War of the Daleks

John Peel

BBC Books Eigth Doctor series, 1997
Compared to general opinion, I think I must be something of a fan of John Peel's first Who book. I quite liked Genesys and if many of the books that came after it bettered it, that is no slight to Peel, who had the difficult task of beginning the series. I wasn't so keen on Evolution, but again Peel was in the difficult situation of writing only the second MA. How, then, would I find his third book, War of the Daleks, a book infamous on rec.arts.drwho from its very inception?

Well, I liked War. I cannot remember for certain, but I think I gave it a 6 in the Rankings. As 7 seems to be about my average, I hope John doesn't too mind a score of 6. I certainly think it is much better than The Eight Doctors, with which it is currently neck and neck at the bottom of the Rankings. It was a mostly entertaining read, yet War also has profound implications for the long term continuity of the Daleks.

Some might argue that if the book is entertaining, the continuity doesn't matter, but as the continuity is central to this book's plot, I invoke the maxim of "live by the sword, die by the sword". War involves one of the most dramatic retcons in Who history and it simply was not believable to me. Nonetheless, Peel deserves some credit for a brave attempt, if nothing else.

I found the first three quarters or so of War to be a good, solid read. It kept me interested; it even kept me engrossed. (More on the last quarter later.) It is action packed and it drags the reader along. The characterisation was fine. Some of the supporting characters were perhaps rather simple, but the style of the novel is not one to allow space for much great character detail. Of the regulars, both Sam and the 8th Doctor have yet to settle down in their characters in any of the books so far—let's see what happens over the next few books—but their portrayals were pretty consistent. In particular, I could recognise much of the Doctor from Vampire Science—the definitive text so far IMHO—in War.


The one regular to come off badly is Davros, but then War is concerned more with his mere existence than with his character. If Davros is a pawn to everyone else, it matters not that we see little of his character. For that matter, who can say what Davros' character should be like given the decline into insanity over his last few TV stories.

There were many nice touches; as another reviewer said, Peel knows his Daleks well. I enjoyed the interludes: they were a successful injection of '60s adventure fiction. I enjoyed seeing the Spider Daleks 'canonised' after their description in The Nth Doctor. The battle scene in the prelude was very well done: exciting, without glorifying; setting up the characters for later in the book; and thematically foreshadowing the bluff and double bluff in the main plot developments and the moral choices to be made later on.

However, as with many Who stories, unravelled somewhat in its conclusion. For example, the final plot twist, with the hidden Dalek factory ship, I just found silly. More of a problem was the final battle on Skaro. As the set piece, climactic finale, it failed to do justice to the idea for me. I think it is difficult to write wars and battles in books, although So Vile a Sin and parts from earlier in War are good examples of how it can be done. The battle of Skaro came across as too small, with long fight scenes not working in print. As well as flowing badly, much of what happened in the battle seemed wrong. I would have expected the Daleks, famed for their battle computers, to have run through the tactical options for the battle in fractions of a second; and the Dalek Prime has had plenty of time to prepare for this fight. Yet, we had the Dalek Prime depicted as only realising the tactical significance of his large windows well into the fight.

I was going to complain that War has a very complex plot, but that is not true. Then, I was going to praise War for having such a straightforward plot, but that is not true. Rather, War of the Daleks is a simple intersection through several complex plots. What happens in the book is well-plotted, but what happens outside the book is sometimes more problematic... and, in one crucial case, very problematic.

War does contain some wonderful ideas which it doesn't itself have time to explore. That is praise, not criticism, by the way. I loved the idea of the Thals desiring to recruit Davros for their own eugenics programme. Yet it is the Dalek history subplot and that retcon that are more of a problem. Within the book, they rather interrupt the flow of the story, requiring an extensive monologue from the Dalek Prime. At times, I felt there was just too much trying to be squeezed into an action adventure. As a reasonable 'page-turner', I could ignore my doubts about the book's implications for most of the way through, yet with the retcon being central to the book's resolution, as well as one of Peel's central motivations in writing the book, you just cannot ignore it

The retcon... I doubt I can say anything original about the retcon. It is has probably generated more bandwidth on rec.arts.drwho than discussion about all the other BBC Books put together! I admire Peel's ambition. Just as Lungbarrow re-wrote much of what we know about the Doctor, so War was a brave attempt to re-write recent Dalek history. I am not averse to such being occasionally tried, however, I think Peel failed.

