The memory cheats for Tony.
It was the ultimate defence of the Doctor Who over which he presided when John Nathan-Turner told us that the memory cheats. We think of things from our own yesteryear with a kind of rose tint, while criticising harshly that which is relatively new.
It’s an argument still in use today to counter the frequently but by no means always absurd accusations of Classic-only fans who say that the Who of their childhood is the only True Who, that all the writing of New Who has been diabolical or other such inanities.
I’ve always held the Target novelisation of The Two Doctors in very high esteem.
Firstly, it was special right from the word Go – it was the only novelisation that Robert Holmes ever wrote. That gives it the opportunity to be a vessel for Holmes’ greatest skill, that of engaging characterisation – characters which, for Holmes, seemed below par on TV, like Oscar Botcherby and Anita, could be fleshed out with histories and the precise nature of their relationship, for instance. What’s more, when it was first released, by virtue of being full of advanced characterisation, it allowed us as readers to rectify some of the more blatant faults in the TV version – the lame cliff-hangers got much more logical reasons, the whole business of waking the Doctor up from his trance was far better explained (in the book, the room catches fire, meaning Jamie and Peri have to move him), and so on. It also allowed us to understand, as novels always can, more than TV scripts necessarily have scope to do, unspoken psychologies and bits of mischief – did you know, for instance, that the “Gumblejack” the Doctor is trying to catch in the opening Sixth Doctor sequence doesn’t actually exist? It’s a name he made up on the spot to justify a calming afternoon staring at the water, to purge himself of recent feelings of unease.
That’s the sort of thing you only knew if you’d read the book.
When the BBC finally released the audiobook version, and it came with Colin Baker on narration, there were only moments of hesitation before I was on the Audible website, downloading like a fiend. The chance to re-live a special novelisation, in the voice of one of my favourite Doctors? Oh yes please.
Let’s say straight away that it is of course a faithful and unabridged reading of the original. So all the things we who read it at the time loved about it are still intact in this version. What’s more, things we might have forgotten stick out sharply as having very distinct modern analogues – the best example of which is heard when Holmes describes the Second Doctor coming back to consciousness after his abduction, and testing everything he knows – from an acid which proves there’s wine in the walls, to the echo that proves he’s in a cellar, and the specific gravity that tells him he’s on earth from the simple action of raising and lowering his hand. All this has very recently been re-done in the TV show in Heaven Sent, specific gravity, distance to the water, the ageing of paint and so on giving the Doctor clues as to what his next move will be, and what’s ultimately going on.
But still – oh.
When it was released, The Two Doctors novelisation felt like a rare privilege. Listening back over thirty years later and from the perspective of adulthood (and admittedly from a pernickety point of view as an editor), you can begin to see why Holmes didn’t novelise any of his other stories. There’s a different skillset entirely involved in writing novels than there is in writing what amounts to dialogue and description in a TV script. At the latter, let there be doubt, the man was a ridiculously talented genius. At the former…not quite so much. What becomes noticeable throughout the reading are the odd words of extended vocabulary that lay in wait for the unwary, words that, while doubtless saying exactly what Holmes meant them to say, sit there and do nothing for most listeners except make them wonder whether they can be bothered to look them up in the dictionary. And then there’s what’s known as the dialogue furniture.
The what-now? I hear you mutter. The “he said,” “she said” stuff that clutters up the otherwise lean dialogue. More particularly, in Holmes’ case here, the modified “he said,” “she said” stuff, so a distracting number of lines of what was otherwise perfectly good dialogue tells you how it was said, rather than showing you how it was said. There are almost endless cases of “he said confusedly” or “she said, irritatedly” which simply make you bump your metaphorical shins and stop you engaging in the drama. There’s also an odd issue with the novelisation, in that if you know the TV Two Doctors back to forth and inside out, one thing that’s clear is that still at the time he wrote it, Holmes did zingy dialogue that added pace and personality to the story. The fact that it still felt significantly too long on screen is probably no fault of Holmes’ – there were altogether too many elements thrust at what he wanted to write (a fairly simple Androgum story as a hymn to vegetarianism) – the Sontarans, the foreign filming, and of course, the two Doctors themselves. But the odd thing about the novelisation is that some of that zingy dialogue is almost repeated verbatim, but actually not. Not quite. The result is that it feels almost like a pirate copy of the TV version, a slightly weird remake with a lesser hand on the script than Holmes. It’s rather disconcerting, and here, it makes what already felt like a too-long story lose any sense of urgency or pacing it retained, so by the time the Sixth Doctor and co arrive in Spain, you’re losing the will to listen, and almost begging the Real Robert Holmes to stand up.
In terms of narration, the story’s equally perplexing. Colin Baker was, and through Big Finish continues to be, a great Doctor. In recent years, it’s his voice as the Sixth Doctor that has allowed him to establish just how much potential his Doctor had. But in the narration of The Two Doctors, it’s almost as though Colin has decided after all these years to replay the character as his Doctor has now become – more mellow, more accommodating – rather than the spiky, explosive Doctor that fans who buy this audiobook will be expecting. Fine in itself, but if you’re buying this one, you pretty much expect the same beats, the same reactions played a familiar way, so beware – that’s not what you’re getting. Also, Colin throws himself into some faintly tortuous accents here – his Jamie is not bad, his Peri…hmm…and his Sontarans, while not remotely like the TV versions do give a certain vocal consistency to the clone warriors. His Chessene though is a little peculiar, as though he’s recast the imperious, dark brown-voiced Jacqueline Pearce in his head as someone altogether younger and sweeter and cuter. And, while there’s no particular reason to expect him to have tried a Patrick Troughton, his accents and impersonations run out when it comes to the Second Doctor, meaning he sounds altogether quite like the Sixth Doctor, which gets disconcerting as the story goes on.
Ultimately, you’re left wondering how The Two Doctors might have sounded if, perhaps, Frazer Hines had delivered the narration, as recent years of Big Finish audios have proved he has an uncanny Second Doctor up his sleeve, and we daresay he’d never have let Colin forget about the experience of voicing him on audio.
Ultimately then, The Two Doctors on audiobook feels like a punctured balloon of an experience – the writing not as good as we remembered it, the pacing almost killed by the almost-there version of the on-screen version that’s delivered, and the narration almost, but never quite feeling up to the energy it needs to push the storytelling along.
Should you get it, then?
Well, let’s say that you shouldn’t let me stop you getting it. But before you click the “buy now” button, just remember, the memory cheats. In the case of the Two Doctors audiobook, it cheats really rather a lot.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk