The Clockwise Man/The Monsters Inside/Winner Takes All
The Monsters Inside
|ISBN||0 563 48629 5|
|Synopsis: The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Rose to a brutal deep-space prison colony. Can they stay out of gaol long enough to discover who - or what - is behind the sinister scientific plot that threatens billions of human lives?|
A Review by Finn Clark 15/6/05
I guess I should thank Steve Cole. After writing two hundred Doctor Who reviews in early 2004, I only did three in the following nine months. Even after reading Chris Boucher's Match of the Day, I didn't write anything. I had the notes. I meant to review it sooner or later, but nothing about it demanded inflicting my opinions on the world. Put it this way... just now I felt I had to write "Chris Boucher's" before "Match of the Day", to ensure that people knew what I was talking about.
However Steve Cole's The Monsters Inside filled me with righteous fury that practically drove me to my word processor. This is the most worthless Doctor Who book I've ever read, including K9 and the Time Trap and Michael Holt's Quiz Book of Space. A brand-new series on television and the books produce this? This is the kind of Doctor Who that makes me glad to be emigrating. However in a perverse way, it also forced me to catch up with my backlog of unread Who. If I didn't also review other books, giving a more balanced selection of opinions, I'd look like a ranting monomaniac again.
I'll start by addressing the obvious lazy counter-argument... "but it's for children". Leaving aside the fact that Stephen Cole appears to be contending in a small way for the John Peel Arrested Development award, that's absolutely no excuse for creating something this poor. Writing for children is harder. Wit must sparkle. It's even more crucial not to resort to the kind of wrongheaded stodgy formulae that Doctor Who novels have so often fallen back on.
The frustrating thing is that when Steve Cole tries, when he really tries, sometimes he's good! Not reliably so and never for the length of a whole book, but I have a lot of time for Vanishing Point, Ten Little Aliens, The Shadow in the Glass and his Tara Samms Short Trips stories. However... you know how some people are born writers? They have the knack. Steve Cole, for me, has the anti-knack. Whenever he takes his eye off the ball, even just for a moment, it all falls apart. The Monsters Inside isn't actually horrible, not like some books, but it has wallpaper characters, a boring setting and a worthless plot. If it wasn't for a good evocation of the TARDIS crew and a few late entertaining moments from the bad guys, there wouldn't have been one rewarding word out of tens of thousands. Even The Eight Doctors has more to offer the reader.
It doesn't start badly. This was my first exposure to the ninth Doctor in print and I found him fascinating. He speaks so differently from the others! The newbie-friendly info-dumps are clunky, even compared with the other two 9DAs (this is a TARDIS, this is the Doctor) but I winced and went with the flow. I'm not this book's target audience.
However once the Doctor and Rose got captured, uh, stuff happened. Don't ask me what. I'll be generous and say that they met some characters. I read names and dialogue, so I guess that qualifies. I finished this book a few hours ago but I can only remember two things about it:
(a) a boring prison planet
(b) the monsters
...and even (b) was the cause of some serious eye-rolling. They ended up being the nearest thing the book had to a saving grace, but really. I'd hoped we'd got beyond this kind of thing.
The will-sapping ennui generated by this book is doubly unforgivable given that it's set on an alien planet! Eccleston is about to complete his entire TV run without having got beyond Earth orbit. Books don't have the same restrictions, but even so The Clockwise Man is entirely earthbound and Winner Takes All goes further by starring Rose's friends and family (Mickey, Jackie) on present-day Earth. The Monsters Inside is the only Eccleston story to date that's entirely set on another world... and it's humdrum! Wasn't Paul Magrs answering his phone that week? He's written children's books. He'd have been good.
Technically this book isn't horrible. It reaches a certain basic level of competence in all departments and I can imagine some children reading it stoically. What I can't imagine is any of them remembering what happened afterwards or being enthused to read more. This is rehashed Who - pre-chewed leftovers dumped before you as lukewarm slop. WHY??? (However fortunately I liked the other two 9DAs...)
Individual strengths... by Joe Ford 14/7/05
I thought that was fantastic. An extremely enjoyable read, no matter how you look at it. The plot was fast paced, unpredictable and full of great surprises. The writing was slick and absorbing. The characters all come alive and in places stepped right outside the ciphers I thought they were going to be. The setting was interesting and original. Even the monsters were more fun than usual. There was nothing here I found I would not like.
