Monday, June 12, 2006

I heart Target Books

Growing up in New Zealand during the 1970s, I feel in love with the TV show Doctor Who. The first story I ever saw was Spearhead From Space, Jon Pertwee's debut as the third Doctor. This was originally broadcast by the BBC in 1970, but didn't reach NZ for another three or four years. By this time, a British company had begun publishing novelisations of Doctor Who's television adventures, books aimed squarely at children. Target Books started by reprinting three novelisations from the 1960s, before moving on to adaptations of more recent stories.

Joyously, many of those early Target novelisations include a handful of illustrations to help bring the story to life. These are hilarious in retrospect, but the earliest efforts have a retro kitsch charm. For Doctor Who fans of a certain, pre-VHS or DSVD age, stories were relived via Target Books rather than bozed sets with commentary tracks. These illustrations were all we had to help us envisage the stories, along with the words of Dicks, the redoubtale Malcolm Hulke and the splendid prose of David Whitaker. I suspect my writing style was borne of those 128-page thrillers and subsequently shaped by five years as a daily newspaper journalist. Purpose prose and lengthy descriptions are beyond me, as a consequence.

Like a lot of kids growing up in the Commonwealth during the 70s and 80s, Target Books based on Doctor Who were my first real exposure to science fiction in print. I started reading some sf books, including everything I could find by an author called John Christopher, such as his Tripods trilogy [long before it became a TV series], and other titles including the Guardians and The Lotus Caves.

But I remained loyal to Target Books. Whenever I saw a new book with the Target logo on the cover, I'd pick it up. If the contents seemed even vaguely interesting, I'd buy it with whatever pocket money I possessed. [My granddad gave me a little for helping him with odd jobs, before I graduated to delivering newspapers and pumping petrol at the gas station my dad co-owned with his cousin, Roy.] As a consequence, I bought and read all manner of odd titles I'd never have tried otherwise. Who remembers Swedish detective Agaton Sax? At least, I think he was Swedish. Illustrated by the wonderful Quentin Blake, the great sleuth's adventures are now ludicrously expensive to buy second hand.

I also bought and cherished a copy of The Adventures of Rama, a retelling for children of legends and myths about, well, the adventures of Rama [including the noble Indian prince's heroic battle with Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka]. I loved that book to pieces - literally. By the twenthieth time I'd read it, the cover was falling off and the pages were kept in place by willpower and careful finger placement. I'm not sure I'd even met an Indian person when I read The Adventures of Rama, but they sounded like good people to have on your side in a fight, with a strong grasp of heroism and battle tactics. Cowboy icon John Wayne had nothing on Rama, in my humble opinion when I was ten.

Was there a point to all this rambling? Probably not. But I've bought myself another copy of The Adventures of Rama and plan to take it away with me on Saturday as holiday reading. What novels made the most impact on you when you were growing up?


Paul Greaves said...

Ah, now you're talking! The first Target book I bought was Image of the Fendahl from a bookshop in Swansea whilst on holiday. It was brand new out and I was 6 years old, (July '79). The first DW I saw on TV was Fang Rock and was hooked but obviously wasn't reading the books until I could read properly! By the time I was ten I had all the books out up to that point and then bought them as they were published.

They defined what a lot of the earlier stories 'looked like' for me - imagine my disappointment at seeing the crappy dinosuars on TV after the excellent Dr Who and the Dinosaur Invasion... Imagine my delight at how good Spearhead from Space was after the superb Dr Who and the Auton Invasion (Uncle Terrance at his best).

Happy memories of a Who-filled childhood. The other day I got them out of the loft and put them on my bookshelf properly. Fantastic.

Alex Wilcock said...

What a lovely post. Thank you!

Your mentioning Spearhead / The Auton Invasion reminds me… I still to this day think it’s strange that, when original Who books started up in earnest with the magnificent New Adventures, people used to complain about the odd macho great battle scene not because that particular battle wasn’t all that well-written, but because it was impossible to write a decent battle on paper.

The two old Who stories with the biggest and most exciting on-screen battle scenes are probably your very own Spearhead From Space, and Remembrance of the Daleks. I reckon each are exceeded by their novelisations, which are probably the best two in the range (though The Cave-Monsters runs them close – I suppose I should say ‘pictured above’, and what a striking picture it is, too. Really fired my imagination as a boy). Go figure :-)

I had to grin at your Target-based ‘brand loyalty’; I did exactly the same thing. Somewhere at my parents’ house is a dusty copy of The Adventures of Rama, and after seeing a repeat of one of Kenneth Williams’ Jackanory stories on BBC4 a couple of months ago I re-read the couple of Agaton Sax books I have, too (he was indeed Swedish, the editor of its best and smallest paper, The Bykoping Post). There were odder books that I can only half-remember; a travelling family with really impressive pies, and something about Cucumbers…

So I guess those Target Doctor Who novels in particular made the biggest impacts on me growing up, and in most cases I’d still rather read a Pertwee story than watch one. But to go with a non-Target, as I was always fond of Malcolm Hulke’s morality tales (they probably got me into politics:, I’d also recommend Fattipuffs and Thinifers, an allegory for any arbitrary social divisions leading to pointless war, and which convinced me before I knew the word ‘ideology’ that eating too much was ideologically desirable.

I loved Image of the Fendahl, too, but probably learnt less from it, save that I liked to be scared… I guess everyone has their own golden age, but for me, getting the political fables from Target but starting watching Who on TV with the start of Mr Scary Hinchcliffe was just perfect.

Rob Scott-Norton said...

Every other Saturday in my childhood my family had a ritual to follow. Firstly we'd go to the Berni Inn in Southport where I'd invariably tuck into a nice gammon with pineapple (pointless aside but I distinctly recall my mum never being able to order a cup of tea at the Berni Inn. They only served coffee).

Second stop was WH Smith where I'd hunt out the Doctor Who target books. Target books were the way I pieced together the Doctor Who history in my head. I'd try my best to work out which Doctor the book was about and was often surprised that I'd got it wrong.

Did anyone else help flesh out their Doctor Who knowledge by borrowing hardback target novelisations from their library? Every Wednesday (late night opening) I happily went along and borrowed 3 books. I'd stay up and finish one on the Wednesday evening. My library never seemed to run out of them.