It’s easy to forget how much of a novelty a full-length original Doctor Who novel with Daleks is, in these days of regular pepperpot action on the telly and frequent appearances in Big Finish, both as guest stars in the various Doctor slots or in their own audio spin-off series, Dalek Empire.
Terry Nation’s estate has always been famously protective of it’s greatest asset, and none more so than in the various novel ranges. The Virgin novels of 1991-1997 couldn’t use them at all, barring a few throwaway direct references and many oblique ones. Several regular characters, notably companion Bernice Summerfield, lived in a time following a long-running human/Dalek war, but few of those vast battles were ever depicted in full.
Things seemed to look up in ’97 with the transference of rights to BBC Books; the Eighth Doctor met them twice within six months or so. Unfortunately, War Of The Daleks and Legacy Of The Daleks (by ‘the other’ John Peel – not the late DJ) were far more concerned with tying up continuity points than anything so distracting as good plotting, characterisation and wit. It’s perhaps not a great surprise that Skaro’s finest disappeared again for a good while in print; fans didn’t miss them… in 1999, Big Finish productions appeared and, like Who would later do in 2005, would soon (though not immediately) present a full-on Dalek story in the traditional style; out in space, set in the future, a vast army of Daleks, a truly classic feel. They’ve been in comics, we’ve got the old DVDs, and there was the Quick Read, I Am A Dalek… but this is still an event.
And so to Prisoner Of The Daleks, by Who novel stalwart Trevor Baxendale – it’s post Journey’s End, and the Doctor is travelling alone. The TARDIS takes him to a derelict space-ship, and within moments he’s locked in a box room, separated from his TARDIS by an automatic door.
Fortunately/unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have long to wait before he’s rescued by a bunch of aggressive space salvagers and taken back to their ship, The Wayfairer – think Alien Resurrection, only they can’t do much in the way of cussing and leching, this being a kid’s book and all. They have names like Scrum and Cuttin’ Edge, along with leader Bowman, the alien cat like Koral, and Stella, who’s quickly built up to be the guest companion for this story. They’re not, to be fair, the deepest bunch, but this isn’t a bold character-based novel, this is fast paced, full on SF, planet hopping. And it’s got Daleks in it. Lots of them. Oh yes.
As discussed above, the infrequency of Dalek stories means Baxendale had a fair weight on his shoulders. And of the possible writers, on past form he’s perhaps a surprise choice based on the style of his previous work. It’s true we will probably never again see the likes of the heyday of the New and Missing Adventures, or the top tier of the BBC 97-2005 novels, where older fans could find Doctor Who ‘Too broad and too deep for the small screen,’ where rich prose and radical reinventions were not uncommon. And so Baxendale has, I think wisely, gone down the ultra-traditional route – the prose is simple and straightforward for the most part, with the odd Pip’n’Jane Baker-style arcane word dropped in, hopefully to prompt younger readers to reach for a dictionary and not just to be inconsistent. A couple of almost topical references point to a fairly quick turnaround for the book, so in every respect, it’s servicable.
The Doctor himself is all Trad in action, with no modern day companion snapping at his heels, and all-Tennant in dialogue, a good balance. With a few particularly sadistic and occasionally large-scale Dalek offensives in discussion, there’s not a great deal of humour in the story as a whole in comparison to others – perhaps specifically to make sure the Daleks aren’t sent up under Nation’s usual directive, though the Doctor provides just enough cheekiness to keep it from feeling po-faced. The pace barrels along.
There’s a lot of dialogue, a few jaunts inside the thoughts and feelings of the leads, including the Doctor, but most of all, it works because it feels like a Dalek story, and not just for the supporting references. Much is ethos rather than direct riffs, aside from a scene with a sole Dalek is reminiscient from the Eccleston story.
There’s a bit of everything from the best bits of Nation bleeding through: the universe-trotting Hartnell encounters, the captures and self-sacrifices of later Pertwee stories, touches of Blake’s 7 and Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer. The characterisation of the Daleks themselves is absolutely fine; in print, their speech is in the ‘Dalek font’ – which takes a little getting used to but works brilliantly. If you’re familiar with the style, you can’t help but hear it. Genius.
Adding exclusively to the Dalek heirarchy, we meet The Dalek Inquisitor General, ‘Dalek X’, and, although you, older reader, may blanche at the name for reasons other than abject fear, don’t worry – he works rather well. Drawing on another Who tradition, he has shades of the characterisation of the individual Daleks in Ben Aaronovitch’s book adaption of his classic story, Remembrance Of The Daleks. Dalek X is one bad mother exterminator.
The plot moves along nicely, with a climax that’s about as good as you can expect in New Who these days, and there are a couple of excellent incidental twists; depending on your personal view of canonicity, books-wise, one is pretty big news, and may well have implications for forthcoming telly-Who. It made me smile, anyway.
Prisoner of the Daleks is an easy read, and doesn’t require a knowledge of previous books to enjoy. It’s not especially challenging, and the characterisation of the crew of the Wayfairer is a little hampered by the constraints of the age group the book is pitched to, but it’s more than readable for older fans.