Chapter 153. Doctor Who – The Pescatons (1991)

Synopsis: The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith witness the appearance of a hideous creature on the banks of the Thames. Seeking help at a nearby research station, they discover that a recent meteorite hidden underwater is actually a crashed spaceship. Its inhabitant, a Pescaton, heads for central London on the rampage before it eventually dies. But this is just the first, as soon hundreds of spaceships disguised as meteorites enter the atmosphere of Earth. The Pescaton invasion has begun!

Chapter Titles

  • 1. The Darkest Night
  • 2. Into the Depths
  • 3. Panic!
  • 4. A Premonition
  • 5. While the City Sleeps
  • 6. The Terror Begins
  • 7. Pesca
  • 8. Creatures of the Night
  • 9. ‘Find Zor!’
  • 10. The Deadly Encounter

Background: Victor Pemberton adapts his scripts for a story released on LP in 1976. Although the range continues under Virgin Books and is later resurrected by BBC Books, this is the last of the original run of Target books. Just to be annoyingly inconsistent, while Slipback was treated as an extra novel outside of the numbered library, The Pescatons is given a number. 

Notes: The Doctor has a poor sense of smell but heightened hearing. Sarah Jane has ‘lovely’, ‘large brown eyes’. The travellers land a couple of miles down the coast from Westcliff, Essex, later confirmed to be  Shoeburyness. The Doctor guesses that they’re in the mid-1970s and while we’re later told that they’re reached ‘the seventh decade of the twentieth century’ (which is, er, the 1960s), Sarah Jane also notes that they’re about ten years or so from ‘the period in time she left behind’ – which would suggest the mid-1980s or an unseen adventure.

The first clue of the Pescaton’s approach is a strong smell of fish, then a hissing sound like ‘a jungle cat stalking its prey’.

… eyes glaring like giant emeralds. It was a huge, towering creature, over twelve feet tall, half-human, half fish, with shining silvery scales covering its sticky body, and hands like talons with sharp nails, and webbed feet which were veined in red, heavy and clumsy. Its face was weird, almost gothic; it was like a gremlin, a manifestation of the Devil itself.

A sticky green stuff blocks the route to the TARDIS so the travellers visit the Essex Coastal Protection Unit (ECPU) where they meet 28-year-old head of research Mike Ridgewell and his colleague and longtime girlfriend Helen Briggs. While Mike accepts the Doctor’s claims about an alien creature. Helen doesn’t trust him and is confused by his relationship with Sarah, wondering if she’s his daughter. Mike does the ‘Doctor who?’ joke (first time we’ve had that in a while) and the Doctor replies ‘if you insist’ and introduces Sarah Jane as his ‘assistant’. Mike is a little sharp with Sarah Jane and snaps at her (mild swear-word warning) ‘don’t talk crap!’

The Doctor is ‘not a good swimmer at the best of times’ but he finds the experience of diving to the depths of the estuary ‘awesome’ and reminiscent of walking in space. The Pescaton spaceship is made of a metal he doesn’t recognise. As he leaps from his recovery bed in the First Aid unit of the ECPU, we discover that the Doctor wears ‘long-leg underpants’! When Sarah Jane asks him how old he is, he replies ‘Trade secret’. The Doctor met Professor Bud Emmerson in a ‘previous generation’. Emmerson is in his mid-sixties, with almost white hair, cropped short, and he’s ‘just as fat as he always had been’, which makes his ‘tall, massive body’ look out of proportion with his ‘really quite small’ head. He was a comedy actor in the 1950s but fell into astronomy. He gained widespread recognition for his discovery of a cluster of planets and invested funding from global astronomical organisations and donations from fans to build the North London Observatory on Highgate Hill. The Doctor helped him identify Pesca and the Professor has been studying the planet ever since. Pesca has hardly any ‘ozone protection’ (a major environmental concern at the time of publication).

Mike and a young member of the team called Pete Conway find a beach hut covered in the green substance which has hardened into a shroud shape. Believing a teenage boy is trapped inside, they use a drill to crack open the cocoon, only to discover that Pescatons can mimic human voices – and from the cocoon emerge small, shrieking Pescaton hatchlings, each about eight inches long and instinctively vicious. Seeing a police presence on the banks of the Thames, Sarah gets through a cordon by flashing a press pass (that’s ten years out of date), then the Doctor claims to be from the Department of the Environment. The Doctor recognises a large cone containing thousands of Pescaton eggs, having seen something similar on a past visit to Pesca. The Doctor carries a mini-telescope, a dynameter for ‘tracing sonic direction’ and a flute (replacing the piccolo from the album).

