Wednesday, April 20, 2011

These Books Are From Your Future (The Smugglers)

It's September 10, 1966. The Beatles are at number one again with the double-single of Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby. Also in the top ten are the Troggs, the Beach Boys, and Napoleon XIV.  Over the course of the next four weeks we'll also see The Small Faces take #1 with "All or Nothing," Jim Reeves will take it with "Distant Drums," and Roy Orbison, The Seekers, Sonny and Cher, The Supremes, The Who, and Manfred Mann will also pop around the top 10. Not on the Top 10 but still enormously important, since we last saw Doctor Who, The Doors released their debut album. Also, the first episode of some American sci-fi show called Star Trek aired, which is surely just some cheap Doctor Who knockoff or something that we can safely ignore. And over in reality, while we were sleeping the Cultural Revolution began in China.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who has returned for its fourth season with The Smugglers, filmed, as with Galaxy 4 and Planet of Giants before it, at the end of the previous production block, and thus in many ways the last story of Season 3 more than it is the first story of Season 4 - especially given the degree to which the next story represents, shall we say, a decisive break from what has come before.

As a result, it is possible that The Smugglers is actually the most undisputed story in Doctor Who history. Not undisputedly anything in particular - simply undisputed in a broad sense. Neither loved nor hated by much of anyone, this may simply be the Doctor Who story about which people care the least. It's not terribly hard to see why - it's a completely missing story (Season 4, in fact, is the only season of the show with no complete stories at all), a historical (never a recipe for widespread acclaim), and was novelized all the way out in 1988. And on top of that, it's a story that just misses the milestones over and over again. It's the second to last Hartnell story, the second to last historical, the second story featuring Ben and Polly... Just about the only thing it has going for it in terms of major milestones, actually, are that it is the first historical since The Aztecs to feature no major historical figures, and that it is the first completely missing story to be novelized by Terrance Dicks.

Which, actually, is enough to make it absolutely crucial, at least in terms of how we're experiencing the story. Yes, it was a painfully late novelization, long after Terrance Dicks had passed his peak in terms of the novelizations. (In fact, it's his third-from-last novelization) But that's beside the point. Yes, there are other good novelizations from earlier in the series, including Ian Marter's novelizations. But somehow it seems unthinkable to introduce the Target novelizations properly with anyone but Terrance Dicks.

A younger fan, or one more used to other science fiction shows, might reasonably ask why the novelizations are so important. Not a lot of other science fiction series have important book series at all, little yet ones that are just adaptations of the TV shows. But for Doctor Who, the novelizations are genuinely vital. Part of this is that for sixteen years of the program's history, it was a series of novels, at least in terms of its newly produced content, and that it was the existing tradition of novelizations that, in part, allowed that to happen.

As a concept, Doctor Who novelizations have been around since 1964 when David Whitaker's adaptation of the first Dalek story, Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks, was published by Frederick Muller Ltd. In 1973, Target Books republished that book and adaptations of The Crusade and The Web Planet, and then in 1974 started publishing its own material with Terrance Dicks's adaptation of Spearhead from Space and Malcolm Hulke's adaptation of The Silurians. The line ran into 1990, at which point it ended due to a lack of anything left to novelize. However, by that point the owner of the imprint and thus the Doctor Who license was Virgin Books, who went on to publish the New and Missing Adventures, about which we've already talked.

But more importantly, the novelizations were, in effect, the first things to make it possible to revisit classic adventures. Before VHS releases, and in a time when at best the BBC might run the occasional classic story as part of a special set of repeats (the famed Five Faces of Doctor Who series, for instance), if you wanted to revisit a favorite story, the absolute only way you were going to manage that was if you could get the Target novelization. As the 80s went on and VHS became a viable medium for the preservation of Doctor Who, the novels started to take a backseat, becoming fannish collectables (even if, in many cases, the books were quite good - the novelizations of the 7th Doctor stories are particularly interesting). But, crucially, they weren't  that to begin. They were absolutely part of how fans experienced Doctor Who, in an era before "fandom," and it was Terrance Dicks who most defined the line.

As much stick as Dicks gets for his writing style (which is, admittedly, formulaic), there are some things we need to acknowledge. First of all, the odds are very good that Terrance Dicks has done more to foster childhood literacy with the Doctor Who novelizations than you will ever contribute towards that cause in your lifetime, and for a lot of people, more than they will ever contribute to any public or charitable cause over their entire lifetimes. Literally thousands of people learned to read from Target novelizations stashed away at schools across Britain. Second of all, if you can bang out a good novelization of a Doctor Who story at Target length limits in a weekend working only from the script, well, frankly, I suspect you're lying. Which is to say, Dicks routinely worked under crappy conditions and turned out pretty acceptable books regardless. (As for the criticism that the books are short and threadbare, try reading one as you watch. Dicks expands as many scenes as he cuts down. The root problem is actually that four episodes of Doctor Who don't take more than about 130 pages to novelize.)

