Friday, August 05, 2011

Of Trek and Who

If you're already a confirmed fan of both Star Trek and Doctor Who books, feel free to skip this one, you know this stuff already. But if you're one of the Trek fans who've been getting into Doctor Who since it came back in 2005 but haven't delved into the books, you may find it interesting.

One of the times I pondered the possibility of getting into Doctor Who books, as mentioned a couple posts back, I was put off by the fact that there were 80 Doctor Who novels already out there. This would have been around 1984-85 or so.

The biggest difference between the worlds of Trek and Who in book form back then was that the latter was still very much about novelizations. There was very little in the way of original Doctor Who fiction outside of short stories in the children's hardcover annuals. The novelizations themselves were also very different -- Star Trek episodes had been wrapped up in 13 short story collections by James Blish and, later, J.A. Lawrence and 10 books adapting the animated series by Alan Dean Foster, plus a few movie novelizations. The action in the Trek book world had moved to original novels.

Doctor Who, with its stories spread out from two to (once or twice) a dozen half hour episodes, didn't lend itself to the same approach. Instead, each serial was adapted as a novel, with the epic Dalek Master Plan eventually being adapted as two novels. It wasn't until after Doctor Who began its sixteen-year hiatus that the focus really shifted to original fiction, with the arrival of the New Adventures. (The three book Companions series, with an adaptation of the Sarah Jane TV movie and original novels centering on Turlough and Harry Sullivan, hadn't really come to much.) The New Adventures were a very different story.

The assumption behind the NAs was that the fans were growing up and were ready for a Doctor Who that was also growing up. The stories were more complex, incorporating occasional story arcs, and occasionally delved into decidedly more adult terrain than the TV series ever did. Equally importantly, with the show off the air, the books were effectively the continuation of the series, and supporting characters, like TV companion Ace, came and went. Writers associated with the TV series -- Terrance Dicks, Andrew Cartmel, Marc Platt, Ben Aaronovitch -- wrote for the series. The series was so intent on moving forward that the fairly obvious idea of a series of novels featuring previous Doctors took some time to materialize, but the Missing Adventures arrived eventually. So too did the Decalog series of anthologies.

The 1996 TV movie disrupted things considerably, not least by ending Virgin Books' Doctor Who licence and handing it to BBC Books, who started the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the Past Doctor Adventures. But the legacy of the New Adventures was secure. Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts were among the writers who would go on to work on the revived Doctor Who TV series years later. Russell T Davies, the showrunner who brought it back, had written the novel Damaged Goods. Steven Moffat, who take over from Davies, wrote the Decalog short story "Continuity Errors."

The return of the TV series had an unfortunate effect on the books, though. The main BBC lines were dropped as the BBC discovered that the kid-friendly books based on the new show were selling several times as many copies as the fan-oriented EDAs and PDAs. Meanwhile, some of the spinoff lines (to be covered later) found that fans were no longer as keen on everything Who-related they could find now that a new series was on TV again. (Those books were often great, but they weren't always cheap, while the show on TV was free.)

The situation in 2011, for a book fan, is not nearly as good as it was ten years ago. There are a few books a year aimed at different children's age levels. There's been one big, adult-oriented novel, Michael Moorcock's Coming of the Terraphiles, and the possibility of one or two more a year. There's a small number of Torchwood books, which are often quite good, but there's no Doctor in them. Likewise the small press adventures of Iris Wildthyme and Faction Paradox.

The core Doctor Who book lines were at their most essential when the show was off the air. I can't help but wonder what would happen if a new Star Trek series became a huge hit, like the movie did -- what effect would that have on the books? Maybe not a lot; the movie didn't. But it's hard to say for sure. I'd prefer to have a healthy and popular line of books and a healthy and popular TV series.


At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that the return of Doctor Who to the screen should be blamed for hurting the book line, given the conventional wisdom that the lack of televised Trek is what's led to the cutbacks of that publishing line. Are the fans/consumers really that different?

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I think it's partly that the mainstream perception of the shows is different. Doctor Who is seen by many as a kids' show, so the growth of an older, more dedicated fanbase with books and audios aimed at them is sort of an anomaly in the show's history. I wouldn't doubt that there are Who fans who think the world has been restored to its proper balance, despite what those of us who miss the NAs and EDAs might say.

It's a different situation for Star Trek, where the books have been aimed at the same kind of readers for thirty years, and the franchise's decline in popularity overall seems to have been mirrored by the books' popularity.

Allyn Gibson might argue that the Trek books are falling into the same trap as the Who books did, of getting too complex and interconnected for new fans, but that doesn't seem to have hurt Star Wars books much...


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