Sci-Fi Review: Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child (1981, Target Books)

in #books4 years ago (edited)

Indulge me, if you will, in a brief 2nd-person fantasy.

The year is 1973. You are the head of publishing for Target Books, and you have just purchased the rights to create novelizations of the iconic BBC television program, Doctor Who. The show has been on the air for a decade, so you have ten years' worth of episodes to pick from (although a few of them, due to legal wranglings surrounding permissions from the original scriptwriters, are off the board for the time being).

The question you now face is this: What's the best order to present these stories to the public, and how should they be numbered and released?

Keep in mind, this is in the days before home video recorders are a thing; where you could count the number of television stations available on two hands and still have fingers left over; where distributing television programs so people could watch them at their leisure was a pipe dream; and where it made no sense to 're-run' a program since that would take up air time which could be spent broadcasting something new.

In today's world of physical media releases, broadband streaming services, DVR recording devices, on-demand smartphone apps, and (shhhh!) pirated downloads, the notion you couldn't just watch what you wanted to watch when you wanted to watch is utterly foreign. Back then though, if you wanted to experience Doctor Who, you had two options: you tuned in during tea time on a Saturday evening to see the latest episode, or you waited until next week and hoped you hadn't missed anything vital to the resolution of the story.

Being able to actually sit down and read a Doctor Who adventure was a mind-blowing notion! You could re-live the experience any time you liked, fill in the gaps on stories you missed, maybe even see scenes the creators originally envisioned but were unable to film thanks to the show's budgetary or time constraints. On the list of "best inventions ever", 'Sex' still takes the top spot, but 'Reading Doctor Who episodes' comes a close second.

At least in my house. Your mileage may vary.

In any case, it's this dream, all this and more, you are poised to bestow upon a grateful public comprising millions of fans. How do you best release these books into the hands of people who will love them and devour them over and over? Think long and hard about this, and once you've reached your decision, scroll down to see if your it meshes with reality.


If you're at all rational, your thought process went something like, "Let's begin by publishing the very first story broadcast for television, and work our way through the rest of the serials in chronological order, which gives us a nice buffer to continue producing the older titles while new episodes of the show are coming out."

This is the logical course of action. Start at the start. Begin, as they say, at the beginning, right?


The Target publishing and numbering scheme is something only a headcase could concoct. While common sense would dictate chronological story publication and sequential numbering, the system Target came up with defies classification.

The first three books published in the Target line (Doctor Who and The Crusaders, Doctor Who and The Daleks, & Doctor Who and The Zarbi, all released in May 1973) got one thing right: they were all adventures featuring William Hartnell's original incarnation of the Doctor. Beyond that, things go off the rails spectacularly enough to make one wish it had been a literal train wreck so there would be pictures to show the non-believers.

These books corresponded to the 14th, 2nd, and 13th stories broadcast respectively, but Target didn't number their books in the series by broadcast order or even by the order in which they were published. Oh no. They numbered them alphabetically by show title...and only then for the first 73 releases.

Subsequent books were shotgunned in wherever there was room in the lineup regardless of their title, which Doctor was involved, or what year they were first broadcast. Thus, the first three books in the Target library are actually numbers 12, 16, and 73 if you're arranging them numerically on your shelves, but a good portion of the First Doctor adventures were not published until the show was well into the Sixth and Seventh Doctor eras of the 1980s.

The book Target designated as #1 in their series is Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, a Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) adventure. It was the tenth book in the line to be printed, and was not published until November 1974, more than a full year after Target began churning them out. Between Abominable Snowmen and the three titles mentioned above, there are six consecutive books based on Third Doctor (John Pertwee) stories! Those books are numbered 6, 9, 18, 23, 15, and 54 in the Target line respectively.

Confused yet? It gets better.

How long would you estimate it would take for Target to get round to publishing the very first Doctor Who story? At some point someone sat down in a conference room and said, "Listen, we really must do the right thing and get Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child on shelves, because it's the premiere entry upon which the entire franchise was built." At which point everyone else seated around the table would grumble and nod in embarrassed agreement, someone's aid would phone prolific scriptwriter and one-time series script editor Terrance "Uncle Terry" Dicks, and get the ball rolling.

