The Monsters Inside
This is another book with a possibly unique position (curiously thus far I only seem to have done reviews of books in a possibly unique position - by which I mean the book has some special role or place to fill, I'm not typing this standing on my head while attempting to sing Scotland the Brave while drinking a glass of water or anything like that. For one thing, my laptop wouldn't stand for that sort of nonsense). It's thus far the only piece of spin-off fiction to be directly and explicitly referenced in the Doctor Who show itself. What, missed the blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to Justicia in Boom Town? Shame on you. But it's there, and it does mean - sorry, all you die-hard "nothing else but the TV series counts!" canon purists - that the events of this book are proper, one hundred per cent, "it really happened and not in a parallel universe/divergent timeline" Who. The TV series said so. So nyah.
Anyway. The book concerns the Doctor taking Rose on her first trip away from Earth. That in itself is a little misleading, as it could have been a great way to have a real alien culture explored through the eyes of Rose, but instead it occurs on an Earth colony, so a good 90% of the book's supporting cast are human anyway. In fact, by and large it might as well not be anywhere away from Earth's solar system anyway.
The colony - well, the whole star system they find themselves in - is called Justicia, and it's a massive prison camp, with each world being given a different role within that (one world's for administration, one world's for hard labour, one world's a borstal, one world's for non-humans, and so on). The Doctor and Rose arrive there pretty much the exact second the book starts, and it must be said that the opening scene is absolutely spot-on in the language and characterisation used by the Doctor and Rose. Breathtakingly so, in fact, after the rather ropey "everyman" characterisation forced upon them in the preceding NDA, The Clockwise Man. The 9th Doctor is conveyed perfectly in this scene, as is Rose - her enthusiasm at being on an alien planet for the first time is reminiscent of The Unquiet Dead where she insists on being the one to open the TARDIS door as she's "not done it yet", believable and infectious.
Needless to say, things go pear-shaped with remarkable speed, the arrival of a police box in broad daylight on a futuristic penal colony not exactly being an event that is easily overlooked, and the Doctor and Rose quickly find themselves separated. Here is where this book fares better than most "Doctor and companion separated" plots - normally I find them to be tedious and to focus too much on one character (usually the companion), and find myself itching for the point where the Doctor and the companion find each other again and status quo can be resumed, whereas here both threads are handled extremely well.
Now on to the book's main villain. It's not really a coincidence that the TV story to reference The Monster Inside is the one where the Slitheen return on-screen, as they're in this book as well. Well, the descendents of the Slitheen that we know from the TV stories are - there's a couple of them banged up in the same prison as the Doctor finds himself in. Of course, as soon as they appear the reader puts two and two together, and thinks that the title of the book thus refers to the Slitheen and their habit of hiding inside the skins of other races. In this the reader is both dead right and dead wrong. The main villains of the piece are actually another family of Raxacoricofallapatorians, the Blathereen, who are sufficiently ruthless that they manage to make the Slitheen of the TV show look a bit twee and old-fashioned. They've decided to infiltrate the entire prison, occupying positions of power all over the system, for their own nefarious ends - and their more advanced compression field technology means that they aren't limited to hiding inside those who are a bit on the porky side this time.
Following the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", the Slitheen, the Doctor and Rose (and a lot of other inmates) soon find themselves as begrudging allies to stop the Blathereen and their dastardly plans. This is well-handled throughout, with the Slitheen once again displaying the dubious morality of their TV appearances (intensely loyal and even tender towards their own, backstabbing to everyone else - unless it suits their own interests). The whole book moves at one hell of a pace, and sustains this brilliantly throughout - indeed, the only time that I actively chose to put the book down and stop reading (rather than the bus arriving at the right stop or it being two in the morning, the things that usually stop me reading) was when towards the end that I began to feel tired out just trying to keep up with events. The supporting characters, while not particularly complex, are well thought out, distinct and believable, and really do help the story to flow as well as it does.
Of course, it's not all perfect. The dénouement is a bit too quick, and of the "everything blows up at the last possible second" variety, but that's hardly a sin confined to this book where Doctor Who stories are concerned, and it's a relatively minor sin at that. The main problem most people will have with this book is yet another reappearance of the Slitheen. Factoring in this book with their TV appearances, that's three stories they've appeared in within the space of one season - a record impressive even by the Master's standards. Admittedly they are RTD's very own creation, but is that really an excuse to have them forced on us over and over again, especially when many arguably superior monsters didn't rack up that many appearances in the original show's entire run? He, and his extended production team, do seem perhaps just a teensy bit too fond of them. There is an argument that the Slitheen cropping up over and over fosters a sense of continuity (a similar argument to that behind the repeated reappearances of Jackie and Mickey), but just once or twice it does have you thinking that perhaps they could have waited a while longer before bringing the Slitheen to print (albeit in this case not as the main villains of the piece, though since the main villains are still Raxacoricofallapatorians they might as well be to all intents and purposes). It just makes me worry that they are being groomed for greatness and endless return appearances, which seems to me at least to be a bit too much like cheating, not least because the Slitheen - though not two-dimensional monsters and with a nice line in amorality and gross-out humour - are hardly in the same league as the all-time legendary Who monsters. Anyway, if you liked (or in my case, didn't particularly mind) the Slitheen's TV appearances, chances are they won't put you off this book too much. If you did, you might have to grit your teeth. Yes, there are various fart and belch gags, though they aren't that obtrusive as far as these things go (and there's a nice bit where someone Rose is convinced is a disguised Slitheen turns out to just be a fat man with a dodgy tummy), though the head of the family Blathereen does seem to be a little too fond of the word "butt" for my liking, and there's a few too many scenes of the Blathereen standing around giggling amongst themselves.
Compared to the previous NDA, though, this is a vast improvement. With the apparently omnipresent Slitheen along for the ride, Rose's first trip away from the vicinity of Earth, spot-on characterisation and a good, simple plot told well, this book would have been a much better choice to launch the NDA range than The Clockwise Man could have ever been. Yes, it's derivative and offers very little that we haven't seen before, but it does it all with such panache that it's impossible not to like it. Had this book come along later and been a "9th Doctor PDA" instead of a current NDA, its characterisation, tone and return of the Slitheen would have made it a superb and note-perfect piece of nostalgia. As it is, it's just a good, enjoyable and straightforward story.
Review by Valedictorian