Saturday, 27 November 2010

Book Review 2: Prisoner of the Daleks, by Trevor Baxendale (2009) – 10/10

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

After the TARDIS skips a time-track, The Doctor finds himself in a period before the Time War on the planet Hurala. After escaping from a Dalek trap, The Doctor finds himself stranded with some Dalek-hunting mercenaries, amidst the Dalek-Earth wars. In the process of fleeing from the Daleks at Hurala, the group manage to immobilise a live Dalek that successfully penetrated into their ship. After being tortured by the crew, the Dalek later tricks The Doctor into going to the planet Arkheon, which features a Time-Rift that the Daleks themselves are intending to control. However, it is another trap. The Daleks have been there studying the Time-Rift all along, as well as set up a high security prison and slave base there, to help clear away the rock around the molten core of the planet in which the Time-Rift is situated. The Daleks hope to gain the power of Time travel, once they have access to the Time-Rift, and use The Doctor’s TARDIS to help stabilise the entry into the Time Vortex. The Doctor, after interrogation, tempts the Daleks into taking him and the remaining mercenaries back to Hurala to search for his TARDIS, but he in turn sets up his own trap – by setting alight the astronic fuel on the planet’s refuelling station. The resulting explosion destroys the superior and command Daleks that followed him to Hurala. The Doctor successfully escapes, along with two of the remaining mercenaries.

Story Placement
TV Episodes: Between The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead.

My first full-length new series Doctor Who book and considering it was chosen at random, I can’t believe I struck gold first time. Until recently, I’d never really tried reading ‘new series’ Doctor Who, but if they’re all as good as this then I can see I’ll be having a great time catching up on these over the next few years.
Rather surprisingly, this is only the third original Dalek novel ever written, but it more than makes up for it. Although, fans of the Dalek Empire Big Finish audios will be used to the idea, this book feels like the first official Doctor Who adventure to be part of the great Dalek-Earth wars for some time, and feels very reminiscent of a cross between Frontier in Space and Resurrection of the Daleks, only on a far more epic scale. As to how this war fits into Dalek continuity is anyone’s guess. It’s before the Daleks have mastered Time travel, but clearly set after all the ‘Classic Series’ Dalek adventures as these are meant to be the bronze Daleks of the ‘New Series’. Perhaps the Daleks lost the secret of ‘Time corridor’ technology, or deemed it too inefficient. It’s clear that the Dalek Time Ships of The Chase and The Daleks’ Masterplan were only prototypes that were later abandoned or lost, and the Big Finish audio – The Time of the Daleks, seems to hint that like in that story, the Daleks’ Time travel capabilities in The Evil of the Daleks were purely experimental too.
Back to Prisoner of the Daleks though, I was very impressed with the characterisations, not just of the Daleks, but also the Tenth Doctor himself. All the wit and silliness, the wonder and the compassion, the excitement and unswerving authority – a flawless depiction of David Tennant’s much loved incarnation. And the other characters are interesting to read too, particularly the war-weary Bowman, the leader of the mercenaries, who at times appears to be a more aged and well-crafted homage to the Dalek Hunter, Abslom Daak from the comic strips of what is now Doctor Who Magazine. What is also interesting, is how Trevor Baxendale uses these supporting characters, and puts each through an emotional journey in the crews’ struggles against the Daleks. Furthermore, not all of them make it out alive by the end of the story. The Daleks here are also great to read. Completely true to character, the Daleks here are both exciting and fascinating in equal measure, like in all of their best adventures. Trevor Baxendale achieves this by revealing more depths to their malevolence, showing us that Daleks delight in torturing other life forms, by turning down the level of the death ray so that their victims die as slow and painful a death as possible. We even read about Daleks ‘scientifically’ determining this by experimenting on prisoners in laboratories, just so this sick aim can be achieved. Baxendale also creates a new Dalek – Dalek X, the Inquisitor General. Deliberately different from a Supreme Dalek, Baxendale successfully conveys a much more ruthless, but important addition to the Dalek hierarchy, just as Army of Ghosts did with the ‘Cult of Skaro’.
What impresses most though is Trevor Baxendale’s glorious descriptive prose. The dark and slightly graphic descriptions help paint the Daleks’ powerful menace onto the page, and give a sense of scale to their machinations. However, the scale of Baxendale’s imagery is also a joy to behold. The presentation of the battle-scarred planet of Arkheon is a testament to the power of Baxendale’s imagination – an Earth-like planet split open by a powerful Dalek weapon many years ago. Only half of Arkheon still survives, but only as desolate remains, with the molten core burning out into space, and the remaining surface full of devolved primal and cannibalistic humanoids. It almost feels like a combination of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, such is the epic majesty and bleakness that Baxendale conveys beautifully.
However, the only thing that spoilt Prisoner of the Daleks for me a bit was the somewhat disjointed and simplistic plotting. Although I don’t mind the TARDIS breaking the Time War time lock (or jumping a Time Track as the Doctor glibly puts it), the trap the Doctor falls into at the start seems awfully contrived. After all, who is supposed to have made it in the first place? It doesn’t make sense for the Daleks to make it, as the book seems to suggest, because it seems to be so far away from any of their operations. Furthermore, Hurula is supposedly a long abandoned refuelling station, only seldom visited by humans, so it would seem very unlikely that a trap would have any real positive impact on the Daleks’ war effort against the human race. The Trap makes more sense as a device to catch out Space Pirates, looting the station, but even then it still doesn’t explain how and why the Daleks seemed to conveniently turn up at Hurula at just the right dramatic moment. It just seems an easy way of getting the Doctor mixed up with the Waylander mercenaries, and attacked by Daleks early on. Although, it does result in an exciting escape sequence from the planet Hurula, so it didn’t take long for me to be sucked back into the story again. The impressive use and setting up of Hurula for the story’s conclusion, also partly make up for this oversight.
In addition to this plot device, it was also jarring how tacked on the Arkheon subplot was. After seeing a Dalek ambush and very vague last words from a dying captive Dalek mutant, the Doctor seems to clock on from nowhere that the Daleks’ plan is really to acquire the powers of Time travel, through manipulating a Time Rift in the core of the planet Arkheon. Of course he is right, but there seems to be a sizeable lack of genuine deduction and progression in the story for the reader to work out for themselves. Quite a few developments seem to arise without any hints or explanation, and are just spoon fed to the reader. Although, because of how solid a plot the Arkheon storyline is when connected to the adventure’s conclusion, perhaps it is the earlier subplots that are tacked on for dramatic effect and convenience. The subplot about the Auros Dalek ambush, for instance, could easily have disappeared without having any adverse effect on the main plots, but it adds a further tragic layer to both the loss of one of the mercenaries, but also helps to emphasise the humans’ sense of helplessness when trying to fight the Dalek menace. The Doctor helps the mercenaries to eventually overcome this helplessness, even if he fails to save many of them by the end.
So despite these small (but not insignificant) conceptual flaws, Prisoner of the Daleks is still a complete revelation to me. It throws a brilliantly realised 10th Doctor back into the infamous Dalek-Human wars, of which Trevor Baxendale paints a vivid and fascinating portrait that captivates throughout. In some ways, it’s so good, I almost wish it had been made for television as it’s certainly more preferable to parts of the corny Journey’s End or the light-weight Planet of the Dead.
Score: 10/10