The Romans
Virgin Publishing
The Plotters

Author Gareth Roberts Cover image
ISBN# 0 426 20488 3
Published 1996
Continuity Between The Space Museum and
The Chase

Synopsis: The Doctor and Vicki find themselves involved in the court of King James while Ian and Barbara pay be unwilling players in the Gunpowder plot.


A Review by Jill Sherwin 25/8/99

"The Plotters" might have been an enjoyable book if it weren't for the author.

Gareth Roberts crafts an acceptable plot (aside from an absurd bad guy), maintains believable dialogue and seems to take tremendous delight in insulting and degrading all of the characters all of the time.

The story concerns the first Doctor and his companions Barbara, Ian and Vicki in post-Elizabethan England. King James is on the throne and it's the age of men, at least as far as James' hormones are concerned. No, not even the king of England is spared Roberts' barbs as he is belittled and portrayed as foolishly and foppishly as possible. It is November, 1605 and Guy Fawkes and his motley crew are about their mission to blow up Parliament on November 5th (thus setting up an excuse for the British to play with fireworks as they lack our excuse of Independence Day). The Doctor and his companions get caught up in the intrigues of Palace politics as well as falling in for a time with the Gunpowder plotter himself, Fawkes.

Of course the Doctor tells his companions not to interfere and promptly does so himself. Of course Ian and Barbara get separated from the Doctor and Vicki. Of course the Doctor gets mistaken for important potentates. Of course Vicki falls down, gets captured a lot, faints and screams. All proper Who prerequisites and perfectly enjoyable (if extremely familiar) in themselves.

However, one of the things the Missing Adventures series has done best is to explore ill-served companions and allow them dignity, intelligence and courage never-before-seen on screen. There is incredible opportunity to explore the thoughts and deeds of lesser characters, bringing new aspects of them to light. Roberts takes none of this opportunity. The companions act predictably, no new dimensions are added here. Indeed Roberts seems to take greatest joy in pointing out the foibles of the characters/actors.

The author constantly makes fun of Hartnell's unfortunate habit of forgetting his lines and his quick saves "that is, I meant to say" using this insulting device to make petty puns. All characters are demeaned and debased with subtle little adjectivial daggers, "amusing" seeming to be Roberts' favorite characterization of all characters in the book. Roberts has no respect or care for these creations and as the reader goes along, his constant sniggering editorializing becomes dreary and dreadful. I've never read a writer who despised his characters as much as Roberts does in this book -- why did he even bother writing it if all he was going to do was snipe at the characters over and over? And if the author disdains his characters so, it is very difficult for the reader to keep fighting to like the characters.

Frankly, throughout the book, all I wanted to do was tell the narrator to shut up and let me enjoy the story.

Ultimately, he would not and this ruined the book. I struggled to finish it, not because the plot wouldn't keep me (simple as is was, it might have been entertaining), but because I dreaded Roberts' next emphasis on just how stupid these characters were!

His descriptions of the Doctor were extremely and intentionally unflattering, and his treatment of the companions, especially his seeming vendetta against Vicki was completely objectionable.

I really enjoyed Venusian Lullaby and Empire of Glass and in a sense Nightshade for their exploration of the Doctor I was least familiar with (Hartnell). I was looking forward to another of his adventures and instead was presented with an attack of Roberts' tremendous ego against these quaint and "amusing" old characters.

Don't go there. Don't do it. Don't buy the novelization. Try any of the three mentioned above for dignified and expansive treatments of Hartnell's Doctor to see how he introduced a character that thirty years later is still a hero. Despite Gareth Roberts' opinion.

A Review by Sean Gaffney 17/9/99

It's not often that I am surprised by the New and Missing Adventures anymore. Experience and familiarity of styles has led to my knowing ahead of time whether I will like a book or not. Occasionally, though, I am pleasantly surprised...

Believe me, I was looking forward to this. Bashing Gareth's writing has become a hobby of mine, and I was ready to be in full force. I had already made 1 Plodders joke in my previous review.

Well, I can eat crow. The Plotters is very good, and only suffers a little from what I call "Garethosis". But I'm getting ahead of myself.

PLOT: So to speak. I'm not all that knowledgeable of the Gunpowder Plot, and The 5th of November is a chorus by Carter USM. Still, this is a nice historical romp, and I didn't note any horrid inaccuracies. A half-point off for Lynda LaPlante, though. :-(

THE DOCTOR: The reason to read the book. Every tic and tremor of William Hartnell's performance is in here, along with the desparate improvising that became better known with later Doctors. It's refreshing to see the Doctor as a main character in the book, instead of virtually absent, as so many others have done.

VICKI: Wet, but he's raised her from 1 dimension to 2. I don't really like Vicki, but she didn't grate here as much as she does on screen.

IAN AND BARBARA: Nicely hero and herione-ish, a glimpse of affection, and they never got to see Shakespeare. Ah, well...

