Synopsis: While Sarah Jane and her colleague Jeremy enjoy a holiday in Italy, they’re surprised to find the Brigadier is also in the region. He’s offering support to a distant relative who’s being threatened by an American gangster determined to acquire the family home by any means. When the Doctor arrives to investigate a haunting, the old team comes together to solve a mystery that spans centuries.
Numbered One to Twenty-Eight
Background: A number of firsts here, as Barry Letts adapts scripts for a BBC Radio drama that, at the time of publication, had yet to be broadcast. The old novelisation imprint having expired, this was released as the seventh book in Virgin’s Missing Adventures line.
Notes: The back cover tells us that the story is set between Death to the Daleks and The Monster of Peladon; Sarah recalls her tangle with a Sontaran, there are various references to Paradise of Death and the Doctor and Sarah discuss their escapades in the Exxilon city. An opening scene helps to set up our new villain in a confrontation between Max Vilmio and head of a ruling family, Don Fabrizzio, which results in the brutal death of the Don.
As was common in the Virgin books, there’s some mild swearing – the Don’s henchmen are said to have been disrespected as if they were ‘the chicken‐shit bully‐boys of a Main Street Boss from the Mid‐West’, the Don considers Vilmio to be a ‘pezzo di merda’ (thank you Google Translate) and Vilmio later calls Fabrizzio a ‘two‐bit Godfather with cowshit between his toes’ (as in the radio serial!). Sarah mentally bestows Jeremy with the name ‘Tail‐Arse‐Charlie’ as he’s always last in line when the action starts. Letts outdoes Ian Marter for one specific expletive: Vilmio threatens Jeremy, ‘I’ll ask you once more, you little bastard’ and Jeremy recalls a boxing lesson at school where he cowered in the corner of the ring surrounded by cries of ‘You’ve got him now, boy, kill the bastard!’. After Max calls Maggie ‘an ignorant broad from Brooklyn’, she agrees, before adding ‘Great tits, though’; later, she’s said to stand ‘silent, hand on tilted hip, chin up, tits out, letting her body do its work’. Least offensive of all is Sarah asking herself ‘Why am I so knackered?’ – it’s an entirely appropriate phrase for someone who grew up in Liverpool, but any readers from the East of England may have another interpretation of the word, where ‘knackered’ can mean ‘sexually exhausted’. The book retains the use of the word ‘catamite’ from the radio scripts and refrains from explaining it. Max’s use of the term ‘dumb Polack hooker’ is, however, excised.
As a child, Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart had visited his uncle Mario and brought with him a set of story books (which his uncle kept to help him with his English) as well as a comforting teddy bear. Listening to the Doctor and the Brigadier talk, Sarah Jane thinks of them as ‘the grown‐ups’. The Doctor’s voice reminds Sarah of a childhood trip with her parents to stay at a caravan on the Gower coast.
We’re treated to a number of ghastly animal combinations from the N-dimension: One is a ‘glowing creature half ape, half carrion bird, reaching out with impossibly extended scaly arms [and] vulture claws’; later, the Doctor provides the gang with a peek into N-space:
Sarah saw again a flash of the chimera of her living nightmare. She saw glimpses of creatures even more horrific: inside out creatures gnawing at their own entrails; gaping heads, all mouth and fangs, with a maw large enough to swallow a full‐grown pig – or a human; monstrous jellyfish with a hundred human eyes, staring, staring, staring; and more; and more; a menagerie of evil.
The three creatures they encounter in the past resemble a thirty-feet-long whale with shark’s teeth and legs with ‘dinner‐plate‐sized hooves’, a ‘nimble slug a mere twelve feet in length’ and a ‘spiny sea urchin, a ball of yard‐long spikes’, with ‘blood-red eyes on stalks’.
The Doctor’s leaping to avoid the beast is compared to ‘Nureyev or Nijinsky’, which seems odd to think back to a time where there even was a ‘world-famous ballet dancer’ who everyone knew by name, let alone two.
We discover that Maggie’s backstory is even more grim than on radio: After the death of her mother, her violent and abusive father revealed that he expected Maggie to take her mother’s place ‘in every sense’. When she fought against his advances, her father beat her savagely and though he subsequently left her alone, he continued to violently terrorise her siblings. Despite this, we’re told that Maggie usually gets a ‘buzz’ from violence – ‘Bruised, cut cheeks and split lips could be quite a turn‐on’ – but even she finds Max’s beating of Jeremy distressing – hence why she helps him.
