I have seriously mixed feelings about "War of the Daleks". Despite it being clunky, juvenile and containing the most pointless continuity rewrite in the history of science fiction, it's still the only BBC Doctor Who novel (with the exception of "The Infinity Doctors") that I've read more than once. It's a guilty pleasure, like Godzilla movies. Reading it, you know that it's dumb, but you just can't stop. At least, I can't.
Throughout the novel, John Peel does a great job of showing us how good it could have been, as he breaks up the main plot with small vignettes from the greater galaxy as it grapples with the Dalek threat. These are gripping stuff indeed, epic adventures against an implacable and ruthless foe. The opening scene, a vast battle between the Daleks and Thal special forces, is equally gripping and for some reason reminds me of many of the scenes in Heinlein's "Starship Troopers". If the book had continued along those lines, it would have been superb; miltary SF in the Doctor Who universe is something we really haven't seen before, and Peel infuses the battle scenes with great tension and drama, whether they be between the Daleks and lone security agents, custodial robots or Draconian starships. He proves that he certainly has the ability to write this kind of stuff well, which is why the direction he takes with the rest of the novel is so irritating.
In between the battle scenes, Peel manages to create some very interesting characters and then gives them very little to do. The Doctor, supposedly the hero of the story, literally does nothing to affect the plot at all throughout the entire book. Yes, he gets to solve problems, but it is plain that those problems are largely of no consequence and that most of the events of the novel would have occurred in exactly the same way were he present or not. Given that Peel's characterisation of the Doctor is extremely generic, I'm convinced the book would have been far better had it been written as a standalone book without the Doctor in it at all.
The biggest problem with the book occurs when the plot moves to Skaro, the Dalek homeworld. Since the Doctor blew it up in the TV episode "Remembrance of the Daleks", the fact that it still exists drives what is left of the plot. It's at this point that pretty much all the characters switch their brains off and Peel reveals the real reason the book was written in the first place; to undo the destruction of Skaro as seen on TV. Apparently the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, objected to the destruction of the Dalek homeworld, despite okaying it for broadcast (he had script approval and the ability to veto anything he didn't like), and Peel took it upon himself to "undo" that event. To do so, he concocts the most bizarre, convoluted, risky and ultimately pointless conspiracy I've ever come across, rewrites over a decade of Doctor Who history and makes both the Doctor and Davros (the mad scientist who first engineered the Daleks) look like complete idiots. When the book was first published, the sound of Dalek fans all over the world going "huh?" was almost deafening. After waiting years for a new Dalek adventure, to be presented with something so mediocre that showed the skeleton of the classic it could have been was almost too much to take.
And yet I keep re-reading it, almost as if I keep hoping that since the last time it'll have metamorphosed into the book it should have been. It's the literary equivalent of a dumb popcorn movie, complete with spectacular set pieces, implausible plot and dodgy acting. If I can keep my brain stunned into silence for the duration, I enjoy it. It's only when I start asking questions that I realise how bad this thing is. Still, if you - like me - love the Daleks and have been starved of new adventures for years, you could do worse than pick this up. Just don't say I didn't warn you.