There, I said it. We’ve all been thinking it. Even you Mark Gatiss. I bet you have. If you haven’t, you should – you really should you know.
I quite enjoyed all of the New Adventures up to Nightshade. Even John Peel’s opening one. And I loved Uncle Terrance’s Exodus, which is fast and economical but gripping too. Nigel Robinson’s one was decent and Paul Cornell was a delight to find (Ace has suffocated on the moon, believing it to be Perivale – the afterlife receptionist thinks it unique, according to the blurb on the back).
And then I hit a stumbling block. I couldn’t get past Marc Platt’s Time’s Crucible – a shame as I was deeply impressed by his novelisations of Battlefield ) making it much better than the televised story) and Ghost Light (making it make sense – kinda).
Then Cartmel’s first book of his NA trilogy. Cartmel comes in for a lot of stick these days (much of it of his own making) but his New Adventures were genuinely superb books. Andrew Hunt’s (?) Witchmark didn’t leave much impact on me – I think I thought it was OK.
And then, I’m fairly sure, was Gatiss’ Nightshade. It was the first book that me totally gripped, with what I thought were the right amounts of old Doctor Who, the ‘too broad and deep’ philosophy of the New Adventures, humour, wit and – importantly – horror.
Gatiss’ first book has terrors to send your arm hairs up on end, afraid to look under the bed and unwilling to turn off the light. The concept of a monster that feeds of fear – and thus becomes that which people fear the most – is not especially novel but I don’t remember an instance of it being pulled off so well.
The Tar Baby and the drowned, dead brother are horrifying creations described wonderfully – the former’s sticky arms reaching out from beneath the bed – and its victim’s lack of surprise – is a masterclass in horror writing.
And then there’s Professor Nightshade. If the story had been made into a TV serial the monster would have been enough. But Gatiss uses the form to delve into a meta sub-plot about a retired actor who played a character not at all like Quatermass in some BBC serials (I think). Because – in Nightshade – peoples’ fears become reality you basically get an episode of Quatermass played out within a Doctor Who story. Irresistable.
Rather than delving into big space opera battles or cyberpunk – or the sex-and-violence that some tried and often failed – Gatiss uses the broader canvas to simply do something clever with the opportunity. The setting was good too. A cold, colourless northeast seaside town if I remember correctly. I always imagined a Marske or Whitby rather than a Teesside town – somewhere near the Moors.
I liked the novel immensely. I reckon I read it a few times. I re-read it a few years ago – when I revisited the range – and found that it had not aged. Others I found very much less impressive second-time around.
It strikes me that this would make an excellent two-parter with little tweaking. It’s a good story for the Doctor, if I remember correctly. While Gatiss sketched out the seventh very well I don’t remember it being exclusively about the seventh incrantion especially. Ace has a good story too – and nearly has a romance with a man called Robin ( I would have been willin’) – and there’s a great character actor part in Professor Nightshade.
Beyond that I can’t remember. But I am sure the story would stand the transfer well. The BBC does period well, some nice location stuff would really drag the series back out of its self-satisfied America-and-space routines of the last series – and the tower block mise-en-scene of RTD’s tenure. For all of its promise I’m not sure the new series has really explored the ‘anywhere, anywhen’ template much
Importantly, for me, the story is frightening. Doctor Who is all abut frightening for me. Sure, some fans think it’s hilarious when Tom and the guest cast spend 90 minutes twatting about, or the Doctor snogs someone or the Daleks and Cybermen have a war.
Maybe those things are good, but I don’t think they’re the reason kids get into Doctor Who. Our programme has been great at scares over the years. It has spawned some of the most famously frightening things that exist in fiction. It is a scary show – and it’s usually at its best when its being good at being terrifying. You’ve heard of ‘behind the sofa’ – I vividly remember spending the end of the first episode of Caves of Androzani under the sofa.
Nightshade is a very scary book. I’d also stick my head above the parapet and say that it’s the best thing Mark Gatiss has done on the show, including his other novels, audio plays and his TV scripts.
While I found The Unquiet Dead very enjoyable, it’s been a case of diminishing returns with Gatiss’ scripts, culminating in the obviously hacked-up Victory of the Daleks and the very weak Night Terrors.
Gatiss is clearly someone who could be a future show-runner, if the series has a secure future. Should Moffat continue it seems reasonable to expect more Gatiss episodes. He has one of the best Doctor Who stories ever written at his disposal – and he wrote it. Cornell did the same for Human Nature – and Marc Platt’s wonderful Spare Parts was mangled to make Rise of the Cybermen (probably best we forget that) but Nightshade’s simplicity, its neutrality, its very Who-ness would make it a classic.
It may be a very old adventure – but to a legion of New Series fans it could be new once more.
The second photo is – I think – from when BBC Online started to reprint a few of the NAs. I’ve also found a prelude to it – DWM had an excellent featurette that prefaced all the novels in those days, a reflection of how important they were. You can read it here.