Author: Terrance Dicks
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Peri Brown
Adversary: The Players
Original Publication Date: April 6, 1999
Range and Number: Past Doctor Adventures #21
Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Arriving on the sun-baked veldt in the middle of the Boer War, the Sixth Doctor is soon involved in the adventures of struggling politician and war correspondent Winston Churchill. Of course, he knows Churchill is destined for great things, but unseen forces seem to be interfering with Winston's historic career... The Doctor suspects the hidden hand of the Players, mysterious beings who regard human history as little more than a game. With time running out, can the Doctor find the right moves to defeat them?
How many historical time periods has the Doctor visited?
No, seriously - try and count. Start from the beginning. Cavemen, the Aztecs, the French Revolution, Ancient Rome, the Crusades, Ancient Greece, whatever time period “The Massacre” was meant to take place in, 18th century Scotland... and that’s just the 1960s! (and I know I’m missing a few in this list). And what does he usually do? Meddle in events. Get caught up in the conflict. Most of the time, it doesn't affect history too much - just enough to get the flavor of the time period the story is trying to portray (note that I said “Most of the time”). While the Doctor (and the Time Lords) are supposed to only observe, very rarely does it actually happen. In fact, in one of the novels (and I’d have to track down which one specifically), the Doctor admits that the Time Lords never venture out of their TARDISes because even physically being present in history changes time in very small ways. Instead, the Time Lords are only supposed to observe things on the scanner. No better than watching the History Channel, but from the comfort of a futuristic Time and Space Machine (to which, I called so much bullshit. What’s the point of time and space travel if you never leave the ship? That’s like going “camping” in an RV that has satellite TV hookups and video games and a fully-stocked natural gas kitchen!) The Doctor further stated that he couldn't travel like that - he’d rather get out among the events and actually see them without the filter of the scanner. Which is something he’s done quite often.
I’m getting ahead of myself. ANYWAY -
In “Players,” the Doctor actually does the most simple observing that I've seen him do. More or less, he’s there to make sure that events stay the way they’re supposed to be. There are these “Players” - beings that sit outside time that just like to play games with history. Kind of a group of Opposite Day Time Lords. Instead of watching over time and keeping things in the right order, the Players like to, well, play with time. In the book, there are these short little interludes where someone is talking about moving pieces, as if it was a chessboard. And the Players are obviously talking about the Doctor and the historical events he’s involved in.
And the historical event - well, the historical person - the Players have chosen to play with this time is Winston Churchill.
Like the synopsis says, the story starts with the Doctor and Peri meeting Churchill in 1899 when he was a war correspondent during the Boer War. Turns out, the Players are trying to get Churchill killed, just to see what would happen to history. The Doctor foils that plan and he and Peri end up in 1936, just before King Edward VIII is set to abdicate the throne, thus making it harder for the Nazis to take over Britain (I could claim that I knew all these details, but it’s a mix of the author’s introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of “Players” and a few Wikipedia searches that gave me the pertinent information. Librarians may not know all the answers, but we know where to find them!) Churchill isn't anywhere near the Prime Minister-ship (is that what they call it?) and the Players are still determined to keep him out of play in World War II - again, just to see what happens (these guys sound remarkably like the Eternals in “Enlightenment” - just screwing around with time for their own entertainment. You would think that such advanced beings would have more interesting things to amuse themselves with).
I really enjoyed this book. Terrance Dicks - one of the godfathers of Doctor Who - has a great grasp of how the Sixth Doctor and Peri interact. As I read this story, I could actually hear Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant speaking the dialogue, as if it were a Big Finish audio. There are even a few chapters where the narrative switches to the Second Doctor in a flashback to an incident after “The War Games” (referencing that Season 6B Theory that makes certain details of the Second Doctor’s timeline possible - I won’t go into it here) and Dicks has that Doctor’s voice down as well. I know that Terrance Dicks wrote a ton of the Target Novelizations (he wrote the novelization of “Warriors of the Deep,” which I thoroughly enjoyed) and this makes me want to find more of those books (come on, BBC Books - reprint those! You can do it!)
Also - this is the Doctor and Peri as close buddies, which I love seeing. In all the different time periods they land in, the Doctor presents Peri as his young ward and a family friend and he takes that self-imposed charge seriously (the way the Sixth Doctor looks out for his companions is fantastic. He may have started out gruff and manic, but by the end of this incarnation, he is someone I would feel completely safe with. You don't mess around with someone under ol' Sixie's protection - you just don't). And Peri’s grown into her role as companion so well that the Doctor actually sends her to attend a party given by a person that obviously means the Doctor and Peri harm, but he expresses confidence in Peri that she can handle it and come back to him safely. And she really does a great job being the "spy" - so to speak - even if things get a little out of control and Peri ends up in danger, but the Doctor realizes his mistake and soon comes in to fix it. The Doctor and Peri are much more in sync with each other and it is a joy to behold.
It’s weird to say this, but I liked the Doctor’s non-interference in this story. It’s not something I want to see all the time, but it’s a nice change of pace. Kind of like “The Deadly Assassin” where that’s just one story where the Doctor doesn't have a companion, just to try something new and mix things up a bit. This is one story where the Doctor and Peri are more or less observers only. Yes, there are a few things that they have to set right because of the Players’ meddling - but it is very minimal. Sort of like swatting a child’s hand away from sneaking a cookie before dinnertime. History proceeds more or less as scripted and it’s a cool thing to watch. This story is probably not going to be everybody’s cup of tea - especially if you have your heart set on Action! Adventure! Rewriting History! Winston Churchill Commissioning Ironside Daleks! But it was a good little tale. Considering how often the Doctor and Peri are separated by Great Danger and Grave Peril - it was nice to give them somewhat of a break (probably as close to a vacation as Peri is ever going to get). It’s also a quick read - the action moves fast and you’re never left bored with the narrative. Things stay interesting, even if they are predictable - and this is one instance where they certainly better be predictable! We can’t have World War II without Winston Churchill, come on!
Bottom Line: Is this the best Doctor Who story ever? Not necessarily. Is it enjoyable? Most definitely!
Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 7.01 - A Silver Lining On the Way
Review 6.03 - A Meeting of History and Morality