As long as I’ve read seriously, I’ve read tie-in fiction. I can remember getting John Vornholt’s YA novelisation of Star Trek Generations for Christmas in the fourth grade. I did my book report on it — we had to report on a book by an Ohio author, and Vornholt was born in my home state. I’m not sure that this is quite what Miss Weingartner had in mind, especially when I brought in my MicroMachines to explain key scenes to the class.

Around the same time I discovered original tie-in fiction, too. I remember reading Michael Jan Friedman’s Star Trek: The Next Generation: Starfleet Academy: The Mystery of the Missing Crew (already I was set up to accept titles overloaded with colons) and wondering why the back cover indicated why Cadet Data’s ship had a “skeleton crew” when clearly it was the alien ship that was staffed by skeleton-like aliens!

Soon I discovered the “adult” Star Trek novels, thanks to the local public library — and “adult” was indeed the right word. I was perhaps a little bit too young for the sexual situations of Peter David’s Star Trek: The Next Generation: Imzadi, though I suspect now they’d seem quite tame to me. Star Wars fiction entered into my life around the same time. I read a fair amount of tie-in fiction, but it all exploded when I was in my teens when Star Trek fiction experienced its great renaissance in 2001. I cannot remember being as excited about a book as I was about S.D. Perry’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Avatar, Book One, which carried my favourite television show into what would be my favourite tie-in series.

I can’t believe I’ve been reading Star Trek books for almost 20 years now — that’s two-thirds of my life. I don’t read as many tie-ins as I did when I was in college, but on the other hand, Doctor Who has given me any number of audio tie-ins to spruce up my doing of the dishes. Here, in honour of Unreality SF’s anniversary, and as a way of explaining my own delight in this somewhat curious subgenre, are 15 tie-ins I like a lot. “Best of” is probably going too far, but these are 15 books or audio stories (in publication order) that have left lasting impressions…

Superman: Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S. Maggin (1978)

This story came out when Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie did, though it actually ties into the then-ongoing Superman comics. I don’t think I ever thought I’d like a Superman novel — or any novel based on a comic book, for that matter — as much as I liked this one. Maggin makes Superman into the inspiring hero you always want him to be, not some kind of Batman or Marvel wannabe. He’s optimistic, without coming across as naïve; my favourite part of his characterisation here is his eternal willingness to give Lex Luthor a second chance. Lex Luthor is the other best part of this novel (though Superman’s whole cast is well-portrayed). I still can’t get over the part where the narrator explains how Lex could break out of jail using just a pen… and then explains why he would never do it. Superman is at God-like levels in this book, but that’s because he is a god…

The Lord of the Rings by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell, adapting J.R.R. Tolkien (1981)

The BBC’s version of The Lord of the Rings is an extravaganza, covering the original novels in 26 half-hour episodes (or 13 hour-long episodes, depending on which version you hear). Surely there’s no other adaptation quite as complete, though thankfully Tom Bombadil is cut even from this — on the other hand, it maintains many of the songs, which is absolutely delightful even if you don’t like Tolkien very much. Few adaptations can afford this level of scale, and the format means that the often-episodic nature of the original is easily maintained. The story boasts a fantastic cast, beginning with Ian Holm as Frodo, two decades before he got to play his uncle, as well as Bill Nighy as Sam, David Collings as Legolas, Stephen Thorne as Treebeard, and many more. My favourite, though, was Andrew Seear as Faramir, playing a character I’d never given a lot of thought to before, and turning him into someone with his own unfortunate burdens to overcome without a single complaint.

Star Trek #71: Crossroad by Barbara Hambly (1994)

I’ve always had a fondness for this novel. I’ve been intrigued ever since I first read an ad blurb for it, which in describing the original Enterprise crew encountering freedom fighters from the future, made me think that Captain Kirk was going to meet the Maquis. That’s not what happens at all, but what happens is much better. This is a dark, gloomy Star Trek novel that tests the ideals of Kirk and company, presenting a strange universe beyond their comprehension, at the same time remaining true to their characters. The setting, near the end of the five-year-mission, is exploited well, and there are some seriously creepy parts. Everyone talks about Hambly’s Ishmael because of its wacky crossover antics, but this is her Star Trek masterpiece.

