REVIEW: “Doctor Who: Dalek” by Robert Shearman (The Target Collection)

Dalek is a perfect episode of Doctor Who. It’s got great character work, thrilling action sequences, and an expertly crafted and executed plot. The idea of novelizing the episode must have been a daunting one for Robert Shearman, the episode’s original writer and the author of this new Target novelization. How do you successfully translate the episode’s bone-chilling tension into prose? The answer, in Dalek’s case, is that you don’t. Instead, Shearman takes the opportunity to delve deeper into the story, stretching out the backstories of all of the characters and allowing the narrative a lot of room to breathe. This results in a compelling novel, but one that lacks the tension and focus of the episode it’s adapting. It’s a fun read—but a wildly different experience when compared to the episode. (4 out of 5 wands.)

NOTE: There will be mild spoilers for “Dalek” ahead. Read at your own risk.

Doctor Who: Dalek
(written by Robert Shearman)
The Doctor and Rose arrive in an underground vault in Utah in the near future. The vault is filled with alien artefacts. Its billionaire owner, Henry van Statten, even has possession of a living alien creature, a mechanical monster in chains that he has named a Metaltron. Seeking to help the Metaltron, the Doctor is appalled to find it is in fact a Dalek – one that has survived the horrors of the Time War just as he has. And as the Dalek breaks loose, the Doctor is brought back to the brutality and desperation of his darkest hours spent fighting the creatures of Skaro… this time with the Earth as their battlefield.

On the surface, Robert Shearman’s novelization of Dalek closely follows the events of the episode. The Doctor and Rose pick up a distress signal and arrive in Henry Van Statten’s underground alien museum. They find a lone Dalek chained up, having been subjected to various forms of torture to get it to talk. Naturally, the Dalek (with a little inadvertent help from Rose) breaks free and reins terror on almost everyone trapped in the fortress. It’s a simple plot, but one that allowed the episode’s direction and character work to take center stage. The episode works as well as it does because it’s brilliantly directed, Rose and the Doctor are given a lot of great character work to play with, and Billie Piper and Christopher Ecclestone take that character work and deliver breathtaking performances. You lose all of these qualities in a novelization, as the reader only has whatever the writer’s written to go off of. Now, to be fair, Shearman has a true gift with words. His prose is so easy to read, striking a perfect balance between description, emotion, and action. There’s never a dull moment in the book, and you get the impression Shearman has a perfect understanding of the story he wants to tell—and that understanding results in an expertly crafted narrative.

The problem is that, compared to the episode, Shearman’s novelization of Dalek is rather unfocused. If you’ve always found yourself wanting to know the backstories of all of the side characters, then Shearman’s novelization is the book for you. Every single side character—Van Statten, Goddard, Adam, Simmons, Bywater, and the Dalek—gets an expanded backstory. These backstories mostly enrich the characters, giving readers a much better understanding of why certain people do certain things. Surprisingly, the Dalek ends up being one of the most compelling characters, with Shearman emphasizing how unique this particular Dalek is when compared to its brethren; how its personality has been shaped by the specific trauma it’s undergone. However, these expanded backstories come at the cost of the book’s main characters and the story’s tension. The Doctor and Rose receive the least attention of any of the named characters in the book, often fading into the background as Shearman focuses extensively on another side character. We still get all of the powerful moments from the episode, with the Doctor showing exactly how he came to have the reputation he has. But these moments fall a bit flat when we spend so little time with the Doctor and Rose. When the main characters fade away into the background, it’s kind of hard to care about their journeys. They don’t seem to be at the top of Shearman’s list of concerns, so they’re not at the top of ours either.

The same is generally true for the book’s plot. The episode is a tightly-paced, claustrophobic affair—similar, in many ways, to Ridley Scott’s Alien film. Everyone is trapped in this fairly small location with an alien hellbent on killing them. Everything that happens in the episode is in service of this plot, and then tension just keeps increasing with every moment that passes. This isn’t the vibe emitted by the novel. Here, everything feels a bit more relaxed. Shearman takes his time putting all of the pieces on the board, and then he takes even more time slowly moving them from Point A to Point B. Those expanded backstories are scattered throughout the book, often placed at pivotal moments in the narrative. And, unfortunately, they tend to grind the narrative to a screeching halt. It’s hard to go from a thrilling action scene to a very lengthy delve into the backstory of a character who’s either just been killed or is just about to be killed while still maintaining any kind of tension. And that’s exactly what the novel lacks—tension. Now, the story works reasonably well without this tension, becoming more of an examination of how these individual people react in the face of certain Dalek-related death. But the lesser tension is very noticeable and sometimes detracts from the book’s effectiveness. I understand, and appreciate, the desire to use a novelization to delve deeper into underexplored characters, but there’s a balance between doing that and still focusing on the narrative’s core elements—and I’m just not sure Shearman’s Dalek novelization struck that balance. This doesn’t end up being a deal-breaker or anything, but it is a bit of a disappointment.

Ultimately, whether or not you enjoy Robert Shearman’s novelization of Dalek is gonna depend on what you wanted out of it. If you wanted something as tense and thrilling as the original TV episode, you’ll be wildly disappointed. But if you wanted a nice, expansive look at the story that acts more as a complementary companion to the story, instead of a replacement for it, then you’ll be enraptured by this book. All of the added character beats are, pun-intended, fantastic. But they come at the cost of some of the narrative’s best elements. The Doctor and Rose fade into the background some, and the story’s nowhere near as tense as it could be. But it’s still a fun read. It’s a wildly different experience when compared to the episode, but it’s not a bad time. It’s just… different. In good ways and bad ones. And that’s probably how these Target novelizations should be. Overall, Dalek is a fun read and a lovely companion to one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes. It’s well worth a read, even if it’s not perfect.

4 out of 5 wands.

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