Synopsis: Count Grendel has ambitions to rule Tara. He possesses the greatest android technician in the land, he holds Princess Strella captive in his castle and his personal army outnumbers that of his rival, Prince Reynart. Soon, the sickly prince will die and Grendel will take his place. Just so long as an itinerant Time Lord doesn’t arrive and interfere…
- Prologue – The Rhino Bear
- I. The Doctor Goes Fishing
- II. Princess Strella
- III. The Pavillion of the Summer Wind
- IV. The Duel
- A Note on the Text(s) – by Steve Cole
Background: This novelisation is again taken from David Fisher’s audiobook adaptation, released in 2012, and based on his scripts for the 1978 TV serial.
Notes: Fisher provides plenty of back-story for the families of Tara, in particular the lineage of Count Grendel of Gracht, beginning with Zagreus Gracht, who married into a noble family then poisoned them all and stole their land and castle. The Gracht family motto is ‘All Shall Fear’.
Madame Lamia was a peasant who was bought by the Gracht family at a market. She eventually became the property of Grendel, who later took her as his mistress. Thanks to her skills as an engineer, she now holds the highest position a woman could achieve in Tara ‘where “the gentle sex” had always been subservient to the male’. Divorce is frowned upon in Tara – they prefer to wall up their ex-wives in the catacombs.
A century earlier, a plague wiped out much of the peasant population which also devastated the agricultural economy. A peasant called Septimus Hornland invented a kind of tractor, which was how peasants developed skills as robot builders. Inevitably, the ingenuity of the peasants merely inspired the aristocracy to seize their assets as their own.
The Taran Wood Beast becomes a ‘rhino-bear’, which we first see in the form of one of Madame Lamia’s robots, which Grendel uses to practice hunting. Fisher matches Dicks’ temptation to improve upon the rather sorry creature we see on telly:
The creature stood at least eight feet tall on its hind legs, but seemed taller still because both forepaws were upraised to strike. The paws were four times the size of Romana’s hands and equipped with razor-sharp claws. Set within the animal’s massive head was a huge jaw with the teeth of a large carnivore and tusks like those of a wild boar. The creature was covered in short black fur, and in all was like nothing she had ever seen before.
The robot has been programmed to react to the safe word ‘excelsior’; the fact that the one attacking Romana doesn’t halt to Grendel’s command alerts him to the fact that it’s not a robot but the real thing.
The TARDIS has clothes from the planet Aardo and Zoguna, the latter of which once presented a fish-related problem for the Doctor. There are few animals of any kind on Gallifrey. The Doctor claims that his scarves are knitted for him by an arachnoid on Altair Three’, though we’re also warned that this might be a lie. Romana is a ‘Time Lady’. The Doctor boasts that he was taught how to fence by ‘Chevalier d’Éon’. When Zadek and Farrah first encounter the Doctor, they charge him with fishing without a license; Farrah repeatedly asks Zadek if he can kill the stranger (on TV, it happens just the once).
Tara has three moons [which would account for the unconvincing ‘day-for-night’ scenes in the TV version, at least]. The spear that Gracht propels at the robot Reynart has an explosive tip that rips the android to pieces. Grendel and Strella played together as children – Grendel tied Strella up and tried to burn her as a witch. There’s a useful flashback to the moment when Grendel kidnapped Strella immediately prior to this adventure.
A huge bell in a tower of Castle Gracht is introduced early on as the traditional signal that the current master of Castle Gracht has died; the Doctor later uses it as a distraction to help the Prince’s forces to storm the castle. As revealed in the wedding ceremony, Taran myth states that Kong the Creator made man, then the animals, then, ‘as an afterthought, he created Woman’.
Grendel swims across the moat, is confronted by K-9 and flees to the pavilion, where he finds a clean set of clothes,money and weapons. He vows to make his return, enact revenge on Reynart and retake his castle. As thanks for the Doctor’s efforts, Zadek awards him a fishing license.
Cover: Anthony Dry gives us the Fourth Doctor, Count Grendel and a segment of the Key to Time with Romana’s / Strella’s face reflected in it.
Final Analysis: Fisher really gets his teeth into the family of Gracht, teasing us with tales of generations of rogues, thieves and murderers. While Grendel is every bit the nasty piece of work we had on TV, this novel is critical of the whole notion of an aristocracy that survived a great plague by locking the doors of their castles and waiting for the peasants to die out. The survivors faced starvation as the agricultural economy floundered until they discovered a talent for technology – a neat explanation for why android maintenance is considered a ‘peasant skill’.
The critique of the supposed noble class extends to the Prince and Princess who, on TV at least, we’re supposed to be rooting for. Prince Reynart is a rather unsympathetic aristocrat who believes peasants to be incapable of finer feelings such as love and picks fault in Romana’s suggestion to offer free pardons to Gracht’s men because it would be ‘irregular’ and ‘demeaning’; Princess Strella is equally beastly. Far from battling to maintain the status quo, the Doctor and Romana merely wish to extricate themselves from the problems of Tara as swiftly as possible. The final chapter suggests that Grendel plans on returning to take Reynart’s castle – and the Doctor speculates, without much sense of regret, that this is exactly what will happen.
Steve Cole provides a note on editing the novel, providing examples from the audiobook of some of Fisher’s improvements on both the original script and how it turned out on screen once it had been filtered through Tom Baker. Overall, this is so much richer than Terrance Dicks’ previous effort, it’s the novelisation this much loved story deserves.
David Fisher died in 2018, aged 88.
I’ve cheated a bit, as there’s one more novel I want to cover. So let’s meet back next time, just for fun, to bring this project to a close.