That's basically what happened. In, uh, October of 1981. It was the 67th novelization produced by Target. The entire world had to wait eight and a half years from the time Target began the series and eighteen years from the show's original transmission on 23 November 1963. Incidentally, it's book 68 according to Target's numbering scheme. By this point, logic and Target were not only not speaking to one another, but were involved in an acrimonious, long-running conflict which continued up until 1991, when Virgin Books acquired Target and closed them down to prevent further damage to the space/time continuum.

In any case, now that the story of Target Books and their bizarre publishing and numbering villainy is out of the way, we can get down to business with the promised review of Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child: Story #1, Book #68 in the Target Doctor Who Library.

What a relief.

It was only earlier this year that I got my hands on a DVD containing the first three Doctor Who stories broadcast. Having been a fan of the series since the 80's beginning with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) era, this was quite exciting. I watched An Unearthly Child and found myself mesmerized by the first episode.

As a brief aside: if you aren't familiar with the television format of Classic Who, stories were broadcast as multi-part serials, with a new installment appearing every week. Thus, while An Unearthly Child is one story, it's made up of four separate episodes, each meant to fill a 25-minute time slot. Early home video releases and US television broadcasts were usually edited to clip the extraneous closings, credit scrolls, openings, and recaps so they can be watched from start to finish as a single, uninterrupted experience, but the DVD releases have these cliffhangers and recaps intact to recreate the original experience of watching the program at home. Pretty nifty!

Watching the premiere episode of Doctor Who, in all its black and white glory, is a magnificent experience, not just for the historical aspect of what you're watching, but also for the incredible atmosphere and even sense of dread it manages to conjure up. The episode opens on a deserted, fog-enshrouded London street where a lone patrolman walks his beat, inspecting storefronts, shining his flashlight (er, sorry, 'torch') into shadowy spaces, and in general making sure all is well with his area. He takes a brief glance into a scrapyard, owned by one "I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant", moves his light over the assorted piles of trash/treasure, and lingers with slight confusion on a police call box before closing the door and continuing on his route.

It's eerie. The darkness in black and white productions is always so crisp and absolute, the whiteness of the fog contrasting with the stark shadows. From the first frame, Doctor Who establishes itself as a program where anything could happen. It's a marvelous introduction to the series, and I'm pleased to see it repeated so well in the novel, where Terrance Dicks gets inside the policeman's head as he performs his rounds. The sight of the police box prompts him to think about the rumors going around about how one day every man on the force would have his own portable walkie-talkie radio, which would make the call boxes obsolete. He discards that idea like rubbish, then goes on about his business, leaving the scrapyard.

Dicks departs from the teleplay by describing how the next day, while performing his rounds and inspecting the scrap yard again, the officer notices the police call box missing and wonders, briefly, if it was somehow connected to the disappearance of the scrap yard proprietor, his granddaughter, and two teachers from the local school. He waves off the thought though:

After all, you couldn't get four people into a police box - could you?

Dicks stays fairly true to the script from that point on, introducing three of the four main characters over the next couple of pages. We meet Susan Foreman, a young woman of roughly 15 years of age, along with Ian Chesterton her science teacher, and Barbara Wright her history instructor. Barbara's been trying to figure Susan out for some time now. She can't put her finger on what it is exactly, but there's something off about Susan. She knows far too much about some things that should be beyond her comprehension, and not enough about the sorts of everyday things you'd expect a fifteen year old girl to be on top of. Finally tonight her curiosity boils over, and after telling Susan to wait while she retrieves a book on the French Revolution for her, Barbara heads to Ian's classroom to talk it over with him.

Ian feels the same way. Half the time, he says he feels like Susan's the one teaching him about math and science. She also has strange notions about the fourth and fifth dimensions, stuff far too advanced for a girl her age, and she's utterly against having visitors over, claiming her grandfather doesn't care for strangers. Barbara hatches a plan to follow Susan home and see where she lives (the address on file with the school is a junkyard with no apparent place of residence), then make sure she's OK.

