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The Target Storybook: let’s go punting

The news is out. I’ve contributed a short story to the Target Storybook, a new Doctor Who anthology from BBC Books.

What is the Target Storybook?

The Target Storybook cover

It’s a collection of spinoffs, missing scenes, what-ifs and diary entries, featuring every Doctor.

They’ve been written by a stack of amazing people. Doctor Who authors from the TV series – like Vinay Patel, who’s written a prequel to his brilliant episode ‘Demons of the Punjab’; Joy Wilkinson, who wrote ‘The Witchfinders’ which I loved to bits; and Terrance Dicks, who wrote a monster-sized quantity of what I watched and read as a kid. Awesome folk from many other DW books and audios, like Una McCormack, Jenny T Colgan and Simon Guerrier. Matthew Waterhouse, who as companion Adric made me feel much better about having exactly the same haircut. And AN ACTUAL REAL LIFE DOCTOR, aka the mighty Colin Baker.

And me. Who writes children’s books set in the present, usually, but is a massive Doctor Who fan and is dead chuffed to be involved.

What’s a Target book anyway?

Hello! I greet you from ye olden times, aka the 70s and 80s. When I started watching Doctor Who, there was no on-demand service. Episodes were never repeated. They weren’t even available on VHS, unless you were clever and gifted with a video recorder and a supply of tapes.

An episode was on. Then you never, ever saw it again. And this being Doctor Who, a show that started in 1963, there was quite a lot of it that might well have been on before you were even alive.

The only way to ‘rewatch’ the stories was in Target novelisations. Often written by the scriptwriter, these brilliant little books were a staple of my library loans for years. They’re fondly remembered for reusing certain stock phrases (the Fifth Doctor’s ‘pleasant, open face’ was apparently a required description), and for rarely resolving any plot wonkiness. But they were wonderful: our own way to time travel back to those episodes.

What’s your story about?

I was asked to imagine a missing moment in classic Doctor Who history. A prologue, and epilogue, a gap in the story. It was tempting to look at the spaces between eras, or to follow a companion up, K9 and Company-style.

I proposed a couple of sensible ideas, then added:

‘Or something daft involving what it was actually like being trapped in a wonky special effect for all of the Five Doctors. Hmm, in fact 4th Doc watching it all and being terribly unimpressed might be fun… What do you think?’

The final story, ‘Punting’, is not quite that – after Steve Cole rightly pointed out that a short story where they just sit there and make scathing remarks instead of trying to dive in and save the day wasn’t exactly their style. (Thanks, Steve.)

It’s a proper adventure, with their own problems to solve – all while trying to save his other selves from peril.

What is The Five Doctors?

It’s a special feature-length TV episode from 1983, to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. An evil plot sucks multiple regenerations of the Doctor out of their own timelines, and plonks them in the terrifying Death Zone on Gallifrey to meet a sticky end (or maybe not). It means there are four – ish – regenerations onscreen, sharing the same adventure, along with lots of returning companions and monsters.

Five Doctors promo shoot

If Tom Baker (centre) looks a little peaky in this fine example of daft Doctor Who promo shoots, that’s because he’s a waxwork. Tom wasn’t up for being in the episode, so the Fourth Doctor’s contributions are little bookends from incomplete story Shada. He and Romana thus spend the whole story ‘trapped’.

My story will make considerably more sense if you’ve seen this episode. If you’ve never seen any classic Doctor Who, it’s a great place to start!  It was my introduction to the first three Doctors (although the First Doctor is played by another actor, Richard Hurndall, as sadly William Hartnell was no longer with us).

City of Death

If you haven’t, I’d suggest watching a Four and Romana-era story too, since they don’t have much screen time in the Five Doctors. (City of Death – above – is a lot of people’s Best Episode Ever if that helps.)

Why The Five Doctors?

It may not be beloved by fandom, but as a young fan in the 80s, The Five Doctors was my first window into the past history of the show. It was the only episode we’d ever taped off the telly. I loved Doctor Who. I loved my Doctor, Peter Davison, but I also loved the idea of being given the key to the secrets of the show’s history. This was the treasured little piece of it that I had, and I watched it over and again, enraptured.

It’s what made me later seek out the Doctors I’d missed. It’s what made me want to know who that nice lady in the bubble-wrap dress was. It gave us NOT THE MIND PROBE, and for that alone, I salute it. But it’s also a story that I regard with intense fondness and respect.

I tell you this because my story is fond, but also a little irreverent. I made a conscious decision not to write it completely ‘Target style’. The Target books were utterly straight: I think in a retcon story like this, it makes sense to nod to a Doylist approach as well as Watsonian. (Yes, I linked to TVTropes. Don’t @ me.)

I had some fun. But it’s the fun that comes with familiarity; the tease that only works because author and audience alike adore the object of the teasing. I hope that comes across – alongside a proper adventure with peril galore.

When it’s out?

The Target Storybook is published on 24 October 2019.

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