Third, and perhaps most important, Terrance Dicks's biggest problem as a novelist is that nobody can write 64 Doctor Who books without repeating one's self a bit. On his own merits, frankly, Dicks is a capable wordsmith with some surprisingly deft touches. One thing that is quickly clear to anyone who reads even a handful of Dicks novels is that the man is a genius at beginnings. I mean, here's just a few highlights from Dicks's opening sentences (shorn of their titles, just to make that frisson of unfamiliarity Dicks is so good at stand out)

  • It moved through the silent blackness of deep space like a giant jellyfish through the depths of the sea.
  • Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.
  • Through the vortex, that mysterious region where time and space are one, sped a police box that was not a police box at all.
  • It moved through the darkness, swift and silent despite its enormous bulk.
  • Next to the crumbling Palace of the Emperor, on the edge of the sprawling ruins that were the capital of Skonnos, there rose the Power Complex.
  • Night falls suddenly in the rain forests of the upper Amazon.
  • In the gloomy, cavernous underground Hall of Learning, the assembled Gonds were waiting.
The thing that's most obvious from any of these (and you can take your pick as to your favorite, though for my money, the second is one of the best opening sentences I've read, period) is that they are remarkably deft at setting up compelling questions in one sentence. As for his larger prose style, it is remarkably well-developed at what it is there for. It's easy to forget that the novelizations are children's literature, and specifically designed to be exciting adventures that are over quickly and that leave the reader looking for the next one. Dicks's prose style is perfectly adapted to that goal. It would, frankly, be a lesser writer who would add rhetorical flourishes and show off. Dicks has no such pretensions - he gets out of the way of the story, and tries to tell it as plainly and entertainingly as possible. Inasmuch as Dicks has a style, it is visible only because there are about 8,000 pages of his Doctor Who writing for it to show up over.

Unfortunately, The Smugglers ends up being the sort of Doctor Who story that Dicks's approach ends up being the most irritatingly formulaic at. Part of this is that the story is profoundly unambitious. We'll talk more about the decline of the historical when we get to the end of the road for the genre with The Highlanders, but suffice it to say that the genre was in terminal decline at this point. Having attempted its last ambitious historical with The Massacre, and its last one that looks like the historicals did in season one with The Crusade, by this point the historical is a format for flat adventure in a standard issue genre (the pirate story, this time around). The result is a story that wasn't trying to be much at the time, leaving Dicks with little room to work. And since Dicks's gift really is as a novelizer, when he gets an unambitious, phoned-in story, the results don't exactly light up the page.

Where The Smugglers does work as a story is in introducing Ben and Polly as a new sort of companion - something that's clearest in the scene where they escape from prison not in what would have been the standard approach for any earlier companions (lure the guard in and whack him in the head), but through an inspired and lengthy bit of trickery and bluffing involving pretending to be evil magicians. The most striking thing about this is that it's the sort of clever bluff we usually associate with the Doctor (though it seems more callous from Ben and Polly than it would from him), indicating that we have companions now who can take a more active role in affairs. No doubt some of that is simply the show preparing for the possibility that Hartnell will not give up the role quietly, as he was asked to towards the end of filming of this story, and as he ultimately did. But it also marks a major shift in the nature of companions and what they do and don't do. It's just that the shift stays in place for most, albeit not all, of the twenty-two years separating the story from its novelization, meaning that by the time Dicks writes it up, it sounds far more generic than it did airing on television.

But by and large the sensation that the novel is a bit lacking sidesteps the fact that the novel is an extremely faithful adaptation of the television show in this case. Hardly anything is cut, and none of the cuts substantially alter the meaning of a scene. There are places where Dicks does change the meaning - having Hartnell's line at the start about how he thought he'd be alone until Ben and Polly blundered into the TARDIS (and a clarifying note on this, just to weigh into a fan debate - some sources say that Ben and Polly entered the TARDIS using Dodo's key. The same sources suggest that there is a goof in episode 4 of The War Machines in which Michael Craze knocks a piece off of a War Machine with the Doctor's cloak. These sources are wrong on both counts. Careful viewing of the scene shows that the object Craze bends and picks up is the TARDIS key [contrary to fan rumor, he makes no attempt to re-attach it to the War Machine, and instead holds it up to the light to see what it is, which an actor would never do with a part of a prop during filming], and that's how he gets it to return it later in the episode) suggest the Doctor resents their presence. In the actual episode, it is clear that he in fact was afraid to be alone. 