OTHERS: I enjoyed Glitz and, Firking and Hodge. Hay was a little too OTT for my taste, but Cecil and the King were well done. I did think that Cecil trusted the Doctor a little too easily, though.

STYLE: Ah. Well, it flows very quickly, as opposed to certain other Gareth MA's with Death in the title. There are, however, a few bouts of Garethosis which made me wince. Gareth's plummy writing sometimes leaps out and hits you in the head with a shovel. Which fits the Hartnell era, I suppose. ;-)

OVERALL: If you want an MA in the style of its era, this is it. Perhaps a different view of changing history than the producers had, but that's a minor quibble. I'm still waiting to see if The Well-Mannered War is written fast (a la TROC) or deadly slow (al la TEWOD). Let's hope for the former. This book gives me that hope.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 20/3/01

Love or loathe Gareth Roberts, he`s turned out a great read here. And that automatically gives this extra plus points.

PLOT: Its the time of the Gunpowder Plot, a period previously unused in the series and The TARDIS crew become involved in the background politics.

THE DOCTOR: Considered insulting by some, his characterisation is none the less accurate. Complete with stutters and being mistaken for someone else. (Why did this only seem to happen to Hartnell`s Doctor?)

COMPANIONS: Captured with seeming ease, Ian and Barbara get some great one-liners and Vicki is raised up a notch.

OTHERS: Fawkes was interesting enough to be believable and Hodge/Firking proved to be an effective double-act.

OVERALL: It fits the era and could easily have been made on television. Traditional and simple, yet strong with great characterisation. 10/10.

Perfect... by Joe Ford 21/4/03

Well that was utterly delightful!

I have steered well clear of Gareth Roberts for so long I've forgotten just how masterful a storyteller he can be. I was left a little uninspired after Zamper (during that odd not-good-but-not-bad phase during the third quarter of the NA's run) and considering my unnatural fear of season two (well, it's a bit naff, isn't it?) I gave this one a miss. Mind you I've only read a handful of the Virgin Missing Adventures anyway after I was gutted by the first batch of terrible books (I mean Evolution, State of Change, The Ghosts of N-Space, The Menagerie, Invasion of the Cat-People... it's enough to put you off reading, let alone reading Doctor Who!) I only picked up selective Doctor/companion team ups (Dave Stone's Burning Heart for example) or certain writers. All these excuses indeed! Unfortunately the only reason I have this is by accident, coming across it at a cheapy bookshop near me (this and six NA's for a tenner!).

This book reminded me very much of Talons of Weng-Chiang. Not the story, no but the exquisite rich dialogue that makes reading the book an experience on its own. Truly Gareth has a gift for witty dialogue second to none and I was chuckling to myself through much of the book. The characters are distinguished by their excellent dialogue and to his credit every secondary character leaped out the page at me in a most amusing fashion. It pains me to say but I was quite sad to say goodbye when I turned the final page. Now that's good writing!

The plot is intricate and well paced leaving room for excitement, intrigue and many laughs. The history of Guy Fawkes is a period I have no knowledge of so (although Gareth states before the book that this is in no way an accurate rendition) I was grateful for the details and how things played out. Needless to say this would be wonderful for somebody who was aware of the facts, how he subverts history to tell a good story is powerful and clever. Only a confident writer would dare.

The family atmosphere of the Doctor, Vicki, Ian and Barbara team is lovingly re-created. I was reminded of why I love these characters so much from Barbara's re-visionist view of history to Ian's macho bravado and violent wish to protect Barbara no matter the cost. Their mannerisms and dialogue were perfect, especially the mischievous Doctor who spends most of the book having a whale of a time embroiled in plots and schemes and getting his own way. His scenes with the two academics were glorious, how he gloated and goaded and manipulated... all the while remaining his giggling, fluffing lines ("There is hardly need for opprobrium over this treacle - er, trifle!") perfect self! His self admiration reaches hysterical levels and after he is assumed as a deity he plays up the role to hysterical effect!

But surprisingly it is Vicki who comes up trumps here and that is because she is stuck in the rather awkward position of posing as a boy and having attracted the attention of a rather powerful man (er, that would be the King) who wants to hose down and play with her (er him). The levels of humour reached are just incredible and I was laughing out loud in several passages. Vicki being chased through the halls by the sex-obsessed monarch might come close to resembling Barbara's similar dilemma in The Romans but Vicki's lines ("If you let the King have his way you will get a surprise!" he exclaims... "Not half as lovely as the surprise you'll get!" she replies!) are far superior. Some might say this is crossing the line but its all done with such ludicrous fun it is impossible to dislike! Indeed the Doctor's reaction to the King's extra curriculum activities are the highlight of the book! His reaction to the King's dismissal of his looks ("Winter apple? Tsk. In my day I was considered quite a looker!") had me in stitches.

