November Books 9-18) The Doctor Who Novels of Ian Marter

9) Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, by Ian Marter (published 1977, based on TV story shown in 1975)
10) Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment, by Ian Marter (published 1978, based on TV story shown in 1975)
11) Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation, by Ian Marter (published 1979, based on TV story shown in 1978)
12) Doctor Who and the Enemy of the World, by Ian Marter (published 1981, based on TV story shown in 1968)
13) Doctor Who – Earthshock, by Ian Marter (published 1983, based on TV story shown in 1982)
14) Doctor Who – The Dominators, by Ian Marter (published 1984, based on TV story shown in 1968)
15) Doctor Who – The Invasion, by Ian Marter (published 1985, based on TV story shown in 1968)
16) (The Companions of) Doctor Who – Harry Sullivan’s War, by Ian Marter (published 1986; original fiction)
17) Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror, by Ian Marter (published 1987, based on TV story first shown in 1964)
18) Doctor Who – The Rescue, by Ian Marter (published 1987, based on TV story first shown in 1965)

(pictures copied, with much thanks, from Steve Hill’s Doctor Who Image Archive)

I’ve referred cryptically in a couple of recent entries to my Speshul Prodjekt. I can now reveal it to the world: I have been reading all of the Doctor Who novels written by Ian Marter, who played the Fourth Doctor’s companion Harry Sullivan, and went on to write more novelisations of Doctor Who stories than any other author apart from Terrance Dicks (who is well in the lead, at 64½ to Marter’s nine; next is Malcolm Hulke with six, John Peel with five, and Gerry Davis with 4½). Marter was the only regular actor from the series to write novelisations, though two others who wrote novels based on their own scripts had also made appearances in minor roles (one of them, indeed, in The Sontaran Experiment).

This isn’t going to be a blow-by-blow comparison of where the novels differ from the TV series. Sarah Hadley has done excellent detailed reviews of eight of the nine novelisations on her site, and I’m not at all familiar with the broadcast versions of some of them (specifically, I don’t think I’ve seen a single minute of “The Reign of Terror”, I’ve seen only the one surviving episode of “The Enemy of the World”, and I haven’t re-watched “The Ribos Operation” or “Earthshock” since they were first broadcast over twenty years ago). Instead, some general thoughts on writing the book-of-the-TV-show as illuminated by Marter’s efforts, and a few other repeated themes that lingered in my mind.

The nine novelisations divided, in my mind, into three groups. The first two, Doctor Who and the Ark in Space and Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment, were both based on stories in which Marter himself had appeared in the character of Harry, and there’s a corresponding emphasis on the character; somewhat less so in the former, though Harry is very much the viewpoint character as we are introduced to the Doctor, Sarah, and the space station setting; rather more so in the latter, where he gets almost an entire chapter to himself exploring the Sontaran spaceship, a passage completely absent from the TV story. (“The Sontaran Experiment” had only two episodes as opposed to “The Ark in Space”‘s four, so some padding was required.)

The very first Doctor Who novel published, David Whitaker’s Doctor Who in An Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, told the story from the viewpoint of Ian Chesterton; those were in the days when it was not expected that anyone would ever see The Daleks again, let alone the story preceding it, and so it was easier to play around with the format for what was expected to be a stand-alone book with no other surviving media backing it. By 1975, however, repeats in the summer had become normal procedure, so the novels had necessarily to stick more closely to the original TV version. In any case I think it would have been impossible to write any of the novels discussed here from a first-person point of view; TV means multiple viewpoints, and restricting it to a single character means all kinds of narrative gyrations (as even Whitaker found, despite having a freer hand). Also there’s something rather difficult about doing Doctor Who in the first person rather than the third; I’ve read precisely one piece of spinoff DW fiction using that technique, and it was bad. Marter may well have been tempted to write these two from his own character’s viewpoint; if so, I think he was wise to restrain himself.

Marter both adds and subtracts from the TV show here. He subtracts, somewhat to my surprise, most of the humorous lines of dialogue – specifically the Doctor’s line “Well, my doctorate is purely honorary, and Harry here is only qualified to work on sailors.” It is of course a joke against Harry (a naval doctor, but one who appears rather a twit at times), but I don’t think that is the reason; perhaps Marter just felt the line didn’t work as well on the page as it does on the screen, as he also drops the banter between Rogin and Lycett just after they are woken up. It’s also a bit surprising that the unusual link between the two TV stories – the Doctor and his companions travel to Earth via transmat beam – was dropped in favour of the more standard Tardis journey.

