On The Outside, It Looked Like An Old-Fashioned Police Box

Story: Presenter Mark Gatiss revisits a now-bygone era of Doctor Who appreciation – in the pre-video, pre-DVD days when Target’s compact, economically-worded novelizations of past television stories were all that younger fans had to rely on for knowledge of the show’s early years, and got a great many young people hooked on reading into the deal. Interviewed guests include Terrance Dicks (writer of the majority of Target’s Doctor Who books), frequent cover artist Chris Achilleos, Philip Hinchcliffe, Russell T. Davies and Anneke Wills.

Review: An affectionate overview of the origins of the Target Books Doctor Who novelizations of the 1970s and ’80s, On The Outside, It Looked Like An Old-Fashioned Police Box is a good “introductory essay” to the phenomenon that has now sadly faded into a specific period: to the modern generation of Doctor Who fandom, Target’s novelizations, seldom exceeding (or even approaching) 200 pages, are more likely to be something younger fans have read about than read first-hand.

Terrance Dicks provides the bulk of the historical context for the early ’70s launch of the book series, along with the well-worn story of how he came to be the de facto Doctor Who prose storyteller. But while this provides a factual context of the business decisions that started the Doctor Who range, the rest of the half-hour is taken up by fond reminiscences and opinions, both from the guest interviewees and from Mark Gatiss himself. For further insight into the books’ success and eventual downfall as classic Doctor Who stories became a fixture of videocassette sales, though, one would do better picking up “The Target Book” by David J. Howe.

On the other hand, with that book there to provide the facts, On The Outside… is a nice half-hour of warm fuzzies – the strengths and the limitations (and the limitations which became hallmarks of the series) are covered even-handedly but, generally, fondly. Terrance Dicks owns up to his recurring descriptions of each Doctor, as well as the story behind the invention of his description of the TARDIS’ signature sound as “a strange wheezing, groaning sound.” (Once one understands that the books were being written and published at a rate of one per month, it’s easier to let Dicks off the hook just a little bit for the repetition of material.) However, the documentary is also firmly rooted in the ’70s heyday of Target’s books: a discussion of whether the standard writing style encouraged deeper development of characters and motivations completely fails to take into account the late ’80s/early ’90s novelizations, which frequently went much deeper into these areas (and paved the way for the original, non-TV New Adventures novels to boot – a topic more than worthy of their own documentary). Also missing is any discussion of the four stories that went un-adapted because their respective original scriptwriters – Eric Saward and Douglas Adams – would never sign off on a novelization.

Despite the very small bit that gets lost in translation (being an American, I never paid 35p for a Target Doctor Who book, but instead put down something on the order of $2.95 on up – basically, whatever price was dictated by a sticker placed on the back cover by the distributor based out of Seacaucus, New Jersey), the sense of nostalgia here is palpable for fans like me who “used to have all of the books.” The audiobook excerpts featuring the voices of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Katy Manning and David Troughton help to add to that feeling. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect too much depth for a mere half-hour show, so for wallowing in fond memories, On The Outside… is great; as an exploration of its subject matter, it feels like it should be the first part of a two or three part series, the other parts of which are missing. Maybe I should’ve just picked up the novelization?

Year: 2009
Author: Mark Gatiss
Publisher: BBC Radio
Pages: 28:03