doctor who - winner takes allJacqueline Rayner
BBC Books

Rose and the Doctor return to present-day Earth, and become intrigued by the latest craze–the video game, Death to Mantodeans. Is it as harmless as it seems? And why are so many local people going on holiday and never returning? Meanwhile, on another world, an alien war is raging. The Quevvils need to find a new means of attacking the ruthless Mantodeans. Searching the galaxy for cunning, warlike but gullible allies, they find the ideal soldiers–on Earth. Will Rose be able to save her family and friends from the alien threat? And can the Doctor play the game to the end–and win?

Winner Takes All is the third novel published featuring the Ninth Doctor, following The Clockwise Man and the Monsters Inside. This particular one was written by Jacqueline Rayner, who you may remember as having written the Eighth Doctor novel Earthworld, which I reviewed previously as part of my quest to read and review all of the 50th Anniversary novel republishings.

This particular New Series Adventures story finds the Doctor and Rose landing back in Rose’s ol’ London neighborhood after a telephone call she got from her mother Jackie stating that she “won the lottery”. Turns out, this lottery was really a kind of promotional scratch card that were being handed out by local merchants, where certain winners got a brand new gaming console with a first-person shoot-em-up where you go after giant alien praying mantises. Really lucky winners get a free holiday trip. Which all seems legit…except for the fact that these prizes are handed out by giant porcupines. And they don’t look like they’re just mascot costumes, either. This understandably piques the Doctor’s interest. While investigating, he discovers there is an alien conspiracy (isn’t there always?) to use humans to fight their ongoing war with another species for them, by way of the video games being played, and the ones they took on “holiday”. Thus, the Doctor and Rose find their way to the porcupine aliens’ home world to put a stop to this wackiness, while Micky is back on Earth helping to run interference. Almost immediately, though, both the Doctor and Rose find out just how meta things can get with the video game, as things escalate almost beyond their control.

The whole “discovering a video game is for realsies” is one of the more amusing tropes in Science Fiction. And while it generally is used for some kind of morality play message on being desensitized to video game violence or whatnot, here the concept is really just a means for plot device. There’s some interesting pop culture nods (usually by way of a young teenage boy with a rather overactive imagination), and the mental image of the alien porcupines is…well, I kept thinking of Sonic the Hedgehog. Which just made me giggle. Not to say that things didn’t verge off into darker territory. But, overall, Winner Takes All was an amusing Ninth Doctor tale that managed to keep reality at bay for a few hours. 2 and ½ TARDISes out of 5.