He adds, however, some simply superb descriptive passages which one really regrets were not realised on-screen. Sometimes it’s just little things, like the Doctor opening a door on the space station by thinking at it. At his best, he has added in much longer passages – Harry’s exploration of the Sontaran ship has already been mentioned; there’s also Sarah’s journey through the ventilation duct, through the mass of Wirrrn (another thing added by Marter is an extra “r” in the name of the monster), and the nightmares inflicted on both Sarah and Harry by the Sontaran experimenter. He also adds graphical nastiness and violence. Noah’s head explodes, revealing the Wirrrn within. Rogin’s body is “burnt to a colourless crystal”. The fight between the Sontaran and the Doctor is realised in considerable detail.

Basically, if your attention is suddenly held by the prose in one of Marter’s novelisations, it’s a fair bet that it’s something he added to the original story. Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment makes a below-average DW story into a well-above-average DW novel. Doctor Who and the Ark in Space is a really good read, to the point where Andrew Wrixon at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide blames Marter for making him unable to enjoy the original version as much as he does the novel.

I was much less impressed with Marter’s next four novelisations – Doctor Who and the Ribos OperationDoctor Who and the Enemy of the World, Doctor Who – Earthshock and Doctor Who – The Dominators. The two Second Doctor stories among this lot are not considered classics; “The Enemy of the World” was the one story of the famous fifth season that did not feature monsters, and I watched “The Dominators” a week ago as part of this project and thought it was pretty poor. The other two stories should have been a bit more promising; “The Ribos Operation” was the first in the Key to Time season of six stories, and introduced Romana as the Fourth Doctor’s companion; and “Earthshock”, famously, shockingly, killed off the Fifth Doctor’s companion Adric in battle with the Cybermen. But for different reasons I felt Marter had not done a particularly good job with any of them.

In “The Ribos Operation”, perhaps it’s a case of clashing formats. What I remember most about the TV version is just the sense of cold; this is a snowy city on a chilly planet. Really very little sense of that in the novel. The intial set-up between the Doctor and Romana is changed substantially, and in my view not for the better; in the TV version, the White Guardian tells the Doctor that he will be assigned an assistant, and the Doctor when he encounters her spends the first few minutes practically hiding from her behind K-9. Marter’s novelisation has Romana’s arrival as a total surprise, and puts the two characters on a more equal footing, but somehow doesn’t sparkle the same way. The final battle, according to Sarah Hadley, is much more gory in the book; but that’s as we expect from a Marter novel.

I watched the surviving third episode of “The Enemy of the World” again while reading the novel. Some lovely dialogue between Victoria and Salamander’s chef has been completely cut by Marter; so too, more happily, has an unconvincing exchange about why they are guarding the prisoner in the corridor. (Slightly off-topic, but is this the only Doctor Who story with scenes set in Hungary???) Apparently a substantial chunk from the underground caverns in the last episode was cut too. This was the first time Marter had tried to squeeze a six-episode story into 127 pages, so obviously some cuts were necessary, but the result feels very jumpy. The various deaths by shooting are, of course, more gory than on screen. It does have a rather striking cover though, the second best of the lot I think; for some reason this was only the sixth Second Doctor story to be published in novel form.

Reading the early chapters of Doctor Who – Earthshock, I decided that the descriptions of people being melted into puddles of liquid by the androids must be yet another gruesome addition of detail by Marter, and was rather surprised when I checked on-line sources to find that, for once, he has stuck pretty closely to the original story – I think more so than for any of his other novelisations, if Sarah Hadley is right. Unfortunately this does also emphasise the flaws in the plot of “Earthshock” which are numerous – not, of course, Marter’s fault but among many crimes which must be laid at Eric Saward’s door. Apart from the shock ending, it’s not a story that can stand up to much analysis – Why are the Cybermen hiding on the spaceship? Why aren’t their weapons as good as their androids’? How did they get the bomb onto Earth in the first place? Faced with this material, Marter did a barely adequate job of the novelisation.

Doctor Who – The Dominators is a better book, but this is not saying much. It was a very over-padded five-episode story in the first place, and Marter has made it a bit less dull, and injected some of the missing chemistry between the two Dominators themselves – and made them both over two and a half metres tall! He does capture Zoe and Jamie rather well here, the latter better than in Doctor Who and the Enemy of the World. But again, faced with such unpromising material to work from, the result is not up to much.

The standard Target novelisation (ie, by Terrance Dicks) just ran through the script with a bit of extra description, and I felt that Marter had not ventured very far beyond that remit in these four cases, what might be called his middle period. Somehow he managed to find that spark again, though, and his last three novelisations are all cracking good reads.

