When Remembrance of the Daleks hit TV screens to kick off Season 25 of Doctor Who, it blew the roofs off many fans’ minds. It was creative, inventive, philosophical and simple all at once. It conquered one of the Daleks’ lifelong supposed shortcomings (for all they’d been seen using anti-gravity discs in very controlled environments) by allowing them to conquer staircases, and touched Dalek history at so many points that it looked like a love letter to all they had ever been, while taking them forward into new territory in their civil war. It brought Davros to his apparent apotheosis, added substantively to the Dalek mythos with the Special Weapons Dalek, brought the TV Comics Emperor Dalek very neeeearly to the screen, delivered a cogent parallel with Sixties (and indeed Eighties) racial bigotry, and reset what we thought we knew about the Doctor we the audience were travelling with.
It was, to put it simply, a freaking Dalek masterpiece.
Ben ‘Rivers of London’ Aaronovitch, everybody. If you’re going to announce your presence to the world of geekdom, writing one of the all-time best Dalek stories to ever be filmed is a pretty good way to do it.
And then the novelization was released. And in very many ways, it beat the TV version – going deeper into the dalek history and context, inventing new ways of understanding what it was like to be a Dalek, the thought processes, the screaming hate and rage, the power. It broadened out the world we saw on TV, and gave us something almost operatic in scale.
It was, to put it simply, another freaking Dalek masterpiece. And it gains a whole other level in the audiobook version too, being read by Davros actor Terry Molloy. There are few levels on which Remembrance of the Daleks is not a perfect representation of what a Dalek story should be.
Great. But why so much focus on Remembrance of the Daleks?
Well, because since the novelization was released in 1990, it’s been the best novelization of an on-screen Dalek story.
And without wishing to pit one writer against another, now that time is over, so it’s worth…erm…remembering.
It’s over because 16 years after his script for Dalek was broadcast as part of the first series of ‘New’ Doctor Who in 2005, Robert Shearman has novelized that story for the new Target range.
Dalek itself, when it was broadcast, was already pretty astonishing, and had to do many of the things that Remembrance had done before it. Reintroduce the Daleks, add to their mythos, let them do exciting and terrifying new things, take them beyond the cliches and the easy jokes about sink plungers, egg whisks and flights of stairs. Make the Daleks show us something about ourselves, and especially show us something about our Doctor.
Dalek did all that through the simple inversion of a base under siege story. The base is human – run by humans, controlled by humans, with a king-like human at the top. The Dalek, when we meet it, is the least of things. Chained and screaming, tortured alone in the dark.
Dalek is the story of the Dalek’s ascension, both literally through the base, and metaphorically, through the stages of regrowth. Repair, acquisition of knowledge, destruction, the need for orders – and then suffering, as an existential crisis overwhelms it when comes face to face with the greatest enemy of Dalek kind.
Not the Doctor. Of course not the Doctor.
Compassion. Rose’s compassion for it there in the dark, and the stink of human being in its reconstructing self. The reek of innocence burning through its casing, seeping like an acid into its soft, misshapen flesh. The staggering, nauseating impurity of it, driving it mad in the prison of its casing, with nowhere to go, no orders to follow, a world to destroy, but that searing compassion contaminating it forever.
Pretty powerful Doctor Who, all told. Some might even say a freaking Dalek masterpiece.
And now, Robert Shearman has novelized it.
And it’s so much better.
What’s better? Almost everything. You get to drill down into the minds and the histories of handfuls of people who never got the scope to serve much more than the script and the pace in the TV version.
Henry Van Statten, multi-billionaire, is more or less a plot-driving power on screen. In the book, we understand his broken childhood dreams, his relationship with a cold and distant father, his going his own way and establishing himself, his growing ruthlessness and self-centring, and his personal vanity and caprice.
Needless to say, having all the background in the novelization – and reading it in a world which has experienced a Trump presidency, Van Statten looms larger in the story, and yet seems like a much smaller man.
The guard who tortures the Dalek? We get the highlights of his life-story. After all, how do you end up in a bunker, miles below the surface of Utah, applying a drill to an alien day and night? Read the book and you’ll find out.