Which might be part of the problem. This read not unlike many Doctor Who books we have been enjoying for the last decade with emphasis on some quite unpleasant parts of life (there were allusions to rape, lesbianism, gang fights, plenty of swearing), there was some quite complex fictional science involved (or at least the technobabble was laid on a bit thick during the last third) and there were some pretty horrific moments too (for example Rose discovers a field full of cadavers and accidentally crushes her foot into the ribcage of some innocent victim). Whilst I have no aversion to any of this (and it certainly wasn't as heavy as some books have been in the past) I thought these books were supposed to be aimed at twelve year olds and up these days! I know I said don't underestimate children's intelligence but I fear some mothers would horrified to find out their kids were reading this!
Stephen Cole has recently been a favourite of mine, whether he is writing novels and audios. He is one of the few Doctor Who writers who remembers that we like to be thoroughly entertained whilst we are reading/listening to the stories and usually includes a lot of good character humour in his adventures. As such he seems ideal to write for the ninth Doctor adventures and to recapture that spirit of fun these shorter, snappier books are pining for. Bizarre then that this has a more complicated plot and darker tone than anything he has written in ages. This is not such a bad thing, considering how fluffy Winner Takes All was, it is a relief to be able to get right back in the thick of a dangerous adventure.
Where do I start with the praise...
I thought the idea of a prison spread over an entire solar system was ingenious and the book pretty much won me over with that one idea. Perfect excuse for to split the Doctor and Rose apart and let them have their own plots. Whilst I was amused at further attempts to dampen humanity's name (this time we have dumped all of our criminal waste on Justicia and turned our backs on them), the book highlights how we could be putting our more disruptive elements to good use. A scientific labour camp where the master criminals' brains are utilised to evolve science... and who has the greatest mind of all? Cue hilarious scenes of the Doctor waltzing in and solving problems that Justicia has been working on for years.
Cole uses his page space wisely and gives the reader a thorough look at the many different aspects of Justicia, from the corrupt teenage borstal where Rose is incarcerated, to the SCAT scientific base, the Executive areas, the ravaged planets' surfaces, the monitoring suites... he builds up a complex picture of just how many pies they have their fingers in in this solar system. What's more he even manages to make the setting a vital part of the plot with clever clues jotted about early for anybody to spot ready, for the fantastic twist when the villains reveal their intentions for Justicia. The mechanics of their scheme and how they intend to use the various facilities and populace is ingenious and I was chuckling heartily at the grandiosity of it all.
At first I wondered if Cole had chosen the right monsters for the story when the Slitheen turned up early on; after all, there was quite a vehement reaction to their comedy value in the TV series. And yet it was soon obvious that they were the perfect baddies for this sort of story and their ability to get dressed up into any person's body gave the story that wonderful feeling of paranoia where nobody was quite who or what they seem. Cole goes one better than RTD by giving them some real background and by taking their somewhat childish appearance and making something scary out of them. Without a budget to get in the way we have the Slitheen as they always should have been: saliva dribbling from their fangs, razor-sharp claws and inexplicably strong muscular bodies. There are a number of chase scenes in The Monsters Inside which really get the heart thumping, the Slitheen inflict real pain on characters, smash through doors, tear through forests to reach their victims... they are truly a formidable alien force. Even the farting and burping is put to good use!
Characterisation was pretty amazing considering how fast the plot sped by. The Doctor and Rose both had a fair few friends to help them through this ordeal and to give the action some depth. The Doctor's unexpected closeness with Nesshalop provided some touching moments and I loved how his fast-paced lifestyle kept the dumpy Flowers on the run all the time and in fear of a heart attack. Of Rose's borstal companions I found Katza to be the most interesting, it is usually the bully who has the most remarkable things to say and it was nice to watch her character shift as the situation got more deadly. Dennal was quite fun too, a total drama queen throughout and always turning up to rescue Rose just when she doesn't need it! Cole floods most of his humour through the Slitheen and includes two hilarious fellow prisoners for the Doctor to swap banter with, I fell about laughing when I found out what happened to them after they escaped!
