Bigger on the Inside: Doctor Who’s strange alternate universe in books
By Caleb Woodbridge
Posted on November 20, 2013 in Fun Stuff with tags Television
This week it’s 50 years since the death of C.S. Lewis, and 50 years since the birth of Doctor Who. I encountered both the BBC’s Doctor Who and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia at an early age. These stories have shaped my imagination like no others. One is fantasy and the other is science fiction, but both share a common theme – finding the fantastic inside the everyday.
They both taught me that reality is bigger on the inside than the out – one by a wardrobe, one through a police telephone box. The world is stranger, deeper and more fascinating than it ever first appears. That goes doubly so for people, who contain whole worlds inside themselves in their imaginations. These are stories worth celebrating. And today I celebrate Doctor Who – but not just the television show, but it’s strange, parallel existence elsewhere…
Doctor Who began in a junk yard. Two teachers, Ian and Barbara, follow their strange pupil Susan back home. But the ordinary (for the 1960s) police telephone box she disappears into disguises a time-and-space machine, and her mysterious grandfather, the Doctor…
But wait, that’s not how I remember it. Ian, a scientist, comes across an accident on Barnes Common, and meets Susan and her tutor Barbara, before encountering the mysterious Doctor and his everlasting matches…
You see, I came to Doctor Who through books. I am part of that generation of millennials who grew up in the 16 years when Doctor Who was off our television screens. My library had a large number of novelisations of tv stories – some of which, such as Dr Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Dalek – took a very different approach to the television version. Later when I came to watch the original television versions of the stories I read, or see stills from them in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, I’d frequently be disappointed by how far short they fell of my imagination.
Better yet, I discovered novels of the ongoing new adventures of the Doctor, continuing where the tv series left off. As someone who had already devoured the Narnia books, I was more than ready for a bigger-on-the-inside time machine, and strange adventures with the Doctor across time and space… Freed from the constraints of fitting in with TV storylines or budgets, Doctor Who‘s adventures in print transcended the usual limitations of tie-in media, with the best of them holding their own as science fiction novels in their own right.
Many of today’s SFF writers cut their teeth on writing Doctor Who novels for Virgin Books’ New Adventures series. Paul Cornell, author of the Fallen London series, started off with Timewyrm: Revelation and wrote stand-out stories such as Love and War and Human Nature (which he later adapted for David Tennant on the telly). Ben Aaronovitch, now author of the Rivers of London series. Rebecca Levene, who edited the whole shebang, has The Hollow Gods, an epic fantasy due to be published in 2014 by none other than Hodder & Stoughton.
The books are full of weird and wonderful ideas – not always at the same time, admittedly. But at their best, the books delved deeper into the characters, mashed up genres, and smashed fans’ preconceptions of what a Doctor Who story could be.
So if you haven’t read the books, what did you miss? The Doctor becoming human and falling in love (the original version). Ace, the Doctor’s companion, stranded in ancient Egypt and building a life for herself without him. Returning to the Doctor’s ancestral home on Gallifrey, a living house buried in a mountainside filled with vengeful relatives and predatory furniture. An auction for the Doctor’s future dead body, attended by all his worst enemies… plus the Krotons. Stranded on Earth for the 20th century without any memory, the Doctor trying to rediscover who he is.
Then the television show came back, with Russell T. Davies at the helm, and Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper as the stars. It was brilliant, and suddenly Doctor Who wasn’t the cosy realm of a few thousand fans, but loved by millions. Many ideas explored in the TV series bear strong similarities to those in the books. A future War encompassing all of time and space. The Doctor destroying Gallifrey to prevent a Time War. The Doctor finding a wife and daughter, though not in the usual ways.
Now we’re at the 50th anniversary, it feels like vindication – we fans always knew how brilliant Doctor Who was and could be. It just took everyone else a bit longer to notice. But watching the show today with its zippy 45 minute stories, I can’t help missing the less hurried pace of older Doctor Who, let alone the scope and depth of the best of the novels.
Despite Doctor Who finding its home as a centrepiece of British television, there’s still sometimes a small part of me that whispers: “the books were better”.