Chapter 52. Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation (1979)

Synopsis: The White Guardian compels the Doctor (on pain of nothing… ever) to undertake a mission to find the six segments of the Key to Time. As part of the mission, the Doctor is given a new companion in the form of Romana. On the planet Ribos, a pair of grifters called Garron and Unstoffe are setting up an elaborate con, assuming the locals are too primitive to see through their scheme. Unfortunately, they have underestimated a visiting despot by the name of the Graff Vynda Ka .

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Unwelcome Strangers
  • 2. The Beast in the Citadel
  • 3. A Shaky Start
  • 4. Double Dealings
  • 5. Arrest and Capture
  • 6. Unlikely Allies
  • 7. Escape Into the Unknown
  • 8. The Doctor Changes Sides
  • 9 .Lost and Found
  • 10. Conjuring Tricks

Background: Ian Marter adapts the 1978 scripts by Robert Holmes.

Notes: The opening scene has the Doctor and K9 being rather snarky with each other. The Doctor suggests ‘Occhinos’ as a holiday destination.The TARDIS doors are opened from the inside by a brass handle. The Guardian sits within an exotic garden that features huge orchids and fountains. The garden disappears along with the Guardian, leaving the Doctor teetering on the edge of space and he has to propel himself backwards into the TARDIS. The Guardian makes no mention of a new companion for the Doctor; it’s left to Romana to introduce herself. Her tracer device is presented as the ‘Locatormutor Core’ and she knows of the existence of the Guardian (on TV, she’s left under the belief that she was selected for the mission by the President of the Time Lords). She graduated from the Academy with a ‘Triple Alpha’ and claims the Doctor achieved a ‘Double Gamma… on [his] third attempt’. The initial destination is Cyrrhenis Minimis (not ‘Minima’). 

We learn that, while he was away fighting campaigns alongside his Cyrrhenic allies, the Graff Vynda Ka (‘not ‘K’) was deposed by his half-brother on the Levithian throne; his alliance forgotten, he received no help from his former allies and he now lives in exile (we lose the rest of his back story from the TV episodes). Thanks to its elliptical orbit, Ribos’s summer (the ‘Sun Time’) lasts 11 years. The Doctor refers to Garron and Unstoffe as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ before apologising to Romana for the reference. When the Doctor is searched, Sholakh finds ‘an ear trumpet. a corkscrew, string, marbles, a magnifying glass, a paper bag with a few jelly babies melted into a lump…’ – some of which have been referenced by Marter in his previous books. There are many Shrivenzales living in the catacombs under the city. The Seeker is…:

… a scrawny hag dressed in long strips of crudely dyed remnants. Her frizzled grey hair was parted on the crown of her domed head, and it reached almost to her feet in a thickly tangled cascade.

She survives the knives of the Graff Vynda Ka and crawls off towards the Hall of the Dead, only to be caught in the blast of the Shrieve’s cannon. Despondent after the cave-in, Garron wonders if it would be possible to commit suicide with the Locatormutor Core. 

Chapter 7 brings Ian Marter’s take on a popular title, ‘Escape into the Unknown’, almost the same one Terrance Dicks used in Death to the Daleks. 

Cover: John Geary created an atmospheric shot of the Doctor, a shrivensale and some moody candles.

Final Analysis: It wasn’t one of Robert Holmes’ greatest scripts and sadly it’s not one of Ian Marter’s best books either. There’s little room for Marter’s violent imagery here and it’s all a bit flat. Without the performances to help sell the characters, Garron and Unstoffe lack any depth beyond their grift, while the Doctor is a horrific bully to Romana (something that was thankfully phased out on screen within a couple of stories, but which comes across as much more savage here). Marter is able to make the lumbering TV shrivenzale into a fearsome beast with claws that make sparks against the catacomb walls and he takes on the death of Sholakh and makes it a little bloodier, but… no, this is largely as dull as I’d expected.

I’ve got to be honest, this is the beginning of a run of books I’ve been dreading.

Chapter 45. Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment (1978)

Synopsis: Arriving on the surface of the Earth, thousands of years since the planet was abandoned, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry find a small party of explorers hiding in terror from a mechanical hunter. The machine has captured other members of the party and taken them off across the rocky terrain. Hidden among the rocks is a Sontaran with a sinister mission – and Sarah is about to become his next victim.

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Stranded
  • 2. Unknown Enemies
  • 3. Capture
  • 4. The Experiment
  • 5. Mistaken Identities
  • 6. The Challenge
  • 7. Duel to the Death
  • 8. A Surprise and a Triumph

Background: Adapted by Ian Marter, based on the 1975 scripts by Bob Baker and Dave Martin. This completes the run of stories for Season 12.

