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Reviewed: Dalek – Target Novelisation by Rob Shearman

Dalek is not so much a novelisation as a very good novel in its own right. Robert Shearman doesn’t adopt the strategy of the jaded old hack who, cigarette dangling from lip, sits with the TV script on his desk and copies out the lines, adding “he said” or sometimes – after another drag – even, “she said” after each of them. Dalek is much more like the best Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke novelisations from the mid-Seventies: just as Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon exploited the medium of the novel to transmute the scripts for Colony in Space into something very special, so Shearman exploits his own script for Dalek.

It’s a great book.

This is a novel that is very much based on the television story: only about a third of the novel is actually the television version. And even then, there are some changes in the details from what appears on screen – which is as it should be.

So, Shearman writes a little bit of the television story and then pauses the action to interpolate a Tale (capital “T”) of an individual character, explaining how she or he came to be the character seen on screen. (Has he got this idea from Chaucer, who introduces his pilgrim characters in The General Prologue and then allows them to speak for themselves in their own tales? If so, good on Rob: he’s borrowing from the best.) Simmonds, who tortures the Dalek with drills, gets his own chapter,“The Torturer’s Tale” to document his journey from small town loser to lunatic psychopath. Diana Goddard has her own Tale and so does Adam. And these Tales are actually the best bits of the novel. Shearman writes beautiful, sparse, and imaginative prose; the chapters which add to the history and nature of the Daleks, and how they fared in the Time War, are first class.

How about the Doctor and Rose? Well, following Terrance Dicks’ lead, Shearman tends to stay out of the Doctor’s head and he is characterised externally, usually from Rose’s point of view. Rose herself carries much of the story, as she does in the original televised version, and Shearman imaginatively adds to it: there is a very good moment where she remembers how she hit puberty and, much to her bewilderment, people began to react to her beauty – boys she had been mates with suddenly became tongue tied and so on. (I feel sure, gentle reader, you have had this experience yourself!)

I don’t want to give too much away because that would spoil the reading of the book for you, but I really do recommend Dalek. It’s the third book of Shearman’s I’ve read (after the two volumes of Running Through Corridors, which he co-wrote with Toby Hadoke) and shares their qualities of imagination, thoughtfulness, and being enormous fun. I read it in a single sitting and enjoyed it so much that I forgot about lockdown, our slippery government (does Boris Johnson actually take his instructions from Van Statten?), and my need to prepare my A level lessons for next week.

Thought: Rob Shearman is a great writer. Why has he only been employed to write one television script for Doctor Who? There’s something really wrong somewhere when people who barely understand the series are let loose on it and Shearman – who can write, is witty and clever, understands human beings completely and can write a story with heart, passion, pace and adventure – isn’t allowed anywhere near it.

Come on, Chibnall: bring back Rob!

Dalek is available now.

Frank Danes

Reviewed: Dalek – Target Novelisation by Rob Shearman

by Frank Danes time to read: 2 min
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