And of course the Doctor and Rose are spot on, and cut off from each other their bond has never felt stronger. There was a wonderful sequence in the middle where the Doctor is trying to make Rose look like a genius by sending her secret codes and their unexpected reunion (love how he catches her!) is very touching but most of their best work is done of their own, showing off their individual talents. The Doctor gets to show off his brain, his talent of successful improvisation and his care for all other species and Rose gets to survive on her own in a difficult environment (hey, she survived London!), makes friends enough to risk their lives for her and show how good she has gotten at this adventure lark by making snap decision in tight spots. They sound totally authentic and never betray what we see on screen. All three ninth Doctor writers have done particularly well in that regards.
This book is worth reading just for the monstrously convoluted and yet ingenious scheme on the part of the villains. If you are getting fed up with the lack of answers the book gives, stick with it. I doubt you will be disappointed. Needless to say few Doctor Who monsters have gone this far to make money but by God they would have made a mint!
The book also treats the reader with some respect and doesn't try and tidy everything up the end. The last chapter hammers home that there is a lot of sorting out to be done and that it will not be an easy task, that the Doctor might have sorted out their current problems but there were many outstanding ones that needed to be addressed. I enjoy it when novels allow the reader to imagine further adventures outside the confines of its plot, Cole has opened up the possibilities for plenty of stories to be told in this setting yet.
Easily my favourite of the three ninth Doctor books that have been released and by far the most adult, this is hardly different from the usual kind of novel Stephen Cole writes except he doesn't leave any plot threads hanging this time!
A Review by John Seavey 13/8/05
It tries. Really, it does. Stephen Cole revs up his engines and tries to do his usual trick of pacing a novel so fast that you don't have time to notice the plot holes. But, um... well, nothing actually happens in The Monsters Inside, and you can only hide that with jazzy pacing for so long.
The book's back cover mentions "old enemies", and it's a Ninth Doctor book, so that pretty much leaves the Slitheen. And yep, they're in there. They do Slitheen-y things. And they've got a rival family of Raxacoricofallapatorians to deal with now, which is a clever enough gambit, but a) they're called the "Blathereen", which never stops sounding stupid, and b) they're "the Slitheen, only meaner", which strips out the character motivations.
Other than that, the book's a long run-around. There are some clever and funny bits here and there, and a crazy-old-aunt Slitheen who's like Iris Wildthyme crossed with a Slitheen, but on the whole, you'll get your fill of technobabble and "Who's secretly a Slitheen?" long before the book ends. Definitely the most missable of the three.
Vanishing Point by Jason A. Miller 17/11/05
Reading Stephen Cole's The Monsters Inside made me want to become a Republican. Not in the sense that I suddenly wanted to write a Doctor Who story where the Doctor and Tegan watch a T-Rex chase Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Adric, while Turlough writes the first draft of Ghost Light under orders from the Black Guardian... but in the sense that I suddenly wanted to maximize my capitalist wealth potential by selling this book on eBay and recouping some of the $12 cover charge. I've never done that before.
I didn't expect much from The Monsters Inside. It was so unusual, however, to find a Doctor Who novel without a completely embarrassing, amateurish covers, that the book exceeded expectations before I'd even bought it.
Author Stephen Cole also gets extra points for making this book read like a seamless part of Season 1 of Russell T. Davies Doctor Who. The story's villains, as promised on the back cover, are drawn from an alien race that appeared in three Christopher Eccleston TV episodes (does that narrow it down much?). Much is made of this being Rose's first trip to an alien planet -- something that she didn't accomplish on the small screen. There's even a "Bad Wolf" reference.
The rest of it, unfortunately, was just deadly dreary. Honestly, the Doctor and Rose are actually on the surface of the planet for all of three pages before they get captured, separated, and forced to live underground for the next 150. Yes, this is in keeping with the plot structure of Cole's prior BBC novels (Vanishing Point and Ten Little Aliens come to mind).. but it's just not very interesting. Russell T. Davies liberated Doctor Who from years and years of low-budget TV episodes and increasingly monotonous books... where's the sense of wonder? Where's that Narnia moment? The first batch of 9th Doctor books were not written in a vacuum; the writers evidently had access to a rough cut of the first Davies episode or so, so the tone should have been set for something a little breathtaking or imaginative.
Another problem is that I couldn't find Christopher Eccleston's "voice" as the Doctor during most of his scenes here. Jac Rayner got his essence much better in Winner Takes All. While I don't believe that this was an old 8th Doctor outline that Cole recycled on short notice, I did find myself continually reading the Doctor as Paul McGann -- the Doctor that Cole is probably most familiar with from his years as writer and editor for BBC Books' 8th Doctor series. This is most evident during a scene where the Doctor spoils his own prison break by talking too loud.