Notes: Consistent with his new ending to The Ark in Space, Ian Marter has our heroes arrive in the TARDIS – which lands before toppling over. As soon as the three travellers have emerged, it vanishes for no clear reason. As in that earlier book, the space station is referred to as Terra Nova. The robot kills Zake with a vicious whip of its tentacle, rather than pushing him over a ravine.As viewed by Harry, Styr (not Styre) is an imposing being:

… an enormous figure – like the statue of a huge, thick-limbed man somehow brought to life – was gradually silhouetted against the circle of daylight. As it lumbered out of the far end of the tunnel into the open, Harry glimpsed its coarse greyish hide – like pumice stone -shuddering at each step. 

Sarah recognises him and her point of view gives us even more vivid detail:

… the gaping oval panel was filled by a squat, lumbering shape like a monstrous puppet. Its domed, reptilian head grew neckless out of massive, hunched shoulders. Each trunk-like arm ended in three sheathed talons and was raised in anticipation towards her. The creature began to lurch down the ramp on thick, stumpy legs, the rubbery folds of its body vibrating with each step. Mean eyes burned like two red-hot coals amid the gnarled, tortoise-like features, and puffs of oily vapour issued from the flared nostrils.

….The wobbling folds of its lipless jaws were suddenly drawn back, baring hooked, metallic teeth. Sarah stared transfixed at the ghastly smile while the creature slowly shook its domed head…. The shrivelled, tortoise face thrust forward, its red piercing eyes boring into her.

The ‘three sheathed talons’ on each hand neatly fixes the continuity error of the TV episodes. According to the Doctor, Sontaran brains are like seaweed and their lungs are made from ‘a kind of spongy steel-wool’. Styr’s ship is the size of a large house, like ‘a giant Golf-ball’, consisting of a ‘honeycomb of modules’, small, interconnected spherical rooms arranged around a central control chamber. Styr’s robot – called ‘the Scavenger’ here – is a bell-shaped hovering dome with probing tentacles and there are a few of them, including one on guard inside the ship and a spider-like one that Harry dodges. Inside the ship, there are also two other Sontarans, lying dormant in recharging pods.

Styr reports to a ‘Controller’, not a ‘Marshal’, who tells him that a rendezvous with the ‘Allied Squadrons from Hyperion Sigma’ is overdue (is this a squadron of various Sontaran factions or are the Sontarans allied to another race? There’s no mention of the Rutans at all). Styr has a weapon secreted in the arm of his suit.

While unconscious, the Doctor has a vivid nightmare about the TARDIS, wrecked and heading towards a black hole, being overrun with rats while a giant cat emerges from the console and sleeps on his chest. He speculates that the Sontarans might be prospecting for a mineral not known in this galaxy – Terullian – and he keeps many objects in his pockets, including:

… marbles, pieces of twisted wire, shrivelled jelly babies, weird keys, a pirate’s eye-patch, strange coins, sea shells, a dead beetle…

… but not his ‘Liquid Crystal Instant Recall Diary,’ in which he thinks he wrote some notes about Sontarans in the past. Harry hallucinates Sarah as a vicious, snarling beast and is attacked by an illusionary giant spider-like creature.

The Doctor and Sarah each destroy a Scavenger robot with the sonic screwdriver. Styr sends Vural to his death over a ravine. The Doctor pours a flash of Glenlivet whisky into Styr’s probic vent and Styr swells to over three times his normal size before he and his ship deflate like balloons into congealed heaps. The Doctor remembers he set the TARDIS ‘Boomerang Orientators’ so assumes it’ll be back on Terra Nova. He, Sarah and Harry depart via the transmat field, thereby making the story fit with the previously published Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen.

Cover: The Doctor holds a log as a weapon in front of a background of a supersized Sontaran helmet. Another strong illustration from Roy Knipe.

Final Analysis: While this is based on a two-episode adventure, it’s by no means the shortest novel; indeed, it feels like it takes up the same page-count as, say, the six-part Genesis of the Daleks, without becoming padded or over-written. It’s another Ian Marter ‘movie version’, with everything turned up to eleven. Predictably, the horror elements are more grotesque – the terrifying hallucinations of faces emerging from rocks, soaring monster-infested wave, burning desert sands or giant ants. Marter’s real skill is in the characterisation: He makes Styr a much more terrifying presence than the TV version as the huge, hulking ‘golem’ is wheezing and gurgling, but also flawed as his sadism makes him forget the real purpose of his mission; Sarah’s ability to be both terrified and brave, as in the way she responds defiantly to Styr’s interrogation by pointing out that it’s not her fault if her mere presence doesn’t match his data; and Harry is still as bewildered by the technology, particularly the Doctor’s description of Sontaran biology, but he’s still got a great way of summing things up – calling Styr ‘the Humpty Dumpty thing’. What was merely a side dish on TV has been reimagined as a macabre banquet.