Most criticism has centred on the retconning of Remembrance of the Daleks. While War may retcon the plot of Remembrance, it cannot retcon the emotional impact of Remembrance for me, so I care less about that aspect. I think Peel goes some of the way to preserving the significance of Remembrance to the Doctor's character and I am gladdened that that perhaps shows that the lengthy debate about War on rec.arts.drwho was useful. Rather, for me, it is the retconning of Destiny of the Daleks that is the sticking point.

The retcon is just not believable. The retcon states that the Daleks faked an interstellar war in which they had supposedly been brought to a stalemate and which crippled the whole expansion of the Dalek empire; that they even faked the enemy race, the Movellans; that Davros was moved to another planet disguised as Skaro, on which he raised his rebel forces and which was ultimately destroyed by the Hand of Omega. We learn in the book that this plan had taken in both the Doctor and Davros. It is also implied that humanity was at least partly fooled, as the Mechanoids believed the Movellans to be the Daleks' enemy. However, the Thals, for one, do know that Skaro has not been destroyed, so it is hardly a well-kept secret.

Hiding Skaro is the easy bit, but the retcon requires so much more: it’s about faking a whole interstellar war and Dalek expansion being brought to a standstill. Perhaps the Dalek empire could have faked such a stalemate, but to do so convincingly would be as crippling as if there really had been in a stalemate. Was the Dalek Prime's plan worth the abandonment of galactic conquest for several years just so that everybody would believe the war was real? It's about faking a whole alien superpower in the Movellans. How do you fake a whole star empire over a long period time (to fool Davros), over all of history (to fool the Doctor)? Could they let the deceit be known to the Thals, but really fool the whole Earth empire?

I am just about prepared to accept that Davros as we see him in his earlier stories could have been fooled and maybe even the Doctor in his younger incarnations too, but the later Doctor is a harder nut to crack. His breadth of knowledge about the universe becomes more and more apparent: he has been in the Matrix on Gallifrey, he has met the Guardians; he has negotiated with God; he has plotted and schemed across all history. This Doctor could miss the faking of a major interstellar war and of one side of that war? The Time Lords must certainly know of the Dalek Prime's deception, yet do they never tell the Doctor despite using him as their agent in Genesis of the Daleks; despite him becoming their President? I should make it clear that I have no objection to the idea that the 7th Doctor as the arch-manipulator, should be out manipulated—I am currently enjoying Illegal Alien, for example—but being outwitted is not the same as being fooled.

In summary, as a sequel to Destiny of the Daleks or even Resurrection of the Daleks, War of the Daleks just about works. Had Destiny been rather different or the retcon had left the Movellans alone, then maybe I could have accepted it. But, as is, it just stretches incredulity too far.

Peel knows his Daleks from the outside, but does he know what makes them tick? The Dalek Prime's plan carries with it implications that rather undermine Peel's own position on another point of contention that arose in discussion on rec.arts.drwho before the book was published: poetry. It seems such a small matter, but it is symbolic of the greatest problem I had with War.

Peel uses War to explicitly deny that the Daleks have culture (poetry being the unspecified sticking point), yet Peel seems to be missing much of his own book then. He has said that the interlude with the Mechanoids is to draw the distinction between robots and Daleks, yet he then treats the Daleks as just robots by stripping them of their culture. Peel has tried to make the Daleks more interesting, placing them central stage again and not just background to Davros, yet he makes them boring automatons.

Crucially, the whole Dalek Prime's plan is motivated by considerations of image, of PR. All this is just to discredit Davros. These are not creatures of logic, but beings that are swayed by oratory and presentation. Poetry is just one small step further—it seems almost inevitable that beings that should do so much just to ensure that the presentation is correct would have poetry.

These two sticking points—an over-ambitious retcon and an oxymoron of a depiction of the Daleks—kept me from truly enjoying an otherwise fun action-adventure.

Henry Potts, 16 Aug 96; revised 16 Jan 98

Originally posted to rec.arts.drwho.

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