Understanding Doctor Who Part VII: The 1989-2005 Wilderness Years

Over here in North America, we can't really claim to understand what Doctor Who's 1989 cancellation truly meant. In the UK, Who was a tradition, an institution, even if a poorly followed and financed one at the time. The landscape of TV (sorry, I mean telly) was changing, and it was clear no new stories would be filmed. Across the Atlantic, PBS or whoever was still repeating the same stories as usual, and it sometimes seemed that aside from the strange black and white anomaly of The Web Planet or perhaps the sharp video of Time and the Rani, the only Doctors that ever existed were the 3rd, 4th and 5th.

Regardless, Doctor Who was not actually over. There had been a strong tradition of Doctor Who novelizations to cover the era where VHS had not yet been invented, Target Books often written by people who's worked on the show. They were basically the equivalent of James Blish's Star Trek novelizations, and just like Star Trek the show went away, there was demand for original stories to be commissioned. However, while Ballantine and Pocket Books would publish stories that could happen anywhere in the 5-year mission and beyond, Virgin would, from 1991 through 1997, publish 61 original novels that would loosely or strongly continue the 7th Doctor's narrative. Cue the New Adventures.

The New Adventures were far more adult than the show (the 10th book of the line, Transit, is famous for using the f-word a lot), full of sex and violence, but also taking Doctor Who into high concept science fiction like never before. At times, it got downright weird. At their most accessible (because they weren't always), they filled out the details on the Time Lord-Vampire war and introduced Lovecraft's cosmology to the Whoniverse. The NAs were rather important as a farm team for the new series too. Along with some of the classic series writers like Terrance Dicks, Marc Platt and Ben Aaronovitch, you'll find credits going to Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell (who introduced the first new companion, Bernice Summerfield, who would go on to star in her own stories, both written and audio), Gareth Roberts, and... Russell T Davies.

But there was demand for (perhaps more accessible) stories starring the first 6 Doctors, and so Virgin started publishing the Missing Adventures in 1994. More than 30 of these were written, often by some of the same writers working on the NAs (and they weren't as generally aimed at a "mature" crowd, though they had their moments). A few actually tied in with a New Adventure, bringing more cohesion to the line. At this point, it was easy to think of Virgin's output as canon. With no new televised stories, they couldn't be contradicted, nor did they need to play it safe with characters and companions. Some of these books are available in free electronic form on the BBC's website. 

In 1996, the American co-production of the Doctor Who tv movie changed everything. Virgin's deal collapsed and their last book spun off the new 8th Doctor's adventures. The BBC took back its license and went into publishing new stories for itself. The Eight Doctor Adventures continued the Paul McGann Doctor's story from the TVM right up to the start of the start of the new series. 73 books were published between 1997 and 2005, often as part of relatively long story arcs. Doctor #8 had all original companions, so of which were quite memorable, and took part in a massive Time War, which may or may not be the one referred to in the new series. Though many can be seen as examples of standard tie-in fiction, the line didn't shy away from experimentation. The works of metatextual Paul Magrs and the crazy Grant Morrisonesque Lawrence Miles stand out. (In fact, both those authors would go on to spin off their concepts in other lines. Magrs taking his Time Lord pastiche Iris Wildthyme to audio and books, and Miles turning his Time War stuff and revised Whovian cosmology into the Faction Paradox line, with all the unlicensed numbers filed off.)

Just like Virgin did, BBC Books also published stories for the other 7 Doctors, in the Past Doctor Adventures line. The quality of these is far less consistent. The 76 novels range from comically brilliant (Veridgris) to quite ordinary (Deep Blue) to shitstorms of boring continuity porn (Divided Loyalties). Kind of a shot in the dark, really.


In the middle of this (in 2001 to be exact), the BBC did give the rights to a small company called Telos to publish hardcover novellas. I only have one, and it's one of the few reprinted in papaerback, but they looked to be pretty posh products. Available in either standard or deluxe format, these 15 stories had illustrations and a classy library look. They featured Doctors 1 though 8, and attempted literate stories. It's too bad they're even harder to come by than the NAs.