The secondary characters are your standard combination of way-over-the-top, and absolute cardboard. The main villain, head of a family crime ring, is named "Don Arco" but, to hedge his bets, he drops the occasional Yiddish vulgarity. OK, I almost get the point. To be fair, this might have been funny on TV with the right voice-actor. Since this is a Cole novel, most of the characters are named after revealing words, like "Flowers" (who does) and "Blanc" (who isn't).
It's great to have some Ninth Doctor novels, now that Eccleston's too-short tenure on TV is over. Reading Monsters Inside is comparable to watching a fair-to-middling episode like Aliens of London on video. However, I was expecting something more... adventurous.
The Boredom Inside (The Pages) by Brian Phelan 22/2/06
Having just finished the first trio of Ninth Doctor novels, I can say that from my point of view the verdict is mixed. I started off with Winner Takes All, which mixed a lackluster story cobbled together from Ender's Game and The Last Starfighter with some decent characterization of the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey to produce a reading experience that was sustainable but unremarkable; in short, a serviceable story that was better suited to the younger, less experienced sci-fi reader than to a reader like me who has read or been exposed to a wider range of sci fi and was immediately ready to both cite the influences and judge the book for not doing the story better. The Clockwise Man, on the other hand, was a treat: a more mature effort that although derivative of earlier Who managed through plot nuances (such as the Romanov Restoration crew) and interesting and engaging supporting characters to rise above its predecessors to achieve a reading experience that was both pleasurable and engrossing. The Clockwise Man also had something else going for it: a unique relationship between the Doctor and a child; it seems to me that the Ninth Doctor may be the most kid-friendly of the lot.
Finally, last night at 12:45 am, as Inferno played on the local Public Television station, and about a half an hour before my power went out due to a snowstorm, I closed The Monsters Inside. I sensed early on that this was the weakest book of the lot, but only after finishing it was I ready to declare it so. Lacking few redeeming features, The Monster Inside is simply a bad book, Who or otherwise. I struggled to get through it, as my concentration wandered moments after reopening it. The problems with Stephen Cole's presentation are both fundamental and incidental. First and foremost there is the plot. The storyline, stripped down to its bare bones, is the greatest and most trying cliche in the entire Who canon: the Doctor and his companion are captured and try to escape. Over and over again.
The incarceration begins immediately, with little table setting and mystery to at least establish an intriguing context for the rest of the book. The Doctor and Rose, a few pages after their initial capture, are separated for almost the remainder of the story, effectively quashing the Doctor/companion dynamic so crucial to the franchise. As usual, once in the hands of the enemy the Doctor begins to sense that something is amiss, that a greater threat looms in the darkness. Enter the villains of the piece, a new/old menace making their non-television debut. Stephen Cole's efforts to expand the mythology of the program and to flesh out the world of the Ninth Doctor are admirable, and the nuances and shifting alliances of the returning alien species are somewhat intriguing.
Nevertheless, their motives and master plan are anything but. In fact, their secret plot adds nothing new to what we already know about them, nothing that expands the reader's views. After the small stakes of the other two novels in the release, the universe-wide threat encountered in The Monster Inside is, like much of the book, a lamentable return to cliche when it was simply not necessary.
Finally, there is the prose. Most of it is solid; but there are some unfortunate lapses into alleged "comedy" that fall flat for an older reader like me, and hopefully for the younger readers who make up the target audience. To whit:
"So I've scared you and scared you until you stink like the pretty little piggy you are... and now I'm going to have me some happy hunting."Or much more egregiously:
Don Arco chuckled, setting his candle flames quivering. "The two most priceless things in the universe, side by side all this time. That guidance system - and my butt."Ugh.
Now, mature readers of these books must keep in mind that unlike the offerings in the previous BBC ranges these books are designed to be TV tie-ins and are aimed at a teenage audience. Nevertheless, The Clockwise Man and to a lesser extent Winner Takes All prove that even with the restrictions placed upon them, the Ninth Doctor novels range can provide engaging and even memorable experiences for the older crowd. But The Monsters Inside doesn't do that. As entertainment for the younger set, it's barely adequate. For the older set, it's a waste of time. Recommended ofr completists only.
