Monday, January 20, 2020

Players by: Terrance Dicks

For Doctor Who fans, Winston Churchill meeting the Doctor has been established since 2010’s Victory of the Daleks, with the Eleventh Doctor already having met the character as played by Ian McNeice and from subsequent appearances in Big Finish audio productions.  However, the character’s interactions and relationship with the Doctor actually originate in Players, a Sixth Doctor Past Doctor Adventure from Terrance Dicks.  It was chosen to represent the Sixth Doctor in 2013 with BBC Books’ reprint series for the Fiftieth Anniversary, and with good reason.  Players is a story which spans several time periods, fills in some gaps in the Doctor’s timeline, and puts the Doctor and Peri against a plot by the titular “Players” who wish to change the course of history.  The Count and Countess featured are one element Dicks throws into the book which sets the let’s change history apart from other stories of this nature like Timewyrm: Exodus.  The Count and Countess are not your stereotypical evil villain attempting to alter time for power, but are from a group of time travelers who attempt to alter history for the fun of it.  They are literally players in an intertemporal game just to see what sort of fun they can have by just watching things unfold.  The Count and Countess have this incredible sense of elegance, looking down on everyone and present themselves with the rest of the Players as almost a reflection of the Time Lords as a society, watching, but nudging enough to see just how much they can change.  The book is framed by them as a group repeating their credo promising a return at some point in the future of the BBC Books.

The one flaw with Players is perhaps that Dicks does almost too much in such a short time.  The story is helped by his wonderful writing style, but the plot shifts from the Boer War, to an extended flashback to World War I featuring the Second Doctor, and ending with a plot regarding the abdication crisis of Edward VIII of England as World War II looms on the horizon.  The Second Doctor’s flashback, while incredibly written and giving a formal explanation for the Season 6B theory, is perhaps the most superfluous to requirements.  Not much is actually imparted to the reader or Peri, who serves through that section as audience surrogate, that could have been done more quickly and efficiently with some dialogue from the Doctor to Peri.  That being said, even that section is easily readable with Dicks’ style and master of characterization for the Second Doctor, and it does give him a chance to visit characters from The War Games.  Dicks does show a mastery of giving readers the chance to explore the history around the Abdication of Edward VIII, who is portrayed here as a completely naïve man who falls into following fascists and being manipulated by everyone around him.  The climax where he attempts to gain power and broadcast the UK’s allegiance to the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler shows just how much of a slimeball he is.  Churchill himself is portrayed throughout the novel as the example of the stiff upper lipped British civil servant, wanting at all cost to avoid a war, yet understanding just how necessary it may end up being.  He’s perhaps a touch too one note, but with Dicks style being a throwback to Target novels that still works for much of the story.

There is also the return of Dekker, the private investigator from Blood Harvest, who remains a delight and luckily those unfamiliar with the character would need no prior knowledge to enjoy this one.  Dekker adds an element of espionage to the second half of the novel, where the book truly shines as the first half is a pretty bog standard pseudo-historical setting up the relationship between the Doctor and Churchill.  Where this one really does shine, however, is the Doctor and Peri.  Dicks gets the Doctor out of his coat at the first chance and while the Sixth Doctor is still gruff, pompous, and aggressive, there is a genuine sense of care and friendliness with Peri.  The Doctor here resembles the character whom Colin Baker would portray in the Big Finish audios, and to read about that Doctor is a delight.  Peri also is written incredibly well, being the audience surrogate and getting a chance to shine as she takes in a life of luxury, integrating into London society under the guise of the Doctor’s ward.  There is a sense of intuition and cleverness with Peri which was never really explored on television, even when the scripts attempted it.  Peri is the one who goes to do investigative work in her own style which makes everything come together nicely.  She also shows great courage in the face of Nazi torture, which luckily is avoided at the last minute.  Dicks manages to make the Nazi’s a real threat, even though only a few actually appear here as this is Britain before the beginning of World War II, using them as effectively as he did in Timewyrm: Exodus.  Overall, Players is one of those PDAs which sets up a greater world and while not the perfect novel proves just the potential of the Sixth Doctor and just how great a writer Terrance Dicks was for all of his contributions to Doctor Who.  Though riddled with numerous references to Dicks’ other work, that almost doesn’t matter and Dicks tells a great story.  9/10.

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