Written by: Mark Gatiss
Series: BBC Books – Past Doctor Adventures
Featuring: The 2nd Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie
Set Between: The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones
Publication date: November 1997
The Story So Far: In December 1648, as the English Civil War winds down, the TARDIS crew finds itself caught in a tug-of-war between the Roundheads and the Royalists, between Oliver Cromwell’s legacy and the King’s soon-to-be detached head…
The Roundheads stinks. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I’m going to relate.
(sorry, I typed that bit on Christmas Day, after watching the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol… while eating Chinese food).
But, seriously, though, The Roundheads is a smelly, smelly book. Set in the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War (which most of us Americans know only via the Fifth Doctor story The Awakening), author Mark Gatiss spends most of the first couple of chapters graphically describing the foul sights and smells of that era. We are introduced early on to a man named Nathaniel Scrope, a “smelly friend” whose “none-too-pleasant aroma” makes Jamie “want to gag”, because he smells “like a cow’s carcass” (just in case we have’t figured it out yet). Characters also evade chamber-pots being emptied out onto to the street. The sights aren’t much prettier, either:
His tunic and breeches were black but so stained and filthy as to appear almost like a new colour altogether.
We’re towards the end of Season 4. Mark Gatiss, as we’ve established before, is a traditionalist steeped in nostalgia, and this Past Doctor Adventure — published a few moments before his television writing career took off — is mostly faithful to what the Troughton era was like on television in the spring of 1967.
I started to reread The Roundheads in early October, while still only in early Season 3 in this marathon, and right before the missing episodes recovery was announced. My early notes on the novel included complaints about chaotic plotting and inappropriate use of the Second Doctor’s physical dexterity. Turns out, of course, that Gatiss had it right. The plotting of this book faithfully follows the manic twisting and turning of Season 4 stories like The Highlanders and The Macra Terror; and, a few days after I read the scene in which the Doctor successfully climbed his way along a high-up castle ledge (shaking my head that Patrick Troughton could never have done this), I saw Troughton himself do the mother of all belly-flops. So, yes, The Roundheads is a classic Innes Lloyd/Gerry Davis-style Troughton adventure, warts and all.
When the TARDIS lands, Gatiss contrives to immediately split up the crewmembers. The Doctor takes Jamie off on a Christmas adventure, leaving Ben and Polly to go exploring the local taverns by themselves. This is done on purpose: Ben and Polly leave the TARDIS rather abruptly in the next televised story, so Gatiss prefigures their wanting to feel “normal” again. Unfortunately, splitting up doesn’t serve anybody very well: the Doctor returns to the TARDIS to find a history book, and gets hopelessly lost; Ben gets a little too drunk in a local Royalist tavern and spits out a very un-Royalist sentiment, thus landing him in immediate hot water.
Meanwhile, Oliver Cromwell is consolidating his power in Parliament, while King Charles I is imprisoned, waiting for his imminent beheading and hoping against hope that a Royalist counter-plot will spring him free. We are also introduced to a number of fictional characters, most of whom seem to be named Thomas. Of import are Thomas Culpeper, an officer and Cromwell aide, and William Kemp, the innkeeper at the Royalist tavern where Ben mouthed off. Culpeper has a secret affair going with Kemp’s daughter, which is how the Royalist and Roundhead plots link up. Meanwhile, weaseling around the margins of the Roundhead conspiracy is Richard Cromwell, the Lord Protector’s rather inept son.
The TARDIS crew’s separation leads to three very different, if not clashing, plot threads. The Doctor and Jamie, after a brief interlude celebrating Christmas on a frozen bend in the Thames, are captured by Cromwell’s men. The Doctor brings back his recorder (as seen on the cover) and affects a Scandinavian accent; both of these broad bits of characterization had been long-ago jettisoned by this point in Season 4, but they are at least period-authentic in the broadest sense. Also, the Doctor runs circles around Cromwell’s people, exactly the character skill that was coming to define him in the two TVs stories between which The Roundheads is set. And Gatiss nails the chemistry between the Doctor and Jamie, as he’d later do for Holmes and Watson:
[The Doctor, to Ben and Polly]: “Just watch your tongues and be circumspect.”
“Eh?” said Jamie.
The Doctor patted him on the shoulder. “Yes, you come with me, Jamie.”
Jamie rubbed his eyes and stretched. “What time is it?”
“Sixteen forty-eight,” said the Doctor cheekily.