Star Trek: The Next Generation #45: Intellivore by Diane Duane (1997)

After Crossroad, it should come as no surprise that I also liked Intellivore, a similarly dark and moody take on the milieu of The Next Generation. Intellivore sends the Enterprise-D and her sister ships up against an ancient entity hinted at it in Diane Duane’s earlier Rihannsu novels, but it also explores the present of The Next Generation in interesting ways, managing to give us a starship maximised for exploration that makes Picard jealous and some intriguing glimpses of Trill history. This is one of only two Next Generation books written by Duane, and that’s a crying shame.

Babylon 5: Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant by J. Gregory Keyes (1999)

The lamentably brief run of original Babylon 5 tie-ins from Del Rey produced many quality novels, with nary a single dud, but one I have a particular fondness for is Deadly Relations, Book Two of the Psi Corps trilogy. This story gave us the history for Walter Koenig’s fascinating character Bester, the bastard you loved to hate — or perhaps just loved — because he so believed in his own superiority that you actually came to believe it. Deadly Relations fills in his life, and makes you love him all the more, because it’s just not his fault he’s a smug, arrogant, racist, manipulative bastard, is it?

Professor Bernice Summerfield 1..5: Just War by Jacqueline Rayner, adapting Lance Parkin (1999)

The last part of the “time ring trilogy” is still one of the most chilling audio dramas that Big Finish has ever done. Bernice Summerfield, trying to return to the twenty-sixth century, misses and lands on occupied Guernsey during the Second World War. It’s based on an excellent novel by Lance Parkin, but somehow manages to better it. What follows is one of Lisa Boweman’s best performances, as she faces the most chilling Nazi character ever depicted in fiction. On the other hand, Stephen Fewell gets to prove just how awesome Jason Kane actually is. It’s a bit of an intense one to listen to, but well worth it.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Far Beyond the Stars by Steven Barnes, adapting Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler and Marc Scott Zicree (1999)

Far Beyond the Stars is one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but I actually read this novelisation first, and it’ll always be the better version for me. Novelisations are perhaps the low-end dregs of the tie-in market; I can only think of one other that betters its screen original as much as this does. Barnes uses the television story of the original as his foundation, telling of the African-American Benny Russell trying to make it as an SF magazine writer in the 1950s, but he adds a whole extra layer to the story, with Benny’s youth in 1930s New York City. It’s one of the more moving Star Trek novels — the emotional devastation of the end is just brutal.

Campaign: An Adventure In Time And Space by Jim Mortimore (2000)

It’s perhaps cheating to call this novel, unauthorised by the BBC, tie-in fiction, but it was originally commissioned by them, and written by Jim Mortimore, who has written Doctor Who fiction before and since. It’s a loving tribute to the possibilities of early 1960s Doctor Who, the television era where, more than any other, the show could go anywhere and do anything. This is that level of experimentation, in novel form — and with novel form. This is a playful, astounding novel that puts the whole universe at risk so Ian Chesterton can find out who he is. It’s a novel that surely the 1960s BBC could never have envisioned, given that the 2000s BBC certainly didn’t, but it somehow feels of its time and completely contemporary simultaneously.

Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Edge of Victory I: Conquest by Greg Keyes (2001)

Star Wars fiction had never tried something as ambitious as The New Jedi Order before, and it never did again. 19 novels telling a unified story, it had its hiccups, but once it took off, it was great. The point where it came together was Greg Keyes’s first Edge of Victory novel, where it went from a generic space invasion with bland characters, to a personal battle against an intriguing alien culture. Han and Leia’s son Anakin Solo has never been as well-written as he was here — a nice mix of power and trepidation — and his romance with his fellow Jedi Tahiri is both adorable and about as realistic a teen romance as you can get in Star Wars. It got better after this, but this is where it all started.

Star Wars: Jedi vs Sith by Darko Macan, illustrated by Ramón F. Bachs and Raul Fernandez (2001)

Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics have probably been the most consistently good of any tie-in comic line, and this is certainly their pinnacle. Filling in the details of the war between Jedi and Sith that left the Sith nearly wiped out a millennium before The Phantom Menace, Jedi vs Sith is impressively able to build up a cast of a completely new characters and make you care about them. The primary viewpoint is through three kids with Force talent, conscripted by the Jedi into a massive war, and the incomprehensibility of it all rings clear and true. The comic also gave us Darth Bane, one of the most badass Sith who ever lived (though later appearances in the novels seemed to do their best to water that down). It’s not all doom and gloom, though; Jedi vs Sith remembers that Star Wars should also be fun, and it gives us Lord Farfalla, the galaxy’s most flamboyant Jedi, complete with a sailing spaceship.

