Doctor Who novels, as recommended on LibraryThing and Goodreads, part 1

It may not have escaped your notice that the sixtieth anniversary of Doctor Who is in a few days. This blog is primarily a book blog, so I’ve done a bit of analysis of which Doctor Who books are particularly well known on the two main online book catalogue sites – LibraryThing and Goodreads. Personally I remain a LibraryThing loyalist, but I have to recognise the reality that Goodreads’ user base is at least an order of magnitude higher. I’ve looked at the statistics of the various series of Doctor Who books on LibraryThing and Goodreads, splitting differences by multiplying together the number of owners of the book registered on LibraryThing, and the number of Goodreads users who have rated it (Goodreads also allows you to see the number of users who say they own the book, but it’s trickier to get to). In a fair number of cases, the same book comes out on top, but there are differences as well, and in every category I’m also giving my own personal favourite, which is usually different again.

A lot of western Whovians are unaware of the full variety of the runs of novels and other written fiction related to the show, but I was struck by how much the New Who books matter to the Chinese fans who I met in Chengdu. Here I’m listing the most obscure categories first, and the most widely owned and rated book of all Doctor Who literature (which is the same on both systems) at the end. What book is that? You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see, because this post got too long for one day…

The Sarah Jane Adventures

The much-missed Elisabeth Sladen starred in three and a half series of the spinoff Sarah Jane Adventures before her untimely death in 2012. The BBC took an interesting approach to linked publications: some of the SJA episodes, especially from the early seasons, were novelised from the scripts; but there were also a number of stories released only as audiobooks, and it is the second one of these, The Glittering Storm by Stephen Cole, that has the top rating on Goodreads and on the two systems combined.

Like most of the Sarah Jane Adventures, it’s about alien intrusions into our world, this time featuring respectable ladies engaging in burglary. It was the second of the audios to come out and must have benefited from marketing to the Goodreads audience demographic. You can get it here, but it’s not my favourite among the audios (which are generally one of the better is least well-known series of Who publications); I recommend The Thirteenth Stone, by Justin Richards, and Deadly Download, by Jason Arnopp.

The most popular of the novelisations on LibraryThing, and on the two systems combined, is the very first, Invasion of the Bane, written by veteran Who writer Terrance Dicks, who was the script editor for the show during the Pertwee years in the early 1970s. It’s a straightforward screen-to-page exercise, with the character who was axed after the pilot episode somewhat underplayed in the book. You can get it here. Often the first in a sequence of books bubbles to the top of reader ratings.

The top novelisation on Goodreads is the last of them, Death of the Doctor, by Gary Russell, which features a guest appearance from Matt Smith’s character and also from Katy Manning’s Jo Grant/Jo Jones. Again, multi-Doctor stories, which this almost is, tend to do well, as we shall see. You can get it here.

My own favourite is the late great Rupert Laight’s novelisation of the first regular episode, Revenge of the Slitheen. You can get it here.

Class

The 2016 spinoff Class, set in Coal Hill school where the show started in 1963 (and where the Twelfth Doctor later worked as a janitor) ran for only eight episodes, but had three spinoff novels as well, and a fair number of Big Finish audios reuniting some or all of the TV cast. Of the three novels, the top-ranked on both Goodreads and LibraryThing is The Stone House, by A.K. Benedict, a fairly straightforward haunted-house story that I think has a slightly better cover than the other two and maybe enjoyed greater sales. You can get it here.

My own favourite of the three was the first, a social media tale called What She Does Next Will Astound You, by James Goss, who is one of my favourite Who writers, always delivering really good quality stories, but has never written for TV. You can get it here. (The third book is Joyride, by Guy Adams. Complete the set if you like.)

The Companions of Doctor Who

Another long-forgotten set of three spinoff books still has more traction than either the Sarah Jane stories or the Class novelisations: they were published in 1986 and 1987, and feature recently departed companions from the TV show without the Doctor. The top novel of the three on LibraryThing, in second place on Goodreads by a hair, is Harry Sullivan’s War by Ian Marter, who as an actor had actually played Harry Sullivan in the first Tom Baker season and wrote a number of novelisations for Doctor Who and other franchises. I wasn’t wowed, but you can get it here.

Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, by Tony Attwood, is a shade ahead of the other two on LibraryThing, probably because it was the first published. Turlough ends up at the centre of a galactic conspiracy where the villain’s name is Rehctaht, which tells you all you need to know. You can get it here.

Surprisingly the novelisation of an actual TV story, K9 and Company by Terence Dudley, fails to score top place on either system; I think it’s much the best of the three, and you can get it here.

Sixth Doctor

The top Sixth Doctor novel on both Goodreads and LibraryThing is one of the BBC-published Past Doctor Adventures from 1999, reissued with a new cover in 2013: Players by the veteran Terrance Dicks. He has the Sixth Doctor and Peri encountering Winston Churchill at various points in his career, with a look-in from the Second Doctor and Jamie. It’s the first of three books by Dicks featuring the Players, the other two being Endgame (Eighth Doctor) and World Game (Second Doctor). You can get it here.

