Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat changed the plots of their Doctor Who episodes in new books – here’s why

The showrunners have both written Target novel adaptations of their best-loved episodes – and the changes they make are very telling (contains spoilers)

Steven Moffat, Christopher Eccleston and Russell T Davies (Getty, BBC, HF)

While book adaptations of Doctor Who aren’t exactly a new phenomenon, the latest collection of literary tie-ins is more intriguing than most.

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Based on the classic Target books that retold the stories of Doctor Who episodes after they were broadcast, these new Target novels adapt stories from the modern reboot for the very first time.

Even more excitingly, two of the books – those based on 2005’s Rose and 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor – are actually adapted by the men who brought them to screen, with ex-Who showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat switching from screenwriting to novel writing for the new project.

“It was tricky; I wanted to capture the essence of the TV episode, but I didn’t want to repeat it,” Davies said about the project, adding that he tried to shake up the dialogue so fans would have “new things to discover.”

“Then, of course, you find the parts that don’t quite work in prose,” Moffat added.

When reading these adaptations, it’s the changes that both men make that are the most fascinating part of the whole project – as well as the most revealing.

In adaptations of episodes written by other authors – Jenny T Colgan provides a version of David Tennant’s first episode The Christmas Invasion, while Paul Cornell does Peter Capaldi’s final episode Twice Upon a Time, and they’re both terrific reads – the action plays out more or less as we saw it on screen. That’s to be expected given that the pair are respectfully adapting the work of other writers.

Cornell does make a few changes, possibly more to do with the fact that he was writing it before the episode aired on TV. I recognised a couple of lines I overheard during filming when I visited the set last year but were cut from the finished episode. But all in all, they’re faithful to the original Tardis tales.

However, both Moffat and Davies make significant changes to their own stories, and do so in ways that, amusingly, play up to the stereotypes many fans have about the two writers’ eras on Doctor Who.

Both regularly subvert the stereotypes, but the thinking goes that Davies focuses on emotionally-led family drama, sometimes to a fault, while Moffat weaves increasingly ingenious tales that are hugely impressive in scope but occasionally lack the warmth of his predecessor.

So in Russell T Davies’ novel Rose for example, most of the changes revolve around an expansion of the cast and added depth to characters we already know. Davies adds a surrogate family of friends for Noel Clarke’s Mickey (who form a band briefly called Bad Wolf, natch), expands the role for doomed Doctor superfan Clive (Mark Benton), and even includes a few characters who were mentioned but never seen on screen such as a caretaker called Wilson and Rose’s ex-boyfriend Jimmy Stone.

In general, Mickey’s depiction in the novel is more extensive and sympathetic than his appearance in the 2005 episode, making Rose’s decision to run away with the Doctor at the end of the story all the more painful.

Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat's Target novels, Rose and The Day of the Doctor (BBC Books, HF)
Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat’s Target novels, Rose and The Day of the Doctor (BBC Books)

“On screen, played brilliantly by Noel Clarke, [Mickey] flies past,” Davies says of the alterations. “He’s wonderful, he’s fast and fun and furious, but when a novel goes inside someone’s head, I had to give him more focus.”

Moffat’s changes to The Day of the Doctor, meanwhile, involve plugging in more references to Doctor Who trivia, more gags, more narrative structure twists – including shifting the prose from third to first person within individual chapters – and an even grander scale than we saw on screen, with more callbacks to fan-favourite characters and other Doctors.

Clearly, reductive as they are, the old stereotypes do hold a little water, at least in revealing what the two writers prioritise in their storytelling. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – any new Russell T Davies Doctor Who characters or Steven Moffat Who gag is a thrill.

Not all the changes fit into this slightly simplistic narrative either. Some of the most interesting alterations from both men reflect the greater “imagination budget” afforded by working in prose.

Basically, it’s cheaper to write an explosion than film one.

In Rose, for example, the invasion of the Autons towards the end of the episode is far more epic and violent in the book edition: the shop window dummy attackers slice passers-by with deadly blades, while the attack climaxes with the the London Eye collapsing, causing a wave from the Thames to crash over the city.

“Bear in mind, there’s a great big invasion of London by shop-window dummies at the end, so I’d paved the way for some epic action,” Davies said.

“On screen, the London Eye just sits there in the background,” he continued. “In this version, it’s a lot more involved! I loved writing that stuff. And writing action is hard – seeing a bullet fly on screen is easy, describing it in prose is much harder, so that was a good test.”

The grand finale of The Day of the Doctor also gets a bit of a rejig. The scene where all 13 of the Doctor’s incarnations – including Peter Capaldi’s then-unseen Twelfth Doctor and John Hurt’s War Doctor) – turn up to save the day is reworked to feature hundreds of versions of the Time Lord unite to save Gallifrey from a series of natural disasters (you can read more about those changes here).

“When you write a screenplay, you make the audience a witness to events,” Moffat said.

“When you write a book, you make the reader experience them. You go from the grandeur of spectacle to the intimacy of inside someone’s head. I don’t think either is better than the other, but they are different.

“Twists and turns, suspense, humour – they all work in different ways. You’re aiming for the same effects, but by other means.”

A few other interesting changes – including the manner in which Peter Capaldi’s Doctor enters the action – are included, though not at the expense of the main story.

“The shock of seeing David and Matt together, John Hurt as the Doctor, surprise appearances by Tom Baker and Peter Capaldi – you have to find a way to make those moments work in a book, without surprise guest stars, which can be a challenge,” Moffat explained.

And of course, some changes can only be explained by the passage of time. As mentioned elsewhere, Davies’ update to Rose also includes acknowledgement of the Doctors who were to follow Christopher Eccleston’s Time Lord, with the likes of David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s incarnations cropping up in photos or short scenes throughout the text that tie together the continuity of modern Who in a way that simply wasn’t possible in 2005 – not even Russell T Davies can be expected to predict the casting of actors 12 years on.

Most notably, Davies includes upcoming Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker in the collection of Doctor photos owned by superfan Clive (as well as some potential incarnations beyond her), a move that Moffat mirrors in his own novel by having the Thirteenth Doctor appear in a crucial late scene.

Through this and other similar changes Davies and Moffat are able to indulge the sort of arguments fans might have about, say, why the Doctors don’t recognise their future selves, where River Song fits into the Tenth Doctor’s life and how Peter Cushing stands in canon, all of which are laid out in the text in a way they couldn’t be on mainstream TV.

Both books too provide a fresh take to very familiar tales that even the most die-hard fans might be surprised by.

“A fan might have seen something a dozen times, so I felt honour-bound to add things that could only be found inside the pages of the book,” Davies said.

“And I know what fandom feels like: there’s nothing we love more than discovering something new about something old.”

If that sentence doesn’t perfectly sum up the spirit of Doctor Who, I don’t know what does.

So whether you’re a die-hard fan of the show or someone who’s fallen away in the last couple of years, it’s well worth picking up Davies’ and Moffat’s new takes on their episodes. There’s something wonderful about being surprised by an old favourite.

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The Target novelisations of modern Doctor Who (also including Douglas Adams’ classic episode City of Death by James Goss) are on sale now