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The spin-off doctors

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Novels based on a popular TV series or movie have a built-in audience, but are they literature, wonders Mark Juddery.

In the world of science fiction, few Australians enjoy such critical acclaim as Adelaide writer Sean Williams. As United States-based reviewer Cheryl Morgan has suggested, "He deserves to be famous." Of Williams's 19 books, however, the best selling are perhaps the least prestigious: four paperback Star Wars novels, penned with his occasional collaborator, Shane Dix.

Original novels, based on characters in movies and TV series, have usually sold well, from 25-cent Dragnet detective fiction to bawdy Number 96 paperbacks. Star Trek, Buffy and CSI novels still cover the shelves.

Science-fiction aficionados have dismissed such tie-ins as the Mills & Boon novels of the genre. Nonetheless, the Star Wars novels placed Williams and Dix in The New York Times paperback bestseller list.

Despite the literary acclaim, Williams sees no dilemma. "As soon as the words 'possible Star Wars deal' came out of my agent's mouth, I said, 'Yes, I would really like that.' I don't care if I'm writing literary novels. The 10-year-old in me would just be so excited to be writing stuff for Luke Skywalker."

The growing list of Star Wars novels are original stories, but closely aligned to the continuity of the movies. "I knew I wasn't trying to write a literary masterpiece," Williams says, "[but] I don't think you can write them off. The value of a J.M. Coetzee book is different to the value of a Star Wars book, but there's still some value. A vast number of sales in the science-fiction genre come from books like this."

Other authors have a high regard for tie-in novels. "The Terminator franchise is distinctive for its strong characters, its sinister iconography and a certain bleak tone," says Russell Blackford, who wrote the first three novels in the Terminator series, set after the second movie.

"I wanted to be true to all that, but not produce a mere imitation with nothing new to offer. There needed to be material that would give readers a different experience."

For Garth Nix, this is still a poor substitute to one of the science-fiction writer's great joys: building your own universe from scratch.

Nix found it "extraordinarily difficult" to write the first X-Files novel in 1997, adapting a television episode based on another writer's script. "Too much is set out. Even if you get a chance to write an original novel - and some of the Doctor Who novels are very highly regarded - you are very limited in what you can do."

Doctor Who novelists might disagree. In 1991, two years after the television series was cancelled, Virgin Books began a series of young adult novels billed as "stories too broad and too deep for television". It provided everything from dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy to Terry Pratchett-style goofiness, and alienated several long-term fans in the process. "They're 'only' TV spin-offs, of course, but they're easily the best in the genre," Britain's SFX magazine announced in 1996, suggesting that the "open-door policy" on submissions made it "the last, best hope for new SF [science fiction] talent in British publishing".

Among the new writers was Sydney graphic designer Kate Orman, who had previously edited a fanzine of Doctor Who short stories. With The Left-Handed Hummingbird (1993), she became the first woman, and the first non-British author, to pen a Doctor Who novel. Since 1996, the Doctor Who series has been published by BBC Books, still aimed at the same market. "A lot of fans were worried the books would be 'dumbed down', or aimed at much younger readers, but that didn't happen," Orman says.

One Doctor Who novella, Fallen Gods, written by Orman and her husband, Jonathan Blum (and published, under licence, by British small press publisher Telos Publications), was named Best Australian Science Fiction Novel at last year's Aurealis Awards. It was the first major science-fiction and fantasy award for a television tie-in.

More recently, Blum penned the first novel in Powys Books' new TV-based series, The Prisoner. It presented an even greater challenge. The Prisoner, a '60s series created by actor Patrick McGoohan, was arthouse television. "Just going over the same territory as the old show would be too obvious," Blum says. "You need to have something new to say."

Blum is quick to defend tie-in novels. "People are prejudiced against tie-ins because they figure that it's cheating if you write stories about characters you didn't create. Well, there goes a huge swathe of literature from Shakespeare to Jasper Fforde. If you can write something as lovely and enduring as The Night Before Christmas as a tie-in with a pre-existing fantasy character, there's no reason you can't do something as good with Doctor Who."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Write stuff: Doctor Who (above, played by Jon Pertwee) and the Daleks gave rise to a plethora of books, including an Aurealis award winner.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Juddery, Mark (2005-01-01). The spin-off doctors. The Sydney Morning Herald p. Spectrum, p. 13.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Juddery, Mark. "The spin-off doctors." The Sydney Morning Herald [add city] 2005-01-01, Spectrum, p. 13. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Juddery, Mark. "The spin-off doctors." The Sydney Morning Herald, edition, sec., 2005-01-01
  • Turabian: Juddery, Mark. "The spin-off doctors." The Sydney Morning Herald, 2005-01-01, section, Spectrum, p. 13 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=The spin-off doctors | url= | work=The Sydney Morning Herald | pages=Spectrum, p. 13 | date=2005-01-01 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=The spin-off doctors | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=23 May 2024}}</ref>