The top Sixth Doctor novelisation on both LibraryThing and Goodreads is also my own favourite Sixth Doctor book, the novelisation of The Two Doctors, by Robert Holmes. You can get it here. If I am not allowed a multi-Doctor story, I’ll take the Telos novella Shell Shock by Simon A. Forward, which you can get here.

Thirteenth Doctor

One of my personal frustrations with the Chibnall era is that little attention was paid to spinoff material beyond the TV programme itself. The last few Doctor Who annuals are by far the least impressive in sixty years. There are a grand total of ten books featuring the Thirteenth Doctor; there are thirty-two featuring the Sixth. She has been the least well served of any of the Doctor’s incarnations.

LibraryThing users, Goodreads users and I myself all agree that the top of the ten is Juno Dawson’s The Good Doctor, in which the Doctor and friends return to a world centuries after their adventure there, to discover that their first visit has become the founding myth of the dominant oppressive religious cult, with Graham remembered as the Doctor, the Doctor herself largely forgotten, and their own past used to justify slavery. It is very well done and packs a lot of action and thought into 227 pages. You can get it here.

Missing Adventures

Virgin published 34 Missing Adventures of Doctor Who between 1994 and 199. These were the first original novels featuring a Doctor other than the current incarnation (at the time Sylverster McCoy’s Seven), during the period when Virgin also had the New Adventures franchise (which we’ll get to in due course). The first published of these is also top by a decent margin on both Goodreads and LibraryThing; Goth Opera by Paul Cornell (who we’ll meet again), a sort of sequel to the Fourth Doctor TV story State of Decay involving the Fifth Doctor, Tegan Nyssa, Romana, vampires and cricket in Australia. You can get it here.

As is often the case, I differ from the conventional wisdom, and my own favourite of the Missing Adventures is Evolution by John Peel, a glorious Victorian romp featuring the young Arthur Conan Doyle and an even younger Rudyard Kipling, combined with affectionate references to Horror of Fang Rock and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. You can get it here.

Fifth Doctor

The top novel on both Goodreads and LibraryThing set during the Fifth Doctor era is one of a number of multi-Doctor stories that will be on this list, Doctor Who: The Five Doctors, Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of the 20th anniversary TV show in 1983 (which he also wrote). In case you have forgotten, the Fifth, Second, Third and an ersatz First Doctor join forces to defeat various baddies on Gallifrey. It was all pulled together rapidly, and if memory serves correctly was actually published before the TV episode was broadcast. You can get it here, and rather cheaper here as part of the new Terrance Dicks collection.

Purists may grumble that they want to know which novel featuring only the Fifth Doctor is top. On Goodreads, it’s the novelisation of his first story, Doctor Who: Castrovalva, by the TV story’s writer Christopher H. Bidmead, which you can get here; on LibraryThing, it’s Goth Opera, already described.

Personally my favourite Fifth Doctor novel is The Sands of Time by Justin Richards, a sequel to Pyramids of Mars with a nod also to Black Orchid. You can get it here.

Eighth Doctor Adventures

The BBC published no less than 73 Eighth Doctor novels between 1996 and 2005, and on Goodreads the most-rated of them is the very first, The Eight Doctors, once again by Terrance Dicks, which sets up the character and new companion Sam for many future adventures. You can get it here. If again you complain that you’re not counting multi-Doctor stories, the next on Gooreads is the second Eighth Doctor novel, Vampire Science by Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman, which again brings back the vampires to contemporary San Francisco. You can get it here.

The top Eighth Doctor Adventure on LibraryThing is EarthWorld by Jacqueline Rayner, which features a murderous amusement park, lots of mad alien stuff and entertaining misinterpretations of Earth history. I enjoyed it and you can get it here.

None of the Eighth Doctor novels is a standout favourite for me as with some of the other categories, but I want to call your attention to Escape Velocity by Colin Brake, set largely in Brussels and featuring the Atomium on the front cover; at one point the Doctor and friends run past the building where I worked between 2008 and 2014. You can get it here.

Past Doctor Adventures

At the same time as the BBC were publishing the Eighth Doctor Adventures, they brought out an even longer series of novels featuring the first seven Doctors. Top of these on Goodreads is Ten Little Aliens by Stephen Cole, taking the First Doctor, Ben and Polly to an asteroid where there is also a sequence of mysterious murders taking place. Cards on the table: I personally didn’t much like this one, but you can get it here.

I liked much more the top novel of this sequence with LibraryThing readers, Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris, which successfully channels the glory days of the Tom Baker / Lalla Ward relationship. You can get it here.

Again, I don’t have a standout favourite from this run, but I’d call your attention to another First Doctor novel and another Fourth Doctor novel. Salvation by Steve Lyons brings the Doctor, Steven and Dodo to New York where they encounter angels and Dodo’s accent gets changed. You can get it here. Eye of Heaven by Jim Mortimore brings the Doctor and Leela to Rapa Nui / Easter Island and asks some interesting questions about colonialism. You can get it here.

