Let’s face it: the signs weren’t good. As it is the new 9th/10th Doctor novels from BBC Books have been generally unsatisfying watered down juvenile books compared to the full-length novels fans have been used to during the TV series hiatus and now, just to add insult to injury, the BBC decide to release a Doctor Who book in the ‘Quick Reads’ series: ie even shorter page count, even bigger print. Yes – it’s a book aimed at people who don’t actually like reading.
As such I came very close to not bothering with this at all, but I’m glad I did, as it’s actually a very enjoyable book. While it’s obviously very thinly sketched in terms of plot and character it actually bears a remarkably similar feel to the stand-alone new series 45-minute TV stories. As such expect an incredibly fast-paced romp with every ounce of excess fat cut off to aid the speed of storytelling: this may not be as satisfying as more in-depth adventures of the past, but one can’t fault this book for staying faithful to the TV series. The story even has a clear television counterpart as it acts as a sort of thematic sequel to Robert Shearman’s ‘Dalek’: in that story Rose infected a Dalek with humanity, but here it’s a Dalek’s turn to infect a human with the ‘Dalek Factor’.
Expect a healthy mix of comedy and fast moving action, with the bizarre image of a gun-less Dalek going on the rampage armed only with its (now upgraded for the new series) sink-plunger arm. If I have one main issue with the book it is the unnecessary coda: Roberts works in a nice character moment midway through the book with a truly moving death – the undoes all his hard work with a pat ‘Doctor changes history’ ending that feels far too much of a cheat and removes the impact of the earlier scene.
Still, while hardly a great classic work of literature this book does exactly what it says on the cover: it’s a fast and fun quick read, and if you want to be entertained for 45 minutes while the TV series is off-air you’ll find this a perfect fix. Good fun.
Wow, they weren't kidding about the "Quick Reads" thing. Is it about 20,000 words? No more than that, surely. I enjoyed this book but it feels like nothing else Who-related I've read in decades... there's something slightly staccato about it, as if it's straining at the constraints of its word count. Even Short Trips stories are more languid. It feels like the Target novelisation of a Tennant TV episode, which may well have been the brief.
In a way, it reminds me of Gareth's DWM comic strips. It's plot-heavy and Gareth Roberts-light. Chapter One made me laugh, but thereafter the book was oddly uncharacteristic of the qualities I associate with this writer. His authorial voice is oddly muted. Gareth at his best is a rollicking rambling raconteur, with the brilliant natural storytelling of a drunk old stand-up comic who could have you in stitches with the Doctor stuck in a cupboard. There's something slightly off about his rhythm here, which I don't think can be blamed entirely on the format. 20,000 words isn't War and Peace, but neither is it two sides of A4. I suspect that Gareth wrote a fantastic version of this story which came in at 30,000 words, so had to start snipping.
That's a tiny nitpick, though. I'm sure most readers would be wondering what the hell I was banging on about, since basically the book's fine. I've been talking about what it lacks, which is doing it a grave disservice because at what it does it's very good indeed. The plot is strong and driven by the characters. Kate owns the book. Gareth obviously loves writing for her... she gets some wonderful moments and can be very funny. I couldn't quite believe in Frank, but he's charming. The Doctor and Rose are fine, although Tennant's Doctor doesn't spring off the page quite as strongly as Eccleston's. Finally there's the Dalek, whose Dalek Factor is compared with humanity exactly as David Whitaker was doing in Evil of the Daleks. Gareth also has fun with these new Daleks' powers, writing this one as a pepperpot-shaped Terminator instead of the wobbly and easily evaded BBC props we're more familiar with.
I still have a niggle that in a longer book Gareth could have done more with these ideas. You could have a ball with Daleks in Pompeii, for instance. (Admittedly it's not actually Pompeii, but that's the mental image you take away with you.) There's a full-length novel waiting to be mined from this pamphlet-a-like, although in fairness that's a compliment. This feels like a proper narrative, instead of just a book-shaped collage of familiar elements. You know which authors I'm talking about.
At the end of the day, this story is about its characters. It has heart and I'll forgive a lot for that. There's some lovely stuff in here, especially the ending which is almost beautiful. Admittedly you don't get many words for your money, but with a price tag of just under three of your Earth pounds it won't exactly break the bank. It doesn't feel deep. I wasn't kidding about that Target novelisation feel, but despite its word length it's nowhere near the shallowest BBC Book published in recent memory. It's nice.
If you want to get children reading, then this is the way to go about it! Gareth Robert’s lovely little novella, “I Am A Dalek,” is probably the best tie-in book for the new series so far! Although the standard of the new series’ novels has been very high, they haven’t sat too well with a lot of ‘hardcore’ fans who are used to the much more adult Virgin and old BBC books, but let’s face it, that’s not the target audience anymore. It’s the kids. Even so, a lot of the children in my family have picked up the beautiful, glossy hardbacks only to put them down after a chapter or two; even with a (relatively) low page count, with all the trappings of modern life it’s hard to get a kid sat down reading for any length of time. That’s the problem.
“I Am a Dalek” is the remedy.
Fourteen chapters. 104 pages. It has all the energy and pace of a 45-minute television episode; it is literally just all action. Each and every one of the other tie-in novels have superbly captured the characters and the spirit of the new series, but they have all been bona fide novels, taking time to dwell on character and background. “I Am a Dalek” doesn’t. It’s just like the new series in every way – the characters are all superbly written and very, very real, but bar the odd paragraph spent introducing Kate Yates and Frank Openshaw (the other two main characters in the book) the reader has nothing to contend with but action. In fact, it’s remarkable that Roberts managed to imbue his characters with so much life with so few words. I felt like I knew Kate Yates inside-out after reading just a page. Credit Cards. Rubbish job. Dalek factor… This little book carries with it that wonderful, but often quite cynical view of the modern world that is present throughout the new series. Some of the things in there may go above the heads of a 10-year old, but I think Mr. Roberts must have suspected that the odd grown-up would be embarrassingly spending an hour or two on a Sunday evening lost in the pages of his ‘Quick Read’!
The story itself is absorbing, worthy of a television episode. It’s nice to see the tenth Doctor come face to face with a Dalek; and a Dalek at its best, no less. Like in Rob Shearman’s highly acclaimed episode “Dalek,” the pepperpot is its most lethal here. The plot also touches on “The Evil of the Daleks” in quite a charming way that long-time fans will appreciate, the ‘Dalek Factor’ from that story making its return after forty years! At the end of the day, if you’re willing to have the missus laugh at you for reading a proper children’s book, you’re in for a treat.