Winner Takes All (2005) by Jaqueline Rayner is the third of the Doctor Who New Series Adventures novels and stars the Ninth Doctor, Rose Tyler and Mickey Smith. This time, the Doctor takes Rose back home to see her mum, Jackie, only to find all her neighbours are addicted to a strange new scratchcard with even stranger prizes. Why are so many people winning free holidays and never coming back? And why does the second-place prize – a video game called Death to Mantodeans – seem so realistic? The Doctor, Rose and Mickey investigate and find themselves caught up in an alien war, the outcome of which depends entirely on the Doctor’s gaming ability. (Minor spoilers below).
This is definitely my favourite of the three Doctor Who novels that I’ve read so far; the characters felt so real and were extremely consistent with what we’ve seen on the screen (which is a big deal to me). While still obviously written for children, this book is definitely a bit more mature than the previous two. Jokes about alien bondage websites aside, we see Mickey accidentally kill someone and Rose coming face-to-face with the freshly decapitated corpse of someone she knew from school, which is definitely not a regular occurrence in your normal, run-of-the-mill children’s novels!
Rayner doesn’t just skim over the implications of these things either – we see Rose and Mickey wrestle with the guilt (or lack thereof) of knowing that it was their fault, and this really gives the story an element of realism and danger that the TV show sometimes forgets. While the other two novels did have some gory elements, they were definitely more family friendly, and there was nothing that they wouldn’t have shown on TV.
Speaking of guilt, I loved how the Doctor helped Rose and Robert (a teenager that they meet half way through the book) explore the concept of hatred and its many different forms; their discussions of how it’s okay not to feel guilty when someone you hate dies, and of how hatred of family members can be complicated and doesn’t always mean you don’t love them, would have been really helpful to me as a teenager. This is one of the things I like the most about Doctor Who – it doesn’t shy away from talking about those difficult or uncomfortable things that we would usually keep to ourselves out of embarrassment or anxiety.
Without wanting to spoil too much, I really enjoyed this novel’s take on the typical Doctor Who rescue sequence because it felt incredibly like something that might happen in a point-and-click game, which is appropriate considering the book is about a video game coming to life! I’m also a sucker for the little jokes and references peppered throughout, like the Doctor insinuating that the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street is an alien, and Bad Wolf being a video game in Mickey’s collection (what would that game even be about?).
However, I wasn’t a massive fan of the bizarre Harry Potter parody/fantasy sequences that are used as a way of introducing Robert (mentioned above) before he was needed. It honestly made me cringe due to the awkwardness of it all, but I do appreciate that it gave us more of an insight into what he was thinking and feeling rather than just having him appear out of nowhere in the middle of the book. I also thought Mickey’s little group of wayward teens coming together to save the day was a bit of a shallow plot device and was extremely convenient, as was Jackie taking Rose’s phone with her on holiday (thus enabling communication where it would otherwise be impossible). I think I found this to be rude more than anything – who takes someone else’s phone with them on a long trip?! – but I guess Jackie Tyler isn’t exactly the politest of people! In general, though, there wasn’t anything major that made me think “hold on, that doesn’t make any sense”, which is good for a TV tie-in (or maybe I’m just picky).
Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to people looking to get into the Doctor Who tie-in novels as it has strong continuity of both plot and characters and, while the “video game turned real life” trope is one that is used fairly often, this was a genuinely enjoyable read. I’d give it five out of five stars.