The Clockwise Man/The Monsters Inside/Winner Takes All
Winner Takes All
|ISBN||0 563 48627 9|
|Synopsis: A new video game has been launched; it's a big hit, and you can even win copies on scratchcards at the supermarket. There are all sorts of other prizes too - like holidays. That's what people are desperate to win€- ” it's so hot, they want to get away for as long as possible. So it's really no surprise when they just don't return...|
A Review by Finn Clark 22/6/05
I can never remember these things. Am I supposed to like Jacqueline Rayner's books or not? Ah, bollocks to that... she's written five Who-related books so far and I've enjoyed them all. Two Benny novels (The Squire's Crystal, The Glass Prison), two McGann novels (EarthWorld, Wolfsbane) and now Winner Takes All. I enjoyed the second half of The Clockwise Man, but of the first three 9DAs I'd call this the best.
When I saw the 9DAs in the shops, I foolishly expected them to be homogeneous, carefully targeted product. Merchandise for a target audience. Silly me. We're talking about BBC Books here! They're shorter than usual, but otherwise what we have are novels by Stephen Cole, Justin Richards and Jacqueline Rayner. No more, no less. Overall they're about as carefully targeted as a disintegrating meteorite... one of them isn't fit for, well, humans, while another is aimed at that well-known "1920s British Empire nostalgia" youth market.
Winner Takes All isn't merely the best of the three, but the clearest about its mission statement. You can tell that this is a children's book. There's precious little subtlety in Rayner's aliens, who are incidentally vulnerable to the most ridiculous 'silver bullet' I can remember offhand. Fortunately it's soon forgotten. The book's central idea is so ancient that the target audience probably took it in with their mothers' milk. One of the main characters is a kid.
However at the same time the book is witty, thoughtful and brutal enough to satisfy the very best children. We've all seen stories about real-life video games before, but this one goes beyond the usual well-trodden ground to become fresh and absorbing. There's plenty of violence (good, good...). The contemporary setting is a definite asset, giving the story a realistic basis that helps to ground the science-fantasy elements.
However the best thing about the story is the characterisation. The chemistry between the Doctor and Rose is the best in any of these three 9DAs (and the other two were strong in this department too), but that's only the beginning. Mickey is great. Jackie is solid. The incidental characters feel like people instead of plug-in-and-play plot coupons, as one sometimes feels in Who books. Personally I think Rayner has a knack for this... I've praised the characterisation in every novel of hers that I've read and it particularly stood out for me here. There's no "slow bit before the plot gets going", even though theoretically there is. The characters grabbed me right from the beginning.
The subject matter complements Rayner's style well. Some of her books have been a bit too fluffy for some readers, but this one gets pretty nasty by the end. That's to the good. I don't know if this is her best Who-related book, but it's probably the one with the broadest appeal. I'm sure most fans would enjoy this, unless they're violently allergic to books written to accommodate a younger audience. Forget the "children's book" tag; this is simply a good book.
Super Rose! by Joe Ford 5/7/05
Now this book really was written for kids! Any book with the basic plot of "Giant Porcupines attempt to break into their enemies stronghold by using human beings as soldiers controlled by other human beings playing computer games" could hardly be aimed at a mature Doctor Who audience. And with its emphasis on the fast-paced world of video games, lottery wins and mobile phones I have no doubt that children will find this an absolutely corking read!
Throughout the first half of Winner Takes All I found it a real struggle to keep going such was the simplicity of the book. This wasn't a book that was written but rather scripted with heavy focus on dialogue throughout and lacking practically any kind of descriptive prose. This makes the book light, zippy and easy to read but absolutely no challenge whatsoever. It was just like a Terrance Dicks book except even simpler with very light characterisation and concentrating on energetic set pieces. I kept putting the book down wondering when it would surprise me or do anything out of the ordinary and I started to wonder if perhaps this had been aimed at too young an audience, that perhaps even twelve year olds would find this a bit insulting.
And then Jackie Tyler got beaten up. And the computer game found its way onto the internet, some idiot offering people a chance to murder somebody they don't like and get away with it. And Robert suddenly sees in the Doctor the father he has never had. And the Doctor phones up Mickey through Rose whilst controlling her through the Mantodeans' stronghold. Touching, shocking, thrilling moments that just seem to spring from no where. Don't get me wrong the book is still written with a Target level of lightness but author Jacqueline Rayner pulled of a great trick of lulling me into a false sense of security and then hitting me with some good twists and turns. From about page 200 there is a fast-paced sense of everybody trying to work together to save the day and it genuinely feels like the TV series I have been watching for the past seven odd weeks.
It helps that Rayner understands exactly how to portray the regular characters, the Doctor, Rose, Mickey and Jackie. Whilst Jackie is written out of most of the story, she is as delightful as ever, sponging freebies where she can and excited when it appears she will get something for nothing. Mickey is fast becoming one of my favourites, the most unwilling of companions but when the safety of the world is stake puts aside his natural cowardice and does whatever he can to help. His chemistry with the Doctor is as turbulent as ever and their grudging respect for each other, despite neither of them being willing to admit it, is hilarious. Rose is hardly examined in any great depth here but is given a fair treatment, you can hear Billie Piper saying the lines Rayner gives her and there is that unspoken warmth with her and Mickey and Jackie which allows you to believe they really do love each other.
It is the ninth Doctor who shines here, with his bristling anger never far from the surface. Despite the absurdities of the plot he never forgets that humans are being exploited and killed and that deep down it is all our own stupid faults. It was his reaction to the death-wish website online that gave that moment so much power, his summary that we are all stupid apes has never felt more accurate. Rayner uses the Doctor to show just how gullible we can be, when somebody is offering out a freebie we will grab it without questions, not stopping to think of the consequences of that unknown generosity. The ninth Doctor not only willing to point out how naive we are but seems to enjoy deriding the human race, a far cry from his predecessors and their love of our tiny planet.
