Doctor Who during the wilderness years


You’ve seen them on the display stands in Waterstones. Photo montages of Matt Smith, Daleks and Spirograph designs. Nice present for a Doctor Who-obsessed niece maybe, but inessential. Tie-in books have never garnered the most respect. If looking cool on the Tube with a dog-eared copy of On the Road is at one end of the scale, getting crammed up against the doors with a near-mint edition of War of the Daleks is the other.

But hold on, hipster. Most people who care know Doctor Who is the longest-running science-fiction series in the world, but it also holds the record for the most novels published about one (fictional) character. These aren’t mere cash-ins; they’ve had an important, reciprocal and occasionally fraught relationship with the parent series. And when the show went off air in 1989, the books kept on going.

“This was during what Doctor Who fans call ‘the Wilderness Years’,â€? said Doctor Who scriptwriter Paul Cornell at this year’s Sci-Fi London festival. “But I call [them] ‘the Theme Park Years’ – they’re full of great, fun ideas.â€? Cornell’s just one of the current generation of Doctor Who scriptwriters who cut their teeth on the novels – Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and Matt Jones all made similar early starts.

Many franchises are dismissive of their tie-in media, but for Doctor Who, its time off air proved a petri dish for emerging talent. The young, fan authors who came onboard with Virgin’s “New Adventuresâ€? range were not only cheap and eager; they had new ideas and fresh tones to bring the series. The back cover of each yellowing novel proudly proclaimed it a story “too deep and too broad for the small screenâ€?.

The tie-in comics and later audio plays would follow suit. Forget 2005, Rose Tyler and Christopher Eccleston. This was where Doctor Who did so much of its growing up. This was where the Doctor came to meditate on his own monstrousness, where his companions fell in love with him and where he broke their hearts. He even blew up Gallifrey.

Cornell’s own “Human Natureâ€? – in which the Doctor becomes the human schoolmaster John Smith and inconveniently falls in love – started life as fan fiction, before becoming a book in 1995 and finally, in 2007, a two-parter on television. “Something I wrote at school ended up on TV!â€? he said. “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?â€?

Alright, so not everything from the books made it to TV. In one adventure, the Doctor took hallucinogenic drugs so he could battle the baddie on the astral plane, in another a character was threatened with a forced abortion, and Russell T Davies’ “Damaged Goodsâ€? saw the Doctor’s companion getting a blowjob in the back of a taxi.

But weren’t we all a bit like that growing up? Too enthusiastic about the newfound darkness in the world? But it was also when we wriggled into adulthood. For many, the Nineties will always be “the Wilderness Yearsâ€? for Doctor Who, but it turns out that what Britain’s longest-running television series really needed was not to be on TV at all.