Spearhead from Space
Target novelisation
Doctor Who - Survival

Author Rona Munro Cover image
Published 1990
ISBN 0 426 20352 6
First Edition Cover Alistair Pearson

Back cover blurb: 'So what's so terrible about Perivale?' the Doctor asked as he caught up with her. Ace sighed again. 'Nothing ever happens here.' Ace had wanted her homecoming to be spectacular. She had imagined the amazed greetings of her old friends, the gasps of surprise as she recounted her time-travelling adventures. But Perivale on a summer Sunday seems the least lively place in the universe. The members of Ace's old gang have gone away - disappeared. The Doctor has other things on his mind. What is killing the domestic pets of Perivale? Who are the horsemen whose hoofprints scar the recreation ground? Where have the missing persons been taken? Is the Doctor stepping into a well-prepared trap? And if so, can it be the work of the Doctor's old adversary the Master? As Harvey the grocer said to his partner Len: 'I'm telling you, you put a catflap in and you get just anything coming into your house.'


It's the end... by Andrew Feryok 23/4/13

"It seems we always meet again," mused the Master. "Eternally bound together, we meet across the universe and fight and meet again, over and over."
"They do say that opposites attract," quipped the Doctor. The Master had started to circle him so he took a wary step backwards.
"But this is the end, Doctor." The Master gave a broad, inhuman grin. Canines snarled in his mouth and his eyes had flooded with yellow. "Can you see it?" he whispered. The Doctor nodded.
- The Doctor and the Master's final confrontation, Chapter 8, page 130
Survival has the honor of being the first Sylvester McCoy story I ever owned on VHS back in the mid-1990s. Ironically, I had no idea at the time that this was the final episode of the Doctor Who series and simply viewed it as yet another McCoy story. I liked the story, but it had never been a favorite of mine. I found the opening set in a sleepy London suburb to be rather bland and uninteresting. I liked the Cheetah Planet and I also thought it was one of Anthony Ainley's best stories as the Master, but was disappointed by how much Ace's character dominated the story. Having recently read the novelization and re-watched the DVD alongside it, I was astonished just how much better this story is than my memories were. In fact, this was a story way ahead of its time. The emphasis on character arcs and emotion would be the norm of the new series, but at the time it was something new and unusual. It's also a bit nostalgic now, looking at Britain of the 1980s, which seemed so normal at the time, but now looks like an artifact of a past time, the same way that we might look at Britain in an early Pertwee story.

Rona Munro's novelization is astonishingly good. I say astonishingly because I was expecting this to be a really detailed and expanded novelization in the style of adventures like Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion or Remembrance of the Daleks. Instead, Rona Munro gives us a fast-paced novelization in the style of Terrance Dicks. Like Dicks, Munro has a unique talent for saying a lot with very little. As a result, she does not allow the book's pace to drag at all while keeping the reader strung along with the excitement of the adventure.

We do get a lot of expansions in the story though. One of my favorite aspects of the story is Munro's analysis of the conflict between the Doctor and the Master. There is a whole section where she has the Doctor reflect back on their days in school on Gallifrey and their troubled history almost at the get-go. It may or may not be canon, but it gives us a great insight into their characters without giving the whole game away and completely dispelling the mystery around the two characters. It turns out that the Doctor was a bit of a know-it-all in school and the Master was constantly trying to show himself to be the superior man, but always falling short. In fact, the Doctor even wonders if he had just allowed the Master to beat him at a game of chess in their youth he might have saved the universe from the monster the Master became.

Ace is also great in this story. It's really the ultimate coming-of-age story for Ace. She has come back to Perivale to catch up with her old friends and her old life, only to be reminded of why she left it behind in the first place. Over the course of the adventure, she starts to see how much she's grown up since her days as a bored street punk doing mischief to fill the space of her existence. Through the Doctor, she's found a purpose to her life and, by the story's end, she finally lets go of her old life and embraces fully her new life with the Doctor. RTD basically did all this in one scene with Rose and her family at the end of The Parting of the Ways, but Munro builds a whole story out of the idea whereas RTD takes the entire season. In a way, it's also a nice reflection on how much the Doctor Who audience had grown up with the masterful alien through all these years. How many fans can relate to starting watching the show out of boredom on the couch, getting caught up in the adventures, and then coming out at the end a little smarter and having learned some moral lessons for life?

Ace's friendship with Karra the Cheetah Woman is quite touching as well. Ace longs to belong somewhere and Munro fills that hole in the character through the introduction of Karra. It's fascinating to read as Ace finds herself both drawn to the freedom of the Cheetah life while also being revolted by its raw animalistic side. The character of Karra also helps to enliven the Cheetah People and show that there is more to them than just being the monster of the week, but that they are intelligent beings with a unique perspective on the world. It's also lovely how in Ace's final hour of need when even the Doctor seems to have died, it is Karra who comes to the aid of her "sister" in the end. There is also a neat scene at the story's end when Ace burns the bodies of Midge and Karra on a funeral pyre and we see just how touched Ace was by the idea of the Cheetah People becoming a surrogate family for her.

But, in the end, no family can replace her relationship with the Doctor. It's rather appropriate that, in this final hour of the Classic Series, we should focus not on a story of world domination and universal destruction at the hands of some super-being (that was pretty much covered in The Curse of Fenric). Instead, this story focuses even more acutely on the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. Their bond is strained to its limit as Ace threatens to be consumed by the power of the Cheetahs and lost to the Doctor forever. In fact, he finally seems to be a bit disgusted with his own manipulation of her, especially when their only hope of reaching home again may cost what is left of Ace's own humanity. But by the story's end, Ace's demons are finally exorcised, and the Doctor and Ace are in a stronger relationship than ever before. You could see them going off to further adventures, at least for another season, which sadly never happened.

On the whole, this is a wonderful novelization. It doesn't go overboard with the changes and expansions, but does just enough to make you feel like you are reading something unique from the TV episode without sacrificing pace. Survival is one of those stories, like Pyramids of Mars, that everyone acknowledges as a classic story, but rarely ever dwells on. It becomes part of the background noise of the series while fans argue over more controversial fare. I suggest revisiting this story and seeing where the Classic Series unwittingly bridges the thematic gap beautifully into the new series. It's also nice that the editors included a final epilogue in which they introduce the upcoming New Adventures novels by Virgin, thus tying the two book series together rather neatly and segueing into the rich novel series that were to unfold from the 1990s onward. Definitely one of the best and most enjoyable reads of the McCoy novelizations. 10/10