He also makes one significant structural change, opting to use Ben and Polly as POV characters for the start of the novel, complete with a lovely section in which Polly steadily realizes she has in fact traveled in time as she walks around Cornwall seeing nothing modern. In the episode itself, Ben and Polly's insistence that the Doctor is pulling their leg is played for laughs, in no small part because they are the less familiar characters and the Doctor is the more familiar character, so they cannot serve as POV characters. Because the novel affords Dicks an omniscient narrator, he makes the intelligent choice to have the story start focused on Ben and Polly's amazing trip and disbelief at what they're seeing in a way the show simply couldn't.

Other changes are milder - the Doctor drinks brandy in the book, while refusing it in the episodes. (He does, however, drink wine in both). Dialogue is smoothed out, including several fluffs, the worst of which, for once, is not Hartnell's fault, as Terence de Marney flubs the rhyme revealing the location of the hidden treasure. Action sequences are cut from minutes in length to a few sentences, but this mostly is beneficial, as action sequences read poorly, and furthermore, the story was already stretched to fit four episodes. (There's a truly painful bit of plot extension as the Doctor decides he needs a fourth name to solve the riddle. Never mind that the riddle could work perfectly well with three names, and that there's only one thing in the riddle that could be a fourth name, we need to add a scene to this episode and that's that.)

But by and large, Dicks's novelization is a faithful recreation of what happens on the screen. For the missing episodes, this was, for many years (and for many fans still is) the major way these stories can still be experienced and known. And several of the missing stories have classic and memorable novelizations.

The Smugglers doesn't. But to be fair, that's mostly down to The Smugglers, and not to the steadfastly capable Terrance Dicks.

7 comments:

  1. Speaking of novelizations, you should include some links to them on Amazon.

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  2. Out of curiosity, Phil, what are you going to do when you get to the NAs? Do them all, do only the notable ones, smash a whole bunch into the same article so as to cover them all but not spend an inordinate amount of time on them? Part of me really wishes you'll go through all of them. And this seems like a possibility, since you seem to hold them in very high regard as the actual television show during the wilderness years (which I think is the right way to think of the NAs). On the other hand, if you did that with the NAs and the EDAs, this blog at that point would turn into basically a book blog, since there are almost as much NAs and EDAs as television episodes. And what are you going to do with audios?

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  3. Yes. I plan to cover highlights, but a lot of highlights - probably between 1/3 and 1/2 of the NAs, and 1/4 to 1/3 of the EDAs. They're essential, to my mind, to get from Survival to Rose in a way that makes sense, and I'll be mixing them with "Pop Between Realities" entries on major genre television (both American and British) of the sixteen years, as well as stuff on British television in general during those sixteen years.

    In the end, my feeling is that the NAs/EDAs represent a huge chunk of important Doctor Who history. I mean, they were the only game in town for most of sixteen years. 1989-2005 is as big a chunk of Doctor Who history as everything from An Unearthly Child to The Armageddon Factor.

    Now in practice, it's a less important chunk than all of seasons 1-16, but I'd gladly argue that the NAs and EDAs as a whole are each as important as any of the major eras of classic Doctor Who. In fact, comparing the impact of the NAs to the Letts or Hinchcliffe eras seems pretty accurate to me.

    As for the audios, my plan is to, depending on the quality and timing of the announced Tom Baker Big Finish stories, introduce those with the 4th or 5th Doctor and treat them the same as the MAs/PDAs - one or two from that line for each Doctor. I'm going to do Companion Chronicles for 1-3, but those are going to be extras in the POD book version. When we get to McGann, I'll do a stretch of them, probably focusing on the area immediately around Zagreus, but I'm inclined to treat the EDAs as the "main" series for Paul McGann and the audios as secondary to his era.

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  4. That sounds like the best plan all around. Can't wait!

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  5. Another excellent review!

    I happen to like The Smugglers, though not overmuch. It's doesn't aim very high, yes, but it hits the target it's aiming at, and is modestly entertaining television (and a small step up from much of the latter half of season 3).

    Hartnell comes across as quite lively, at least in the audio; you wouldn't know he was becoming too ill to continue the show from this story.

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  6. So I have the audio CD of this, and made a copy for a friend, with a rather sloppy hand-written label. He looked at it with confusion, and said "Doctor Who and The Snugglers??" This is now the official name of this serial. Take that, "Tribe of Gum"!

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  7. Didn't I lend you that CD, Martin?

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