We first encounter Zor in a flashback to the Doctor’s previous visit to Pesca:

A massive creature, with slanting, luminous green eyes bulging out of an oval head covered with shining, metallic scales. Its teeth were sharp and pointed, like needles, and the gills behind its head pulsated as it breathed. And the body! The fins of a killer shark, hands with sharp claws, and the legs of a human stretching down to veined webbed feet. The creature’s tail, which was long and tough, like that of a crocodile, stretched out behind its body but never seemed to move.

…. through those eyes the Doctor could see right inside the creature’s brain, a hideous mass of living energy, a great beehive shape, crawling with minuscule ‘thought worms’. 

The creature mimics the Doctor’s speech patterns (so, unlike on the record, it doesn’t have a gravelly North American accent that should be selling us aftershave or narrating movie trailers). Back on Earth, Zor is tracked down to an underground tunnel near Aldwych Station and is destroyed by bright arc lights (on the record, it’s found in a sewer and defeated by high-frequency sound).

At the end, Professor Emmerson watches ‘a small object rising up into space through his telescope’ as the TARDIS departs [in the manner it left in Fury from the Deep on TV]. 

Cover: Pete Wallbank uses a photo reference of the Doctor and Sarah from The Seeds of Doom for a composition that includes the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and a strange scaly creature that appears to be emerging from the Doctor’s coat.

Final Analysis: Slipback – a radio serial produced by the BBC and broadcast on Radio 4 – was novelised as part of the Target range but not part of the numbered library, putting it alongside the Missing Episodes and Companions of Doctor Who as an interesting side-step that’s not part of the official canon. As the programme itself ceased production in 1989 – and thanks to Nigel Robinson’s determination to fill in all those 1960s gaps – the number of TV stories available for novelisation had reached single figures by this point. Two of those stories were about to be ticked off and the rest would eventually join the Target range 25 years later. While Virgin Books editor Peter Darvill-Evans had successfully launched the New Adventures, starring the seventh Doctor, his past-Doctor range of Missing Adventures wouldn’t hit bookshelves until 1994. Aside from a stage play by Terrance Dicks, there was only one other full story that could be novelised.

Argo Records, a subsidiary of British Decca, released Doctor Who and the Pescatons on LP and cassette in 1976, hitting record stores between the TV broadcasts of Seasons 13 and 14. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen recreated the Doctor and Sarah and it all felt rather like an official mini-episode (the duration for the entire story was just 46 minutes, so akin to a modern single-episode story). And while I listened to the cassette many times, this was the first time I’d read the novel.

Returning to Target after his poll-winning adaptation of Fury from the Deep, Victor Pemberton fleshes out what was quite a thinly sketched story into a full novel. In many ways, it’s a little old-fashioned compared to the later Target volumes. There are some over-familiar SF tropes here: The green, parasitical substance that carpets the south-east of England is straight out of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, while we can look to John Wyndham for sinister meteor showers and a London devastated by monstrous alien beings. Also, possibly a result of adapting the largely narrated album, so much of the novel summarises events, rather than dramatising them – for instance, the Doctor’s previous trip to the planet Pesca and the very accurate and detailed locations around central London (which would make for an unusual walking tour). His approximation of Sarah Jane misses the mark somewhat, casting her mainly as a feed for the Doctor, although she does get to use her journalistic credentials to bluff her way through a police cordon. His depiction of the fourth Doctor is surprisingly accurate though, with a combination of abruptness and other-worldly strangeness.

Where Pemberton succeeds is in creating wholly new characters to populate his world. Mike and Helen take on some of the responsibilities of Professor Emmerson from the record and they have their own dangerous journey of discovery. Then there are the various victims of the Pescatons, who are given distinct personalities and motivations: An obstinate civil servant who ignores the Doctor and comes to a nasty end; the Scottish father and son whose barge is torn apart in a tragic vignette lifted from the pages of Peter Benchley’s Jaws; and a brave young boy and his remote control boat, who is part of a twist that elevates the Pescatons from merely being savage beasts into something much more Stephen King – monsters with sadistic intent. 