What follows begins an unimaginable adventure that captured the imagination of the public so vividly that it's still around today. Ian and Barbara follow Susan, meet her grumbling grandfather, and wind up inside the police box sitting in the scrap yard (which is, of course, bigger on the inside since it's a TARDIS...). Refusing to release the two teachers, this mysterious individual who doesn't answer to 'Foreman', just 'Doctor', sets his craft in motion to travel through time and space and prove to the poor instructors he isn't the crazy, brain-addled old man they believe him to be.

The only thing is, this TARDIS is touchy and temperamental much like its owner. Some of its bits and bobs don't work like they should, especially the chameleon circuitry, which is meant to camouflage it against casual observation. The crew wind up far in the past, in the time of primitive man where savage beasts roam the forests, caves are the best form of shelter, and fire is the tool which sets leaders apart from the rest of the tribe.

Lots of people find the last three episodes of An Unearthly Child far less interesting than the first, and originally I fell into this camp as well. The introduction to the characters is so well done the subsequent scenery and story of survival among the cavemen feels drab by comparison. Dicks' novel, on the other hand, does a great deal to upend this notion. With the only constraint imposed upon him by Target being a maximum page count (most of these books ran 128 pages with few exceptions) and instructions to follow the storyline of the screenplay, he plunges into the minds and thoughts of the various tribe members as they encounter these people in "strange furs" who can seemingly produce fire at will.

The hostility and enmity between the current tribal leader Za (whose father died before passing on the secret of how to make fire to his son), and his rival Kal (who is the only surviving member of a different tribe, but is a fierce warrior possessed of considerable cunning) is well-executed, with both men always looking to obtain favor over the other and willing to use almost any means or make any promise necessary to come out ahead.

While Susan and the Doctor have a fairly good idea of what's going on and where they are, Ian and Barbara (along with the reader, naturally) have to figure it out as they go. Where are they, and more importantly after the Doctor is taken prisoner by Kal and brought to the tribe, how do they get him back so they can return to the TARDIS and get away from this era where they not only don't belong, but also risk death from both the tribe and the creatures which prowl the jungle?

if there's a downside to this novelization (beyond the fact it showed up eight years later than it should have), it's the strict page count to which Dicks had to adhere. The first 79 pages of the book comprise the first two episodes, which leaves Dicks just under 50 pages into which to cram the remaining two, and the story suffers for the required rush.

That said, you really have to appreciate just what Dicks manages to do in this story, fleshing out bits that couldn't be shown on television for obvious reasons--the scene where Za fights a sabertooth tiger is far more exciting in print than on film, since they weren't about to release an actual big cat on an actor.

The rest of the story's strengths are down to Anthony Coburn's original script, which gives us an intelligent, cunning, resourceful, and alien Doctor. Far from the Humanity's Defender persona the character has developed in the current "new Who" era, this Doctor is a visitor, an observer, and a condescending one at that. He has to rely on his human companions, especially Ian, to demonstrate compassion. While the companions serve as a convenient plot device to relate information to the audience, Coburn's screenplay shows they could be more than just the confused sidekicks they could have been.

Barbara and Ian serve to counterbalance the Doctor's initial xenophobia with regards to other species. Far from being dead weight, they keep the Doctor grounded, providing a constant reminder, especially in the early shows, that he's toying with real lives beyond just his and Susan's. If your first exposure to the Doctor was David Tennant or Matt Smith, the scene where the Doctor decides the most logical and expedient solution to a problem is to commit murder will leave a sour taste in your mouth. "That's inhuman!" you'll want to scream at the book, and you'll be correct...and miss the point. The Doctor is not human, and this is just one of the many ways Coburn chose to underscore that detail. Early Doctor Who adventures are surprisingly brutal when compared to the whimsy later writers and actors brought to the part and the stories.

The story also showcases the Doctor's intelligence and cunning. While Hartnell bought a beyond-his-years spryness to the part, the fact remains the Doctor's first screen appearance is within a white-haired and over-the-hill body. While Ian was there to provide the physical excitement, and Barbara and Susan the screams, the Doctor can't rely on brute force to overcome problems, and thus has to out-think his opponents. It's this component of his character, the need to come up with the outside-the-box solutions and provide his enemies with enough rope to hang themselves that would become a series staple. They're first demonstrated here, as the Doctor tricks Kal into revealing he was the one who committed a murder by using Kal's pride against him. It's a fantastic, underplayed moment that you won't see coming until it's too late, and Dicks transcribes it perfectly.

