This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.
This is undoubtedly a bit of a scoop for the world of Doctor Who publishing; it’s not every day that the Children’s Laureate pens a story featuring the seventh Doctor and the Daleks. Even in this anniversary year, replete with Proms and Celebrations and previously unknown incarnations of our favourite Time Lord, it’s good to know that Who can still break new ground in its literary guise. A perfect companion to the BFI’s July screening of Remembrance of the Daleks, this novella (also featuring Ace, and referring to her prior adventures with that baseball bat) might almost be dubbed ‘Amnesia of the Daleks’. Because something terrifying and vastly alarming has happened: nobody other than the Doctor and Ace seems able to recall that the Daleks are a force for evil. In this alien universe, the Daleks are instead skillful geneticists (“I bet they are!” mutters the Doctor darkly at one point), surgeons and philosophers dedicated to keeping the peace. The concept of Daleks as academics is highly intriguing, and as might be expected from a writer as skilled as Malorie Blackman, this is impressive stuff.
Of course, given the brief word count there’s little scope for an intricate series of twists and reveals, and the basic mechanics of this storyline are fairly guessable. But the chief pleasures of The Ripple Effect aren’t really ones of plotting. Instead, the thrill here is that this short story comes about as close to being one kind of ‘anti-Doctor Who’ as is possible without causing brand management to implode. Challenging the central tenets and structures of Who, this is akin to a moment from Genesis of the Daleks expanded to novella length, or an instant from Dalek vigorously elaborated upon. In The Ripple Effect, Blackman sets up a startling moral question and pursues it to the very brink: what if the Daleks really were good, and the Doctor was prejudiced against them, unable to let go of a counterfactual past that he remembers all too well?
Readers are warned that this isn’t going to be a conventional tale when we begin with exaggerated stasis. The TARDIS is trapped, for once, and could remain so for the rest of time. The Doctor’s usual ingenuity doesn’t appear to be working, leaving Ace worried that she might be forced to live out her days inside the time machine. It’s the kind of opening you could imagine a script editor querying, but Blackman is free to engineer her own scenario here. Indeed, she has expertly explored prejudice before in a science-fictional setting, particularly in the award-winning Noughts & Crosses book series. By pushing artfully at the boundaries of what makes Doctor Who, well, Doctor Who, the Children's Laureate is reiterating and extending some of her characteristic concerns. And if ever there was a Doctor who we might doubt, I guess it’s Time’s Champion, the Machiavellian and manipulative seventh incarnation.
In line with stories like Power of the Daleks and Victory of the Daleks, readers might expect that The Ripple Effect’s well-behaved 'monsters' will eventually prove to be scheming their way to galactic domination. We sympathise with the Doctor at first because he’s still behaving as if he’s inside a conventional Doctor Who story, and his reactions make sense in that template. But then doubts begin to magnify: what if this story isn’t patterned after Power or Victory after all? What if, this time, the Doctor really is trapped in old-fashioned and obsolete beliefs, left following the wrong script?
The Ripple Effect offers a viewpoint figure in order to dramatise its challenge to the Doctor’s moral superiority and good sense, and this is Tulana from the planet Markhan. A student of the Daleks, Tulana is appalled by the Doctor’s refusal to accept her universe as it is, and tells him so. Occasionally this means that Blackman’s moral lessons are voiced very directly rather than left to echo uncannily and uneasily through the world she’s created. And when matters eventually come to a head then they do so very rapidly, something that left me wishing for much more of this universe and its Dalek gentlemen-scholars.
Malorie Blackman's contribution more than maintains the high standard set by recent Puffin stories from the likes of Philip Reeve and Richelle Mead. And although you get the feeling that, ultimately, the author isn’t able to push things quite as far as she’d like to, The Ripple Effect thoroughly deserves to resonate out through the larger Doctor Who mythos. I’d be amazed if it doesn’t end up being a high water mark for this particular series. Well suited to the novella format, this is an entertaining parable that enables the Doctor and the Daleks to pose serious questions of (unearthly) prejudice. Essential reading!