Let me just start out by saying: Combat Rock was the most visceral and violent Doctor Who reading experience I have ever read.
Mick Lewis really took Doctor Who to some dark places in Combat Rock, applying an almost real world tone to sections of the novel, and then upping the gore and violence factor. This is the kind of novel only possible back before the new series was on the air and the novels became slanted towards younger viewers. It is bizarre enough to imagine the team of the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria wrapped up in a horror novel, let alone facing guerrilla violence that reminded me of the worst of some modern-day African nations and even the Middle East. Add in the elements of cannibalism and tribal violence, and you have an experiment that is not to everyone’s liking.
Combat Rock obviously wants to shock you; its horror is not of the paranormal variety but of what humans can be capable of when taken to the darkest extremes. In this way Combat Rock resembles Lewis’ previous Doctor Who novel, Rags, which used the punk rock movement of the late 70’s and coupled it with the social malaise of discontent youth. But whereas the horror of Rags was internal (our characters- outside of the Doctor- being driven to horrible acts based in part on their prejudices and social discontent), the horror of Combat Rock is perpetuated by external forces, in this case the people and environment all around our characters. The world of Jenggel is an awful one, with a corrupt government and rebels perpetuating horrible acts against each other with the population caught in the middle. This doesn’t even include the dangerous wildlife throughout. If anything, Combat Rock is unflinching in its depictions, possibly being the most “realistic” of what man can do against man when ideals of freedom and political power come into play.
One of the flaws in Combat Rock which was evident in Rags is that the Doctor is not an active player in events, but rather passive (or in this case, captive) and swept along. The Doctor is unable to do very little than observe the horrors and connect the dots at the very end of the novel to reveal the true threat, but even then is unable to stop it thanks to a timely deus ex machina. In this manner, Combat Rock (again, like Rags) feels less like a Doctor Who novel and more like a horror novel that happens to feature the Doctor and his companions. While this approach did not bother me in this case, it will not be to everyone’s liking.
As an experiment, Combat Rock is a divisive novel; back when it was released in 2002, it caused quite an uproar from the fan community, since it was clearly not a traditional past Doctor Who adventure that many were used to for that range. It reads unlike most other Doctor Who novels, and is easily the most mature one to date (don’t let your kids read this, parents). The novel is brutal and savage, and even for horror fans may not be everyone’s cup of tea. This doesn’t translate into it being a bad novel (because it’s not), but it can be exhausting to read.