There was a wheezing, groaning sound…
This was the noise made by me as I heaved myself out of my armchair and lurched across the room to the bookshelf to fetch down my dusty copy of Players, so I could re-read it for this review.
Actually, it’s pretty clear that someone was ribbing writer and Legend, Terrance Dicks at the time – 1999, in fact – about his standard description of the TARDIS’ demat noise (which, when all’s said and done, is still a lot better than ‘Vworp! Vworp!’). We get a couple of variants in this novel. The first is during the prologue, when the Doctor and Peri take off from a particularly muddy planet, and we have: ‘With a sucking, squelching sound the TARDIS disappeared.’ Later, it’s, ‘The TARDIS dematerialised with a grating, grinding sound.’ Finally, right at the end of the novel, Terrance has got fed up with the whole thing and writes, ‘with a defiant wheezing, groaning sound, the TARDIS dematerialised’ (subtext: sod you, that’s the noise it makes, so there).
Well, you’ve got to laugh.
The last three novels I’ve reviewed for Kasterborous have all been very dark, with the Doctor battling some really malevolent and nasty forces who cause immense suffering. This one’s altogether lighter: not without a fight against evil, but the baddies’ main interest is in having fun rather than hurting people. And it’s a bit of a runaround, too, with the Sixth Doctor visiting various time zones.
Three, to be precise. And, given that the new Big Finish series starring Ian McNiece about to start, it’s good that the linking figure for all three zones is Churchill. Players is an earlier take on the Doctor’s friendship with the great man and, as far as I can see, it fits in well with established continuity.
For those of us who grew up with Terrance Dicks’ novels, it’s hard to deny that he’s a fine writer who can tell a rattlingly good story. (I can still remember finding The Auton Invasion and The Cave Monsters – yes, I know the second’s by Hulke – in WHSmith when they first came out.) Not necessarily the most original and imaginative, perhaps, but an exciting yarn that keeps you turning the pages.
The Players of the title owe something to both the Eternals in Enlightenment, and the War Lords; their creed, which opens and closes the book, runs:
Winning is everything – and nothing
Losing is nothing – and everything
All that matters is the Game
They’re never really defined (and they don’t need to be); all we need to know is that they’re immortals who while away eternity by obsessively playing war games, but using real human beings instead of dice and rule books. Like the Monk, they’re perfectly happy to change history for their own amusement, though in their case, it’s in the service of the everlasting Game. People get hurt on the way, but they’re really just out to amuse themselves. (That’s a form of evil in itself, of course; indifference is just as wicked as deliberate malice.)
The playing piece they’ve fixed on is Churchill. We meet him in three time periods: first as a young man, then when he’s middle aged, and finally in his prime. Terrance has done his research well and Churchill’s very much the real thing; Terrance clearly admires him hugely, which is, I suppose, the standard British viewpoint. (My late father-in-law, who served in the Indian army during the Second World War, hated Churchill and thought him a bigoted warmonger; that view used to be quite prevalent once.) Churchill is charming, bullish and charismatic, but stubborn and prepared to push people aside when they stand in his way.
Peri and the Doctor – both effortlessly well drawn by Dicks – first meet Churchill as a young reporter in the Boer War; he and his new friends are captured by the South Africans and imprisoned but eventually make their separate escapes. Then, in the TARDIS, the Doctor dusts down the gizmo that his second avatar used to show Zoe the repeat of The Evil of the Daleks when the cast went off for their summer holidays; here, Peri watches the Second Doctor meet up with Carstairs and Lady Jennifer from The War Games, once the Time Lords have transported them home. (They’ve let the Doctor out for a bit during his trial, you see.) Churchill’s there in occupied France. So are the Players. Finally, the Sixth Doctor and Peri meet up with Churchill for the longest section of the book, during the Abdication Crisis of 1936.
By which time, Carstairs has been promoted to General (huzzah!), and is still at Churchill’s side. The aliens are trying to ensure that Churchill never succeeds to the premiership, and employ various strategies to stop him. Though I’m not a historian, I’m better on this period than on the Boer War, about which I know nothing whatsoever – except that we British distinguished ourselves during that conflict by inventing the concentration camp – or the First World War. The historical background’s accurate and well evoked. There are walk-on parts for Hitler and Bormann, and a slightly bigger role for Von Ribbentrop, who’s accompanied by a squad of bone-headed cretins from the SS. Edward VIII – that’s the Queen’s uncle, you know – and Wallis Simpson are major characters in this section.
Mrs Simpson deservedly gets no favours from Dicks: she’s a gold-digging, manipulative, calculating harpy with few redeeming features; alas, so was she in life. I think Terrance is too kind to Edward VIII, though; we’re presented with him as spoilt and silly, though that’s in part because we see him as Churchill sees him (and the real Churchill was sympathetic to the King, too). The real Edward VIII was appalling: totally selfish, insatiably greedy, and possessed of a boundless self-importance – in inverse proportion to his talent. Ziegler’s biography of the man shows that he was also a racist (when he was governor of the Bahamas, he thought there was no point in consulting the black population about anything) – and far too sympathetic to Hitler. A man without redeeming features, he and Mrs Simpson were welcome to each other; a match made in hell, to be sure.
(Okay, a bit of a digression there. Here’s another one: my mum was taken on a school trip when she was at primary school to see Edward VIII on a walkabout. Her brother, now aged 85 and still going strong, was too little to go and he cried because he didn’t get to see the King.)
(It’s these personal snippets that make these reviews so enjoyable, don’t you find?)
Back to the book: the Players turn up, manipulate Mrs Simpson and Von Ribbentrop, try again to shoot Churchill… and Churchill starts to wonder whether the man he met all those years ago in South Africa, the little man who helped him in No Man’s Land in France, and his current friend the Doctor, could somehow, incredibly, all be the same person…
He, and the Players, will be back.
In sum: great fun. A lighter read than many of the other original novels; an engaging story with a strong cast of characters; and, like all Terrance Dicks’s stuff, very well written. Recommended!
And just one more thing: lots of people today know about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson from The King’s Speech, and that’s no bad thing. In the late ’70s, the best known dramatic presentation of the story was a superb ITV drama series called Edward and Mrs Simpson, starring Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris. The names of some of those connected with this series may be familiar. The producer was one Verity Lambert, the director was Waris Hussein, and the music was by someone called Ron Grainer.
And Clement Atlee, the leader of the Labour Party, the politician whose brilliance surpassed even Churchill’s, the greatest Prime Minister this country has ever had, was played by…?
Why, Patrick Troughton. Of course.
NB The political views and opinions expressed in this article are solely the verbal flatulence of the reviewer. Kasterborous takes no responsibility for the content of the ravings expressed herein or for the fact that Simon Danes is out of his tree half the time.