I have a small rule whenever I’m in a second-hand bookshop. If I come across Dr Who a novel, one of the The Virgin New Adventures series, I buy it. I don’t think about it, don’t quibble over the price, don’t leaf through the book, wondering if it’s actually any good. I just pick it up and buy it.
This, you might be thinking, has the potential to be an expensive rule for someone to keep. Not so: these books actually turn up in shops very rarely. Sure, they’re available online and, although they’re available at a broad spectrum of prices, most of them are pretty cheap. But no: that would be against the rule. If I bought one on Amazon, what would there be to stop me buying another? And then another? And so on. Once I’d bought and read all the ones available for a few pence I’d then have no option to move on to the more expensive ones. Eventually I'd be bankrupting myself for copies of Damaged Goods and The Dying Days, and then where would I be? No, there is a rule, a simple one, and it must be adhered to: if I’m in a second-hand bookshop I’m required to look. If I find one, I must buy it.
When I was a teenager I’d be taken for monthly trips to Waterstones (or Waterstone’s, as it was then) by my dad to have a book bought for me. I had the predictably lofty-seeming tastes of someone my age: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Junky, a joyless-looking copy of Rimbaud’s Selected Poems. But, more than any of these, I was drawn to the Dr Who books. I was a big fan of Dr Who back then, as big a fan as a 90’s teen with only a handful of VHS tapes – The Green Death, Revelation of the Daleks, Paradise Towers, The Stranger (a copyright-dodging Who-reimagining, released straight-to-video and available only via mail order) and no independent income could hope to be. There was something thrilling about the sight of the New Adventures, their uniform spines of pristine white with elegant coloured lettering, all lined up in the tall, stately shelves; their mysterious titles - Lungbarrow, The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Christmas on a Rational Planet; and, most of all, their covers, each book hosting a strange, hyper-realist painting of the Doctor in a different dramatic scene, often with skewed renderings of the human form and an iffy sense of perspective, presenting not just a snapshot of the adventure concealed inside, waiting to happen, but also the notion that, far from being mere entertainment, what lay behind those gaudy covers could also be something else entirely, something a world away from the cheap sets, silly costumes and mere acting of the TV show: something dark, perilous and hallucinatory.
I was a slow reader back then: the books in the New Adventures series were released far quicker than I could get through them. And, remember, this was in the age before a person could check which book had the most Amazon stars or look up the reviews on GoodReads. The only method for selecting one of these books was for me to single out the cover I liked the most, make sure the synopsis sounded suitably gripping, and then force myself away from the shelf, glancing around at those books left unselected, a galaxy of worlds unrealised and adventures unexperienced. Later on, in my bedroom, I'd look at the titles listed of the other books in the series and think about how, when I was an adult, successful and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I’d be able to buy all of them.
This was during The Dr Who dark ages: the television series, now roundly thought of as a silly children's show well past its prime, had been taken off the air. Virgin Books leased the rights for the extant characters - the 7th incarnation of the Doctor, his companion Ace, and occasionally her irritating predecessor Mel - from the BBC to use in a range of novels title The Virgin New Adventures. Prior to all these there had been Target Books' novelisations: brief, no-nonsense volumes which recounted the plots and dialogue exchanges of the television adventures with little in the way additional content or substance: formative reading for a lot of people growing up in the 70's. Later, in 1996, an American Dr Who TV movie appeared and, although it resolutely failed to reignite the public's love of the show, it did prompt the BBC to take back the rights to their characters and begin publishing their own extensive series of books, ones which were consistent in tone and every bit as a good as the Virgin New Adventures but, although I read dozens of the things, they came along slightly too late to exert the same hypnotic hold on me as the New Adventures and, crucially, their front covers weren't as nice.
Wisely, rather than providing a new raft of novelisations of those more recent TV episodes which had so evidently failed to grasp as firm a hold on the imaginations of young people as the show had done in its 60’s and 70’s heyday, the New Adventures, as the name suggests, instead opted for entirely new adventures, with a darker tone and more rounded characters, the concepts ebbing into the territory of hard science-fiction, the themes significantly more adult: there’s drugs in Damaged Goods; religious animal torture proliferates in St Anthony’s Fire; two constant tropes throughout most of the books are the Doctor’s hardening from Sylvester McCoy’s amicable bumbler into a troubled loner and Ace’s restless desire to get laid.
My personal favourites are those which left me with a certain feeling: the sinister-creature-lurking-behind-the-postbox-in-a-small-village Nightshade; the fearsome, nigh-incomprehensible, sheer Aztec K-hole drop of The Left-Handed Hummingbird; and, most of all, the recurring-dream, garden-party wooziness of Strange England. If I were drawing up a list of my favourite novels I’d choose the big beasts – Mrs Dalloway, American Pastoral, The Master and Margarita - but, secretly, somewhere near the top of this list would be this cheap paperback by Simon Messingham, whose other entries into Dr Who include such gloriously B-movie titles as The Indestructable Man and The Face-Eater. Yes, these are silly little books and when I read them I projected. I'd perceive meaning, emotional weight and literary depth which, quite patently I now see, were simply not there. But, really, I don’t care: for me they were there.
