David Fisher’s novelisation of his 1978 Doctor Who story, The Androids of Tara, has recently been published in paper form (it had been around as an audiobook for ages). It is a story which draws very strongly on the 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope,so I thought I should go back to the beginning and re-read that as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter of The Prisoner of Zenda is:
I took an early luncheon, and, having bidden my kind entertainers farewell, promising to return to them on my way home, I set out to climb the hill that led to the Castle, and thence to the forest of Zenda. Half an hour’s leisurely walking brought me to the Castle. It had been a fortress in old days, and the ancient keep was still in good preservation and broad moat, which ran all round the old buildings, was a handsome modern chateau, erected by the last king, and now forming the country residence of the Duke of Strelsau. The old and the new portions were connected by a drawbridge, and this indirect mode of access formed the only passage between the old building and the outer world; but leading to the modern chateau there was a broad and handsome avenue. It was an ideal residence: when “Black Michael” desired company, he could dwell in his chateau; if a fit of misanthropy seized him, he had merely to cross the bridge and draw it up after him (it ran on rollers), and nothing short of a regiment and a train of artillery could fetch him out. I went on my way, glad that poor Black Michael, though he could not have the throne or the princess, had, at least, as fine a residence as any prince in Europe.
In case you don’t know, the story concerns one Rudolf Rassendyll, a minor English aristocrat, who visits the central European kingdom of Ruritania only to discover that he is an exact double of the new king. The new king gets drugged and kidnapped by his half-brother, who is scheming to take the throne, and Rudolf is co-opted to pretend to be the monarch, through the coronation, and courting the lovely princess Flavia. There’s lots of exciting sword-fighting and derring-do, especially around the castle of Zenda where the real king is being held, and the half-brother’s henchmen include an evil Belgian. It’s a slightly deeper book than most readers may think, with reflections on dynastic duty and honour, and it’s a cracking good and short read. You can get it here.
I remember hugely enjoying The Androids of Tara when it was first broadcast in later 1978; I would have been eleven. When I came back to it in 2008, having read The Prisoner of Zenda in the meantime, I wrote:
Almost all of The Androids of Tara is basically a lift from The Prisoner of Zenda – Romana actually finds the fourth segment of the Key to Time, the ostensible point of the plot, in the first episode while the Doctor is off fishing. But it is all great fun – Mary Tamm gorgeous as ever in all her parts (ie all her roles), the villainous count yelling “Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”
I noticed that Declan Mulholland, playing the Count’s sidekick Till, did so with a marked Ulster accent. I checked back on his one previous appearance in Doctor Who, in The Sea Devils, but his character is too busy dying in agony to really display much of an accent there.
When I came back to it in 2011 for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:
The Androids of Tara is one of the most shamelessly derivative Who stories ever, so obviously ripped off from The Prisoner of Zenda that apparently even some of the lines are the same. But it’s done with great style and affection, with particularly the guest cast enthusiastically in it – most especially Peter Jeffrey’s evil Count Grendel, but the others as well (and a special shout-out for Declan Mulholland’s Ulster/Mummerset accent as Till). In a season where every story is a quest for a segment, it’s refreshing to have the segment found in the first ten minutes and then get on with the planetary intrigue. Mary Tamm doesn’t have to do much as Princess Strella, which again is a sign of the times.
One minor casting point is that this is the last of Cyril Shapps’ four appearances in Doctor Who, playing the Archimandrite this time, and the only occasion on which his character is not killed off.
On reflection, the story’s relationship with The Prisoner of Zenda is a little more complex than I said in either of my previous write-ups. The Doctor and Romana land in the middle of a Zenda-like plot, but take it in some different directions (and some similar). Rather than the central character being the King’s double, it is his sidekick who is the princess’s double; but the doubles double up thanks to the android theme, with Mary Tamm playing four different roles in the end. Several of the set-piece scenes are indeed lifted directly from Anthony Hope, but with variations – the drugged drink combines two slightly different events from the book; K9 intervenes directly to assist both getting into the Pavilion and getting out of the castle. (In fact we see more aggressive action from K9 here than usual.) Contra what is sometimes asserted, I don’t think any of David Fisher’s lines is a direct lift from Anthony Hope. But it is recognisably the same story, rewritten to have the Doctor, Romana, K9 and android duplicates.
The second paragraph of the third chapter of Terrance Dicks’ original novelisation is:
‘Castle Gracht, my dear,’ said Count Grendel proudly. ‘Ancient home of the Grendels of Gracht.’
When I reread this in 2008, I wrote:
Another standard Dicks write-what’s-on-the-screen treatment.
Not much more to say. You can get it here.
It is delightful that we now have Fisher’s own version of the story, filled out in a number of directions. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
The reason for this was that Madame Lamia had become interested in the crystal that the stranger had been found with. Lamia had broken two diamond-tipped drills on it and not even scratched the surface. Yet this strange woman, who was the spitting image of Princess Strella, kept insisting it was quartz. But it was like no quartz that Madame Lamia had ever seen. However, her concentration was shattered by the Count’s entrance at full gallop roaring like an angry bull.
As previously mentioned, this is actually the 2022 print version of a 2012 audiobook, slightly adapted for the page (as Steve Cole explains in an endnote). It is thoroughly satisfying. The social structure and recent history of Tara are explained in depth, if still not completely believably, and it’s very clear that the relationship between Count Grendel and his engineer Madame Lamia is sexually as well as economically exploitative. The whole thing feels very much bulked up rather than padded out, and I’m very glad that the BBC asked Fisher to have another go at it before it was too late. You can get it here.
For fun I went and reread Paul Cornell’s sequel, “The Trials of Tara”, which you can find in Decalog 2: Lost Property, a 1995 anthology of short stories which you can get here. I didn’t especially call attention to this story when I first read the book, but it’s an entertaining mashup of the Seventh Doctor and Bernice Summerfield returning to Tara to find that things have gone wrong in their absence, with that notorious android, the Candyman, also turning up, and the whole thing told in (more or less) iambic pentameter as a stage script, with elements of pantomime (Benny cross-dresses, the villains are appropriately villainous). The third scene opens as follows:
Scene 3. Another clearing, with TARDIS
Enter the Doctor and Bernice.
Doctor: This is the sweet and charming planet Tara.
Home to android smiths. And nobles.
On which I own a field or two of land
Having earned it. In royal serrvice.
My intent is to visit my old friend
Prince Reynart, and his princess bride Strella,
Who did resemble my friend Romana.
It’s actually really amusing, and I should have paid more attention on first reading it; it was a nice chaser to the three books. I don’t know of any other Taran spinoff fiction.