Whotopia Magazine, December 2022
Free PDF download of issue #41 at – http://www.whotopia.ca/publications/issue41.pdf
The Eighth Doctor Adventure novels put the “wild” in the Wilderness Years.
The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie may have failed to revive the show, but it spawned an abundance of media featuring Paul McGann’s Doctor, from comic strips in Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine to an ongoing series of Big Finish audios.
The Eighth Doctor’s stories were often risque and experimental compared to the original TV series, and the 73 Eighth Doctor Adventures (EDA) novels were no exception.
The EDAs, published by BBC Books between 1997 and 2005, were not the first novels to diverge from the tone of the classic show – before the TV movie, Virgin Publishing held the license to use the Doctor in prose, producing a series of 61 edgy “New Adventures” (VNAs) that paved the way.
When BBC Books tapped writer Gary Russell to novelize the movie in 1996, he was busy drafting his third Doctor Who novel for Virgin. Russell thought he was acting responsibly when he updated his editors on a possible delay due to his new project, but “in fact what I was doing was throwing an enormous foot into my mouth,” Russell said — this appeared to be the first Virgin had heard of their exclusion from an official Doctor Who publication.
Russell speculates that Virgin may have been very vocal in their displeasure to the BBC, which might have been a factor in the ultimate revocation of their Doctor Who licensing. “I thought, oh silly Virgin, I wonder if you’ve had the BBC realize there’s money to be made there.”
Fueled by high hopes for the future of the franchise after the TV movie, any new Doctor Who novels would be published in-house – a completely financial decision by the BBC, according to EDA editor Steve Cole, though they seemed to have little idea of how to handle it.
The EDAs were never phenomenally successful, but sales were steady and predictable in the UK, with additional sales in the US, Australia and New Zealand, according to Cole. They “weren’t well-loved within the BBC,” demonstrated by the departmental musical chairs the range was put through.
The EDAs started life in the BBC Children’s Department, which was soon remedied given the adult audience and nature of the books, according to Cole.
Because the Red Dwarf books came out of the Sports, Motoring and Entertainment Group, the Doctor Who novels were next lumped in with them. “The BBC thought well, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, same thing. So there we were in SMEG… very appropriate,” Cole said.
After that “we were part of ‘factual books,’ making 22 fiction titles a year. It was disheartening at times,” Cole said.
Cole became a one-man “cottage industry for Doctor Who” and the only real base of operations for the franchise at the time.
He instantly began burning the Everlasting Match at both ends. With little assistance, Cole edited two full-length novels every month (both the EDAs and the Past Doctor Adventures ranges), two yearly non-fiction titles, and oversaw quarterly Doctor Who videos, audiobooks and merchandising.
“I thought I’d be like a child in a sweet shop, but of course a child in a sweet shop ends up feeling sick quite quickly,” Cole said. “I only lasted a couple of years because it was just ridiculously hard. It’s a miracle anything got out there at all!”
To top it off, the editor has a “slush pile” of book proposals to go through. Anyone could submit a pitch, and while wading through submissions was a huge undertaking for Cole, it was a boon for would-be novelists.
EDA scribes such as Kate Orman, Lance Parkin and Lawrence Miles had established themselves during the Virgin days. A few, like Paul Magrs, had already been published outside of the franchise. But BBC Books provided others the ability to author their very first novels, such as Peter Anghelides, Trevor Baxendale and Lloyd Rose.
“They found fans who could write, and who had been dying to write about Doctor Who,” said Rose, who was chief theater reviewer for the Washington Post when her debut novel City of the Dead was accepted through the open submission process.
For the creatives of the EDA range, it was an unique opportunity to essentially shape the continuing story of Doctor Who.
“The appeal of writing for them was not knowing whether Doctor Who was going to come back,” said author Peter Anghelides. “There was a certain amount of novelty… because we were helping to steer where the series was going in the only form it was then available. I imagine those who got involved with the Big Finish audios with Paul McGann felt very much the same way.”
“It’s a tremendous crutch, being able to write for something like Doctor Who,” said Rose. “It gave you the skeleton – and then you put anything you wanted on it, any kind of fur, any kind of feathers, you could add an extra head – but you had the skeleton.”
With 11 EDAs scheduled per year, and mere months from commission to an 80,000 word draft, it could be tricky to keep continuity consistent between books; there were always many preceding books in the series that hadn’t yet been published by the time a writer began on their own story.
While the original manager of the range, Nuala Buffini, was by all accounts a fine editor, she was not a fan of the show, so the authors were left to hammer things out amongst themselves. In those early days, they had a private online forum where they could share ideas, continuity issues and early drafts.
When Cole, who edited 31 EDAs and would write numerous stories for the Doctor Who extended universe, took the reins six books into the range, he essentially became the showrunner – as would his successor Justin Richards – plotting out overarching storylines and characterizations.
