The Target Storybook pays homage to the classic novelization series with fifteen short stories that play at the margins of on screen adventures. But how many hit their target?
The Target imprint of Doctor Who books appear to be in the midst of a mini-revival. A few years ago, several the classic titles were reprinted in new editions and, more recently, four new novelizations of modern episodes such as The Day of the Doctor and Twice Upon a Time were released. This year has also seen gaps plugged as novelizations of Resurrection of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks finally completed the run of every single 20th century story in book form. While coming soon is a new collection, reissuing ten of the late Terrence Dicks’ most loved Targets in a single volume. And, of course there’s this – Doctor Who: The Target Storybook.
The mission statement of the Target Storybook is to provide short stories that, in the best Target tradition, enhance or extend what we saw on TV. Naturally, with fifteen stories in total (one for each of the first twelve Doctors, plus the War Doctor, and two from the Thirteenth Doctor’s era) the quality varies, as does the approach to that mandate. While some of the entries genuinely feel like asides to an existing story, others are more awkwardly placed during, but separate from, their TV starting point. Some even seem completely standalone with only the haziest throwaway reference to establish a sense of being set between this serial and that one. Though all are accompanied by a brilliant new black and white drawing from Mike Collins, in the tradition of some of the earliest books.
Vinay Patel provides a tantalizing glimpse of a Doctor Who and the Demons of the Punjab that many will want to see completed
Probably the collection’s finest hour is its final one. Vinay Patel’s Letters from the Front captures perfectly those Target preludes that added depth and texture to characters backstories. In this case, we peek into events prior to Patel’s own Series 11 episode Demons of the Punjab, and get parallel war letters home from the ill-fated Prem and from one of the Thijarians. In line with that theme it also shows off Patel’s skill in writing for two parallel audiences – those who’ve seen his episode and those who haven’t. For those who have, it’s a bittersweet march towards tragedy, that will leave your heart breaking in the final lines under the weight of your foreknowledge. For those who haven’t, it makes you feel and care for Prem and want to know what happens next.
The very fact that Patel includes no spoilers for the TV episode and leaves the Thijarians’ intentions unclear even at the end of his prequel, creates a powerful sense of this being simply the first chapter of a proper, full, novelization. And of Patel having a complete Doctor Who and the Demons of the Punjab taking up space at the back of his mind. Based on the evidence of Letters from the Front, I certainly hope he gets the chance to write it one day.
Despite not being linked to any TV episode, Joy Wilkinson’s Thirteenth Doctor tale Gatecrashers proves another highlight
In terms of evoking that classic Target feel, literally at the end of the scale is the first story in the collection. Thirteenth Doctor story Gatecrashers makes no pretence of being tied to a TV episode at all. It’s a shame, as modern stories that have never been novelized are the ones most crying out for the Target treatment. Doubly so in this case as Gatecrashers’ writer, Joy Wilkinson, was also responsible for the episode The Witchfinders. But there’s no denying that, as you might expect, Wilkinson captures the voices and characters of the Doctor and her ‘fam’ so well you can practically hear the cast delivering the lines.
It also gives Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor the chance to hit some fundamental Doctor Who story tropes as yet unseen in her TV adventures. In the tradition of stories like The Sun Makers and The Happiness Patrol, she arrives on a world that’s taken some aspect of life to extremes, (in this case social isolation caused by technology) decides the model of their entire civilization is wrong and sets out to topple the whole system in time to be home for tea. But most of all, it’s the joyful recreation of the dynamic between the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham that stays with you. More even than a novelization of The Witchfinders, it leaves you wanting more Wilkinson episodes in Series 13.
The rest of the Target Storybook can be split along similar lines, though both strands – those which exist as missing chapters of television episodes and those which standalone – provide plenty of good, solid, and occasionally outstanding, Doctor Who.
Remembrance of the Daleks, The Five Doctors, The Trial of a Time Lord and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS are among the episodes to be revisited in prose
Of the former, Mike Tucker’s The Slyther of Shoreditch stands out as pulling double duty as both an exciting adventure in miniature and exactly the sort of diversion you might have expected to see if the Remembrance of the Daleks novelization had been running thirty pages short. And, like the best Targets, it answers a potential plot hole you didn’t even notice on TV – in this case, exactly what the Time Lords are thinking, sitting idly by while the Doctor ignites a full-on Time War with the Daleks. Packing tremendous amounts of action into its brief page count, it’s as perfect a Target homage as Letters from the Front, in the exact opposite way.
Meanwhile Punting by Susie Day finds a genius way of giving the Fourth Doctor and Romana something to do in The Five Doctors. With the duo’s attempts to escape the Time Scoop accidentally turning them into Christmas Carol type unseen observers, commenting wryly on the Doctor’s other incarnations’ efforts, like a pair on inter-dimensional Gogglebox stars. And Jacqueline Rayner’s Citation Needed start off like just the kind of embellished aside you’d expect from a James Goss novelization, or Eric Saward on good form. It asks the completely unpredictable question of what it feels like to be the Encylopedia Gallifreya which Clara spills during her visit to the TARDIS Library in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. But it also replicates that episode’s mixing of darkness with the gags. For all the monsters running through the Storybook, this is the one most likely to leave you unable to sleep and staring at the ceiling into the dark at 4am afterward.
