Nowadays it can be surprisingly tricky not to know something. Suppose, for example, that your memory surrounding the final scenes of 2013’s The Day Of The Doctor, Doctor Who’s much-lauded fiftieth birthday present to itself, was a little bit hazy. Something about a 3D oil painting and Tom Baker, wasn’t it?
It’s doubtful you’d stay confounded for long. A swift Google search would lead you to the episode summary on Wikipedia or a fan-made transcript. If you wanted to relive the clip in question, well, Auntie Beeb’s obliged you by uploading key scenes to Youtube. Why stop there, though, when the full episode’s available on Netflix? There’s that shiny Blu-Ray on Amazon demanding your attention, too, or…
Ahem. Things were a lot different forty years ago, back before DVRs or even VHS recorders were a household fixture. Authors such as James Blish made their mark creating novelisations of shows like Star Trek that were eagerly snapped up by fans because, once an episode had aired, there was no guarantee you’d ever see it again. You were stuck going the long way around. In many cases, books were all you had to keep the fires of recollection alive, even if they were – as in Star Trek’s case – harshly-abridged versions of the original source material.
Luckily, British-based Target Books were rather more faithful to the good Doctor. Their works not only expanded upon the plots of most serials they novelised, they also provided vital coverage of the series’ famous missing episodes. BBC Books themselves republished a number of entries under the Target brand back in 2011, seemingly to whet their appetite for this year’s treat: four new novelisations from the show’s modern run, two of which are penned by the episodes’ writers.
Of these, arguably the most enticing is Steven Moffat’s take on The Day of the Doctor, partly because he’s so fresh out of the showrunner’s chair he hasn’t even done his coat up yet, but mostly because it gives him free rein to revisit and refine one of the show’s most significant episodes. He’s got the benefit of hindsight, the legacy of the Twelfth Doctor ringing in his ears, and licence to twist up a tale that already had already made some pretty sweeping changes to the Doctor Who universe.
Given all that, you could be forgiven for thumbing through the pages just to seek out any cheeky references to attack eyebrows and rainbow suspenders. Anyone who’s expecting Moffat to tease and troll the long-time fans certainly won’t be disappointed, but it’s important to note that this is fundamentally still The Day of the Doctor – 3D paintings, Zygon clones and all. The story remains largely unchanged, though many of the more hectic plot points are given some much-needed room to breathe.
The Tenth Doctor’s affair with Queen Elizabeth, for instance, benefits greatly from a few pages that bring context to their tempestuous relationship, not to mention explain why they’re an item to begin with. Likewise, the pain and fury as the Doctors debate how many children perished on Gallifrey adopts an even bleaker tone than the televised original. Not every moment benefits from being extended – the antics of the Zygons in the Under Gallery feel painfully laboured at times – but by and large they make for a more measured piece of storytelling.
The book’s strongest moments are when they spend time within the mind of the Doctor himself. (Himselves?) Whether contemplating his future regenerations or ruminating on the loss of his own identity, we get an unfettered look at how the Doctor views the universe and his place within it. Since the show’s revival, only Heaven Sent has come close to this level of introspection, daring to linger in the mind of a millennium-old Time Lord who finds himself alone, even if there are three of him.
Having been relatively restrained with the plot itself, Moffat refuses to hold back when it comes to the arrangement of the book he’s writing. He’s previously mentioned in interviews that he’s fascinated by the structure of stories; why they begin and end where they do, and what happens when you tell them out of order. The plot’s already an intricate tale of time-travel, of course, but the novelisation glories in complicated interstitial passages which suggest the book itself is printed on psychic paper, invite you to figure out who’s narrating a particular chapter or goad you into skipping ahead. (The chapters are, naturally, jumbled.)
These sections strongly evoke the playfulness of Douglas Adams – who was, of course, not exactly unfamiliar with adapting Doctor Who stories into complex novels. In fact, they typify Moffat’s unique brand of “timey-wimey” tangles so well, you get the feeling that if you were to shake the book hard enough, the author himself might tumble from between its pages.
It’s what you can’t find in the pages that might irk a few people, though, even if they’re no longer relying on the book to be their memory of the episode. Run-ins with the Daleks, who felt largely contractual and superfluous in the screen version, are gone. Perhaps more jarringly, so is the fan-favourite “All THIRTEEN!” exchange from the episode’s culmination, though this has been supplanted by a climax that’s arguably grander and more satisfying than a montage of easy technobabble.
The Day Of The Doctor is essential viewing for any fan of the show. The novelisation, unfortunately, can’t be considered essential reading, not when its source material is just as readily available and bolstered by a fantastic set of performances. There’s just not quite enough additional depth or nuance for that.
It is an enjoyable read, though, witty and biting in all the right places. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that it adds depth and colour to the original incarnation of the story, particularly how the adventure shapes the character of the Doctor himself. There’s emotional context on offer that you can take back into the episode with you next time you watch.
The book also serves a stasis cube of its own; a time-locked moment filled in equal measure with mania and melancholy, and one that seemingly encapsulates everything Steven Moffat loved to do with Doctor Who throughout his tenure.
An artist’s signature that takes up 231 pages? Now that’s the long way around.