Cole “had a difficult job, effectively both playing brand manager and herding all us cats at once,” said author Jonathan Blum. “He tends to get overshadowed by the spectacular stuff [author] Lawrence Miles did, but I think Steve played a vital role in steering a course between Lawrence’s more berserk bits of edginess and the kind of heart[…] kept central in the series.”
And unlike writing for previous Doctors, authors of the EDAs had to develop the Eighth Doctor’s character with precious little source material.
“With McGann there was a whole scattergun of personality chucked at him,” said Cole. “Some [authors] liked the idea of the Doctor being half-human, some people thought that was terrible and an atrocity that should never be referred to ever again. Some people liked the kiss, some people wished that that had never happened. So trying to get everyone pulling in the same direction was tricky in those earlier months.”
Gary Russell, who also penned an EDA, saw the challenge. “You’ve got all these different writers who are all creating an Eighth Doctor that we’d only ever seen for 90 minutes in a TV movie,” he said. “Nobody’s version of the Doctor is particularly consistent from book to book.”
Even physical descriptions could be at odds – the Doctor’s eye color often changed between stories, sometimes even within a single novel.
The authors did seem to generally describe him as a tall fellow, though. Cole met the man himself upon the actor’s first return to the role for an audiobook in 1998, and found out first-hand that McGann is actually one of the shorter portrayers of the Doctor.
Fortunately, “that didn’t seem to matter for the book purposes, because he wasn’t coming back on TV,” Cole said. “Just because Paul McGann is five-nine doesn’t mean the Eighth Doctor is.”
In an attempt to coordinate, “McGannerisms” were often discussed on the authors’ forum. Kate Orman took this opportunity to fall down a rabbit hole.
“I developed an enormous crush on Paul McGann, which meant I immediately started tracking down every movie he’d ever been in! In those days, that meant combing the local video rental stores for films like The Monk, The Rainbow, Paper Mask[…] and of course the classic Withnail and I.” Orman said. “So it was too easy to learn Paul’s mannerisms, the way he spoke and moved.”
“The television movie was such an exciting event,” Orman said, and she and her co-author Jonathan Blum carried that enthusiasm into their version of the Eighth Doctor in Vampire Science, the second book in the series. “In the movie he’s like an embodiment of Life, like a phoenix born out of his own ashes[…] a Doctor who’s very energetic, vigorous, and intense.”
The EDAs took the Doctor’s story in directions the classic TV show never could nor would.
Much like the classic TV show, the EDAs straddled genres, but they often added a heavy element of fantasy as well.
“They’re very much of their time,” said Gary Russell. “Magic realism was starting to take hold of young adult books, and I think [the EDAs], particularly once the likes of Paul Magrs came along, grabbed that with both hands and went, we can do this with Doctor Who as well.”
In the era of The X-Files, Cole wanted the novels to move away from classic foes. “I felt it was far more interesting for the books to start creating their own mythology than going back to the past.”
“I thought the [Virgin books] did a good job of revisiting all the Doctor Who lore,” said author Trevor Baxendale. “I thought the Eighth Doctor books, their role was to forge ahead.”
In fact, once continuity got too thick on the ground within the EDA range, Steve Cole and Peter Anghelides made Doctor Who history by destroying Gallifrey for the first time.
“You were able to do stuff like that without asking for permission, because there was no one to ask permission from… Doctor Who was a dead program and it had been for ten years by then,” Cole said.
Co-writer Anghelides called the destruction of the Doctor’s homeworld in The Ancestor Cell “a necessary evil,” but Cole gleefully declared, “I was happy to trash it. I hate Gallifrey.”
The EDAs also reinforced amnesia as a hallmark of the Eighth Doctor, which Cole joked, “he seemed quite prone to.”
When seasoned Doctor Who author Justin Richards, now armed with a team to assist, took the helm from Cole, the obliteration of both Gallifrey and the Doctor’s memory were used as a soft reboot for the series.
Said Anghelides, “Steve had a pretty good idea about how he wanted things to finish off for that particular part of the story,” and knew he’d be handing over the reins as showrunner and editor to Richards. “In order to give Justin a completely clean slate, which Justin fancied… we knew we were going to dispose of or at least play down some of the continuity-heavy elements like Gallifrey.”
Richards’ new course for the series inspired Jonathan Blum, who’d co-authored three EDAs at this point.
“I think the document that Justin Richards wrote up when he took over, about how the essence of Doctor Who lay in adjectives rather than nouns – not continuity, but the unique ways in which the Doctor approached situations,” recalled Blum, “was right up there with ‘never cruel or cowardly’ in terms of being hugely influential on the shape of the series. He cleared away a lot of the Gallifrey complexity and introversion which we were in danger of falling into, and got the series centered back on the Doctor as a character.”