Diana Goddard? The woman who eventually takes over from Van Statten in the TV version? Oh, she has a whoooole other reason for being where she is, and you find out what it is right here. The same is true of some of the other guards who mostly remain nameless on TV because it would take too long and slow the pace too much to find out about them.
Here, they’re given the dignity of real people, real lives, and as in Remembrance, the Dalek shows us things we might want not to know about ourselves.
There’s insight here too about the state of Rose’s mind, having run off into time and space with the Doctor. The book tells us what they do all day, this ageless alien and this teenager, how they spend their time together, and how they make each other better.
If you ever wanted to know about how Adam came to be in Utah, there’s background on him too – on his brilliance and oddness, his long silences and his hopes.
And there’s the Doctor – the Doctor getting better in a Dalek-free universe, in a universe where, dark as the nightmares may be, at least he has the solace of knowing that they’re worth it for the silence of that Dalek scream. Until, under the surface of Utah, there it is – surviving. Reviving. Rebuilding and killing and primed to destroy everyone and everything and start the whole blood-soaked, time-soaked war all over again.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the book is the effect it has on your mind – if you’ve heard some of the Big Finish Ninth Doctor stories prior to Christopher Eccleston joining the team, you’re used to Nicholas Briggs’ version of the Ninth Doctor, and you’re used to his Rose, and of course you’re used to his Daleks. So you actually begin to read it, hearing his voice in your head. Which is an extra boon if you go for the audiobook version, because guess who pops up reading it? Nicholas Briggs himself – neat move.
But while all these lives and backgrounds and emotions and expressions and people come together beautifully in the book, real and rich and fully-formed as they never really got the chance to be on screen while being pushed along by the need for narrative beats, the best thing – by leagues, which is saying something, because all of these strands are great – is the Dalek itself.
The Dalek that’s a prisoner of war, too exhausted and too apathetic to scream. Too disconnected from its purpose, from its life, from all the things that made it worthwhile, to even raise an eye-stalk until some unfortunate drill makes contact with some flesh and sears its reactions back into life. The Dalek that thinks nothing of using its sucker arm to gain data, while ultimately cracking the bones of a human face. The Dalek that barely registers its own actions as it exterminates a roomful of humans who are shooting at it. The Dalek that has one need above all – the need for orders.
The Dalek here is almost more real than any of the humans or the Time Lord. Almost more interesting than any of them. We learn its history, its Time War encounters and battles. Its parents. Its processing. Its allocation of function and casing, and its divorce from both the life of flesh and the connections of family.
And we learn about its dreams. If androids dream of electric sheep, you might be surprised to learn what Daleks dream of – and while things start out reminiscing, by the end, you’ll have been through the emotional mill with this Dalek.
One word of warning – late in this book, you will not be spared the process by which this Dalek came to be. It is not, at any point, pretty. In fact, it’s shocking. Since roughly Genesis of the Daleks, the assumption has been that the Dalek mutants are grown to be pretty much homogenous, whether they have ‘bits added’ to quote Ace, or whether they don’t.
Robert Shearman won’t let that lie in your brain any longer, and by the time you’re done with this book, you’ll feel the monstrosity of the Dalek as a project more keenly than you’ve ever felt it before. In fact, it might well keep you up at night.
Dalek, the TV episode brought the mutant monsters back to the screen in a roaring new form, their cliches blown away, and new abilities added.
Dalek, the novelization plugs you into the lives of every major character we encounter, to make the drama much more rich and human, and to make it count much more than the screen-time could ever have let it.
It shows us the Doctor at his worst and most desperate, and it shows us to some extent how he got there. It shows us Rose, not in control but making herself count, nonetheless. And it shows us the fundamental horror of what a Dalek is, through the eye and the mind trapped inside the casing.
It’s an astonishing piece of work, punching far above the weight of your classic, production-line Target novelization.
It’s a book to cancel Zoom calls for.
Sit still. Stay where you are.
You’re going nowhere till the Dalek is done with you. Tony Fyler