Doctor Who: The Audio Adventures #48: Davros by Lance Parkin (2003)

Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary year was one of Big Finish Productions’s best, giving us a wide range of experimental stories. The three best were the “villains trilogy”: Omega, Davros, and Master, and the best of those was the second, pitting Colin Baker’s Doctor against Terry Molloy’s Davros. I’d always liked Molloy’s performance as Davros in Resurrection and Remembrance of the Daleks, but this story rocketed him clearly into the position of Best Davros Ever. The acting of its two leads, forced to work together, combines with great writing by Lance Parkin and great sound work by Jim Mortimore and Jane Elphinstone to give an in-depth portrait of a great villain. Its opening scene alone is gripping — “If I press this switch, I will die…” — and I challenge you to listen to it in the dark without getting the chills.

Star Wars: Yoda: Dark Rendezvous: A Clone Wars Novel by Sean Stewart (2004)

One of the best parts of tie-ins is how they can do great things with properties that, though they have potential, are not actually all that great. The Star Wars prequel films have generated any number of quality novels and comics, and among them is this little adventure, set late in the gap between Episodes II and III. Sean Stewart remembers that Yoda was not always the portentous grandmaster of the prequel trilogy, but originally a mischievous teacher in The Empire Strikes Back. Merging the two potrayal, he sends Yoda on a desperate peace mission with a couple padawans for company. Stewart not only writes the Yoda we should always get, but he also gives us a compelling original character in the person of Scout, the doubtful apprentice, and he writes Count Dooku better than he’s ever been written before or since: a tragic man, trapped by his own arrogance, and out-manipulated in a game he no longer controls…

Stargate SG-1 #3: A Matter of Honor by Sally Malcolm (2006)

One of Stargate SG-1’s best episodes is A Matter of Time, where a black hole’s effects extend in Stargate Command via an unclosable wormhole. A Matter of Honor follows up on that story, with the SG-1 team trying to rescue the SG team trapped on the planet orbiting that black hole. It’s not just a sequel to A Matter of Time, though, but requires Colonel Jack O’Neill to revisit the harrowing events of Abyss, where he was tortured by the System Lord Baal. Like many of the best tie-in novels, it captures an interiority sometimes hard to depict on screen, and plays a high-stakes narrative very successfully.

Star Trek: Constellations edited by Marco Palmieri (2006)

For a few years, Pocket Books released a number of anthologies celebrating each of the Star Trek television series in turn: Deep Space Nine in 2003, Voyager in 2005, and The Next Generation in 2007. But the best of these was definitely Constellations, released for the fortieth anniversary of the original series. From that glorious modern reimagining of a James Blish-era cover to stories contained within, this book was a reminder of everything I loved about the original Star Trek. There are few misses here; the book is largely hits or even grand slams. My two favourite stories here could not be more different: Jeffrey Lang’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name takes the Enterprise crew to a planet where their own reputation gets them into trouble with a tribute to the old comedy episodes, whereas Allyn Gibson’s Make-Believe is a moving distillation of what Star Trek means to all of us.

Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles 5.12: The Cold Equations by Simon Guerrier (2011)

Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles, first-person audio stories told from the perspective of the Doctor’s companions, took time to win me over, but by their fifth series they definitely had. The sequence that ran across Series Five and Six, about a new companion for the First Doctor and Steven named Oliver Harper, was excellent, doing the sort of thing that tie-ins do at their best: giving us a new story in an old way. The Cold Equations takes advantage of Steven’s space pilot character in a way that the television series never did, while it also makes Oliver a companion that the 1960s could never have given us on television. Add to Simon Guerrier’s writing strong performances by Peter Purves and Tom Allen and the work of director Lisa Bowerman and sound designers Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, and you get something truly beautiful and haunting.

Like I said, I’ve been reading and listening to tie-ins as long as I can remember reading and listening. There are certainly other great ones out there, but these ones are some of the best, as well as some of the ones that (perhaps) don’t spring to mind quite so readily for many fans. I can think of at least ten other works I ought to have included on this list, but hopefully this list provides an indication of what tie-in fiction can do: give you the same old thing as you’ve never seen it before, unfamiliar twists on familiar worlds and familiar words.