Ever since the relaunch in 2005, I've been a fan of Doctor Who (and have later gone back to watch the classic series as well). And when I discovered there were a ton of novels based on the show as well, I knew I had to check them out. All of them have different writers, and all of them vary in degrees of quality. But all of them still capture the spirit of the show; playing out like actual episodes, while being able to utilize things that would be extremely difficult to create on the show (in terms of special effects).
Taking place during the time of the Tenth Doctor, he and his companion, Donna, are in the heart of the Andromeda galaxy, visiting an alien art gallery, when a mysterious group of thieves steals one of the pieces there via teleportation....and accidentally kidnaps Donna along with them when she's caught in the transport beam. Soon after, the Doctor teams up with a band of scavengers, who are chasing after the thieves, to rescue Donna. From then, it becomes a galactic Easter egg hunt as the thieves, known as the Cult of Shining Darkness, race across the galaxy to track down all the pieces they need to assemble a super-weapon that can wipe out all the machine life in the galaxy....machine life that is arguably sentient. And as the Doctor and Donna fight tooth and nail to reunite with one another, both sides are left to question if the robots they're either fighting or teaming up with deserve to be labeled as "human."
These books are pretty much just for fans of Doctor Who, as there's plenty of references to various episodes of the show, so the writing pretty much expects you to already know who the Doctor and Donna are, what the TARDIS is, and so on. These books pretty much play out like a professionally published fan fiction, and all the main characters behave and sound like they would on the show proper. The plot is expertly paced, with plenty of action, but enough quiet and thoughtful moments in between. Normally, I'm not the biggest fan of splitting up the Tardis Team, since some of the best moments come when the Doctor and his companions interact with each other---that, and typically, the writers tend to forget about a certain character in favor of keeping the action to another. But here, having the Doctor and Donna separated for a large chunk of the book makes perfect sense, because it allows us to see both sides of the conflict and have the "good guys" and "bad guys" plead their case to our heroes, to the point that Donna almost agrees with what the villains are doing, since she shares their viewpoint on robots, at least at first. Even better, an action sequence towards the middle of the book causes the Doctor and Donna to switch places, so now our duo can see the sides of the war that they missed the first time. So instead of the Doctor spelling out the lesson to his companion (as what usually happens), Donna has to come to a conclusion herself.
And what IS the conflict exactly? In the Andromeda galaxy, a debate has been going on for centuries of whether robots (or mechanicals, as they prefer to be called) are truly sentient life forms or not. Anyone who is pro-mechanical views robotic beings as being on the same level as humans, with their own thoughts and emotions. Anyone who is anti-mechanical views robots as nothing more than tools and machines, and any robot who exhibits human qualities are just mimicking humans, but not actually feeling themselves. After so many bad experiences with robots before, it's easy to understand why Donna would initially side with the Cult of Shining Darkness. And there's more than a few moments scattered throughout that makes the reader question if the mechanicals our characters come across are truly sentient or not. And while there's plenty of science fiction that tackles this subject in more detail, the real primary goal of this book is to present an allegory for racism and how fear of the different and unknown can poison a person's soul, to the point that many of the robots in this story act more logical and compassionate than their fellow humans. The best example comes from Mother---a hulking behemoth of a mechanical with an intimidating appearance who was once a machine used for waging war, but has since gone against her programming and fights for peace. Her conversation with Donna about machine sentience, prejudice, and showing compassion even in the face of hate is, arguably, the best moment of the book. (To seemingly hammer this home even more, Mother is the "evil" looking robot on the book's cover, making the reader initially think that that's the monster our duo will be fighting, when it couldn't be further from the truth.) Thankfully, though, these serious conversations are balanced out with plenty of funny moments as well, including two robots constantly arguing with each other about proper grammar, a run in with an alien race that's constantly changing their religious beliefs, and Donna having to pretend to be a "ginger goddess".
With a ton of twists and turns and thoughtful discussions about the nature of robotics, this is a novel that deserved to be a proper episode of the show, and will make you question what it truly means to be human.