Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Roundheads by Mark Gatiss

Plot: The Doctor, Jaime, Polly and Ben are embroiled in the politics surrounding the trial and death of King Charles. But is there a sinister plot that never made it to the history books and can the Doctor make sure that history as he knows stays on the right track?

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Absolutely spot on rendition of the hardest Doctor to capture in print, Mark Gatiss proves just how well he understands this show. His attire looks as though it has seen better days. He loves snow and claps his hands together in child like delight when he spots the roundheads. He still gets hopelessly lost in the TARDIS but there is already a sense that the ship looks after him. He is frequently hilarious, especially when put in awkward situations (such as having to pass Jaime off as a seer of the future and trying to convince Richard Cromwell that his CIVIL WAR book is just jealous propaganda). He was taught hypnosis by the Master. He has to pay the price for travelling through time and making sure that history runs its course is one of those responsibilities. You don’t realise it until the end of the book (because it is so darn entertaining) but the Doctor spends pretty much the entire book incarcerated! However I could feel Troughton radiating from every page from his giddy wonder at the Thames-side marketplace to his improvisation to how he can turn on a coin from mischievous charm to utter seriousness. Good job.

Who’s the Yahoo’s: Almost a sly dig to readers is the indication that Polly and Ben are no longer needed (thus their stunning last moment of glory in this story before their unfortunate dumping in The Faceless Ones), the Doctor and Jaime strike of on their own and prove why they were such a winning act. Jaime, still new to this time travelling gig feels a little hurt that Polly and Ben dig at him for his naiveté at times. He remembers his mammy singing ‘Adam Lies Y’Bounden’ in front of a roaring fire. He is starting to think of the TARDIS as his home and his fellow companions as his family. His honesty about knowing future events gets him dubbed McCrimmon, powerful seer of Culloden.

Able Seaman: Ben rarely received material this good on the telly (I can only think of The Smugglers and The Macra Terror) and The Roundheads proves what an asset he and Polly were to the show in one of its most difficult ransition periods. Booze always gets him lively and after a few he gets them noticed by cheerfully mentioning King Charles’ execution! His sailing days are exploited to great effect and he is press ganged into working for two ships, first for the sinister Captain Stanislaus and then for the brilliantly entertaining Captain Winter who he strikes up a rousing rapport with. Ben always wished he could live the life of a pirate and he sure gets his wish when the two ships go at each other, firing cannons and fighting hand to hand with cutlasses! He gets to have fabulous adventures in Amsterdam having a rowdy piss up, flirting with the girls and embroiled with Winter and the ominous mystery regarding Stanislaus’ package due for England. His relationship with Winter is a joy to read, he gets so close with her that after she is killed he tracks down her killer (okay so that’s Rupert but Stanislaus is her nemesis!) and seeks revenge for her dispatch. He almost gets a terrifying moment when he is trapped in quicksand to his waist, thinking he is going to die. It is a great book to show how likable this down to Earth character was and how sad it is that so little of his material can actually be seen.

Lovely Lashes: Polly too deserves much praise for her contribution. She had worked with a girl called Rosie in an office in Bond Street and Rosie took this shy young girl under her wing and turns her into a swinger! She is enchanted by the chivalrous and courteous Christopher Whyte and is devastated at the climax where she has to follow him and reveal where he is hiding the King to keep history on track. She strikes up a warm and friendly relationship with Frances Kemp and manages to make a bad situation even worse when she is tricked into freeing the King. She realises that when trapped in history’s key events her actions are no longer insignificant. Brilliantly, she flirts like mad with the lecherous guards in order to poison them and free the King.

Twists: The colourful writing is extremely attractive and readable and instantly noticeable, Gatiss blowing the works of the likes of Christopher Bulis and Gary Russell, out of the water. Ben is attacked outside the inn and Polly is kidnapped. Pages 68-69 depict a nightmarish battle in beautifully vivid prose prose. William Kemp is a firm Royalist and his daughter wants to marry a Roundhead, the excellent political intrigue starts early on. The Doctor drops his CIVIL WAR book, which is scooped up by Richard Cromwell who is horrified to learn his father will die in ten years and that he will be seen as an embarrassing footnote in history. Parliament wants control of the army and religious reforms. I loved the descriptions of the pirate fight (“Two great wooden whales in conflict, gaily dressed crabs scuttling about executing their dance of death, a dreadful popping sound and a sailors innards spilled from him like a cork from a bottle.”) O’Kane falling into a barrel is a brilliant end to such a brutal character, his beard aflame he sets the powder of and blows his head off! Winter and Ben plant a bomb on the Teazer after discovering the hung body of Ashdown and watch it go up. After freeing the King Copper attempts to stab Polly in the neck! We discover Stanislaus and Winter had an affair and he gave her the pox which ate away half her face and after their breathless struggle, Price Rupert cruelly shoots her in the back and the sea claims her body. Kemp slugs the vile Copper after he attempts to rape his daughter. Richard Godley is revealed as Prince Rupert, the Kings exiled nephew back with a plan to assassinate Oliver Cromwell and make way for a Catholic invasion army to move into British waters. van Leewenhoek’s method of assassination is a dart infected with plague, a week later and the victim is dead, not even knowing he was murdered. Politics is a dirty business and Culpeper is wrongly executed simply because Thurloe doesn’t like him.

Funny Bits: Jaime talks like Bill Shankey! The Doctor proudly owns EVERY BOYS BOOK OF CIVIL WARS. Euro-sceptics are like winnets on a mans backside! Stanislaus has less between his legs than a maiden girl, apparently.

