The Literary Legacy of Doctor Who
Ahead of the 60th anniversary of the British SFFH staple, Chris Hawton — co-host of the All-New Adventures of the Doctor Who Book Club podcast — takes a look at the Doctor’s world beyond the small screen.
As Doctor Who approaches its 60th anniversary this November, it might feel to some fans that the show has been an ever-present in British TV schedules since 1963. But, as older readers might know all too well, this is definitely not the case. And it was never guaranteed that the TARDIS crew would have a life beyond the end of the 1980s.
It’s now Whodom folklore that the then-bosses of the BBC were not fans of the show. They had tried to get it cancelled in 1985, but failed. Four years later, they took a different tact: they decided not to renew the show in 1989. They wanted to let it — and its reputation for poor special effects and dodgy costumes — go quietly.
The fans wouldn’t let it go quietly, though. In the absence of new TV stories, the Doctor’s adventures moved to novel form in 1991. This period, known as the ‘wilderness years’, saw these books sustain the dream and kept the fans’ insatiable appetites whet. Book-only Doctor Who adventures continue to this day — in fact, it’s what our podcast is dedicated to reading and celebrating!
Making it through the wilderness
With the BBC uninterested in Doctor Who, the licence for the brand was snapped up by Virgin Books, and they wanted to tell experimental stories. They called them the “all-new adventures”, and the back cover blurb would call the stories ‘too broad and too deep for the small screen’. Reader, this is where Doctor Who went deep and dark and daring.
The range had continuity to worry about, but each book contained a distinct story, each with its own style and vibe. Crucially, the range editors wanted to give opportunities to brand new authors. They were willing to give people a shot, to see how they handled it, sometimes on their own, and sometimes paired with a more experienced range writer. Some of these writers went on to write for the TV series when it returned — including Paul Cornell, writer of the David Tennant-era classic episode Human Nature; a pre-League of Gentlemen Mark Gatiss; and future show-runners Stephen Moffatt and Russel T Davies.
The books were also not necessarily for kids — the TV show had been largely marketed as a kids sci fi show — and at times they had arguably a misunderstanding of what it meant to have ‘adult themes’. For example, Gatiss’s second novel, St Anthony’s Fire, features an intergalactic Catholic priest eating a baby. The UK’s Daily Mail tabloid also did an ‘expose’ on a novel that depicted drug use. So adult! (In context, this particular book, The Left-Handed Hummingbird, was actually quite critical of drug use!)
The books did enjoy exploring new themes, ones they might not necessarily have been able to do on the BBC. The novel Warhead, for example, made me aware of the plight of Kurdish populations. Then there’s 1996’s Bad Therapy, which explored the gay community of 1950s Soho in London, in a time when homosexuality was banned, and dealt with its subject matter more courageously and honestly than a lot of other contemporary, more mainstream material did.
For every excessive swear word, there were nuanced and complex storylines. By means of example, the previously-mentioned Human Nature was originally a highly-acclaimed Doctor Who novel before later being adapted for TV. That episode was nominated for a Hugo — only to be beaten by another Doctor Who episode. These feats were unimaginable in the 1990s, when I was reading the Virgin novels! People enviously looked at 90s Star Trek with multiple Hugo and Emmy nominations.
In 1997, BBC Books took back over the license (almost as if they realised there was still life in the ol’ blue box yet), and while the books did become less edgy, they were still playing with form. Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor had made his debut in the not-too-succesful TV movie, but his book reign saw humanoid TARDISes, the destruction of Gallifrey (years before any TV references to this), Noel Coward teaming up with space poodles, and also the Doctor finding himself on a Hanna Barbera-esque planet in The Crooked World.
Pushing boundaries in book form
Not every book was amazing — nor would you expect them to be — but I learnt to buy on sight any new novels by Kate Osman, Lance Parkin, Lawrence Miles, or Paul Cornell. Truth be told, I also got burnt by some other authors, so I’m by no means a completist. (Doing a monthly show means I’ve had to revisit some of these and sometimes my opinions have changed — for example I now love Paul Magrs’ work even though my teenage self didn’t get it)
The novels reflected the world that the readership lived in more than (what’s still called) the revival shows. The Doctor’s first LGBTQAI+ companions appeared in the books, as did the Doctor’s first South Asian companion, 15 years before Mandip Gill’s Yaz met Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor.
It wasn’t just novels, either. Both Virgin and the BBC published short story anthologies that often tried to do experiments, such as a story told entirely in iambic pentameter, as well as Doctor-lite stories before that was something the RTD era series was forced into doing due to pressures on actors.
Since the TV series resumed in 2005, the Doctor Who production office must now approve the storylines of all upcoming books. The reins are tightened; there’s a valuable global franchise to take into consideration. Also, unfortunately the habit of blooding new and emerging authors seems to have taken a back seat.
And yet, interesting books still appear. There’s Touched By An Angel by Johnny Morris, which uses the Weeping Angels to tell an incredibly moving time travel story along the lines of One Day by David Nicholls. Also keep an eye out for Dave Rudden’s Christmas anthologies — they’ve been breathtaking in their scope and style of story, some really quite dark for Yuletide.
So while some seasoned Doctor Who readers might tell you it’s not how it was in the old days, compelling written Who can still emerge.
If I’ve piqued your interest for some book-form Who, take note! Some of those ’90s and early ’00s books can now fetch princely sums on auction sites, so it’s good that BBC Books have reissued some of them as e-books. There have also been audio adaptations released by Big Finish (I’d especially recommend Love and War and also Cold Fusion, which expertly recreate the Seventh Doctor era of the novels).
While I wish that more books were available, I’m glad that at least we get some. It’s helping new generations appreciate the books that kept the series going during the long periods off air. All hail the wilderness years — and happy 60th, Doctor Who.
If you’re interested in the Doctor Who books, try listening to the All-New Adventures of the Doctor Who Book Club podcast, available here or on your favourite podcatcher! Chris and his co-host Matt will also be guests of honour at the CONsole Room conference in Minnesotta in January 12–14.