Unfortunately the rest of the characterisation is pretty basic, from the bully with no motive (Darren) to the kid who wants to be a hero (Robert) with only a few moments when they actually feel like genuinely real people and not ciphers there to manipulate the audience to feel angry or touched depending on what the author wishes.
I could have done without the pop culture references too. I don't mind the odd one now and then when it is slipped in with some intelligence but loads of fantasy shows were name checked in Winner Takes All and it felt as though Rayner really was trying to score points with the kids by showing how hip Doctor Who can be. We watch all these cool shows too, kids!
I am in two minds as to what I really thought about Winner Takes All. It flies by harmlessly enough and has enough good bits to keep you interested and the last third is especially fabulous with Rose under the Doctor's control and doing lots of physically impossible things but I can't help but feel this book wasn't written for me. I have absolutely no interest in computer games at all so I couldn't even connect with the book on that level. The aliens the novel deals with are given no detailed background, no characterisation and as a result just feel like another plot device. And the actual writing itself is impossibly juvenile, even more he said/she said than the Targets.
There was nothing to get your teeth into. No prose to savour. It was fun but sometimes you need something more.
A Review by John Seavey 28/7/05
Boo-yah, is I believe the word I'm looking for. This is the one you want to pick up in the NDAs, this is the one you want to give to kids who've just seen the TV series and want more, this is the one that seems in sync not just with the plot and mannerisms of the series, but its energy, its spirit, and its general ethos. It's a great book -- fast-paced, funny, wickedly cynical in parts and joyously optimistic in others. It takes what I thought was one of the great Hackneyed Concepts of Sci-Fi and puts a whole new spin on it, and it's just really a great read.
I could niggle a bit if I wanted. The Quevvils are straight out of the Paul Cornell school of villainy -- a bit OTT, a bit cartoony, none too bright and not quite menacing enough to be really scary. Their scheme, while interesting, seems at times to be borrowing from the Ten Little Aliens Memorial Library of Ridiculously Overcomplicated Plans... but I gotta say, it sets up a great story.
When I read the back cover, I was a bit underwhelmed. "Ah, yes," I said. "The 'What if the video game you were playing was... REAL?' plot, as used in 'Only You Can Save Mankind' and 'The Last Starfighter'. Well, let's see what she can do with it." Then I hit page 130. It's a jaw-dropping moment far more mature and cynical than I ever expected from the 'kid-friendly' NDAs, and Rayner decides she's not going to go the easy route of, "Everyone realizes that their actions in the game has real consequences and feels guilty." It amps the stakes, sets up a very dramatic conclusion, and forces the Doctor to act far more brilliantly and definitively than he did in much of the TV series. (He is a bit ruthless in the way he dispatches the Quevvils at the end, but I can't really say it's the wrong option. They're not good peoples.)
The characterization of the Doctor and Rose isn't quite perfect, but it's pretty bloody close... and this is the first story to make me like Mickey and Jackie, which I never thought would be possible. They're better used as the foils for the Doctor's wit and cleverness, the Lestrade and Watson to his Holmes, than they are when they're hanging out with Rose whinging about how she should settle down and get a career. And Mickey gets a) some suitably heroic moments, and b) to show that he's a human, terrified, not- particularly-good-at-it-but-does-it-anyway hero, which makes you a bit more fond of him.
All in all, this is exactly what the new books need to be, and if you don't finish this with a smile, you're obviously just bored of Doctor Who in the print medium.
The End of the World by Jason A. Miller 8/11/05
As long as I've been a Doctor Who fan -- coming up on 21 years -- I've actually been reading the original novels, under both the Virgin and BBC banners, for almost three-quarters of that time. I started reading the Target novelizations of the TV episodes when I was 11, and started reading the New Adventures at 18. Now, deep into my early thirties, I am being asked to start again, with what for the Doctor Who book world is an interesting hybrid experiment: Original novels based on the first season of Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who revival, written in the old Target novelization writing style.
If you loved the NAs, this book will seem like a major step back. If you thought the NAs were self-indulgent and corrosive, you will probably love Winner Takes All.
Jac Rayner's first Doctor Who novel, EarthWorld, and the only other book of hers that I've read, had its moments, most of them related to her characters and dialogue rather than her storytelling. Winner Takes All is the same way. Any dialogue written for the four TV characters (the Doctor, Rose, Jackie and Mickey) captures Russell T. Davies' truncated dialogue style, and the actors' respective voices, admirably. You won't find familiar characters behaving in weird ways, or getting lost in over-long internal monologues. If you read the books only for adherence to the TV show, and not for original insights, this book is definitely a success.
The original characters aren't quite as enjoyable, but Rayner manages to save each of them from being annoying. The alien Quevvils are pretty ridiculous, but then you can excuse the writer on that, because the TV aliens were pretty silly too (the Slitheen, the Gelth, et cetera). The book's human toadie, Darren Pye, isn't really on screen long enough to generate much contempt, but the way Rayner reflects loathing for him through Rose's thoughts works well. Finally, the kid who assists the Doctor in the book's second half is introduced with a lengthy Harry Potter-style dream sequence, and that's kind of cute.
Winner Takes All is a silly plot, and a harmless bit of fluff. You can tell it's not in the style of the New Adventures because it's missing "B" and "C" plots. This book is all about the Quevvils' video game and how it affects the residents of Rose's housing project. There are only three or four aliens in total, and even when the book takes us to another planet, all we see of that planet are a couple of rooms. However, it captures the style of Season 1 of the Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who pretty well, and since Christopher Eccleston only gave us the one season as the 9th Doctor, this book will stand well in padding out his tenure.