which have occasionally been done as teasers or ‘interactive episodes’) and the books (which are now unadventurous tie-ins, although many of them are surprisingly decent for the kind of things they are) are definitely subsidiary products, part of a “franchise”, with a tightly controlled brand identity. As light and frothy as it is, Scream of the Shalka has a special place in Doctor Who because it got in under the wire.
The new series would have no need of novelisations — any child who wanted to watch Rose again would have just waited for the BBC3 repeat a couple of days later, or bought the vanilla DVD, or the season box set with special features, or the Blu-Ray, or (if they had very little money) the Doctor Who DVD Collection magazine part-work, or downloaded it, or watched it on a streaming video service. A tall man with a large-nosed, friendly-but-grumpy, face wearing a leather jacket like a U-boat commander’s was never going to step out of that police box that was not a police box after a wheezing, groaning sound.
Times had changed, and Doctor Who was about to change with them…