The novel, just like the TV program, ends on a cliffhanger where the TARDIS lands on a different alien world and the group walks out just as the radiation counter flips to life and swings to the 'Danger' zone. In case you aren't already in on the joke, Dicks name-drops the planet and the enemies the Doctor and his companions are about to encounter, which is OK since episode 2 was already novelized back in 1973 as part of the original batch of three. Spoilers for a fifty-five year old story, but it's...the Daleks! (Gasp! Swoon!)

No matter how you look at it, it's impossible to concede An Unearthly Child is anything but as close to perfect as one could hope for. If you've never seen the episode, the book will make you want to read it. If you have seen it, the book does a grand job filling in little bits here and there that make the story that much better. Why Target chose to leave this story until 1981 I'll never know, but if you're looking for a good place to start reading classic Who, this is an ideal choice: it's short, it's brilliant, and best of all it's very inexpensive thanks to a slew of printings (mine's a fourth printing from 1984; there may have been more beyond that).

Four-and-a-half spinning blue police box lights out of five for the Doctor's first outing.


This is brilliant.
Perhaps Target Books existed in a different segment of the space/time continuum? Perhaps head office is in Gallifrey or somewhere in E-space?

I actually love An Unearthly Child having gotten a version of it recently also. I love it from a TV-history perspective as much as being part of the canon, because I can see how this would’ve been soooo different back in its day. No wonder it captured the imaginations of so many!!

Planning on reviewing all the books? 😉

As a matter of fact, that's my goal! A chronological reading/reviewing of every Classic Who adventure from An Unearthly Child up through Survival. We'll see how long it lasts, but I've been loving the response so far! :D

Hi modernzorker,

This post has been upvoted by the Curie community curation project and associated vote trail as exceptional content (human curated and reviewed). Have a great day :)

Visit or join the Curie Discord community to learn more.

when Virgin Books acquired Target and closed them down to prevent further damage to the space/time continuum.

This was hilarious to me.

Unfortunately, all this time line confusion is why I have never gotten into Dr. Who. I want to, I so do, but for now I will live vicariously through your joy of experiencing this enigmatic series.

If you do all the episodes in logical order *(chroni or otherwise), it will be like I really have watched it!

Steem on!

Well, I'm working my way through the second novel right now, so you may get your wish! :D Thanks for reading, @ecoinstant. :)

YES! I am here for the long haul, so take your time, enjoy them and get back to us one at a time! Is that #2 from the original batch of three? How do you arrange these on your shelves?

Ack, sorry for not responding to this sooner, @ecoinstant!

The second novel isn't #2 from the original batch of three, but rather the second episode in television chronology--Doctor Who and the Daleks. My goal is to, eventually, read and review every classic Who book in series chronological order.

Currently I have them arranged on my shelf in Target's numbering sequence, but that's only because I don't (yet!) have a full set, and it makes it easier to slot it the books when I do come across them and keep track of the ones I still need. Fortunately I've been collecting these for years, and I'm down to roughly a dozen missing titles. Once I've got a full set, I'll shift them so they're in proper broadcast order, since no other order makes sense. :)

Hi @modernzorker,

Always love your in-depth reviews and looks at all sorts of different things. This one was no exception. One thing about your posts, just like the TARDIS - they are always bigger than I was expecting on the inside.

This post was nominated by a @curie curator to be featured in an upcoming Author Showcase that will be posted Saturday evening (U.S. time, about 12-18 hours from now.) on the @curie blog.

NOTE: If you would like us to NOT feature your post in the Author Showcase please reply, email, or DM me on Discord as soon as possible. Any photos or quoted text from your post that we feature will be properly attributed to you as the author.

  • If you would like to provide a brief statement about your posting, your life or anything else to be included in the article, you can do so in reply here or look me up on Discord chat (@randomwanderings#9929 ) or even through email to randomwanderingsgene at gmail .com . This personal addition to my article is always one of my favorite parts.

You can check out our previous Author Showcase to get an idea of what we are doing with these posts.

