As with my complete Terrance Dicks, the hard work for this retrospective was done around Christmas 2001 and I'm merely expanding on material I wrote then. I haven't heard his Big Finish audio work and so won't take that into consideration, but I've read his Benny anthologies and I've watched Scream of the Shalka.
NOTE: this retrospective was written before New Who and in particular Paul Cornell's TV episodes, but I haven't gone back and rewritten this piece except to add this paragraph you're reading now. Suffice to say that Paul's done a lot of excellent work in other media since this piece was written, but as a look back at his Doctor Who novels this actually still stands up. These days the Doctor Who novels are... well, let's tactfully avoid talking about the NSAs, shall we?
It's a little startling to reflect that it's nearly eight years since Paul Cornell retired from regular Who-writing duty with Happy Endings, though admittedly we "1975 was yesterday" Doctor Who fans sometimes don't perceive time like normal folks. Paul's returned since 1996 to write The Shadows of Avalon, Oh No It Isn't!, Scream of the Shalka and a fair bit for Big Finish, but mostly he's been working outside Doctor Who.
Rereading his books was an experience. I'd forgotten how astonishing Timewyrm: Revelation and Love and War were, while it did me no harm whatsoever to rediscover Human Nature. It's famously the best Who book ever according to DWM's readers (twice!) and while it's probably not even Paul Cornell's best it's certainly magical enough to deserve a fair chunk of that repeated accolade. Most of all, I'd forgotten how special some of Paul's books are. Many authors seem to aspire to no more than writing a Doctor Who story. Villains, alien planet, if we're lucky a character or two... it's as if there's a checklist. Cover all the bases and get it done by the deadline. Whereas Paul's eight books push the envelope. It's not always true and the attempts don't always succeed, but Doctor Who would be poorer without Timewyrm: Revelation or Human Nature. Whereas most stories - even many excellent ones - aren't at root anything we haven't seen before.
When everyone was raving about Paul's novels back in Virgin's time, it certainly wasn't because Who books were new and the best stuff hadn't been published yet. If you reread 'em today, his novels are still fabulous.
One peculiarity is that with one aberration in No Future, Paul's early writing is his best. Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War and Human Nature could all appear on a Top Ten list of all Doctor Who stories in any medium, while the rest of his books don't really measure up. Though this overly simplistic analysis collapses if you throw out the first hundred pages of The Shadows of Avalon and concentrate on the rest, which is absolutely fantastic and measures up to anything he's ever done. One can however identify certain ways in which his writing has evolved - mainly his love-hate relationship with trad Who.
Paul has in the past spoken of his admiration for Terrance Dicks. Timewyrm: Revelation and Love and War take themselves deadly seriously, but after that the camp starts creeping in. No Future is basically sniggering at itself, while Happy Endings and Oh No It Isn't! are happy pantomimes. Around this point Paul also lost interest in conventional villains. It's the whole point of No Future that the Vardans are crap, while Human Nature's Aubertides and The Shadows of Avalon's Cavis and Gandar are annoying to a degree we normally see only in book-only companions (New Ace, Sam Jones). They're an attempt to do humour and self-mocking insight in Doctor Who villains - but unfortunately heroes and villains are not dramatically symmetrical. The Doctor works as a self-mocking hero because his flippancy is balanced by a genuinely dangerous situation. The viewer can take the drama seriously while enjoying the Doctor's hijinks. Villains aren't put through the wringer in the same way as heroes (until they lose at the end, obviously), so by being self-mocking and offhand they have nothing to undercut except themselves.
Scream of the Shalka on the other hand is deliberately recreating TV Who, down to the formulaic monsters who say things like "excellent" and "we will destroy you" but don't. The results aren't without interest, but it's clear that Paul's heart is elsewhere.
Ranking the Cornell novels, from worst to best:
8th - No Future, which is going through the motions. An old faces parade with delusions of politics and New Ace at her worst, though in fairness there wasn't much Paul could do about the latter. But even a Cornell misfire is still amusing and innovative (for the time) and more interesting than many 'better' Doctor Who novels. 6 out of 10.
7th - Oh No It Isn't!, which is fun and funny. 8 out of 10.
6th - The Shadows of Avalon. The last two acts are up there with Human Nature, Revelation and Love and War, if not perhaps even better due to Act Three's twists and concepts. Unfortunately Act One is, um... The average of 4, 10 and 10 gives us a final score of 8 out of 10.
5th - Goth Opera, which is pure adventure and on those terms almost perfect. The TARDIS crew are terrific. We'll be generous and overlook the fanwank chapter. 9 out of 10.
4th - Happy Endings, delightful and unique but again hamstrung by an uneven tone. This time it's the serious angsty bits (the Brigadier with cancer) that sit ill, with most of the book being the literary equivalent of champagne on a summer's day. 9 out of 10.
3rd - Love and War, less uneven than Human Nature but apart from the crowning tragedy it's just a very good, straightforward book rather than anything startling. Ace's psychological traumas are superb... but she's a bit stupid, isn't she? Another 10.
2nd - Human Nature, just pipping Love and War though they're very similar books. Each is a tragedy, but Human Nature is about the Doctor in an utterly unique way rather than his companion and has more to say about its themes. Inimitable. Even the Aubertides can't shift this score from 10.
1st - Timewyrm: Revelation, because there's nothing else like it and because it does the impossible and makes it look easy. Also because its themes are so central to Doctor Who: bullies and the Doctor himself. 10 out of 10.
Scream of the Shalka would come 9th in the above list, sadly, but I didn't think it was fair to include it. With Paul's novelisation coming in February 2004, it felt a little too "apples and oranges" to rank a webcast against novels.
In summary: damn good. Always trying something new, always moving forward. His instincts aren't infallible, but even his (rare) misses are interesting and instructive. And his hits will blow you away.