Throughout the series, the EDAs continued the provocative tradition of the VNAs, aimed at a mature audience and able to include more adult content than the classic TV series.
“Now the books were set in the real world and not in a children’s show,” said Lloyd Rose, “so there was much more freedom.”
“The BBC books are probably a little bit more reserved… than the Virgin New Adventures,” said Trevor Baxendale, but compared to the show “there were definitely things there that were a bit racier, a bit harder-edged, more violent.”
“The TV show had always existed in a slightly strange world in which adult romance and sexuality were almost… completely absent,” said Kate Orman. “With the shift from the small screen to print and to an adult audience, it made sense to acknowledge that commonplace area of life.”
Those were “well-established in the books by the time the BBC decided to take over the line,” Orman said. “Aunty [the BBC] had mostly let Virgin get on with it, though they had objected to certain content.”
“I think the EDAs may look a little bit cautious these days, on matters of sex and representation and politics,” her co-writer Jonathan Blum said, “but I’m always reminded of how things could have gone, in terms of them being heavily sanitized or just plain not engaging with the wider world.”
In many ways the EDAs were a product of their time and demographic. Modern readers will encounter problematic content like racism and misogyny. But the series was quite progressive in other ways, presenting Anji, one of the first Doctor Who companions of color, and queer characters.
Companions Samantha Jones and Fitz Kreiner were both established as bisexual in the books, though that sort of elbow room was not a given at the beginning.
“When we got our initial briefing about the EDAs from Nuala Buffini, we were told that they’d be pulling back on the adult content from the [VNA] range, and we were worried that this would lead to total erasure of all gay characters,” said Blum. Fortunately, his conscious decision to blatantly present the young, teenage activist companion Sam as queer from the get-go in Vampire Science made it to print.
Later, Fitz Kreiner creator Cole made room for the companion’s bisexuality in his character outline.
“It was just one of many character things I included there for authors to run with if they wanted to,” Cole said. “I think it became understood over time that Fitz was bi and definitely had feelings for the Doctor. And I think the Doctor fell for him too.”
Ironically, even as the expanded universe of the Wilderness Years paved the way for the progressivism of the 2005 series, the announcement of the TV show’s renewal spelled the end of an era for Doctor Who authors.
When the show was reinstated, the BBC had no interest in continuing the stories of past Doctors, preferring to move forward with Christopher Eccelston’s Ninth Doctor. The EDAs and PDAs were canceled, and production of Doctor Who novels scaled back significantly from 22 titles per year to three. The EDA editorial staff were tapped to write the first three books in the new series, but some of the authors in the stable saw the end of their novel-writing careers with Doctor Who.
“You’re going from using 20-odd writers a year to three. You’re not going to get as many slots coming your way,” said Baxendale, who knew he was fortunate to write three of the new tie-in novels.
The direction of the books for the 2005 series became more conservative as well.
“It had to be very much family accessible,” said Baxendale. “It had to be a book that a parent could read to their child at bedtime.”
After the EDAs, Lloyd Rose would never write another novel, though she did pen one Eighth Doctor script for Big Finish. “When the show started up again and the BBC said ‘oh my god we can make money from these things,’ it changed the whole line of the books. They weren’t interested in me anymore.”
Geography may have played a part in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s exclusion from the new novels. “We were told by Justin [Richards] that the new-series books were going to be done by people who could go in to Cardiff and get briefed by the production team in a secure fashion,” said Blum. As he and writing partner Kate Orman were based in Australia, “that basically killed our involvement stone dead for years.”
But many EDA authors continued writing short stories for Big Finish audios, and Peter Anghelides recently became the producer of that “Short Trips” series. Steve Cole took over from Justin Richards as consultant editor-at-large for Doctor Who with BBC Books in 2017. Gary Russell seems to have been involved in every form of media the Doctor Who universe has to offer. Kate Orman will at long last be back in the Doctor Who novel game with a Second Doctor audiobook from Big Finish in 2023.
Fortunately, much like forebear Terry Nation and his Daleks, the writers maintained the rights to the characters they created for the EDAs.
For example, Paul Magrs had imported Iris Wildthyme from his original fiction, and since her EDA debut she’s been featured in numerous Big Finish audios, and has her own ongoing series from independent publisher Obverse Books. Blum and Orman have licensed some of their EDA characters for use, like Vampire Science’s Captain Adrienne Kramer, and Blum will likely feature her in an upcoming novel co-authored by EDA and Virgin alum John Peel in the Lethbridge-Stewart series.
The EDAs may have been influential on the new TV series, but along with their comic strip and audioplay cousins, they are hardly ever acknowledged by the “cinematic universe.” This never fussed Steve Cole, though.
“The lovely thing about fans is that they will always find a reason to explain it. It invites the participation of the readership and that’s a really beautiful thing.”
Thank you to Kenny Smith for his invaluable assistance on this piece.