Winner Takes All
Let's get one thing out of the way right now. I hated, hated, hated this book. It encapsulates everything I don't like about soft sci-fi in general, and the new Doctor Who series in particular. Let's take it all point-by-point, shall we? (I don't know why I'm asking, as by the time anyone's in a position to agree or disagree I'll have done it anyway. So I'll rephrase. I'm taking it point-by-point. Because I can. So there.)
I don't like aliens as anthropomorphised Earth animals. This isn't confined to Doctor Who of course, but I hate it regardless of where the concept is used as it's a) lazy and b) scientifically extremely unlikely. In this book's case, we have alien porcupines (Quevvils) and alien mantises (the imaginatively-named Mantodeans). Bonus points are given when the sci-fi show/book/movie in question claims that this is because the aliens evolved in a similar environment to the Earth animals they resemble which is why they look like them, but then goes on to get this environment wrong (e.g., the Mantodeans are from a desert planet - but even though the book says otherwise Earth mantises aren't from deserts. They're bright green to blend in to foliage, which tends to be singularly lacking in deserts. Has Jaqueline Rayner never heard of the internet? Does she know nobody with a biology A-level?). The Quevvils are also described as being clumsy and incapable of fine manipulation and engineering because of "those great claws" they have on their hands, so they can't refine their body-control technology properly... and yet we're supposed to believe that they can easily and repeatedly operate interstellar teleportation equipment without breaking sweat.
I don't like the idea that ugly equals evil. The aliens are repeatedly described as ugly, therefore they're evil. Even the only human villain in the book is repeatedly described as ugly. Rose is repeatedly described as beautiful, therefore she's good. It's childish and tiresome and frankly Doctor Who should be above such things - have we forgotten Galaxy Four so quickly?
I don't like Mickey and Jackie Tyler. (This is obviously a new Doctor Who series thing, not a general soft sci-fi thing.) I get the feeling that Jackie Tyler was intended to be oddly endearing by RTD, hence her endless return appearances, but she bloody well isn't. She's annoying and petty and small-minded and two-dimensional. Rayner's main crime here is that she captures her perfectly, with all her dialogue consisting of endless "that's what I'd like to know"s, "I tell you, my girl"s and wondering whether Rose is about to vanish off with the Doctor again at any moment.(okay, so perfect characterisation is ordinarily a strength, but when your one real strength is to make a character be as annoying as they are on TV then it tends to ultimately work against you). Mickey I found to be so bland on TV that it's hard to tell whether he's been characterised well or not, but the return of the plot device of the Doctor getting Mickey to "save the day" by talking to him via Rose's magic mobile phone and having him muck about with computers because the Doctor is trapped in a room by the alien menace is not a welcome one.
I didn't like the plot. It's another aliens-wandering-about-on-modern-day-Earth-and-somehow-nobody-notices story, at the end of which the reset switch is pressed, so the next time there's an alien invasion in the present day nobody remembers the last one and it's all new and scary and unexpected. The Doctor's explanation of human self-delusion in Remembrance of the Daleks as some sort of flaky cover for this phenomenon is being stretched past breaking point in the books. In addition, the plot itself is ludicrous: porcupine-aliens, wanting to invade the mantis-alien stronghold, come up with the idea to hold a scratch card lottery in present-day London, the first prize in which is a holiday (as a cover for them kidnapping humans), and the second prize in which is a games console through which people remote-control the holiday-winners as they try to invade the Mantodean stronghold by presenting the whole thing as some dodgy first-person shooter. RTD's habit of insisting on having "wacky for wacky's own sake" in the series, like the silly name of the Slitheen's homeworld, or the Holy Hadrajassic Maxarodenfoe of The Long Game, or the "massive weapons of destruction", spacesuited anthropomorphised pig and silly ministerial positions of Aliens of London/World War Three, or being able to literally surf away from a planet as it explodes in Boom Town, has mutated from the merely whimsical into the downright annoying. It's gone from being a nice additional touch to being self-consciously the basis of the story here, and frankly that's a very shaky foundation to build a solid plot on.
I didn't like the supporting cast. Especially Robert, who's some pathetic teenage nerd who has endless daydreams about secretly being "The Chosen One" and having people adore him, instantly falls in love with Rose the moment he sees her, immediately and without question sees the Doctor as a father figure, and hates (i.e. secretly adores) his overbearing mother who treats him like a child. I get the distinct impression that we're supposed to find him sympathetic, but when the alien leader instructs a henchman to kill him to punish the Doctor for disobeying him, I really wanted them to go through with it as he's such a whiney and unlikeable brat.
Arguably the book's only strength is its characterisation of the main characters. Even so, that goes ropey in the second half of the book. The Doctor is actually quite annoying at points. His sudden bursts of rage where he smashes the contents of the room he's trapped inside in anger at the Quevvils forcing him remote-control Rose through the Mantodean stronghold seem somewhat out of character. The book also relies on the technique of making the characters seem a bit stupid at points by having them trying desperately trying to think their way out of a situation when the answer is blindingly obvious to the reader and they're just being a bit slow. And once again we have an NDA where the ending is one of those inexplicably neat "there's a big bang and it's suddenly all over" jobs, and far too many loose ends are left hanging for my liking while the Doctor and Rose make a quick getaway. And surely if Boom Town can include a throwaway reference to The Monsters Inside, there could have been some throwaway reference to Jackie's face looking better in one of her many return appearances in the series?
However, a book cannot rely on reasonably good characterisation alone, especially if it isn't even consistent with that. If that's all I wanted, I'd read a character study of the Doctor and Rose. Instead I want plot, I want action, I want excitement, I want something that makes me think, I want big ideas, I want something that I wish I could have seen on-screen, I want something that leaves the main characters in just a slightly different place to where they were when the book starts. On each of these points, Winner Takes All fails miserably. If there's one good thing about this book, it's that it stops The Clockwise Man being the worst novel of the first batch of NDAs. As it stands, it's just one colossal wasted opportunity, and a poorly thought out one at that.
Review by Valedictorian