Jamie tutted and buried his head in the pillow.
Ben, meanwhile, after getting drunk on rum and insulting the King, is press-ganged onto a sailing ship, coincidentally named the Teazer, the same boat he was said to be serving on in the Royal Navy in The War Machines. This enables a swashbuckling subplot; he soon befriends not only the man who abducted him, but also Sal Winter, a female pirate captain. I can’t picture Sal as being played by anyone but Lynda Baron (Captain Wrack from Enlightenment); she’s basically crazy but is also one of the only wholly sympathetic guest characters in the entire book. We also get innumerable references to her enormous chest size, but rest assured that she and Ben do not hook up. Ben and this unlikely pairing of friends soon find out that they’re in the middle of a dastardly assassination plot against the Roundhead leader. Soon, two different pirate ships are battling it out on the high seas between Amsterdam and England, and it’s left to Ben to try and prevent Cromwell from being prematurely slain.
Things soon get very dark for Ben; by the equivalent of the Episode 3 cliffhanger, he’s been separated from his friends and is drowning in quicksand. His participation in the grand action climax is an unsettling mix of the giddy (“Thanks, Oliver, but this one’s mine!”) and The Wrath of Khan (“Not while there’s breath in my body,’ he hissed”).
With the Doctor and Jamie off on a comic bit of bumbling, and Ben engaged in some Errol Flynn action, Polly gets the tearjerker plot. She somewhat uncharacteristically falls for the most handsome and noble of the Royalist counter-plotters (or is that counter counter-plotters?), even as he ensnares her in a somewhat duplicitous plan to free the King from prison. “In fact,” Gatiss tells us, “if she’d run into him back at the Inferno Club in Chelsea, she might have considered him quite a dish.”
Polly soon develops a low-key romance with Whyte, the young Royalist, feeling “a warmth and a tingle” when he unexpectedly kisses her on the cheek. Unfortunately, once she connects back up with the Doctor (narrowly escaping Whyte’s employers’ attempt on her life), she learns that she’s inadvertently altered history. Therefore, it falls to Polly use her charms to get Whyte to reveal the King’s hiding place, so that the Royalists can recapture him and follow history’s proper course, i.e. behead him. The exact means by which Polly betrays her would-be boyfriend are a bit unclear, and happen off-screen, but you could read something less-than-chaste into her methods if you so choose.
(It doesn’t help that Whyte turns against the King solely because he discovers that the King has allied himself with, gasp, the Catholic Polish army…)
In short, while I appreciate Gatiss’ efforts to give more emotional depth to Ben and Polly, what he puts them through here just seems wrong. Anneke Wills especially could have handled this material very well, but Ben and Polly on TV were light-hearted characters who generally took great joy in their adventures (well, at least until Ben started losing more and more screen time to Jamie). The book forces each of them to make desperate choices that would have left them permanently darker characters; it’s possible that this is Gatiss’ way of rationalizing why they quit the TARDIS in the next televised story.
Polly had befriended Frances, the Royalist innkeeper’s daughter with the Romeo and Juliet-style romance blooming with Cromwell’s dashing young aide. This romance, oddly for an early-set Doctor Who historical, has a distinctly unhappy ending, one that might have turned out for the better had Polly never interfered. The innkeeper spends much of the book hurling 17th-century insults at Frances (with some contemporary ones thrown in for good measure), and by the time he finally comes to her defense, it’s a bit too late to lead to a happy ending for Frances.
Meanwhile, Gatiss doesn’t seem quite sure how to portray Oliver Cromwell. The book doesn’t invest much sympathy with Roundheads or Royalists; Cromwell is alternately a ranting monster and a doddering fool. In an early scene:
Cromwell’s florid face had taken on a fiery zeal. When he spoke again, it was in a hoarse, dangerous whisper. “I tell you this. We will cut off this King’s head. Aye, with the crown upon it.”
But, later on, we see Cromwell suffering from painful boils on a comical part of his anatomy, and when the Doctor and Jamie put on a mystical-seer act, Cromwell comes across as nothing short of juvenile and buffoonish, laughing idiotically at their antics.
The doomed Charles I is also portrayed both sympathetically and mockingly. He’s written as a small, sensitive type, with a stutter, and the threat of his impending decapitation hanging heavily over his head (pardon the pun). There’s one effective scene after he’s escaped from prison when he approaches a door and realizes that no-one automatically opens it for him anymore. But he also wakes up with “the ticking sound of saliva on his parted lips as he opened his mouth” — a gross detail, irrelevant to the storytelling.
