100% Cotton*: The Target Novelisations of Donald Cotton

Cotton

A classic feature from the archives of Strange Skins 2013.

Donald Cotton, an acclaimed TV and radio writer and co-creator of Adam Adamant Lives, only ever wrote two stories for Doctor Who… and neither of them is particularly acclaimed. His first, The Myth Makers, is often overlooked because it is one of those sad cases where 100% of the footage is missing from the BBC archive. Not even so much as a tiny clip exists! His second (and, as it turned out, final) script, The Gunfighters, exists in its entirety, but for a long time was unfairly (and rather inaccurately) derided as the worst and lowest-rated serial in the early years of Doctor Who.

This is a shame, because both of them are rather neat scripts, if steeped somewhat deeper in comedy than fans of the classic series are used to. It’s the comedy content that earned them their undeserved reputation; the somewhat portentous old guard of Doctor Who fandom didn’t really ‘do’ comedy and considered this sort of thing beneath the dignity of the show. The script editor Dennis Spooner, another writer with comedy leanings, suffered similar condemnation; audio recordings of his story The Feast of Steven doing the rounds of fandom in the 1980s had the “A happy Christmas to all of you at home” censoriously snipped out by po-faced fan distributors.

It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the attitude of fans towards Cotton’s two stories changed. This came about with the release of his Target novelisations of the two early scripts that he wrote. By the mid-80s, Target were nearing a  point where they would eventually have released all of the existing Doctor Who adventures as novels. A lot of the Hartnell era had been ignored to this point; deemed too old and creaky for the average child of the 70s/80s, but with this drying up of material, the Hartnell stories began to start appearing on the bookshelf. Under the editorship of Nigel Robinson, they had also started relying much less on the services of Terrance Dicks and increasingly started seeking out the original authors to pen the novelisations. In a lot of cases, this wasn’t possible; the original author was either deceased or unwilling to revisit his early material, but some authors leapt at the chance; notably John Lucarotti and, of course, Donald Cotton.

The gamble paid off because the use of the original authors introduced a great freshness into this old material. Where Lucarotti delivered novels that were hard-hitting historical thrillers like The Aztecs and The Massacre, Cotton returned to his more comedic leanings with his adaptations of The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, scoring a massive hit amongst jaded fans.

Cotton was not the first author to use the conceit of first person narrative in the Target Doctor Who range; Ian Chesterton narrated David Whittaker’s Doctor Who and the Daleks, but Cotton took the idea to a different level by having his historical stories delivered by actual historical characters. In The Myth Makers, it is the Greek writer and philosopher Homer who relates the tale of the Doctor and his companions’ part in the Greek assault on Troy. His account is pithy and post-modern and, above all, very very funny. Fans who had disregarded The Myth Makers for many years suddenly sat up and took notice at this marvellous reinvention.

Comedy had been used in some of the Target novelisations before; most notably by David Fisher in his slyly self-deprecating books like The Creature from the Pit, but never had it been so broadly painted as in The Myth Makers. Target could easily have insisted on a straight adaptation of the story, but it would have come across as rather dry. Cotton’s approach is infinitely superior; he doesn’t so much poke fun at the real historical characters as describe their behaviour from a contrasting modern viewpoint, showing that things haven’t actually changed so very much since the days of Ancient Greece.

Shortly afterwards, Cotton adapted his second story, The Gunfighters. This time, the action is narrated indirectly by gunfighter Doc Holliday via the new character of journalist Ned Buntline. Once more, there is a very modern line in tongue-in-cheek humour running through the whole thing, which takes a poorly regarded TV story and turns it into one of the very best in the Target range (no pun intended). Cotton also took the opportunity with The Gunfighters to redress some of the historical inaccuracies of the original script and delivered a version of the events as they occurred at the OK Corral that was far closer to the truth as we now understand it than the knockabout Saturday morning western serial version that was shown on television.

Stripped of its TV counterpart’s threadbare production values and God-awful American accents, The Gunfighters fares very well and what is a painfully long 100 minutes of television turns out to be a rather sprightly 152 pages of prose. It’s not quite as good a book as The Myth Makers, but it’s a damn close second and far-and-away better than a lot of what Target was churning out at the time.

Although he’d now novelised both of his TV scripts, Donald Cotton would return one more time to the fold. For the novelisation of Dennis Spooner’s story The Romans, the original author was unavailable, having passed away fairly recently. As The Romans is one of the most openly comedic stories in the entire pantheon of classic Who, the people at Target naturally turned to Donald Cotton to adapt the work of his contemporary.

The Romans is easily the weakest of Cotton’s three novels and was not at all well received by fans. His decision to tell the tale as a series of letters and documents; ranging from entries in the Doctor’s diary to jottings from Emperor Nero’s scrapbook, makes for a rather disjointed telling. It’s also one of the slightest books in the series – easily readable in about an hour. It isn’t a terrible book, but it’s kind of lucky that the TV story still exists because, as a document of the original episodes, it’s pretty flimsy and one can understand why, in the early days of sell-through VHS, fans felt a little short-changed by this rendition.

Towards the end of the 80s, WH Allen started to consider the viability of an adult-oriented range of Doctor Who books. With this in mind they released, under their Star Books imprint, a small series of Doctor Who Classics novels, each combining two of the more mature feeling novelisations. Of these paperbacks with incredibly crack-prone silver covers, only the pairing of Cotton’s The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters worked as coherent whole. The Doctor Who Classics range was not considered a success.

Donald Cotton passed away in 2000 but the greater two of his novels have lived on in the form of audio books from AudioGO. The Myth Makers is one of the strongest releases in the range. Because of the first person nature of the narrative, the producers eschewed the usual tack of getting Peter Purves or Maureen O’Brien and instead brought in Stephen Thorne as an aged Homer. His world-weary reading, coupled with some very atmospheric sound design is simply magical and a cut above the average talking book. A recent release of The Gunfighters with Shane Rimmer (who featured in the TV version as the ill-fated Seth Harper) as Ned Buntline hopes to duplicate the success of its predecessor and it shows every sign of success.

Donald Cotton may be long gone, but the fun and excitement of his novels lives on in the hearts of every discerning Doctor Who fan.

*May contain traces of Dennis Spooner.
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