July 4, 2010


Doctor Who And The Keeper of Traken
by Terrance Dicks
130 pages, Target Books

In Praise Of Terrance Dicks by Pat Black

The TV tie-in novelisation. Booksquawk moves into dangerous territory. Keep your eyes peeled, comrades, and your safeties off.

The Target books featuring televised Doctor Who stories were an addiction for me as a child, and I’m fascinated by these little relics of publishing. Long before the days of satellite channels and endlessly spooled repeats, DVD box sets and even mass-release VHS tapes, these novels were the fan’s only way of experiencing old episodes of the TV series. Although you still see tie-ins in bookshops everywhere (the sheer volume of “new” Star Wars and Star Trek books at Waterstones is both surprising and slightly depressing), novelisations of already-televised dramas are very rare these days.

If you don’t know Doctor Who, here’s a quick primer: starting in 1963, it’s a very British science fiction TV show which is now woven into the cultural fabric of the country. The monsters, the eerie theme music, the Doctor’s Tardis time machine and even the actors who played him are all easily recognisable and beloved by generations of Britons.

Doctor Who’s recent revival on the BBC has been a massive success in the UK and elsewhere. Before its upgrade in 2005, it was known for dodgy sets, dodgier monsters and large, thick slices of ham acting. “The Doctor” in the title is a mysterious traveller in time and space, popping up in strange and dangerous situations in a spaceship disguised as a blue British police call box. It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, owing to its “transcendental dimensionality”, one of many superb little science fiction quirks that the show is famous for.

The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. But he’s rather British for an alien – something of an Oxford don in silly clothes with a penchant for insane things like cricket and tweed. Certainly he’s fond of humans, taking them on his adventures as he battles a variety of monsters-of-the-week on Earth and elsewhere. Prominent among these foes are the pepperpot Nazi substitutes, the Daleks, and the far scarier and more stairs-functional Cybermen. One of the Doctor’s many neat narrative tricks is to regenerate whenever he gets “killed”, ie whenever the actor in the role decides to move on, changing his appearance and personality and keeping the whole thing going.

There were hundreds of these novelisations of the televised series, and I devoured them between the ages of 11 and 12. The majority of them were written by a man called Terrance Dicks. He wasn’t a ghostwriter, but an author of children’s books and someone who had served as a script editor on the actual show (one of his successors in this role was Douglas Adams).

Although you lose many things through experiencing the Doctor in print – there’s none of those amazing sound effects, the theme tune, etc. etc. – you gained things, too. Most obviously, the show’s low budget was cast into the void. On the page, the monsters were big and scary, the adventures were epic, the dialogue rang true... sort of... and everything had a bigness to it that you simply didn’t get on the telly.

The Keeper of Traken is an adventure of the Doctor’s fourth incarnation, as played by Tom Baker – probably the most recognisable of them all to audiences outside the UK, and still held in great affection by the British public. He’s the one with the big scarf, the bulging blue eyes, the deep, mesmerising voice, the purplish clothes and the dense1970s perm. I can just about remember the final episodes of this Doctor’s seven-year run, but he’s not “my” Doctor – that honour belongs to his successor, Peter Davison.

Here, the Doctor and his assistant du jour, the mathematics genius Adric, are contacted by a strange old dude called the Keeper of Traken, a sort of demi-god who looks over a bioelectronic “union” which keeps a system of planets in perfect harmony, with no violence or nastiness anywhere.

This is a children’s book, and I’ve only just read it, but to be perfectly honest I still have no idea how this system works.

Anyway, great evil has come to disrupt this natural harmony in the shape of an invading creature called the Melkur. Even from the front cover illustration, I can tell that the Melkur is a fine entry in Doctor Who’s pantheon of crap monsters. He looks like a meringue, a Hallowe’en treat your mum tried to make, but it went totally wrong and you threw a tantrum. He appears to have on a girdle and a silly wraparound visor. He has a glum, downturned mouth – and no wonder. His eyes glow bright red, perhaps in embarrassment.

So, the Melkur has been part calcified by the harmonious power of Traken. This stone figure is used as a garden ornament by the Fosters, or gardeners, of a Grove which has a special significance which has totally slipped my mind. But of course, old Melks is not dead really. He’s awake and aware of things, and has big plans for the vast neural network of Traken and all the power it bestows on the Keeper.

Truth be told, this didn’t seem like one of the better stories of the series. In print form, it exposes one of the classic show’s great limitations – namely, a lot of it is simply running up and down corridors, being imprisoned and then escaping. Though there’s one rather perverse moment of threat when the Melkur takes control of the bodies of two of the main characters, forcing one to shoot the other before making the killer put the gun to his own temple... then not squeezing the trigger. Talk about “pour encourager les autres”, blimey.

And there’s some horrible techno-babble, too, which is another of the show’s traditional flaws. Doctor Who plays at being cerebral, but sometimes it isn’t, really. The Doctor speaks of a massive mathematical calculation which he has to carry out in order to save the day, modestly stating that he’s “very good at arithmetic” when he does so – but we never get any hint of what these sums might involve, other than being able to think very, very hard. Then there are a load of pseudo-scientific nonsense phrases, glossed over by the scriptwriter (and the book’s author), when what he is in effect talking about is five magic rings which are needed to unlock a door.

But I can forgive all of this because, well, it’s Doctor Who and it’s Terrance Dicks. The Doctor is a brilliant and unique hero – never resorting to violence unless he absolutely has to, and never swinging a fist or firing a gun at people in order to solve problems. It’s a terrific thing for kids to get into with a lovely, humanistic impulse. And the Doctor’s a scientist, too – even things like vampires and ghosts tend to have some sort of rational explanation within the reality of the show.

Not to sound like an old codger, but nowadays chidren’s entertainment (though Doctor Who is very much a show for the whole family) involves kung fu, guns, military targeting in video games, cartoons with baffling Japanese anime, headache inducing visuals and editing, shouting and screaming... you do get some of these things in Doctor Who. But the Doctor is a moral hero as well as a libertarian, with broad, admirable concerns. He is a man out of time. It wasn’t so long ago that the show was deemed to be old hat, and it was pretty much canned for 16 years. I’m so pleased to see the show doing well, and being so popular with children.

As for Terrance Dicks, well... is it possible he is the author who has the highest “word count” when it comes to writers I’ve read? He can’t be far away. Looking back, he didn’t have an easy gig at all – at one stage in the 1970s he must have been pumping one of these books out a month using old scripts, I presume (no videos back in those days, unless he was granted access to the BBC archives). For having given the Doctor to little kids like me who were in the “target” age for Doctor Who addiction when it was shamefully taken off the TV screens for being outdated, and for feeding a growing addiction for reading, I am forever grateful to him.

So, if you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you can still pick these little books up here and there, in charity shops and, pleasingly, at the Doctor Who exhibitions up and down the country, where you can still get them “brand new” (ie. unsold in the first place) for the £1.50 or £1.99 cover price. Amazon’s always there if you need it, too.

They’re little time machines of their own – a window into a far-off time when DVDs were the stuff of science fiction but your imagination was free to roam the cosmos.

***I said we were doing the Famous Five next, didn’t I? I lied. But we’ll be catching up with Julian, Dick and the curious George next time, promise.***

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