So here’s where The Roundheads falls between three or four stools, alternating from gritty, smelly historical realism to farcical comedy. We’ve talked a little about the book’s assault on the senses, but the graphic violence also surges over the top. Most of the on-screen violence in the mid-’60s was implied, as it was next-to-impossible to show decapitations, severed heads and limbs, or even massive amounts of blood, when recording live-to-tape. Gatiss goes in completely the opposite direction. One pirate loses his head when lit gunpowder in his beard ignites a keg full of more gunpowder. There is also “a dreadful popping sound and [a] sailor’s innards spilled from him like a cork from a bottle” (which I’m not even sure is an accurate simile…). When one fairly important character dies by hanging, we are shown
his face bloated and black, his purple tongue protruding sickeningly from his open mouth. A viciously tight noose was wrapped around his broken neck.
In short, the prose detracts from the setting. The use of the word “defecate” in Chapter 2 is clearly meant to let us know that we’re adults in 1997, not a younger-skewing audience in 1967. I don’t mean this as a compliment.
One of the most interesting plot threads in the book, unfortunately, is all but disregarded. The other threads — historical espionage, Troughton clowning and obfuscating — are familiar, but when Richard Cromwell finds the Doctor’s history book and learns how poorly things will turn out for him, we’re presented with a historical dilemma that no previous Doctor Who on-screen historical adventure had ever tackled.
Unfortunately, with so much else on his plate, and a limited page/word count, Gatiss ultimately doesn’t have a lot of time to devote to this dilemma. The second half of the book features very little Richard Cromwell, and his one chance of persuading his father to read the book is lost when the older man, who despises his son, won’t even listen. Then, Richard’s glimpse of the future is eliminated via a simple hand-wave at the end, meaning that the book’s plot is not impacted by either the consequences of the younger Cromwell’s discovery or the Doctor’s mistake in facilitating that discovery. In fact, the Doctor’s hypnotizing Cromwell to forget the book, seems to be solely an attempt to do an early name-check of the man that we’d one day call “Master”.
Considering that the book makes much of the “Web of Time” (years before Russell T. Davies fetishized the notion in the New Series), no lasting consequences are shown from the Doctor’s and Polly’s temporarily altering established history. Some of this is intentional — it wasn’t in the Past Doctor Adventures’ remit to change anything, and thus each story had to be wrapped up in a neat little bow. Gareth Roberts managed to evade this in his nifty First Doctor Missing Adventure The Plotters, but Gatiss doesn’t quite duplicate the feat.
I also expected better prose from Gatiss, who’s written some immensely clever stuff on TV. Had this book been an out-and-out comedy, I would have laughed along with the following line: “`Take them to the Tower!’ he screeched hoarsely.” But because it’s so grim in many other respects (employing words like “defecate”), I didn’t detect a hint of irony. Here’s a typically, gloriously bad simile: “The old ship creaked and groaned like a discontented grandmother.” Again, I’d give credit if there was a sense of irony; knowing Gatiss, there might well have been, but I just don’t quite see it here.
Gatiss does at least do a very good job with geography. The buildings, from the pub exterior to the inside of the original House of Commons chamber, are described with well-researched detail (so far as I, a mere American, could tell). You could navigate your way around the London of 1648 if you were to time-travel back with you and carry this book about your person. Just don’t let Richard Cromwell find it…
He also invests the book with a grand sense of scope, as several famous names pop up in (what would have been the) final episode, to help speed the plot towards its resolution.
There is also one awesome late-season-4 Troughton moment. Every Who writer who tries to duplicate Troughton in print, wants a moment that equals the “Some corners of the Universe” speech from The Moonbase. Gatiss comes close, very very close, here, where the Doctor, upon learning that Polly has changed history, lists a compelling parade of horrible alternate futures:
“Oh yes, they’re all out there. All kinds of futures. Some great, some truly terrible.” The little man swung round and his face seemed suddenly ancient, like a stone gargoyle on a cathedral. “We have to pay the price for traveling as we do. It’s up to us now.”‘
It’s hard to remain critical of any book that has a moment like this one. Troughton has been notoriously difficult to capture in original fiction, because the actor was so varied, and so effective at playing different extremes. By writing strong pastiches of both Troughton the clown, and Troughton with the far-horizons look, Gatiss does do the man justice.