First up is Doctor Who – The Invasion, whose TV original has just been released on DVD. This was an eight-part story when first broadcast, here cut down to 160 pages, so a rather extreme rate of compression. But somehow Marter makes it work as he failed to with “The Enemy of the World”; better material to work with, true, but I actually found the plot somewhat easier to follow in the novel as well. The villainous Tobias Vaughn, briliantly brought to life by Kevin Stoney on screen, is better in some ways here, with several hints that he has already become more (or perhaps less) than completely human, and his change of heart at the end of the story (when he takes on the Cybermen) more consistently portrayed as a fanatic changing targets rather than as a human being brought to his senses we saw on TV. At the same time, no written desription can possibly convey Stoney’s sinister drawl.

But here we must take a break for Doctor Who – Harry Sullivan’s War, as it is on the spine, or The Companions of Doctor Who: Harry Sullivan’s War, as the front cover has it, or Harry Sullivan’s War, as it is on the title page. This was the second officially published Doctor Who novelisation not based on a TV story (the first being the long-forgotten Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, from earlier in 1986) and so could be said to be at the start of the long chain of spin-off fiction passing through the Virgin New and Missing Adventures to the BBC Eighth Doctor, Past Doctor and New Doctor Adventures, but also including the Big Finish audios and climaxing, if that is the word, in Torchwood.

Alas, we start to understand why Marter was never otherwise able to sell original fiction. (His other published fiction included the book-of-the-film of Down and Out in Beverley Hills, and as Ian Don the books-of-the-films of Baby, Splash, My Science Project and Tough Guys. I cannot find in my heart to regret very much that the four books he apparently wrote about the Gummi Bears were never published.) I was startled on page 4 to learn that, in this book meant to have a contemporary mid-1980s setting, NATO headquarters was in Geneva. A fairly trivial detail to those readers who visit neither NATO nor Geneva as frequently as I do, but symptomatic of a lack of focus throughout. Harry Sullivan, meant to be an experienced doctor working on top-secret biological warfare, seems to have no idea about elementary security precautions. There are some nice bits with a recurrent Van Gogh motif, and a climactic fight on the Eiffel Tower, but basically it doesn’t make much sense. There are cameos from the Brigadier (now retired to teaching a la “Mawdryn Undead”) and Sarah Jane Smith as well.

Forward, or in some ways back, to the really good stuff now. Marter’s last two books, Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror and Doctor Who – The Rescue, match his best earlier ones, in somewhat different ways. Both feature the First Doctor. “The Reign of Terror” is another six-parter, which ended the very first season of Doctor Who back in 1964. It features gruesome implied violence – which Marter is quite subdued in writing up, apart from the historically accurate detail of Robespierre having his jaw blown off just before the end of the story. The whole atmosphere of a Paris living under horrible oppression is well conveyed; as with any Doctor Who story, the main characters get split up to follow different bits of the action, but Marter conveys very well their panic and disorientation in this dangerous environment (as he failed to do in Doctor Who – The Dominators). Purists will feel robbed that the Doctor’s speech about destiny at the end of the last scene has been replaced with some banter between him and Ian Chesterton, but I suspect this may one of those cases where what worked on the screen would not have worked so well on the page. It also has absolutely the best cover of the ten books.

Ian Marter died suddenly on his 42nd birthday, 28 October 1986, leaving Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror in press and having completed and partially revised Doctor Who – The Rescue. His last is probably his best book, better even than Doctor Who and the Ark in Space. Like “The Sontaran Experiment”, “The Rescue” was a rare two-part story, intended purely to introduce the first new companion to join the show since its beginning, Vicki – one of two survivors of a spaceship crash on an apparently hostile planet. I thought after watching it a few months ago that this was a plot which could manage a great deal of filling out of back-story; the Doctor’s past relations with the natives of the planet, the story of what had actually happened to the human settlers.

In fact Marter delivers much more than that. For once, the printed page is superior to the screen. The twenty-something Maureen O’Brien could never really pass as the young teenager that Vicki was meant to be; Marter is not restricted by the actor’s appearance. The monsters of the planet were among the least compelling aspects of the original TV story; again Marter can just make them up and does indeed bring in at least one more. We get loads more banter between the Doctor and Ian, with Marter for once putting comic dialogue in rather than taking it out. And the entire story is topped and tailed by the rescue ship which is supposed to be coming for Vicki and her fellow-survivor, so that one feels that this planet is one that fits into a wider history.

So, who knows what Marter might have delivered had he lived? Certainly some more novelisations – there were still a couple of dozen left when he died. Perhaps Peter Darvill-Evans and Rebecca Levene might have knocked him into shape as a contributor to the Virgin series. Going by what we have, the quality would have been uneven, but at his best, Marter was very good. Sadly, we’ll never know.

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