Twelfth Doctor

Goodreads and LibraryThing users concur in that the most popular Twelfth Doctor book on both systems is Silhouette, by Justin Richards. His name has already been mentioned, but I want to emphasise that he has written more Doctor Who books than anyone except the late Terrance Dicks, and I think may well overhaul him if given a chance by the BBC. This particular novel is a fun reunion of the Doctor and Clara with the Paternoster Gang (Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax) investigating a peculiar series of murders. (I’m noticing that this is a trope that pops up more than once in popular Who novels; and indeed TV stories.) You can get it here.

I too enjoyed it, but I’m also going to call your attention to Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light, Rona Munro’s novelisation of her own TV story, which gives the characters and setting (Roman era Scotland, menaced by a transdimensional alien) a lot more detail. You can get it here.

Tomorrow we’ll cover the Seventh, Second, First, Eleventh, Ninth, Fourth and Tenth Doctors, with a side order of Torchwood, the War Doctor and the 50th Anniversary short stories.

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii, by James Moran

When the TV story The Fires of Pompeii was first shown in 2008, I wrote:

I must have been one of the few kids of my generation who voluntarily did Latin O-level. There were two of us in the class; our teacher was from Achill Island, and had studied classics in Galway through the medium of Irish (which she also taught at our school). However we used the Ecce Romani books, not the Cambridge Latin Course, so missed out on that particular set of in-jokes.

But I loved the Doctor’s shifty acknowledgement of responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, and my Big Finish sympathies were satisfied with the fact that there was no explicit contradiction with what Seven and Mel were up to on the other side of town. I also liked the new take on the Tardis translation effect – “Look you!” – and the way in which the Doctor accepts responsibility for causing the eruption. There was that one moment reminiscent of the “You lucky bastard!” scene from Life of Brian, and I am aware that volcanoes on the whole do not contain such conveniently located corridors, but I was willing to take the ride.

It was also one of the lockdown rewatches organised by Emily Cook (who deserves a medal from the wider Who community).

Also during the 2020 lockdown, James Moran wrote a webcast sequel with descendants of the Pompeiians in today’s Britain:

It was great fun to rewatch it for this post, especially now that we know we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Karen Gillan again. (Karen Gillan is the first of the soothsayers to appear, in an episode filmed ten weeks before her 20th birthday.) The Tenth Doctor / Donna dynamic is fantastic – they are just friends, but very good friends even though this is only their third adventure together.

(Though Anne said, after I showed her an episode of Galaxy Four soon after rewatching The Fires of Pompeii, “Wasn’t it great when they didn’t feel that they had to emote all the time?”)

The second paragraph of the third chapter of James Moran’s novelisation is:

The villa was a big, open-plan design, with a large atrium and living area leading off to smaller alcoves. Four large hypocaust grilles in the floor constantly pumped out thick gusts of hot steam. There were vases, plants, busts, statues and gaudy chunks of decorative marble everywhere. Caecilius was a man who liked art, the fancier the better. But there was something about this blue box that intrigued him more than anything. He’d always admired modern art, especially the way it was occasionally hard to tell what was actually art and what was just a weird lump of material. It was a matter of will, sometimes. If you said something was art, and said it loudly enough, people would believe it, even if it looked like a child had made it; especially so in some cases. Plenty of modern art was undeniably beautiful, of course, but it was all subjective in the end. As long as you liked something, and it gave you pleasure, then it was art, and nobody could tell you otherwise.

This is great fun, with the episode script faithfully delivered to the page and more detail added, including that Caecilius and Metella’s son Quintus is gay and the following jewel about Donna’s life:

In the Temple of Sibyl, Donna was not in a good mood. It was fair to say this was probably the worst mood she’d been in all year.

And she’d had a pretty spectacularly bad few months, even before reconnecting with the Doctor. In any other year, being hunted down by a lunatic alien nanny and lumps of living fat would have been the worst thing ever – but this year, that barely scraped the top five. There was the disastrous night out chasing a taxi driver she thought was an alien in disguise, which resulted in her online taxi app somehow dropping her passenger rating to below zero. That was quite an achievement; the company actually sent her a certificate. Cancelled her account, of course, but they were still impressed. Then there was the Bad Haircut Incident of February, which her friends and family were ordered to NEVER mention again, even though it had grown out since and she had deleted all photos of the offending barnet. And then there was the speed-dating evening her mum had forced her to go on, during which she had slapped three men, punched two, and been barred from an entire street. And those were just the top three bad things to happen. There were so many others she wished she could forget, too, including the event everyone simply referred to in hushed tones as KebabGate.

But none of them had ended with her tied to a sacrificial altar, in a creepy secret temple, with some sort of spooky druids standing around chanting and waving knives. So this pipped them all to the top spot. By some considerable distance. She just hoped she would live to tell the tale.

I complimented the author on this and he was good enough to reply.

It’s exactly what you want from a novelisation – captures the fun of the original TV episode and adds a bit more characterisation and background. (Except for the Pyroviles.) You can get it here.