The Sixth Doctor himself, Colin Baker, writes with sensitivity and wit in his own Interstitial Insecurity. Set during The Trial of a Time Lord, with a near broken Doctor reeling from the news of Peri’s death, it again showcases Baker’s skill at giving the Doctor an inner life of dignity and gentleness while, somehow, not negating his brash outer exterior. But still, it exists simply to resolve a 33-year-old minor plot point – why pick an adventure in which he commits genocide as his defence?
Other stories, however, pay lip service to their setting and tell an otherwise unrelated adventure
Among the other strand of stories which largely sidestep expanding on television episodes is The Dark River by Baker’s former co-star, Matthew Waterhouse. Although framed during 1982’s The Visitation, it sees Adric and Nyssa accidentally flying the TARDIS away, having an adventure of their own, and then – with shades of Ferris Bueller – trying to get it back where the Doctor parked it before he notices their joy riding. He does however, stay true to one aspect of the era. It remains a place where you can’t walk five feet without tripping over a renegade Time Lord. Despite cheating on the Target concept it’s a strong story, lifted by Waterhouse’s clear, intelligent voice that commands emotion without sentimentality.
Simon Guerrier’s Journey Out of Terror takes a similar approach. Set between The Chase episodes Journey Into Terror and The Death of Doctor Who it follows on from the cliff-hanger of the Doctor, Ian and Barbara realizing they’ve left Vicki behind. Nevertheless, like The Dark River, it sees them go off on their own new adventure (involving a little girl, a dog, and a spaceship) before returning to the plot of The Chase at the end. All the same, the urgent need to get back to Vicki is never far away. And Guerrier’s evocation of the classic child friendly Target style – straightforward, punchy, with clear and concise turns of phrase – is not only perfectly executed but particularly well suited to his choice of story.
The Turning of the Tide, by Jenny T Colgan, on the other hand is set very much after the end of an episode and era. It picks up the story of the Meta-Crisis Doctor and Rose in the years after they were left at Bad Wolf Bay. One of the heftiest tales in the collection, at fifty pages, it’s also one of the most complete, packed with action set pieces, high stakes, heartfelt emotion, witty humour, and a well-drawn and innovative new monster. In many ways it’s a brand-new Davies era episode typed out in prose form. And yet… And yet… for many readers their fan-brains will silently scream “NO!” in their skulls at the basic premise of the Doctor retiring to become a GP in a sleepy English village.
The remaining stories largely content themselves with evoking an era rather than a story, though that doesn’t distract from their quality
There was a weight of expectation on the late Terrance Dick’s Second Doctor story Save Yourself as his last work before his death. Perhaps inevitably it fails be the classic people demanded, but it still reflects his clean, punchy prose and storytelling. At the other end of the Doctor’s life, he attempts to test Missy’s resolve to reform with patchy results in Pain Management by Beverly Sanford. The result is a fun romp that borders on farce as the increasingly tetchy Missy tries to save the world from, well, herself. Along the way we encounter the Eighth Doctor troubled by the coming Time War, in straight up action adventure You Can’t Stop What’s Coming by Steve Cole, and a War Doctor knee deep in fighting it in Decoy by George Mann. The latter returns to the theme of the War Doctor’s growing intolerance of Rassilon’s ruthless methods in the pursuit of victory.
Matthew Sweet’s The Clean Air Act doesn’t get any more specific than having Jo and UNIT in it, but it does create a wonderful sense of the UNIT family at their height. It touches on the type of ecological themes that were so important to producer Barry Letts, while also giving us a Brigadier at his most charming and wry. You can almost picture the twitch at the corner of Nicholas Courtney’s fake moustache. Finally, Una McCormack’s Grounded gives us a window into Clive’s life, pre-Rose, as he and his son go on an E.T. style mission to save a stranded alien. It doesn’t fit too smoothly with the despondent, frustrated Clive of Russell T Davies’ own Rose novelization, but it’s an equally valid slice of good, clean fun.
A fitting tribute to the Target format, the Target Storybook is hopefully just the beginning
Despite its inconsistent approach to what exactly defines a ‘Target’ story, the Target Storybook presents fifteen great new entries to the Target legacy. Some feel like extracts torn from the pages of otherwise lost novelizations. Others are brand new adventures. But many are fit to stand up among the best of Doctor Who prose fiction. And none can fail to entertain you if you take them home to curl up in an armchair with. We can hope, though, for a second volume or, better yet, the same fantastic talents behind this collection to get their chance to do full novelizations in the future.
We’re all stories in the end…
In this exciting collection you’ll find all-new stories spinning off from some of your favourite Doctor Who moments across the history of the series. Learn what happened next, what went on before, and what occurred off-screen in an inventive selection of sequels, side-trips, foreshadowings and first-hand accounts – and look forward too, with a brand new adventure for the Thirteenth Doctor.
Each story expands in thrilling ways upon aspects of Doctor Who’s enduring legend. With contributions from show luminaries past and present – including Colin Baker, Matthew Waterhouse, Vinay Patel, Joy Wilkinson and Terrance Dicks – The Target Storybook is a once-in-a-lifetime tour around the wonders of the Whoniverse.