Reading them now, I find it genuinely impossible to tell what they are. Are they hacks’ potboilers, as formulaic and uninspired as you’d expect a TV tie-in novel to be? Or are they the trippy exercises in mid-period Angela Carter-esque excess I can’t help but see them as? The truth, I imagine, lies somewhere in between: solid, decent science-fiction pressed up against the feverish imagination of a bored, lonely teenager. There’s a comparison to be drawn, I think, between these sorts of books and the pulp crime novels of the post-war age, or the golden age of comics, or the penny-dreadfuls of the nineteenth-century: it seems there is always writing which at the time is seen as trash but then – gradually, eventually – works its way into respectability: first as artifacts of a pop culture past, museum pieces from a certain moment in time, then simply as examples of good writing. A lot of great writers found their voices with these books and the BBC series - Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Ben Aaronovitch, even Steven Moffatt contributed a short story to one of the Decalog anthologies – who, in turn, set the bar for the very much established writers currently working on novels to tie in with the new series of Dr Who: Naomi Alderman, Jenny Colgan, Steven Baxter, Dan Abnett, Michael Moorcock.
This year Dr Who is 50 years old. There’ll be various celebrations but (understandably) they’ll all focus on the television show. I'd read them and re-read them, these books. For me, their appeal and the appeal of Dr Who in general is and always has been its blending of science-fiction not just with the real world, but with modern Britain. I'd wander the suburbs of Chorley, lost in a reverie of imagined otherworldly set-pieces: I’d see fragments of alien cultures in the Range Rovers I passed; terrifying customs and rituals in my elderly neighbours mowing of their lawns; patient creatures lurked behind the net-curtains; there were dangers and dramas behind every frosted-glass front door; the stilted silence all around me was the sound of time unspooling and rewinding. For me – for the teenage me - these books weren't just the purest form of Dr Who, at the time they were the purest form of reading.
Here's something which happened to me recently: I walked into Oxfam and found one of the books. There it was, a copy of First Frontier by David A. McIntee on the science fiction shelf. Not the most highly regarded book in the series, but not the worst either. So, naturally, I picked it up, went directly to the counter, paid for it and then headed for the exit.
It was only when I was outside the shop, holding the door open for an elderly man to enter that I saw the spinner. It was by the door and was loaded with Dr Who Virgin New Adventures. I re-entered the shop, not taking my eyes off the covers: almost every single book was there – Zamper, Transit, Shadowmind, even (my heart was pounding) the entire Timewyrm and Cat's Cradle sequence of books which had kicked off the series. Clearly, someone had traded in their entire collection. I started sweating and shaking; I was finding it hard not to scream. Without fully thinking about what I was doing, I began piling up the most choice books in my arms. It was impossible, both physically and financially, the grown-up part of my brain insisted, for me to buy them all. But, countered my stroppy inner-teen, I had to at least make a decent go of it.
As quickly as I could I tottered over to the till, spilled the dozen or so books I’d gathered and waited whilst the girl behind the counter stopped what she was doing and slowly began scanning them in. To her I was merely another sweaty oddball, of course. I might as well be pawing through Star Trek novels, or Quantum Leap ones, or Babylon 5. The fool! Didn’t she know these were some of the most precious books ever committed to print? I wished she’d hurry up. What if some other New Adventure-ist came in and saw my wonderful booty, my beautiful array of battered 80’s sci-fi, with their yellowing pages, dog-eared corners and terrible cover art, and offered to pay a higher price? What if there was a problem with my debit card? Or the till? What if there was a sudden fire alarm requiring the immediate closure of the shop? What if whoever these books had originally belonged to had, at this very moment, experienced a change of heart (surely inevitable!) and was now racing back to the shop to undo their madness and reclaim their beloved copies of Blood Harvest and Falls The Shadow?
Even when the payment cleared, I didn’t feel any sense of relief, let alone the Proustian surge of wish-fulfillment I’d been anticipating.
My receipt handed to me, the books bagged, I made my way to Costa furtively, as though carrying an illicit package of drug-money. I sat down with a cup of tea. Tentatively, I now allowed myself to pick through what I'd bought. It was now that it came: finally, after years of questing – half-arsed questing, admittedly – I’d hit manna; I had waited, had been patient, had had faith, and was now being rewarded. Although not especially successful and definitely not wealthy beyond even my more moderate dreams, I had succeeded in providing the books to that stupid teenager which he wanted more than any others.
I opened my copy of Timewyrm: Revelation and read as though reading to him:
They say that no two snowflakes are the same. But nobody ever stops to check. Above the Academy blew great billows of them, whipping around the corners of the dark building as if to emphasize the structure's harsh lines...