There’s also a trio of homeless people: Old Ben, who has been a familiar figure in the West End for over a decade; and two teenage boys who have been living rough for about a year. Jess is from Newcastle and he ran away from home because of disputes with his father about being ‘allowed to make his own decisions about how he wants to live‘ and Tommy had heard ‘what a great time teenage kids like himself could have if they moved into the big city’. The italics in both cases are mine and it strikes me that Pemberton uses coded language here to hint at a relationship between the boys that would have been impossible to suggest on TV but would become more overt in the New Adventures. Old Ben is immediately uncooperative with the police, but is more forthcoming with the Doctor and Sarah, which is how they learn of the fates of the missing teens. These three people represent the generational shift in the homeless that, along with ‘the ozone layer’, was becoming a notable social concern at the time Pemberton was writing this (the charitable magazine The Big Issue began publication in September 1991 as a means of both funding support for – and raising awareness of – the rising homeless population in the UK).

In the course of researching this, I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole looking into Canadian actor Bill Mitchell, who voiced Zor on the record. I particularly wanted to know how the man who was the promotional voice of Carlsberg beer, Denim aftershave and hundreds of movie trailers came to play a giant alien fish on a licensed Doctor Who record. This was actually Mitchell’s second role in Doctor Who; he had recorded a scene for Frontier in Space playing a newsreader, but his role was cut from the final edit due to the episode overrunning. As a voice-over artist in much demand in the mid-70s, he spent most of his days in London’s Soho at John Wood Studios and between jobs he could often be found at the Coach and Horses public house – which was also a regular haunt of such notable names as writer Jeffrey Bernard, the artist Francis Bacon – and an actor called Tom Baker…

Chapter 109. Doctor Who – Fury from the Deep (1986)

Synopsis: Playing on a beach near a gas refinery in the English Channel, the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are arrested for trespassing. Head of the base Robson would rather accuse the Doctor and his friends of sabotage than accept that there might be something in the gas pipes. But there is – a steady heartbeat of… something. Down there… in the dark…

Chapter Titles

  • 1. The Deadly Sound
  • 2. Something in the Pipeline
  • 3. A Pair of White Gloves
  • 4. Mr Oak and Mr Quill
  • 5. Waiting in the Dark
  • 6. The Specimen
  • 7. The Figure on the Beach
  • 8. The Impeller Shaft
  • 9. The Battle of the Giants
  • 10. The Spy Within
  • 11. The Nerve Centre
  • 12. ‘Scream, Victoria! Scream!’

Background: Victor Pemberton adapts scripts from his own 1968 serial. At 189 pages, it’s by far and away the biggest novelisation so far (and the original cover price reflected this!).

Notes: The Doctor is said to have ‘never really liked the sea. In fact, it was the only thing he really feared. It made him feel insecure, restless’ (contradicting the opening scenes of Enemy of the World – and in contrast to Patrick Troughton, who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy during WWII). Jamie has a bizarre sneezing reaction when he comes into contact with the foam in the sea, something that later becomes an early warning of an impending weed attack. We’re reminded that Jamie grew up in ‘the Scotland of the Jacobean age’ and that Victoria misses ‘the love and protection of her dear father back in the Victorian age’; later, it’s said that she considers Jamie to be ‘a very special person, the sort of brother everyone should have’, which is just adorable. The Doctor uses ‘his own version of a screwdriver’ but it’s not specifically ‘sonic’ [Pemberton had apparently resented that he’d never received credit for inventing the Doctor’s signature device, so this is a little surprising]. When the Doctor is shot on the beach, Jamie struggles to accept that his friend might be dead:

The Doctor had survived so many attacks on his life during their travels through time and space. The Doctor was as indestructible as time itself.

Controller Robson is said to be ‘a burly-looking man, probably in his early fifties, with greying hair, a jutting jaw, and vacant grey eyes.’ The nametag on his uniform says his name is ‘ROBSON. S’, though we’re later told his name is ‘John’ so the ‘S’ name is a mystery; while it’s common for people to be addressed by a middle name, it’s a little confusing that we have that little mystery unexplained (maybe his birth name is St John?!). 