Result: Tasty! Anyone questioning the validity of the Past Doctor Adventures should pick up this delightful book immediately. It slots beautifully into its chosen era and captures its regulars with pinpoint accuracy, highlighting all of their strengths and yet it also manages to be a brilliantly plotted, deliciously written and deftly handles political drama with tons of excitement, humour and strong characterisation. The book is worth reading just for Ben’s adventures at sea, which I would have to have been filmed. It is a well selected period of history, expertly explored with some lovely conspiracy theories and twists and with a guest cast that match the regulars for pure entertainment value (I wanted smelly Scrope to be a companion!). What’s more Mark Gatiss’ prose is blisteringly good, astonishingly visual, hugely entertaining and in places qutite inspired. Astonishingly good: 9/10

Nightshade by Mark Gatiss

Plot: Something has been brewing under the sleepy village of Crook Marsham for a long, long time. A radio telescope has been built on the site of a haunted castle and has started feeling power under the ground, power that gives the force the strength to reach out and bring back old loved ones home, even though they are already dead…

Master Manipulator: Without a doubt the best interpretation of the seventh Doctor yet. Whilst he remains sullen and uncommunicative, the work done with the Doctor here is so vivid and believable I cannot bring myself to complain. He has grown irritable and sulky of late and was in need of a change. He snaps at Ace for simply being herself (“It’s the Doctor! How many times do I have to tell you, you stupid girl!”). He wonders if he has really done any good over the years and if he has the right to act as judge and jury to the whole universe (that makes a world of difference to some of the other NAs, here he is questioning his manipulation of others). He is tired and is starting to wonder if he should settle somewhere for a few centuries, away from all the death and destruction. He knows it is time he stopped shirking his responsibilities and went home to Gallifrey to sort out his problems there. Perhaps the revealing moment in this book comes when he admits to himself there is nobody for him to run away from anymore. Only himself. He tells Ace she is too important to die. He feels a genuine melancholy at the thought of losing a friend. Sweetly, when the enemy using the image of Susan against him he is overwhelmed with a tide of grief and regret. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of her. He has a profound loneliness and yearning to belong. He’s a scientist, an explorer, philanthropist and general do-gooder. In a moment when you realise just how desperate for company the Doctor is, he ignores Ace wish to leave him and tricks her into one last ride in the TARDIS with no intention of ever taking her back to Robin. You want to punch the guy in the face for controlling her so much but the effort Gatiss goes to to make you feel sorry for the guy. This is what he should have been all along, not a Time Lord who is at odds with himself but one who is at odds with the universe. Here he is carved as a flawed hero, a thoughtful man and it is utterly compelling.

Miss Attitude: I would like to bow down and kiss Mr Gatiss’ feet. He even manages to make Ace palatable, something I would have thought impossible after these last seven or so books. The way he does this is to remind us of her innocence, the one thing that made her so appealing on the television and her romance with Robin is very sweet and (almost) naïve. The scene where they are sleeping in the same room, listening to each other’s breathing but too tired to go to sleep is lovely. Ace is terrified of living forever, watching her loves ones die around her. When the Doctor insults her she feels as though she has been struck. Ace had grown up before the Doctor’s eyes, this funny misfit, changing from a little bundle of venom into a confident, maturing adult. She has zest, spontaneity and sparkle and that is why Robin is so attracted to her. She has to believe in the Doctor otherwise there is no point in going on. Ace tells the Doctor she is leaving, she realises she has missed being with somebody real, uncomplicated and human. Her reaction when she realises he has tricked her is palpable, sliding down the wall in tears of grief.

Twists: Jack is lured out onto the moor and killed by an image of younger, beautiful wife. Betty dreams of her brother’s death in a scene full of nightmarish images, Alf clawing his way from the bath as a putrefying corpse. Jackson’s fingers push straight through Crooke’s forehead as though through rotten fruit! Hawthorne’s casual racism (Dirty, unnatural and somehow less human, like a chimp at the zoo dressed in human clothes) is terrifying. Pages 92-3 could be the scariest bit of Doctor Who fiction ever. The thought of the tar baby hiding under Hawthorne’s bed is petrifying, but worse when the Black Hand grasps his ankle. Trevithick in the lift shaft with the creature from his old TV show is wickedly exciting; I love it when the monster starts punching through the floor of the ascending lift. The thought of the petrified, lifeless old people makes me queasy. The Doctor hits the floor with sickening force and Ace has to pop his shoulder back into place whilst he is screaming. The Sentience runs through space, growing and hungry and has been on Earth for a long time. The Doctor manages to trick the being into space, with the promise of the energy of a star that has gone nova but instead it is sucked into a black hole. Memorably, Holly has the life sucked out of her in front of Vijay. The Doctor and Ace both manage to confront their fears, Susan and Ace’s mum Audrey.

Result: Absolutely fantastic, I read this in one sitting and was unable to put it down. Gatiss’ prose is superb and he carves out believable characters with only a page or two of description. He manages to populate the village of Crook Marsham vividly in the first chapter. Small, sensual details make the overall experience much more realistic. The theme of nostalgia and the thought of the past coming back to haunt you is terrifying and explored in some considerable depth. Even the regulars are given a chance to shine; both the Doctor and Ace are fleshed out more believably than in all their previous books put together. Pacy, awash with genuine horror and with enough atmosphere to trick you into thinking this is happening around you, this is the first NA classic and a book that deserves all the praise that it gets: 10/10