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Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Tuesday, 23 June 2009 12:03 UK

The Tome Lord

Dr Who novels

Before video and DVD, Dr Who fans who wanted a fix of the Time Lord in between the TV shows relied on a series of official novels. Writing for the Magazine, Mark Gatiss recalls his love of Dr Who's adventures in print.

Even without the keys to a Tardis it's possible to transport some of us back to a magical childhood time when all nights seemed wintry and dark, the football results never ended and Doctor Who was the best show on television: the heroic Doctor, the fantastic monsters, the gently moralising stories... and during the eternity between new seasons of the TV programme, we had the books.

Mark Gatiss
Mark Gatiss presents On The Outside It Looked Like An Old- Fashioned Police Box on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 23 June at 1130 BST
Or hear it later here on the iPlayer

When Dr Who's early days are remembered, it's nearly always his televisual incarnation that's recalled.

But alongside the TV Doctor there was the much forgotten print Doctor - the Dr Who brought to life by a publishing imprint called Target books.

Target gave us exciting versions of the stories we had seen - and glimpses into a strange and mysterious past where the Doctor had been someone else.

Whenever I was off school my medicine of preference was always a well read copy of the Doctor's adventure on the planet Spiridon* - and maybe oxtail soup - because it took me light years away from my four walls in County Durham and into the Doctor's universe. What a comfort - and genuine inspiration - those books were.

The first proper series of Dr Who books was launched in 1973, by which time the TV series had been running for a decade. At that point, three actors had played the lead role. William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton were the first two. In 1970 the series moved to colour with a new Doctor, Jon Pertwee, who was an immediate success in the role.

His warm, action-loving, moral, vain, frilly-shirted dandy was my Doctor. And I loved him. From his first adventure battling the vicious Nestene Consciousness** to that nasty business down at the meditation centre*** he was my hero.

Pre-DVD world

Dr Who had actually entered print form, albeit tentatively, in the 1960s. There had been three standalone Doctor Who novelisations of TV stories, featuring Hartnell.

The Three Doctors, 1972
The "casual bohemian elegance" of Jon Pertwee, centre

Aware of the show's new lease of life under Pertwee a small, children's publisher, Target, decided to reprint these earlier novels with new cover illustrations. They did well.

And so the people at Target thought, like the villainous Omega before them: "It is not enough!" The show was a success; there was a market. Doctor Who fiction was exploitation in the best possible way.

Little could Target have guessed how hungry the audience would turn out to be for these stories.

Overall, it's impossible to divorce the Target books from the period we are talking about. Scarcely anything was repeated on TV in those days, except last Christmas's Mike Yarwood Show so, if you missed something, you missed it.

In an age before video and DVD, the Target novelisations were a chance to relive the television adventures. Many of the black and white 1960s stories had been wiped by the BBC altogether, so the books were the only record. Through them you could experience stories that had disappeared into the programme's folklore.

I devoured these books. Not literally. Though I did live in the north and was always hungry. I remember going into a shop in 1975 and seeing the novelisation of the series' 10th anniversary story The Three Doctors, which had been on TV a couple of years before.

The cover illustration showed the power-crazed Omega, crackling cosmic energy over all three incarnations of the Doctor. I just had to have it. I bought it for 35p, and while my parents went shopping at a garden centre in Darlington I sat in the back seat of the Hillman Minx and read it straight through. My first Target book. I read it, I reread it. I think I knew every word.

Crotchety, baggy

My second was Doctor Who and the Cybermen. What was more annoying was that the last 20 pages were missing due to a binding mistake at the publishers. My copy ended with Jamie, the Doctor's assistant, saying: "I don't understand… how could that happen Doctor?"

Peter Davison, was a 'slight, fair-haired figure' with a 'pleasant open face' - which made me try and imagine what an unpleasant, closed face looked like
Mark Gatiss

I thought: "That's an oblique ending." Or, possibly, I didn't. I didn't get a proper version for years. It became a wonderful ritual, saving pocket money, then deciding which Target book to go for.

Part of the joy of reading the books was the house style. The multitude of chapters headed Escape to Danger. The classic description of the Tardis materialising with a "wheezing, groaning sound".

Then there were the wonderful stock descriptions of the Doctor himselves. Hartnell was usually in the "crotchety old man in a frock coat with long flowing white hair" area whilst Troughton had "baggy check trousers and a mop of untidy black hair" with "a faraway look in his eyes" which were either green/blue or blue/green and which were "funny and sad at the same time".

My Doctor, Jon Pertwee, had an "old/young face, a "beak" of a nose and "a mane of prematurely white hair", while Doctor number four, the great Tom Baker, routinely had a "mop of curly hair" a "broad-brimmed hat" and a "long, multi-coloured" scarf which always contributed to a "casual bohemian elegance".

His successor, Peter Davison, was a "slight, fair-haired figure" with a "pleasant open face" - which made me try to imagine what an unpleasant, closed face looked like.