Frank Harris is a skinny young man in his late twenties, ‘weak-looking’ with ‘blue eyes, a pale face and gaunt expression, and a mop of blond, unruly hair that constantly flopped carelessly over his right eye’. Robson resents Harris for being young and educated in a ‘red-brick university’. Pieter Van Lutyens is ‘a likeable little man, dumpy, balding’ and speaks English ‘with no trace of an accent’ (so not a match for John Abineri or his performance on TV); he’s been a member of the team at the refinery since being appointed by the government two years previously. Chief Baxter is in his late-fifties and ‘one of the most experienced drilling engineers in the North Sea gas fields’. He was once in line for the role that eventually went to Robson, but was considered too important to the offshore drilling programme. All of the background details really help to explain why Robson is so paranoid and defensive towards the experts who surround him. A reflective scene reveals that Robson’s wife, Angie, died 22 years earlier in a car accident where Robson was the driver. Megan Jones is ‘an attractive middle-aged woman’ with ‘vivid red hair’; she comes from the Rhondda Valley, the daughter of a coal-miner. Megan’s secretary, Ronald Perkins, is ‘an effete young man, a devoted, ambitious civil servant, who would sooner die than contradict his superiors’. The video operator Price’s first name is ‘David’, while the chief operator of Rig D is Mick Carney.

The Doctor believes that Victoria has ‘the loudest, most terrifying scream he had ever heard’. He also surmises that Maggie Jones was transported to the rig in a cocoon created by the weed creature. The TARDIS makes a ‘grinding and grunting sound’ as it dematerialises. The seabirds return to the area now that the weed parasite has been defeated.

Cover: In front of a North Sea gas platform, a frond of seaweed emerges from the water, as realised by David McAllister.

Final Analysis: The novelisation of Fury from the Deep won the Doctor Who Magazine 25th Anniversary Poll for best Target novel ever. This shouldn’t be a surprise. As one of the infamously completely missing stories, it’s one that the Old Guard lauded as being among the very best without any evidence that younger viewers could point to for a counter-argument. By the close of 1986, many fans only knew the story from this book. It also features the departure of a companion that, for once, is ceded through the entire adventure and the novel makes great use of the space to tell a character-driven story where each individual has clear motivations, strengths and weaknesses. 

This also feels rather traditional. While he isn’t afraid of adding a little extra biographical detail to his characters or polishing a scene to heighten the tension, Pemberton largely sticks to his original plot and doesn’t try to be experimental with the narrative. He also employs an old Terrance Dicks trick of repeating descriptions to establish characters (Harris’s lock of hair, Oak and Quill’s white gloves) and especially to announce the presence of his monster, in this case ‘bubbling white foam’ – later evolving into ‘a mass of white foam’. Pemberton also gets extra points for sneaking a namecheck for the tile into the final chapter:

Down below, the mud-coloured sea was pitted with undulating swells of white spray and bubbling blobs of foam, soon to become a slave of the fury from the deep…

Robson’s transformation into a weed creature is, predictably, more horrific on the page, not quite to the degree that Ian Marter might have offered, but the slowly engulfing menace is beautifully realised, making assets out of elements that might have been weaknesses on TV (we don’t know, we can’t see it, but we can assume that a studio-bound scene involving foam during the second Doctor’s era might look like – there are a fair few of them!):

The Doctor and Jamie stared in horror as the room was flooded with light. They were in a large crew cabin, at the far end of which was a seething mass of bubbling white foam. And in the midst of that foam was a sight that would chill the blood of even the strongest of mortals. The figure of a man was standing there, half demented, his neck and hands sprouting frond-like weed formations. And out of the foam that had almost completely engulfed him, the curling tentacles of the giant Weed Creature were snaking around his lifeless body.

The deafening heartbeat sound stopped abruptly. There was a deathly silence, then the man who had become a creature himself, began to emerge from the foam, arms out-stretched, walking slowly, jerkily, straight towards the Doctor and Jamie.

‘Come in, Doctor,’ whispered the human creature. ‘We’ve been waiting for you…’

It was Robson.

Yes, it’s a much bigger book than we’re used to, but unlike a few other examples published in the same year, this never feels padded and it doesn’t add unnecessary details for the sake of it. 

So is this the best of the Target range so far?

Could be…