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March 26, 2009

"It might not look like much, but ... oh, forget it."

Prisoner_of_the_Daleks When I returned to Doctor Who in the late nineties, one of the elements which surprised me was how well ‘documented’ and developed the Dalek chronology is.  From the outside, the Doctor’s battles with the giant pepperpots look like a basic fight between good and evil, with the timelord upending whatever dastardly scheme they have on the boil only to have them pop up again somewhere down the line. 

Yet, the Dalek story has merrily hovering along its own magnetised pathway outside of the main series almost as its own franchise, developing Terry Nation’s comic and annual stories from the 1960s into a complete set of eras and conflicts, with various bands of humans standing toe-to-toe with them in an unending struggle, in war after war.  It’s the place were Nick Briggs sets his Big Finish Dalek war stories and Absolom Daak plies his trade.

The new series has run stark naked away from all of this, time wars effectively reseting continuity and simplifying it for new viewers, with talk of time locks and unseen battles and the Dalek race being all but wiped out at the close of each story.  Yet, there’s still room for an anomaly and so here’s Trevor Baxendale’s Prisoner of the Daleks, which says actually I miss the idea of the Dalek race stretching across the galaxy and not simply turning up on mass for one invasion at a time and I’d quite like to see how the Tenth Doctor handles being plunged into this Dalek Empire, in which the most he can do is be victorious in a single skirmish.  If I was a child whose only experience of the franchise is the new series, picking this book up would both confuse and delight me as I’d wonder what I’d been missing; as an adult it reminds you of a delightful time when the Daleks had the capacity to frighten and fascinate you.

A companionless Tenth Doctor, the TARDIS having skipped a time track (explaining how he ends up in the old continuity), lands on a deserted planet which used to be a staging post for prospective colonists.  Through the usual series of mishaps and misunderstandings he falls in with some visiting bounty hunters just as the Daleks enter their end of space and after capturing one of them, the timelord realises that his ultimate foe has a huge wonking great plan that could see them wiping out the human race and whoever else they feel like.  As ever with these shorter novels, to reveal any more than that would effectively render reading the thing pointless, but needless to say (since it’s in the title) the Doctor is eventually captured and taken into the core of the Dalek fleet were he awaits torture at the hands of the chilling Dalek X, the pepperpot equivalent of 24’s Jack Bauer.  Brrr.

Essentially, Prisoner of the Daleks has everything you'd want from an old school Dalek story, crackpot plan to take over the universe, millions of the buggers flying through the air, bit of slavery, Nazi allusions, a moment where the Doctor realises that he's made a terrible mistake, exterminations, sacrifices and no Davros.  In his acknowledgements, Baxendale calls the Daleks ‘the ultimate Doctor Who toy’ and he’s clearly in his element exploring their mythology, picking and choosing from Terry Nation’s conception onwards, so though the new design is on the cover and in some of his words, he’s actually envisaging the Daleks from the TV21 comics with the anti-gravity platforms and a design for every application, be it breaking through a wall or investigating the intricacies of TARDIS. 

They’re also the flavour of Dalek which is able to hold proper conversations with one another, or in one case philosophical discussion with the Doctor and best of all BBC Books have printed all of their dialogue in their classic zig-zaggy font, the one which usually crops up in comic books.  I’ve not seen that done in a novel before and it really fills in some of the menace lost through not actually being able to hear the things.  As your eyes glance around these bits of text, bolder than whatever else is on the page, you can almost hear Nick Briggs’s ring modulator grating away.  It also has that rare sense of occasion which comes from smacking old and new continuity together to see what happens.  I'd love it if the new series were brave enough to try something like this on television; would it be so wrong for the Doctor to bump into an old style Dalek or Cyberman and having some fun explaining away the incongruity?

The Doctor’s on good form, happy to flesh out any relevant bits of continuity, masking a genuine anger at seeing his foe in such a strong position with a mix of bluff and humour and offers a surprising reaction during a particularly nasty sequence with the captured Dalek were the crew all break out into a lovely shade of grey (if you see what I mean).  There's also an interesting surprise related to the figure whom you're expecting to become the companion which blows all expectations.  I'd be particular excited if the television version was brave enough to do something like that and it's one of the ideas which shows that Baxendale has thought about what he's trying to achieve and not simply trotting out the usual tropes.

With the exception of the human characters.  Perhaps Baxendale had in mind the crew of the Liberator, Red Dwarf or Serenity,  but, probably because of the needs of the story, they’re sadly mostly just the kinds of generic types that usually populate Doctor Who stories, a square-jawed captain, the vet, the cute girl, the cannon fodder (see The Impossible Planet and 42) and the surprise guest (you’ll see) that don’t tend to work on the page because the actors voice or manner aren’t there to flesh things out.  A prime example is Cuttin’ Edge.  I think he’s supposed to be a homage to Cat from Red Dwarf all ‘mans’, jokes about his fashion sense and slang, but he’s not especially funny (assuming he's supposed to be the comic relief) and is just the stereotype that would be injected into a story in the late 80s in an attempt to be ‘with it’ and missing the mark by several hundred rels.  Couldn't we have had a Tarrant instead?


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