It’s the era of the eBook, but the unexpected return of some childhood Doctor Who novels shows how books themselves can act as personal time machines.
For the uninitiated, Target were a book publishing company who built a very successful business in the 70s and 80s, publishing ‘novelisations’ of old Doctor Who stories. This was a pre- VHS, DVD or Netflix world in which TV episodes were largely gone forever after broadcast. Doctor Who itself was only on for 25 minutes a week, with no stripped repeats on BBC3, Horror Channel or box sets to bridge the gap, so these novels were manna from heaven. From 1974, when I was given the first trio of books, ten year old me was hooked.
The Target Doctor Who range was immensely popular. Over 150 titles were published and many of my generation, including members of the modern ‘Who’ production team credit the books with helping them to become readers in the first place (a young Steven Moffat is shown below). Our desire to experience these past adventures overwrote that childish aversion to reading for pleasure, whilst the simple but effective style of Terrance Dicks, their primary writer, struck the perfect note. Indeed, when I recently mentioned Target books to my cousin, with whom I have never had a Who-related conversation before, he waxed lyrical about borrowing them from the library, spontaneously recalling a passage he had enjoyed about a scientist called ‘Rubeish’ who the Doctor misheard as Rubbish. High comedy indeed.
However, what most Target readers at the time did not realise was than many of the stories we were reading no longer existed at the BBC. The BBC junked many episodes in order to reuse expensive video and free up storage space. This decision is derided by fans as being completely shortsighted, but I do have some sympathy myself. I have to confess I was to commit a similar act of personal cultural vandalism.
After collecting the first Target books I headed off to college and they gathered dust on my shelves. I still watched the show, but by the time I finally moved into my own tiny flat in 1993, Doctor Who was dead, cancelled in 1989 and with no likelihood of it ever returning.
When, after three pints of Austrian lager in the Fitzroy Tavern, I heard that the young son of a friend’s brother was still – inexplicably – in love with Doctor Who, without a moments thought I said he could have them. So they departed in a box to who knows where. You see, dear reader, like the BBC and their film cans, I too had storage issues and thought the books had no intrinsic value.
Ironically, I did not know that the pub we were in at the time was also the scene of monthly meet ups of Doctor Who fans during the ‘wilderness years’, including many future writers of the revived show. Sadly this was not the first Thursday of the month and there was no young Russell T. Davies or Paul Cornell to overhear and advise me otherwise. So off they went.
Over the years various intrepid people have worked hard to return the missing Doctor Who episodes to the archives and, at the time of writing, the list has been reduced to a still frustrating 97. Meanwhile the show itself did return in glory to become a global phenomenon and BBC mega brand.
Approaching 50 and still a Who fan, I regretted giving away a chunk of my childhood. I was consoled that they had hopefully inspired someone else as they had me, but had I been just as rash as the BBC junking film cans in the early 70s? It wasn’t about the monetary value: these were all first editions, but their eBay value would be diminished by my insistence on carefully writing my name on the inside cover and re-reading then many, many times. It’s the memories they invoked that I missed. I don’t keep a diary, so music, vintage TV and books work as my own personal memory box, transporting me to a specific time and place when I first read, watched or listened to them, be it Cool For Cats on pink vinyl or the final episode of Catweazle.
To scratch the itch I acquired a glorious coffee table book of all the Target covers. Wistfully leafing through it was however a bittersweet experience, admiration for Andrew Skilleter’s stunning artwork and Terrance Dicks incredible productivity was tinged with nostalgia and regret.
As a result of the shows revived success, some of the Target books have been reissued as revered cultural artifacts with introductions by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Stephen Baxter. It wasn’t the same, they were new and fresh and didn’t smell of memories. I particularly felt their absence last year amongst the explosion of nostalgia in Doctor Who’s 50th year – there was even a Radio 4 documentary specifically about the Target books.
Then, in September of the Anniversary year, a miracle.
Not only were two missing stories found and available on iTunes, oh joyous day, but I received a call from my friend. His brother had some books in the attic he thought were mine. Did I want them back or should they throw them out?
It had not even remotely occurred to me that the books would still be around – I’d just assumed that they had been swapped for Power Rangers dolls or disposed of at some Northern car boot sale. But no, they existed, not at a Nigerian TV relay station, but in an attic in Bolton. As missing episodes obsessives will know, rumours of a find have to be dealt with carefully, and the repatriation and recovery process can be a long one. By Christmas the books were moved slightly closer to home from Bolton to Cambridgeshire and last Saturday, en route to a gig in Cambridge, I picked them up…
64 Target novels were neatly packed in an Espresso machine box behind my friend’s sofa. They were in a remarkably good state. No sign of vinegar and all correctly labeled: no opening The Tenth Planet to find a Reggie Perrin novel instead (OK perhaps I should step away from the missing episodes analogy now).
A few weeks ago there was a thread on Twitter about people’s first Target book. Helpfully I had written the dates on the fly leaves, so I now know that I bought ‘Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks’ in May 1974, just one month ahead of ‘Doctor Who & The Zarbi’. Some books I had been so determined not to lose, that my address was written inside, extended – lest there be any confusion – to ‘Fulham, London, England, Europe The World, Near Moon, The Universe, The Galaxy’. In one was also inscribed ‘not to be read by Daleks.’ In some ‘If this book should dare to roam, box its ears and send it home to…’
Remembering my cousin’s love of Professor Rubeish, I guessed this was probably from The Time Warrior, in which a Sontaran warrior stranded in the middle ages kidnaps scientists from the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s, but don’t go there) to get him home. I picked it up and there on page 33 was the exchange.
So the books are back and I know what I will be reading this summer. However the cycle continues….
Another close friend is having problems encouraging his Who-obsessed ten-year-old to read. Even a Kindle hasn’t done the trick. A Kindle? That’s soulless technology! What he needs is some vintage Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke to get him hooked on reading. So as I head off to visit them in a week I will be packing three Target novels. These will be in the form of a loan and encased in plastic book protectors. Let’s hope they capture his imagination in the same way they did a young Steven Moffat or Peter Capaldi all those years ago and show there is a life outside of MInecraft and Match Attax.
I am told that just occasionally Doctor Who fans use the Internet, although famously they rarely let their opinions be known. However if any are reading this, just let me know: which three Target books from the collection will be the best introduction for a boy who thinks the Silence aren’t scary at all, but is inexplicably traumatised by the sight of the Abzorbalof?
Meanwhile the recovered trove will be serving as my own personal time machine, taking me back through the time vortex to reading ‘Tomb Of The Cybermen’ in my Granddad’s house in Shoreham By Sea (I can hear the birdsong in the street outside even now) or ‘The War Games’ under my desk before an A Level history class (sorry Mr Jones but it was about World War 1 and better than Wilfred Owen).
Both are more powerful memory imprints than when I actually got to see those episodes when they were eventually returned to the BBC archives and restored on shiny DVD.
That’s because there’s no more powerful combination than a child’s imagination and the inside of a good book.