The Doctor Who Book Club has picked War of the Daleks as their pick for July 2012. Published in October 1997, John Peel’s first novel for the BBC’s Eighth Doctor Adventures and since then it remains one of the most controversial novels in Doctor Who fandom as few novels have its polarizing effect. So much has been said about the novel that one almost needs to paraphrase a famous quote about Hamlet: "What can be said about War of the Daleks that hasn't been said all ready?"
Perhaps one should start by pointing out the novel’s pluses. Peel does a passable take on the eighth Doctor though his Sam Jones is little more than an average Doctor Who companion. Overall though, characterization is an overall plus of the novel from its various Thal characters to Davros and even the Daleks. If nothing else Peel grounds the story in good 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 of the novels length 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 the novel and it is a shame that it is 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 to the point of annoyance. Peel also felt the need to put "interludes" between the various parts of the novel which show humans, Draconians and Mechanoids fighting the Daleks which 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. It would appear from interviews Peel has given that Terry Nation was unhappy with the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and, having agreed for the Daleks to appear only if Peel wrote the book, asked Peel to change Skaro’s fate. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea just reading it, but wait until you hear how Peel did it.
Peel chose to do it in the space of a single chapter. He brought 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. Now the series has rewritten its past in this fashion before, such as in Genesis of the Daleks or Lungbarrow. Unfortunately for the novel, the recon at the heart of the novel feels unnecessary and it is jarring to read. The novel’s pace is thrown off totally and, despite the events of the chapters that follow, the novel recovers. The result is that, 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 the novel stand a decade and a half after its original release? Well it's certainly not the train wreck that some people have considered it to be. 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 the novel from reaching any higher in its potential. While I won't say this novel should be avoided like the plague if you dislike novels based entirely around continuity references then this isn't the novel for you. So perhaps you should consider yourself warned.