11 December 2015

The original Dalek novel

The novelizations of the series have occasionally thrown up anomalies but there is none more prominent than the very first which goes under the dramatic moniker of Dr Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks. Beyond its historical significance David Whitaker’s 1964 novel is notable for the way it changes the story of how Ian and Barbara first encounter the Doctor. Gone is the iconic Totters Lane junkyard, in its place the foggy environs of Barnes Common. It is plausible that some Doctor Who fans grew up thinking this was what the first story was like and it a very persuasive alternative to how the episode `An Unearthly Child` did play out.The novel – originally published by Armada – is determined to set its own atmosphere. The back cover blurb reads: “The story from the beginning! Here is the exciting adventure of Dr Who, Susan, Barbara and Ian, from the moment they meet one foggy autumn night on a lonely common beside a Police Box (Ah, but what a curious Police Box!) to the time they encounter the weird Daleks”. Have we ever heard the Daleks described as `weird` before? Then it goes on to confidently say that “It is a thrilling story, and we know this book will be one of the most popular published in the Armada series. Can you wait any longer? Start reading!” 

This perhaps captures something of the excitement felt at the time for the series and is certainly an unusually casual and enthusiastic promotion. It certainly seems a world away from some of the other titles on offer from the imprint including `A Pony to School`, `The Cownappers``Black Gold on the Double Diamond` (probably not a story about a night at the pub), a series of Biggles stories one of which sees the hero get his man, a thoroughly dull sounding book with the title `Jimmy` and the frankly too easy to ridicule `Jill Enjoys Her Ponies`. On the other hand maybe some of these are racier than we think…
The Doctor Who book is told in the form of a first person narrative by Ian Chesterton whom David Whitaker draws as a slightly bitter, hard edged sort of character reminiscent of the `kitchen sink dramas` of the 60s. Though still a teacher he is dissatisfied with the job and is on his way back from a failed interview for a job as a research scientist at a firm called Donnebys. He lives in a rented room in Paddington and in keeping with times is soon seen lighting a cigarette. In a few paragraphs on the first page Whitaker makes Ian a much more intriguing character than the version with which we are more familiar. Coincidentally though William Russell seems to mirror aspects of this version into his own later performances particularly Ian’s frustration with the Doctor’s approach.
The scenario that unfolds is superbly rendered in the novel. Ian’s car has broken down during a foggy night on Barnes Common and he is just wondering what to do when a distraught Barbara emerges; injured from a car crash with an army vehicle. Whitaker makes few concessions to the idea this is, according to the cover, a paperback for boys and girls with his depiction of a messy crash scene complete with a dead soldier whose corpse Ian has to shift. There is even the prospect of the vehicle igniting because of fuel leaking. Barbara’s character is different as well with her being a freelance tutor who had been hired by the mysterious grandfather of Susan English (not Foreman) to tutor her. She had become increasingly intrigued by her pupil and the foggy night was the perfect opportunity to meet this `Doctor ‘hence the reason she was giving Susan a lift. Now the girl has disappeared. This is all terrific stuff a long way removed from the much stuffier studio introduction Ian and
Barbara had on television. 

The Doctor’s own debut centres on a match he is heard lighting by Ian and which when they finally meet him he is carrying. Only it’s some kind of everlasting one that burns with a consistent brightness and never seems to fizzle out. Whitaker’s initial descriptions of the Doctor include the fact he had long silver hair and is wearing a cloak, fur hat, tapered black jacket with check trousers and of course the pince- nez he never wore on TV. The writer picks up instantly on the mischievous side of William Hartnell’s portrayal with the Doctor’s behaviour though alternating between stern and overly friendly as he tries to trick Ian to go back to his car with Barbara to fetch something that will open the locked police box they find.
The description of Ian’s first entry into the TARDIS is as superbly visual and you can easily imagine this great light after the darkness outside – “the light closed around me” Ian writes.
The TARDIS is described reasonably faithfully before it appears we are already in flight. This is something where the book loses out compared to the first episode which has that marvellous combination of light and sound as we witness the ship taking off. From here in, the story pretty much follows that of the first TV Dalek story eschewing the Tribe of Gum altogether to launch straight into the metal meanies. Familiar the first Dalek tale may now be, but it still has a great sense of imagination and adventure.
Though the other two 1960s novelisations of `The Crusades` and `The Web Planet` do share it’s depth and seem like proper novels rather than tv adaptations the first novel is quite unique in the Doctor Who canon. It has that sense of identification with you and I that the best periods of the show’s history possess which allows for some great asides. When Ian is wondering how big the Doctor’s electricity bill is then you know that in his company it really is going to be an exciting and involving adventure. And I suppose the Daleks are a bit weird aren’t they?

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