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Bellarius reviews the Doctor Who audio drama Prisoner of the Daleks written by Trevor Baxendale and published by BBC Audiobooks Ltd.
“A tale shows why the Weeping Angels are not the most frightening thing the show has created.” – The Founding Fields
Prior to the airing of Asylum of the Daleks lead writer Steven Moffat announced his intention to make the daleks scary again. In his eyes they had become “the most readily defeatable enemies in the universe” and lacked the fear factor of when he was a child. While an admirable goal, they’ve already been made scary in recent stories. Case and point – Prisoner of the Daleks.
Catapulted back in time the tenth Doctor finds himself in the middle of the First Earth Empire’s desperate with the daleks. Separated from the TARDIS and most of his resources he finds himself working with a group of desperate bounty hunters struggling to survive in the conflict.
But when the bounty hunters achieve their ultimate goal of capturing a dalek alive their situation only becomes more dangerous. Only the Doctor seems to understand that a dalek is never truly harmless and it’s not long before the tables are turned upon them…
The book’s biggest strength is it manages to show the daleks as frightening on both a galactic and personal scale. Whenever the war is spoken of it is presented as meatgrinder of attrition and brief glimpses show it to be devastating entire worlds. Worse still is the daleks understand how fear can work in their favour and ruthlessly exploit it to win battles before they even begin. We also find out that when prisoners are taken alive it is far from any mercy, even for those with seemingly no worth as captives.
Yet in spite of this the book does its best to avoid showing the galactic setting in favour of a much more controlled environment. For many chapters the only dalek present is the captive onboard the bounty hunters’ ship and it’s all the stronger for it. Author Trevor Baxendale goes out of his way to detail how dangerous just one dalek is through how people respond to it. With the Doctor heightening the suspense in his constant attempts to caution the bounty hunters and how the hunters themselves react to it; what they lower themselves to because of their hatred. It’s made very clear that the war has left its scars on them with half the fear factor of the daleks not being what they are capable of in war but what they turn survivors of their atrocities into.
“War is hell” stories are something rarely shown so well in Doctor Who and the fact it is done so well with aliens resembling giant pepper pots is a credit to Baxendale’s skills.
Better still is how he writes the atmosphere for each scene; giving aspects which add to the increasingly grim tone but never manage to push it to the point where it induces apathy in the reader. The conflict between the heroes is always meaningful rather than used to create pointless angst and never feels like it’s going against established personalities. Plus the bounty hunters don’t quite manage to cross the line into being morally no better than the daleks even after effectively committing a war crime. They’re closer to what you’d expect from a Blake’s 7 story than Doctor Who; driven to desperation but do not have the mistake of being written as the villains and expecting us to still side with them. In other words it dodges a lot of errors committed by Marvel: Civil War.
Unfortunately all this is in the first half and there’s a visible decline in quality when the book moves towards away from this an endgame. It really jumps off the deep end when the Doctor all but yells “THIS IS A TRAP!” when tricking a dalek to commit to a plan of his; making the villains which had seemed so effective act like gullible morons. The other problem is the Doctor’ mood. Despite acting perfectly fine early on acts too lighthearted during his darkest hour. The tenth Doctor was even more renowned for making jokes than the fourth, but it would be rare for him to make them in as desperate situation as he ends up in. It never manages to be completely bad but it’s just this sudden drop from it being an outstandingly Doctor Who novel to just an enjoyable one. It honestly would not have surprised me if the one half of the novel had been ghostwritten by someone else. The voice acting for the audio adaptation is what makes it worth buying over the novel. Nicholas Briggs, long time audio director, writer and current voice of the daleks, shows versatility with each character and after a while it’s easy to even ignore that David Tennant is not playing the Doctor.
While it has its flaws and a weak final act it’s still worth getting. At its best it’s of a quality par with Midnight and at its worst it’s still better than Evolution of the Daleks. Seek this one out if you’re looking for a decent audiobook.