In 2005, of course, the new series precipitated a change of direction for BBC Books. New pocket-sized hardcover novels starring the new Doctors were commissioned for the youth market, not to everyone's satisfaction. Though the format is gorgeous, they are clearly written for a younger audience than the fans of the previous lines. Fast plots and dialogue and hardly any interior monologue are some of their problems (and of the few paperback "quick reads" also published), but also gone are stories featuring Doctors 1 though 8, and after the first six books, so were stories featuring the 9th Doctor. Though this is probably sound marketing, it does fail to fill the niche created by the Wilderness' output. Again, these books have a strange relationship to canonicity, with one adventure from the books referred to onscreen in Boom Town. Since Davies started out writing for novels, is he approving tie-in canon?

Parallel to the books are Big Finish's audios. Beginning officially in 1999, this company uses its license to produce audio CD adventures using the voice talents of actual actors from the show. More than 120 "radio plays" have been produced so far featuring the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Doctors. Some of the tv companions make returns, but new ones are introduced as well. If you can't believe that Peri traveled extensively with the 5th Doctor between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani, you might have problems with the whole concept, however you'll be missing out on some quality stories. For 8th Doctor fans, you'll find an engaging continuing series divided into "seasons", with all-original companions (set either before or after the 8th Doctor novels). Some of these audios were written by people who would go on to be new series writers (Dalek essentially mines Rob Shearman's own Jubilee), and some really cleverly play with the audio format (sound monsters in Whispers of Terror, a hilarious musical in Doctor Who and the Pirates, the interchangeable discs of Flip-Flop, and the lovely metatextual ...ish). Bottom line though, if you crave new material for older Doctors, they're still making them.

Alongside the main Doctor Who series, Big Finish also produced many mini-series, some starring the Doctor's evil foes (Dalek Empire, Cybermen), some featuring companions (Bernice Summerfield, Sarah Jane Smith), and others still (UNIT, Gallifrey, Iris Wildthyme). There's a spiffy Unbound series that uses alternative casting for the Doctor in "what if" tales (Derek Jacobi and David Warner are particular stand-outs). BF also published a few books using their expanded corner of the Whoniverse, mostly short story collections that star their Doctors and companions, but also Wildthyme novels and the best audio scripts.

So that's been my brief introduction to Doctor Who spin-off material, but there's more. There are loads of comics, for example (including an 8th Doctor story by Russell T Davies that gives you his take on the end of the Time War if you choose to accept it), and short stories from yearly Annuals (most of which can now be found on the DVD-Rom portion of recent DVD releases). There's the odd stray original novel not part of any line here and there, like K-9's adventures for kids, Harry Sullivan's War, Virgin's Decalog anthologies, the newer Torchwood and SJA books... and in other media, audiovisual webcasts, and the BBV audios featuring Doctor Who properties not covered by the Who license, like Kaldor City, the Sontarans and the Zygons.

So a television wasteland, but hardly a creative drought. And a lot of what was done during the tv break did bleed into the new series, so far as tone and creative talent goes. And you thought you already had a lot of Doctor Who to get through...


Jeff R. said...

Is my mind playing tricks on me, or was there also a 'lost adventures' line based on unfilmed scripts intended for the sixth doctor? (I can't recall if they were written before the 'Trial' metastory forced a complete overhaul, unused because of some strike, or written just before the ax fell. Or if the whole thing was just a marketing conceit, for that matter.)

(Also, do any of the other-media provide a quasi-canonical explanation of how Mel's timeline can possibly work out?)

Colin said...

Nice to see you compare Lawrence Miles to Grant Morrison, as that's how I've always thought of him, just as Paul Cornell is a more like Neil Gaiman, and Gareth Roberts (old-style, unpretentious fun) is Dan Slott.

Now *there's* an interesting game - comparing Who writers to comic writers. Would revisionist Ben Aaronovitch be their Alan Moore? Classic but over-rated and thematically repetitive Terry Nation as Jack Kirby? And would comparing RTD to Brian Michael Bendid be entirely unjustified?

Answers on a postcard, please...

Siskoid said...

Jeff: Yes, Target published those, you're right.

I haven't read Business Unusual (PDAs), but it recounts Mel's first adventure. Since author Gary Russell is the kind of continuity porn, I'm sure it "makes sense" of her paradoxical journey.

Colin: That's a great idea! And I think you've pegged many a writer just right. Of course, Cornell can just "play himself" these days. :)


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