Cover illustrations

The monsters too had their own familiar style. Inside the armour casing of a Dalek was "a bubbling ball of hate". Meanwhile the Cybermen were routinely described as "tall, emotionless silver giants motivated by one goal... POWER!"

David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Dr Who and sidekick
The Doctor in today's watch-when-you-want iPlayer era

The hissing, green Ice Warriors were always described as "a once proud race". I love that. I still long to create a race of aliens that were "once proud" and are now… not.

The books were beautifully designed, made to be collected and artist Chris Achilleos was the great cover illustrator.

He had this fantastic technique of doing the main picture of the Doctor as a series of tiny black and white dots - almost pointillist, which I loved. The cover of Doctor Who and the Daleks had a spectacular painting of Hartnell with frock coat and signet ring - and I always found this imposing, mysterious Doctor from the series' past thrillingly scary.

The colours were always dazzling - like a film poster, using a montage of swirling stars and planets with the Doctor and his companions foregrounded. And always the small Target insignia on the spine.

Faithful to the show they certainly were, but there were things the books - being books - could do better. After all, a typewriter can take you anywhere in the Universe, not just to a Home Counties quarry. Doomed minor characters were brought out and developed. Some books stayed close to the dialogue, with minimal description and were rather thin. Others were just that little bit more literary.

The Target Doctor Who novelisations were phenomenally successful; they ran to 156 titles and the books sold millions of copies world-wide, becoming one of the best-selling ranges of children's books ever published.

They changed the reading habits of a generation.

* see Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks
** see Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion
*** see Doctor Who and the Planet of the Spiders

Below is a selection of your comments.

The Target books were an essential part of my childhood. How I remember making mosaics out of the covers, lining up the books on my bedroom floor. The horrible Nestene monster on the front of Terror of the Autons was so gruesome that the woman in the bookshop could barely touch it. Those books were vital to my reading, and to my love of Dr Who, in my 1980s childhood. Back in the days when I had a pleasant, open face.
Chris Winwood, Worcester

I've got a pile of these books in my attic and have no intention of getting rid of any of them. They were the stepping stone for "proper" sci-fi novels and also covered more ground than the TV series had a chance to. I remember Ben Aaronovitch's Remembrance of the Daleks being particularly good in this regard with lots of backstory.
Mike R, Southampton, UK

I used to love the Target novels. My poor old mum would have a list of books I didn't have in her purse in case she saw one in a shop. I could spot a 'Target' logo on a book spine at 20 paces!
Steve, Dubai

I still remember my first Dr Who book - Dr Who and the Face of Evil. I was aged nine, in hospital recovering from an appendectomy. It was the one where the Dr first met Leela...
R J Tysoe, London, UK

I fondly remember annual family holidays to Cornwall, reading a target Dr Who novelisation per day. The map at the beginning of Day of the Daleks fascinated me. I can remember reading Destiny of the Daleks in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth violently as I tore through the book at breakneck speed, my furious sister imploring me to come outside to play-all to no avail, I was away with the Daleks and the Movellans... sigh, happy days.
Charles Edwards, London

I remember the fourth doctor was always pulling items from his "capacious pockets". And there was an obsession with how broad-shouldered he was.

Not forgetting the censored versions of some books issued for younger children, which removed the use of the word "ruddy" as an expletive by UNIT soldiers.
Mike H, manchester

The one time I stayed up all night, torch hidden under the bedcovers, was reading one of the Doctor Who novelizations by Target. It might even have been the Three Doctors. Doctor Who and the Zarbi was my favourite though (a long-forgotten William Hartnell adventure). I also remember having a Doctor Who Magic Lantern which let you project cartoons from various Dr Who adventures on your wall. That also had pictures from Dr Who and the Zarbi, and I remember genuinely finding them frightening.
Neal Dench, Needingworth, Cambs

I can say that I am old enough to have seen every episode of Dr Who since it's conception in 1963 and when I had a family of my own we religiously watched it every Saturday. In 1983 when my daughter was about 1-2 years old, I found a large wooden box from work which had contained a large freezer. I brought it home and built a Tardis out of it. For many years my daughter and later children enjoyed playing at Dr Who using nothing but the box and their imagination. But I will always remember when my daughter was first introduced to my Tardis. She went inside and I told her to press the button on the tape recorder that my wife and I had rigged up. As soon as she heard the Tardis "takeoff" she ran out of the Tardis as fast as her little legs could carry her. For many years afterwards we used to recall the incident and laugh. Alas, in 1999 she developed leukaemia and survived only three years. But I will always treasure those memories and every time I see Dr Who it reminds me of those good times while dreaming of how I could have saved her by whisking her off into the far future for a cure if only I had had a Tardis.
Scott Peters, Romford

I too read and re-read the books until I was word perfect. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke must have been read by thousands of children all over the world, it would be nice to see them get some recognition.
Stan Broadwell, Bristol

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