July Books 16-20) The last Fifth Doctor books; and Fifth Doctor roundup

16) Doctor Who – Warriors of the Deep, by Terrance Dicks

Slightly more interesting than the standard Dicks effort, with an attempt to reflect the political agenda that Malcolm Hulke brought to the original Silurians and Sea Devils. Also, of course, scores over the TV version in that the Myrka is described rather than seen. However Dicks seems to have difficulty deciding whether he is writing about the Third Doctor or the Fourth (it doesn’t really seem to be the Fifth).

17) Doctor Who – The Awakening, by Eric Pringle

Often the novelisations of two-part stories bring new material and imagination to the narrative, and I thought at first that this was going to be one of those, with good introductory description (especially of Jane Hampden, one of the great companions who never was). However, the pace isn’t really sustained, and the plot sinks under its own flaws; notably, Pringle misses the opportunity to make something more of the Malus’s physical appearance on the page, and the whole thing ends up essentially as a cut-down version of The Dæmons.

18) Doctor Who – Frontios, by Christopher H. Bidmead

I had moderately high expectations of this after reading Bidmead’s other two, and I wasn’t disappointed; this is the best of the Season 21 Fifth Doctor novelisations (though they are not a fantastic batch). I noted for the first time how each of Bidmead’s stories involves a transdimensional threat to the structure of the Tardis, a tinkering with one of the basics of Who which few other writers have attempted. The story works decently enough on the page, though Turlough’s insights into the Tractators could have done with more explanation. An interesting characterisation of the Doctor, absent-minded and failing to tell his companions what is going on.

19) Doctor Who – Resurrection of the Daleks, by Paul Scoones

Another of the New Zealand fan publications, and a decent effort, drawing in some of the background material invented by David Aaronovitch for his novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks but otherwise sticking fairly closely to the story as broadcast, including the humungous body count.

20) Doctor Who – Planet of Fire, by Peter Grimwade

This was a somewhat frustrating read. There are some significant improvements to the story as broadcast – the background to Kamelion is explained a bit more, and it is clear right from the start that he is probably fatally damaged; also there is more of a feeling of difference between Sarn and the site of Howard’s dig (clearly in Greece or Cyprus rather than the Canaries). But the exposition of Turlough’s background should have been more substantial, and Grimwade occasionally resorts to jarring contemporary metaphors which don’t really suit a Doctor Who narrative; the line about the Carmelite nuns in a disco will linger unpleasantly in my memory for some time.

And so it’s goodbye to Tegan, the Old Who companion whose relatives we meet in greatest numbers (her aunt, her cousin, her grandfather), though this is one of the themes of this period of the show (Adric’s brother, Nyssa’s father and stepmother, Turlough’s brother, Peri’s stepfather; and much later, Ace’s grandmother and mother), and the only one after Sarah who finishes in much the same place as she started, if a little older and a lot wearier.

But in fact Tegan’s promising and plentiful background material isn’t really handled consistently (with the honorable exception of the Kinda/Snakedance sequence). One story she is desperately trying to get back to Heathrow, the next she doesn’t care. It is an illustration of how Old Who was not particularly good at story arcs for its characters.

In the novels, her characterisation never really takes off on the page, with a couple of exceptions: her reaction to the Doctor patronising her in the print version of The King’s Demons and her increasing unhappiness in Scoones’ Resurrection of the Daleks. It’s a bit surprising, because a) Janet Fielding’s acting is a good deal more memorable on screen and b) as a general rule the screamier companions tend to come across better in print.

We also come to the end of Turlough‘s story here. I feel that the TV version of Turlough gets off to a less than credible start: he seems an unlikely tool for the Black Guardian’s revenge, and indeed isn’t a very good instrument of same. But Strickson does the communing with the crystal very well, and in his later stories (Frontios in particular) he is a solid performer. His character is more interesting in the novels than on screen; I guess that if you are working on a one-word character sketch, “shifty” gives you more to work with than, say, “Australian”. However (and this goes back to my point about Tegan) it is irritating that his background only emerges at the last moment, and while it explains some of what has been going on it doesn’t fully satisfy.

For completeness, I note that I’ve listened to three of the Turlough audios, of which the best is Loups-Garoux.

And, since I read Terrance Dicks’ rather flat adaptation of The Caves of Androzani a year ago, that takes me to the end of the Fifth Doctor‘s run as well. My two polls on the best and worst stories of each Doctor’s era (full analysis coming soon) were pretty emphatic in their choices here, and I agree with the conventional wisdom: The Caves of Androzani was the best, and Time Flight the worst. The others that I enjoyed were Castrovalva, The Visitation, Snakedance, Enlightenment and The Five Doctors (though the last much more for the nostalgia value than for any artistic merit). But the lows were much lower than for any previous Doctor. Time Flight has particularly poor production values and plotting, but it just happens to be the worst of a generally poor bunch. If I had to sum it up, I would say that this was when Doctor Who started to look cheap rather than magical.

Davison has a slightly wobbly start (notably in the first story filmed, Four To Doomsday but generally rises above his material, like the professional he is (Anne and I have been enjoying A Very Peculiar Practice over the last couple of weeks). Tom Baker was an impossible act to follow, but once Davison settles in, his empathic young technical wizard persona is very engaging. I was not totally convinced when I watched in the early 80s, because he Wasn’t The Real Doctor, but now that I am more familiar with his other predecessors and successors I am more prepared to admit that he did a good job, and I cheered like anything when he returned for a few minutes last year.

One of the striking things about the Davison era is the extent to which the Tardis gets cluttered. For much of the period there are three regular companions in the Tardis, for the first time since 1967 (and indeed the non-robotic companion count was at one or less for the five years between Terror of the Zygons). On top of that, the Fifth Doctor has a worrying propensity to allowing people to use the Tardis as a taxi. In the old days it was a sanctuary only breached in extraordinary circumstances; but Five thinks nothing of using it to give people a lift up the road. (This is of course partly because he is better at steering it than most of his predecessors.)

The best of the novels are the adaptations of Black Orchid by Terence Dudley, Terminus by “John Lydecker”, and Castrovalva by Christopher H. Bidmead. None of them really catches the Fifth Doctor’s character particularly well, and in a couple of cases (notably The King’s Demons and Frontios) they are seriously off-beam. Davison’s performance is probably the least quirky of any of the ten so far, and I guess that makes it difficult for writers to get a handle on, especially when adapting to another medium. I should add that I enjoyed but was not overwhelmed by the two other Fifth Doctor books I have read (Cold Fusion and Goth Opera).

Davison has done some of the best of the Big Finish audios; apart from Loups-Garoux, named above, and several excellent ones with Nyssa (The Mutant Phase, Primeval, Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty and The Game) there is also the solo Omega, which continues the story of Arc of Infinity only rather better, and the cracktastic Peri and Erimem pairing, where the characters are on the whole more fun than the plot (with the glorious exception of The King-Maker, which I listened to a couple of weeks ago but have yet to write up).

Previous summary posts: the Fourth Doctor, Third Doctor novels, Second Doctor novels, First Doctor novels, the first three Doctors on screen.

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