Hitting The Target – Doctor Who and The Zarbi by Bill Strutton

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When I were a lad it irritated me that the Doctor was referred to as Doctor Who throughout Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Fortunately, when I grew up I found that it didn’t matter at all – now I’m more irritated that they corrected this “mistake” for the audiobook and renamed him The Doctor ….

We open aboard TARDIS. Barbara’s clearly some way down the pecking order as the Doctor suggests she makes herself useful by rustling up a quick cup of coffee whilst Ian orders some bacon and eggs from her. It’s possible that the Doctor’s suggestion was simply a ruse to save her from worrying about their current predicament.  Ian, on the other hand, just seems to be hungry and disinclined to lift a finger to help himself.

Bill Strutton sticks quite closely to the dialogue from his original script, even reproducing Barbara’s comment that the fancy bracelet she’s now sporting was a gift from the Emperor Nero (and not, as suggested by Vicki, from Ian).  It’s a shame that their conversation about space-age schooling was cut though.

If ever a Doctor Who story benefitted from being transferred to the printed page then it’s this one. The planet Vortis, and its numerous inhabitants, struggled to be effectively realised on screen (to put it mildly). There’s no such problems here, so the notion of a gun-wielding Zarbi seems perfectly reasonable.

Strutton took the opportunity to change the structure encountered by the Doctor and Ian on the planet’s surface from a pyramid to a vaguely humanoid figure. The text suggests that it’s a Menoptera, although this is somewhat lost in John Wood’s illustration. The illustrations, carried over to the Target edition from the 1965 hardback, are very decent – although Vicki only bears a very passing resemblance to Maureen O’Brien.

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If the Zarbi are a good deal more menacing on the printed page than they are on screen, then so – to begin with – are the Menoptera.  Barbara’s first encounter with them (“there was a tall sinister dignity about them – a beauty even, but with the sudden shock of their strange appearance and their glaring hostility, she felt the sickness of a real terror welling up inside her”) has a punch that’s absent from the television realisation. There, they only had to open their mouths or wave their arms about for any sense of danger or tension to be lost.

In book form, Barbara’s interrogation by the initially hostile Menoptera is much lengthier, with the belligerent Challis a prime mover in wishing to bump her off.

When you no longer have to see or hear the Menoptera it’s easy to believe in them as a race of proud souls who are locked into a bitter struggle for the control of Vortis. The wise but aged Prapillus is a good example – leading the attack to escape from the Crater of Needles, at times he has a very Doctorish turn of phrase (“I may be a little short of breath, but not of brains”).

Elsewhere, Ian is a good deal more hysterical in print than he is on screen. Whilst Doctor Who maintains his lively scientific interest, Ian’s not having such a good time – often snarling or grimacing at the latest scrape he finds himself in. For example, after Doctor Who absently declares that he didn’t expect the Zarbi to be behaving like they are, Ian snaps back with the following. “Were they supposed to scuttle away at the sight of us – or greet us with speeches of welcome and garlands of flowers?”

Whilst Terrance Dicks often made use of the chapter title Escape to Danger, it made its DW debut here. David Whitaker was close in The Daleks (Escape into Danger) but not quite close enough.

If the book has a fault then it’s one shared by the television original – midway through it does tend to sag a little (too many scenes of the Doctor being interrogated very, very, slowly).  Bill Strutton’s prose style is workmanlike enough but lacks the visceral impact of Whitaker’s Dalek novelisation.

Still, if I’ve come to love The Web Planet a little more over the past decade or so then my appreciation for The Zarbi has also increased. If you’ve not read it for a while, then it’s worth pulling it from the shelf, giving it a dust down and diving in.

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