Wednesday, November 6, 2013

6th Doctor Book Review - Terrance Dicks's Players

Players by Terrance Dicks
Published by: BBC Books
Publication Date: April 26th, 1999
Format: Paperback, 306 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

While trying to show Peri a glamorous time after a particularly sewer based adventure, the TARDIS gets the right when not the right where and they end up smack in the middle of the Boer War. Not only in the middle of the strife in South Africa, but in the middle of an assassination attempt against a young Winston Churchill. Winston pooh-poohs the idea that the assassin was after him, but the Doctor knows how integral Churchill is to the coming century so he can't discount this theory. By eliminating Churchill the entire course of future history will be changed. What's more disconcerting is that this has happened before, in The Doctor's second incarnation, almost twenty years in Churchill's future, there was an odd assassination attempt during WWI that The Doctor thwarted. Could there be someone, or a group of someones, so invested in the death of Churchill that they would be willing to wait decades till the perfect opportunity to strike presented itself again?

The Doctor is disturbed by these events and decides to set himself and Peri up in London society in the 1930s. They're bound to run into Churchill, Peri will get her luxury and glamour, and The Doctor will get his answers. Not long after they arrive there is an attempt on their lives quickly followed by one on Churchill. The Doctor doesn't take any risks and hires some Pinkerton agents to see to their safety. But whomever their opponents and would-be killers are, determined and ruthless is how they operate. In the midst of the abdication crisis, could these mysterious assassins be playing some sort of game with The Doctor as their pawn and Churchill's death as a significant move?

One of the fun aspects of Doctor Who is that because he can go anywhen, well, we have the chance to run into some rather august personages, even previous versions of himself. So far in this series of books he hasn't run into anyone of note, but then again, he hasn't really been hanging around earth that much...  in the television series he has met everyone from Dickens to Da Vinci, here we have someone who has even shown up on the show, Winston Churchill. I like that this gives a little bit of context and background to The Doctor's relationship with Churchill, because when the 11th Doctor gets that phone call at the end of "The Beast Below" there is obviously a prior and congenial relationship between the two. I like to think that this book is where it all started.

Yet at the same time I couldn't help be reminded of the first Thursday Next novel by Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair. While I know that this book came out after Players, the fact remains that it is more well known, and I can't help but keep thinking about Thursday's father showing up again and again and asking if she knew who Churchill was. Because, quite literally, if there's one person who was a force for good in the last century, it was Churchill.

And because we are dealing with Churchill, well, we are dealing with some of my favorite time periods. Africa, England, pulling together for the empire in times of crisis... ah, this book had me hooked from page one... but then it lost me. I wanted to love it, it was a fast read in a time period I love, but it just flat lined. The problem I had was with the anachronisms. In any historical fiction, and in particular in a story dealing with time travel and the ability to accidentally change the past, butterfly wings and all that, there are acceptable anachronisms and unacceptable anachronisms. There can be things played for laughs, like in Blackadder: Back and Forth when Edmund messes up the time lines and Shakespeare ends up being known as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. And there can be serious changes, like here if Winston Churchill were eliminated before England's hour of need.

But then there are things that just get under my skin and piss me off, aka, the unacceptable anachronisms. In this book there where two that just drove me crazy. One was the fact that while playing out the abdication crisis with Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII that Wallis was going to be there for his abdication broadcast. Now the clever and acceptable anachronisms is what was going to happen because of the Players... what annoyed me was Wallis's presence. She had fled the country at this point! You can mess with history, you just can't mess with it this much. It's keeping the details intact that make a story like this work. As for the Pinkerton Dekker, who is a little too much Harrison Ford in Bladerunner, well, he was too much of an earlier era. His tommy gun wielding prohi just felt so out of place, it's like Terrance Dicks was taking Boardwalk Empire and trying to force it to breed with the new Upstairs, Downstairs. It was so wrong, not all period dramas mesh, and it didn't surprise me in the least when I learned that Dekker was in a previous Terrance Dicks novel... sometimes you just need to let your characters go. And don't get me started with the Rebbecca joke or the fact Dicks then pulled a Dashiell Hammett and decided to bring in the Continental Op... sigh, sometimes less is more and it's best to separate styles.

As for our big bad? I really loved the Players and their nebulous unexplained nature. In the previous book with the 5th Doctor, Fear of the Dark, I felt that one of the failings was taking a mysterious entity and making it have too too solid flesh. By instead having this race of immortals from who knows where or when and them just playing a game with our history just for fun... well, I like it. I also like that they will obviously return. But what I loved is that at the end they let The Doctor live, not because he wasn't a threat to them, but because they saw his potential as either a player or a very powerful pawn.


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