Thanks for your time and for creating great content.
Gene (@curie curator)

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Holy cow! I'm speechless here, @randomwanderings. Not something which happens often, as you can probably tell from my long-winded write-ups. I'm honored to have been selected for this. :)

A brief statement about my posting? Well, I'm your average middle-aged guy who never fell out of love with all the things that made his childhood awesome, and who's just trying to spread that love and excitement around to others via the written word. If that's your thing, then I'm your man. :D

Thanks so much for the opportunity and the exposure. @curie's been good to me over the last year, and it's all down to the hard work of people like you. :)

The dynamics of the original cast of the show were actually surprisingly well-designed. Each of the four core characters had a fairly distinct narrative function, and it never felt like they were redundant to one another. Unlike in the later Hartnell era (and arguably the rest of the series...) where companions became fairly interchangeable devices for screaming and asking questions.

I believe the only other time there was a four-person TARDIS crew was during part of the Davison era, and in that case it just seemed unwieldy for the writers, since there weren't really enough distinct things for all four people to do for much of the time.

Given that, it will be interesting to see how the upcoming season with Whitaker as the Doctor works out... I believe the press has been promoting a four-person main cast for this season once again.

You really have to give credit to the original production team. Like you said, everyone in the TARDIS at the start of the program serves at least one vital function, even if sometimes it degenerated into screaming. ;)

I'm pretty sure you're right about Davison having the only other four-person TARDIS crew, since at one point he toted around Nyssa, Teagan, and Adric. Later on, after Adric's death and Nyssa's departure, he picked up both Turlough and Kamelion, making a second round of 4 companions, though Kamelion only made two on-screen appearances, I still say he counts. :)

Ohh, that's right; I forgot about Kamelion! Yes, the four-person section of the Davison era was even longer than I was thinking. It would actually include Planet of Fire as well (Turlough, Peri, and Kamelion). And Planet of Fire is actually another good example of one where all three companions had something reasonably interesting to do.

Kamelion is actually an interesting case, because even though he was a companion in principle, his only two appearances had him being brain-dominated by the Master and effectively functioning as an antagonist. It would be really interesting to see how the writers would have used him as a proper companion. Maybe Big Finish did some programs from that era I should investigate.

The reason Kamelion saw so little action is really sad. The man who invented and controlled the prop for the show died unexpectedly. Unfortunately he passed away without leaving behind any documentation about how the robot worked, so the production staff neither knew what to do with him nor how to do it, and it was decided to retire the character. That's why Kamelion doesn't even get a mention or appearance in The Five Doctors, despite him having literally joined the TARDIS crew in the previous episode. :(

Kamelion's gotten a lot of attention and character buffing in the Big Finish audio productions, as well as some of the Virgin Past Doctor adventures, and even the comic books. Some of it's pretty cool, some of it's extremely weird (Kamelion and the TARDIS at one point have a child together, which Peri has to care for--WTF?!), but Big Finish and Virgin have both been great at filling out back-stories for minor characters. Turlough features in a number of them as well, and gets a nice fleshing out too of his time before the Black Guardian gets his claws into him. :)

It's definitely a theme of Doctor Who, all the VHS and DVD releases were released in a random sequence. I believe the fifth Doctor story Caves of Androzani was the first DVD release.

For s&g, how about chronological along the timeline of the universe, not the Dr's personal timeline.

"Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff" my ass... :)

Never watched a second of Doctor Who although I own a badass Tardis

And that, kids, is how your uncle @blewitt found himself intimately familiarized with the expressions, "hog-tied", "beaten like a red-headed stepchild", and, "Well I'll be dipped in shit!"

Real original Zorker...Not the first time I’ve been hog tied...wont be the last....

Not if I have anything to say about it, it won't be. ;)

When I end up missing...this is where they will look...remember...blockchain is forever...


This post was shared in the Curation Collective Discord community for curators, and upvoted and resteemed by the @c-squared community account after manual review.

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Hi there, @dedicatedguy. I'm always interested in doing more with Steemit, but I'm curious to know what @promo-mentors is actually about before I join another Discord channel. What's your philosophy--are we talking personal growth and development, helping other Steemians, earning money? Make your pitch. I'm listening. :)

It is all about helping other steemians while also promoting Steem, you can find the introduction post here, and you can also find more information about the project here

Cheers mate!

 4 years ago  Reveal Comment