Uncle Mario has had a loaded gun on the premises ever since World War II (we’re told that he has been ‘indomitably anti‐fascist’ since the 1920s. Jeremy had an Uncle Teddy, with whom he used to go wild-fowling on trips to Norfolk. Having repeatedly compared his adventures with those of James Bond, Jeremy takes inspiration for his final assault from one of Uncle Mario’s books – one of the volumes that used to belong to young Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart.
Cover: Using the Slatter-Anderson design for the Missing Adventures range, Alister Pearson presents us with a Doctor in his costume first seen in The Green Death, with a Brigadier in what looks like his Mawdryn Undead civvies, while the main panel shows a ghostly monk passing through a brick wall.
Final Analysis: Commissioned as a sequel to The Paradise of Death, The Ghosts of N-Space fell foul of changes at Radio 5 as the station’s remit evolved towards solely news and sport, with no room for fiction. It shifted across a number of potential options before eventually airing on Radio 2 (not normally the home of drama, but Radio 4 had already passed) some two years after it had been produced. In the meantime, Virgin books decided to capitalise upon the success of their New Adventures range by commissioning a second strand of original fiction starring past Doctors and companions. Barry Letts had a ready-made script ripe for novelisation, so was invited to contribute to the Missing Adventures range with The Ghosts of N-Space with no confirmed airdate for the serial in sight. This book is the only Doctor Who adaptation to be presented as an original novel first rather than as part of the ongoing series of novelisations. It’s a distinction that initially led me to decide not to review it here as it, er, didn’t count. However, a last-minute Twitter poll forced my hand. So here we are!
As with the novel of The Paradise of Death, while I don’t wish to review the radio play, this is another instance where I hadn’t actually heard the original episodes before. For the novel, Barry Letts rejigs the order of some scenes and expands others. Mainly, it benefits hugely from the rewriting of scenes that were originally created through breathless dialogue (such as Sarah Jane or Jeremy explaining what they can see and the listener can only hear). The backstories of the various Italian families through the ages are fleshed out and the whole thing just makes a lot more sense than it does as an audio drama. Otherwise, it’s a fairly logical progression through the scripts, even down to a very conveniently jolly ending.
At the time, there was a suspicion in some quarters that the BBC kept shunting the play around because nobody actually wanted it. Whether that was because of its quality, or just because no commissioner ever wants to inherit someone else’s stone-cold project is up for debate. Eventually, both the novel and the eventual broadcast received a lukewarm response from fans.
The adventure itself isn’t that bad. It’s a complicated tale set across multiple points in time that might easily have been produced on TV during the Steven Moffat years. The main problem is one that blighted both Paradise of Death and almost all of the Missing Adventures at the time, a split in the readership between those who wanted the new stories to feel authentic to the productions they were supposed to slot between and others who wanted the kind of stories that could never have been achieved in a BBC Television Centre studio. The Ghosts of N-Space sits uncomfortably between the two. Like most early 1970s six-part adventures, it’s rather flabby in the middle and it all gets a little moralistic in its conclusion. But it’s also extremely atypical of the era it’s trying to recreate, so it feels like one of those feature films in the 1970s where the cast of a popular TV sitcom leave their familiar surroundings for a foreign holiday – with hilarious consequences.
In this case, the consequences aren’t that hilarious as Letts takes advantage of being able to write for an older audience: The Lovecraftian monsters are genuinely horrific; there’s the strong language and mild sexual terms mentioned earlier,; and he reveals an enthusiasm for particularly nasty death scenes:
With one last choking gasp, the wretched man was still. His eyes were popping from his head and his tongue extruded from his mouth, blood streaming from it. His jaw, clamped tight, had bitten it right through. He was, without a doubt, quite dead.
By no means as ropey as I’d been led to believe, it’s still not quite authentic enough to satisfy traditionalists, nor revolutionary to appease the radicals. Even so, it’s disappointing that this is Barry Letts’ final novelisation. He later wrote two original Doctor Who novels for BBC Books, one co-written with Terrance Dicks, as well as contributing to Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smith series of audio plays. He died on 9 October 2009, aged 84. His autobiography, Who and Me, was published posthumously the following month.