Chapter 32. Doctor Who and the Ark in Space (1977)

Synopsis: In the distant future, shielded from a long-past disaster, the entire population of Earth lies asleep in a wheel-shaped space-station. When the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive at the station, they discover that its inhabitants have overslept due to interference from an invading alien insect – a Wirrrn. As the parasite grows, it threatens not just the lives of the waking senior crew of the station, but the entire human race…

Chapter Titles

  • Prologue: The Intruder
  • 1. The Second Invasion
  • 2. Sarah Vanishes
  • 3. Sabotage!
  • 4. A Fatal Wound
  • 5. The Wirrrn
  • 6. Time Running Out
  • 7. A Tight Squeeze
  • 8. A New Beginning

Background: Ian Marter adapts Robert Holmes’ 1975 scripts. He was the first and, to date, only actor to novelise a story he was in. 

Notes: Yes – Wirrrn! Marter gives the Wirrrn an extra ‘r’ as well as much more flexibility than their TV counterparts; the first invader Wirrrn is able to arch ‘its segmented tail up over its head’ as it grips ‘ the cables in its huge claw and sever[s] them cleanly with a single slice.’ Later, the Doctor suggests the Wirrrn grub might be a ‘multi-nucleate organism’ to explain how it passed through a grill. When Harry and the Doctor find the dessicated husk of the Wirrrn Queen in the cupboard, Marter gives us an interesting description of the insect:

He stared at the enormous ‘insect’ which lay crumbling at his feet. The surface of its segmented body was a glossy indigo colour; here and there were patches of twisted and blackened tissue, like scorched plastic. The six tentacular legs bristled with razor-sharp ‘hairs’. The creature’s octopus head contained a huge globular eye on each side, and each eye was composed of thousands of cells in which Harry saw himself reflected over and over again. The creature was fully three metres long from the top of its domed head to the tip of the fearsome pincer in which its tail terminated.

On arrival, Sarah is wearing a denim trouser suit and woolly hat, similar to items she wore during Robot on TV. In the prologue, the Ark is not in orbit around the Earth but in the outer reaches of the solar system [as it also is in Revenge of the Cybermen]. The autoguard is renamed an ‘Organic Matter Detector Surveillance System’ – or OMDSS – and the space station is renamed ‘Terra Nova’ (was the Ark expected to reach New Earth??). The Ark includes full-sized blue whales, elephants and palm trees. The support struts contain moving walkways, leading to the outer ring. Vira is over two metres tall with short, dark hair, while Noah is ‘a tall, slim but powerful man with short black hair and a trim beard.’

The Doctor’s journey to the solar plasma cells reveals a multitude of tacky, silver trails across every surface. The gestating Wirrrn lie somewhere high up above the catwalks of the solar stacks in the form of ‘clusters of pustular matter’. On her tight-squeezed journey through the ducts of the space station, Sarah reaches a clear section where she’s attacked by a Wirrrn. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry depart in the TARDIS, not via the transmat booths.

Cover: Chris Achilleos’s final cover for the range is a simple design, with the Doctor looking worried inset while a Wirrrn dominates the frame (which is bordered in the same yellow as Carnival of Monsters). The 1991 reprint cover by Alister Pearson has the same Nerva wireframe border motif as Revenge of the Cybermen, with a Wirrrn centre and a second, smaller Wirrrn in the foreground, making the perspectives look off. Perhaps this would have been better to have a semi-converted Noah, or a Wirrrn grub in the foreground instead? A 2012 BBC Books edition reuses an edited version of the original Achilleos cover, placing the Wirrrn and the Doctor on a white background to match the new house style.

Final Analysis: As mentioned in the introduction, this was one of four books I received as a Christmas present in 1980, the first Target books I owned, rather than loaning from the library. I might have seen it at the time (I was definitely watching the series by the time of the repeat of Planet of the Spiders) but my main memory comes from this novel – and then pirate videotapes that were circulating in the mid-1980s. Ian Marter brings a joyful flavour of pulp horror to this, which – considering this adaptation predates Alien, The Thing, The Fly etc – makes me wonder what his influences were: HP Lovecraft, is an obvious one; maybe R. Chetwynd-Hayes or Guy N Smith’s Night of the Crabs? It’s a definite conscious step towards horror fiction here though, and not even a child-friendly version either. 

The prologue details the first intrusion by a Wirrrn with foreboding (while an announced ‘second invasion’ turns out to be the Doctor, Sarah and Harry) and the bubble-wrap grub from TV becomes an amorphous ‘glob’ that drips from the ceilings and sparks with energy. Noah’s transformation is particularly gruey:

… with a crack like a gigantic seed pod bursting, his whole head split open and a fountain of green froth erupted and ran sizzling down the radiation suit, burning deep trenches in the thick material. 

I’m not giving stars or scores for these books, but this one really feels like it’s elevating an already excellent story. This Marter bloke is one to watch out for…