172 pages, BBC Books
Review by Pat Black
Funny story. Back in the 1990s, the BBC axed two long-running shows for being old hat: Doctor Who and Come Dancing.
DoctorWho and the Abominable Snowmen is a novelisation of six episodes of the sci-fi series that first aired on British television in 1967. It featured Patrick Troughton, the second actor to take on the title role. For any noobs in the audience, “The Doctor” is a mysterious traveller in time and space. He gets around using a ship disguised as an old blue British police box, known as the Tardis - bigger on the inside than the outside. He can regenerate when he gets old or badly injured.
This is one of the “missing” stories, 1960s episodes whose original master tapes were wiped in an unbelievably bone-headed cost-cutting decision by the BBC hierarchy. Only two of the original episodes of The Abominable Snowmen still exist. Many other series suffered the same fate – even as late as the 1970s, recorded versions of Top of the Pops were wiped, as well as episodes of Dad’s Army, Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only But Also, and many more. So, apart from audio versions and animated re-stagings, this book is pretty much the only opportunity you’ll have to rediscover some of the Doctor’s early adventures in black and white.
It’s odd that a children’s book that was probably never meant to have a long shelf-life should have been reprinted nearly 40 years after its first appearance in 1974, complete with a glowing foreword by sci-fi writer Stephen Baxter. This run of reprints of the old Target novels by BBC Books and the respect afforded to them in new introductions by writers such as Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, Russell T Davies and Charlie Higson reveals the debt many sci-fi fans owe to the original show – and, curiously, the original books. Many of the 150-odd original Target Books were penned by former Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks, who is our author here. I’ve already blogged about the importance of these books, and Dicks, on this site here.
So, to the story: the Doctor lands the Tardis in the Himalayas, in order to return a sacred amulet he was given for safe keeping by Buddhist monks at a remote monastery. But, wherever the Doctor lands, trouble’s never far away. In this book it’s in the form of the Yeti, huge, furry, snarling creatures that are keen to take a swipe at the Doctor and his young companions, Jamie the Highlander and Victoria. The travellers are viewed with suspicion by the monks and their warrior protectors, as well as a slightly unhinged British explorer who’s in the area on the trail of the Yeti. But are the furry monsters all that they seem? And why does the high priest of the monastery seem to be in such thrall to odd, alien technology?
There’s not much in terms of story, here, and in truth this was an exercise in nostalgia for me. A lot of the limitations of the show are laid bare in prose. Too much of the narrative is concerned with being captured, thrown in jail, escaping, being thrown back in jail… Back in those days, it cost more money than the BBC could afford to build lots of different sets, bless them. That said, I do think the black and white transmission would have worked wonders for the snowy atmosphere. Certainly the story is one of the best-remembered among Who fans of a certain age, and the Yeti were a very popular monster.
The covers of the re-released series (at time of writing, they’ve reprinted 12 of the original run) are copies of the original artwork by Chris Achilleos, and they’re a wonderful accompaniment in their own right. In this one, the face of Patrick Troughton – better known internationally as the crazy priest from The Omen who gets shish-kebabed – scowls memorably above an image of the Yeti.
At only 170-odd pages, not including the illustrations, it’s not a lot to digest. But there are “extras”; hats off to BBC Books for providing autobiographical details on good old Terrance Dicks, as well as giving some context to the show’s production, the original screenwriters and the legacy of the storylines.
I once read an astonishing statistic: 13 million copies of the little Target Books were sold. Not a bad innings at all for TV novelisations. But these books were once the only way of enjoying Doctor Who when it wasn’t being shown, given the fact the BBC rarely if ever repeated the series and home video releases were very rare. I was part of that unhappy generation who went without Doctor Who between the ages of 12 and 28 (glossing over that well-intentioned misfire starring Paul McGann in 1996). Maybe it’s just as well; the rubber monsters, wobbly sets and dodgy costumes became the stuff of legend for the wrong reasons. Often you only saw footage being played for laughs on clip shows – Room 101, Clive James and the like.
But on the page, where the only restriction is your imagination, the Doctor’s travels in time and space took on a magic all of their own. Their influence on me as a reader and writer were enormous.
Where shall we go next? I’ve always wanted to read Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster…