Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Book Review: Dr Who - Prisoner of the Daleks

The Doctor, travelling alone, jumps a time-track (he does that sort of thing, you know) and finds himself at a point in time before the Time War wiped out the Daleks and the Time Lords. Landing on an abandoned refuelling station planet called Hurala, the Doctor quickly finds himself locked in an underground chamber. Inadvertently rescued by a shambolic bunch of intergalactic bounty hunters, the Doctor escapes aboard their battered spaceship The Wayfarer as the planet comes under attack by the Daleks. They flee the planet with a Dalek prisoner who, when tortured, leads the Doctor to suspect that his oldest enemy may be about to embark on their most audacious campaign of all...a campaign which threatens all Creation.

It's good to see the Daleks make their debut in the BBC Dr Who book series in a story cleverly constructed not to interfere with the fragile ongoing timeline established for the Daleks since they reappeared in the new TV series. Trevor Baxendale's exciting book is any number of things; it's certainly pretty much unputdownable, it's a 1960s Dalek comic strip on the written page, it's a big ol' space opera, the sort of thing we all secretly yearn to see the new series do at least once. Or maybe twice. The plot has a bit of everything and it borrows liberally from several televised Dalek yarns - the Daleks at their most brutal, the Daleks excavating the core of a planet using humanoid slaves, a Dalek being savagely tortured by its human captors and, in best new series tradition, the Doctor having a bit of a heart-to-heart with the grisly innards of a Dalek machine. Luvverly. It's also got spaceships, expoloding, shattered planets, armies of Daleks, killer zombies in the ruins of a city in space.

The Dalek plot is typically audacious and typically utterly insane. It transpires that they've discovered a rift in time - a bit like the one in Cardiff which causes so much trouble for Captain Jack and Torchwood - at the core of the planet Arkheon, a planet which they've already torn apart. They intend to use this rift to gain control of Time and to wipe Humankind from the face of history! But with Daleks swarming all over the place it's not long before the Doctor and the crew of the Wayfarer are quite literally prisoners of the Daleks; for once the Doctor has absolutely no idea how to thwart his oldest enemies who finally have the upper sucker and it looks like he's met his match in the metal casing of the ruthless and implacable Command Dalek.

I don't do the Dr Who books very often. The new series on TV is written in a very specific way and so much of its success depends on the breathless energy of David Tennant and that's an energy which is often hard to pin down in prose. But Baxendale's made as good a fist of it as anyone; Tennant's Doctor here is all the things we see on TV. He's fast, funny, deadly serious, omniscient when he needs to be - and, unusually here, completely powerless and at a loss. The Daleks have really never been better portrayed and Terry Nation himself would be proud to see his neo-Nazis depicted as the merciless, pitiless exterminators he created back in 1963.

The small supporting cast of characters - and it really is a very small one - is comprised of the handful of crew-members of the Wayfarer and if they're your typical rugged space-bunch they're well drawn, from the off-hand commander Bowman, gruff pilot Cuttin' Edge and fresh-faced crewman Scrum. It's a nice twist to find the Doctor in the company of people who aren't automatically deferential and in awe of him; they remain suspicious of and belligerent to him throughout much of the book and it's good to see the Doctor not having such an easy ride and finding it harder to get things done his way.

With Dr Who on reduced duties in 2009, the three latest BBC Books have seen fit to resurrect some of the show's most popular and most recent enemies - the Slitheen and the Judoon feature in the other two recently-released titles. But if you want a quick dose of genuinely-rattling space adventure laced through with the new spirit of Dr Who, 'Prisoner of the Daleks' comes very highly recommended indeed. Quite possibly the best new Dr Who fiction I've ever read.

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