Breakout! by Andrew Feryok 6/11/15
I had completely forgotten that this was a Slitheen story when I started reading this book! It ended up being a genuine surprised and it's great that the cover, blurb and title don't give it away either! I was also surprised to find myself liking this book. In fact, I think I enjoyed this far more than I did The Clockwise Man. This is strange considering that, of all the Ninth Doctor's book adventures, this one had the reputation as the worst of the bunch. Those who were kind might give it an average score, while others just pinched their noses and warned people not to go near it. Then again, these same people thought The Clockwise Man was a masterpiece and I thought one was rather disappointing, so clearly, when it comes to tastes in Ninth Doctor books, I seem to be the complete opposite!
Stephen Cole absolutely nails the characters of the Doctor and Rose, who seemed to leap off the televisions screens from 2005 and back into my mind's eye. I had a hard time picturing Christopher Ecceleston battling clockwork robots in Victorian London, but thought he seemed totally at home in a prison planet exploiting alien slave labor for scientific advancement. Cole had Ecceleston's speech patterns, physical tics and style of humor down to a tee that it was easy to conjure up images of him. A lot of readers complained about the Doctor and Rose being separated for pretty much the entire story, but I loved this, especially as they not only got to take turns playing hero throughout the story, they also got a chance to rescue each other at different points as well. It's also rather frightening to end up on different planets with seeming no hope of seeing each other or the TARDIS ever again! So not only do they have to worry about breaking out of prison, but finding a way to travel in space back to each other. And that is before they even find out about the Slitheen and the Blathereen secretly infiltrating the prison!
The idea of the Justicia Prison System alone is terrifying and surprisingly close to today's modern privatized penal system who lobby Congress to create stiff sentences for minor offenses so that prisons are ensured of having inmates, which in turn ensure that they keep getting tax dollars from the government while the government gets to look good with voters by looking tough on crime. The same sort of thing is playing out on Justicia except that it's been taken one step further to the idea that Justicia as a corporation is looking to make a profit off of what is essentially slave labor. They subject inmates to experimental forms of penal control, as well as historic forms such as building pyramids, whose research they then sell off to other Earth colonies looking to improve their own penal systems. Of course, this is rather spurious considering that most Earth colonies are poor and can't afford a penal system, so they just ship their prisoners to Justicia to deal with, and it's implied they slip in their poor as well. But on a higher level Justicia's biggest profits come from the SCAT house, which is a slave-labor sweatshop where incarcerated aliens are forced to create advanced technology for profit. Flowers, the Doctor's "warden" and research manager, seems to naively think of it as a scientific brain bank making the future better for everyone, but the Doctor sees it for what it is: slavery. It creates a complex moral backdrop for what is the real story: the Blathereen are taking over the prison!
The Blathreen are an interesting extension of the idea of the different crime families of the Slitheen homeworld (no I am not going to spell out that ridiculously convoluted planet name) and it's a real shame the Blathereen never got introduced on screen. Perhaps one of the reasons why this story felt so much like a Ninth Doctor story is that the Slitheen have become almost exclusively the Ninth Doctor's monster the same way Sil became exclusively a Sixth Doctor enemy, or the Yeti for the Second Doctor. I also like the idea that the Doctor is forced to work as partners with the Slitheen in the story, since their goals just happen to align against the Blathereen. Yet even to the last page of the book, the Slitheen are still portrayed as inherently bad guys. They just happen to be good guys this time around but could turn at any moment. And I love the gradual revelation of the idea that the Blathereen are planning to pilot the Justicia system around space using warphole technology in a plan that seems deliberately ripped off from Douglas Adams' The Pirate Planet. But if you are going to steal someone's idea, better steal from the best!
On the whole, Stephen Cole does a fantastic job with this story. In a time when the Ninth Doctor and Rose never seemed to get away from Earth during their year, here we get to finally see them in outer space on an alien world. Perhaps when people thought they were getting the first trip to an alien world, the idea of a prison planet and aliens we had already met and which most disliked was not how people had planned for Rose to have her first trip into the universe. Nevertheless, I like the world Cole builds. I was emotionally invested in the characters and could easily picture the regulars in my head. And, best of all, as someone who absolutely hates, loathes and detests the Slitheen since they first appeared in Aliens of London, I actually enjoyed them in this story and ended the book looking forward to another Slitheen story from Stephen Cole. That has to say something about Cole's talent! To date, this is one of my favorite Ninth Doctor books and one of my favorite New Series books.