Doctor Who fans of all generations will hopefully be able to come together as one and set aside their differences – and what terrible differences some of them have these days – and delight in the BBC rebirth of the legendary Target Books brand. Back in the 1970s Target Books were, in pre-home video days, the gateway to the show’s long, secret history for fans who might have had only the vaguest memory of the show’s pre-Jon Pertwee monochrome years. Doctor Who has been chronicled to death over the years, but most senior fans will agree that Target Books remains the most important source of their knowledge of classic Doctor Who lore. The BBC tentatively relaunched the range a few years ago with a handful of respectful reprints and, thrillingly, four all-new novels published in 2018 and written by the likes of new series showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, offering the opportunity for the original scriptwriters to either reinstate material excised from early drafts or to tell their stories from entirely new perspectives. Now at last the second wave of ‘new’ Targets arrive, offering further opportunities for the writers of original 45-minute episodes to flesh out their stories and turn an instalment of a TV series into a proper novel.
Robert Shearman’s Dalek sets a very high bar for the rest of this latest swathe of books – and any that might follow further down the line – to aim towards. The sixth episode from the 2005 Christopher Eccleston series that jump-started the reincarnation of Doctor Who, ‘Dalek’ not only introduced the series most iconic baddies to a new generation of viewers but it also added even more emotional depth to Eccleston’s tortured ‘last of the Time Lords’; more than this though, it even engendered in the audience some sympathy for the plight of the last Dalek, survivor of the terrifying Time War, battered, damaged, and chained up in a private underground museum and waiting for orders that will never come from its dead master race. Even though the Dalek uses Rose Tyler’s DNA to regenerate itself (here subtly fine-tuned into energy she has absorbed from the TARDIS during her travels with the Doctor) and embarks on a ruthless killing spree, the audience still felt some pity for the tortured creature as it struggled to come to terms with the vestiges of humanity it had also absorbed from Rose.
Shearman has taken the bones and structure of his TV episode, keeping it intact and turning it into brisk, readable and intelligent prose, touching all the emotional beats and bringing the powerful action sequences to life with often terrifying clarity. But the real genius of the book is the way he has subtly expanded what would otherwise be a brief read into something a little meatier and more thoughtful with the introduction of sections that explore the backstory of many of the episode’s supporting characters. As a result we learn more about museum owner and magnate Henry Van Statten and how he became the ruthless, single-minded megalomaniac we meet in the episode. There’s some background to short-lived companion Adam Mitchell (played by Bruno Langley in the episode), Van Statten’s in-house tech boffin, the scientist Danny Simmons who works so assiduously to extricate the secrets of the Dalek from the mute casing hidden in a cage deep inside the underground museum complex and there’s even a rather charming if chilling chapter devoted to the life and times of one of Van Statten’s security guards who, inevitably, meets an electrifying fate. Most satisfying of all, though, are the chapters that flow throughout the book chronicling the sad tale of a young boy on a hill, and a kite that fascinates him and his ultimate, desperately tragic fate. You’ll never look at a Dalek machine in quite the same way again…
It goes without saying that Shearman nails the TV characterisation of the Doctor and Rose to perfection – Eccleston’s Doctor is brittle, wounded, terrified at meeting one of his deadliest enemies again when he had thought them exterminated and Rose is out of her depth and in constant danger at the side of a man she really knows almost nothing about and yet she remains stoically willing to stand by him and fight alongside him. Dalek as seen on TV remains a highpoint of the early years of the 21st century Doctor Who, but now it’s become a great book in its own right that must surely stand as the high benchmark of this new generation of Target novelisations going forward. Exciting times.