Matthew Kresal checks out the Eighth Doctor novel War of the Daleks...
To paraphrase a famous quote about Shakespeare's Hamlet: "What can be said about War of the Daleks that hasn't been said all ready?" This 1997 Eighth Doctor Adventure remains one of the most controversial novels in Doctor Who fandom as few novels have its polarizing effect. Having only come into Who fandom in 2007, its reputation intrigued me enough to read it. And I found it to be intriguing to say the least...
Characterization is an overall plus of the novel, from its various Thal characters to Davros and even the Daleks. John Peel's take on both the eighth Doctor and Sam are the big disappointment of the novel's characters, as Peel, as he had with Timewyrm: Gensys, effectively makes them into bog standard Doctor and Companion, though given how little he had to work with I find myself more forgiving than I might me. Overall though, Peel grounds the story in decent characters (even if not in the best of situations).
The novel also has two other essential elements of any good Doctor Who story: pacing and morality. For the vast majority there is excellent pacing, though there are moments when the novel practically grinds to a halt (more on that later though). There is also the morality sitting at the heart of the novels first half involving the Thals and what they want Davros for. This is arguably the finest part of War of the Daleks and it's a shame that it's so overshadowed by the novels downsides.
And now for the biggest problems of the novel: continuity references and (especially) chapter eight. If ever Doctor Who fans could give an award for way too many continuity references in any single Doctor Who story I feel very certain that War of the Daleks would win hands down. Not only are there references to every single Dalek TV story, but to the 1960's comic stories as well, all to the point of annoyance. Peel also felt the need to put "interludes" between the various parts of the story which show humans, Draconians and Mechanoids fighting the Daleks. They serve no story purpose (that I could find anyway) and bring the novel to a halt. Yet these are mere appetizers (for lack of a better word) for the biggest problem of the novel: chapter eight aka THE RECON.
If there is any reason that this novel is as controversial as it was, is, and is likely to remain, it is chapter eight. Apparently at the insistence of Terry Nation, Peel decided that he would, in the space of a single chapter, bring the entire novel to a halt for the purpose of rewriting the entire history of the Daleks! From Destiny of the Daleks to Remembrance of the Daleks completely and totally. Unlike recons of the past, like Genesis of the Daleks or Lungbarrow, the recon at the heart of War of the Daleks feels unnecessary and it is jarring to read. Sadly, even in a charitable state of mind, it is next to impossible to look past the slow moving and unnecessary chapter that brings down the overall value of the novel.
So where does War of the Daleks stand nearly twenty years after its original release? Well it's not a train wreck. In fact with its strong characterization and mostly brisk pacing it makes for a fantastic adventure novel. Yet it is the continuity references by the dozen, plus the mother (and father most likely) of all recons that keep this novel from reaching any higher in its potential. While I won't say War of the Daleks should be avoided like the plague, if you dislike novels based entirely around continuity references then this isn't the book for you. So, consider yourself warned...
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.