I loved Cecil with every fibre of my being and he is written with real flair, a totally believable character whose words left me in stitches. "God's teeth man! Is there no cranny in this palace you do not inhabit?" he cries at the Doctor's snooping. "What's this you say? Speak clearly man, your language is laden with gibberish!" he snorts at the Doctor's ramblings. And even more brilliantly his parting "A message for the Doctor. Tell him first that I value his advice, and am grateful for his action in saving my life..." "...Tell him secondly that I never want to see his disagreeable sour old face ever again, and if I do I shall be compelled to have it cut off!!" WHAT A GUY!

But more characters flowering into real people, Firking and Hodge provide some hearty laughs while the old cranks Otley and Haldann have some of the funniest bitch fights I have ever heard ("Give me here John the Baptist's head in a colander!" and "Is there no treacle in Gilead?"). Mother Bunch is a force to be reckoned with and Sybil makes a very butch impression!

In fact it's almost a shame to get on with the plot as the characterful middle sections are such fun to get back to the serious stuff almost threatens to spoil it. Fortunately there are some good twists involving Hay (he's three people in the bloody book! Talk about master of disguise!) and the climax 'exorcising the TARDIS' is very, very funny (especially the image of Barbara the nun wandering around the TARDIS chanting bad Latin whilst the Doctor sprinkles it with holy water!). Everything is tied up (possibly a little too neatly) and the good guys win and the bad guys lose. I'm not usually in favour of such clear cut moralising but with such a good natured book it fits perfectly.

Colour me impressed it blows all the BBC PDA's out the window, that's for sure. Maybe they should try and coax old Gareth Roberts back to write some more, needless to say I would snap 'em up! With a large sum of money coming my way I may have to get on e-bay and start bidding for those Missing Adventures I missed out on!

I loved it.

A Review by Brian May 15/1/03

When I picked up The Plotters I expected a long haul, by virtue of it being a historically based Hartnell adventure. Although I have nothing against historicals, I've always approached them in a more dutiful way. In other words, I usually watch them if I feel compelled to, either for review purposes, watching one for the first time, or an attempt to feel like a "noble" fan, whereas a sci-fi story is always an easier option.

With these apprehensions in mind I "dutifully" opened up this book and was pleasantly surprised. The writing style is engaging from the very beginning. Gareth Roberts's prose style is affecting and flows well. He has set himself a great challenge, essentially taking the formula for first Doctor historical stories and reproducing it in the form of an original novel. For this the most important element is the characterisations - the regulars have to have the correct interactions with each other, combined with an awareness of the historical period they are in. (And the Gunpowder plot is an interesting topic for a story.) Perhaps more importantly, he must credibly recreate the characters from the period especially if they are real historical figures - of which there are many here.

But Roberts achieves it with aplomb. The historical figures are lively and believable, especially the boisterous, decadent King James, the guarded, conspiratorial Cecil, and Guy Fawkes, who is given a tragically heroic stature.

Roberts is slightly less successful with some of his non-real historical characters. He attempts to emulate Robert Holmes with some potentially amusing double acts - namely Firking and Hodge, who are fun, although they seem placed just to be a comic foil to the brave and heroic Ian - combine the crude charm of The Time Warrior's Irongron and Bloodaxe with the chummy assistant duo of Jago and Litefoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang - and you have these two. But I love the suggestion that the 5th of November could have been known as "Ralph Hodge night!" And as for the two pompous scholars, Haldann and Otley - well, they wear on the nerves very quickly, as do their constant theological deliberations. However the Chamberlain is a wonderful creation and I can clearly picture Hugh Walters (Shakespeare in The Chase, Runcible in The Deadly Assassin and Vogel in Revelation of the Daleks) in all his fussing, exasperated sighs and bureaucratic pettiness. In my head I heard Walters's squeaky voice whenever the Chamberlain spoke.

The regular cast is exceptionally well realised, and you can tell that Roberts has taken great care in portraying this particular TARDIS crew - with one major exception (see the paragraph below). His point of view/inner thoughts of the companions is believable, especially Ian and Barbara. Their reaction to seventeenth century London is great. Particularly touching is Barbara's realisation she must leave Fawkes to his terrible, historically ordained fate despite the help he provides her. And I love her search for Ian's "broad shoulders and redoubtably heroic expression"! The relationship between the two schoolteachers is well represented, especially considering where this story falls relative to the televised adventures (between The Space Museum and The Chase).

The Doctor's character suffers a bit. Not in his mannerisms - I could perfectly imagine William Hartnell reciting the dialogue, complete with fluffs (a nice in-joke!) - but more in his motivations, especially with his interference in affairs. He seems to insinuate himself way too much into the historical proceedings than Hartnell's incarnation normally would. In The Romans, the Doctor gives Nero the idea for setting fire to the city; but this a humorous "tweaking" of history, i.e. the Doctor inspires something that was an established historical fact. But consider the passionate stance he took on changing history in The Aztecs - in The Plotters he seems to contradict this viewpoint, becoming quite hypocritically irresponsible. An attitude that's also in direct contrast to the most recent televised historical adventures. In The Romans he is caught up in events inadvertently; in The Crusade he tries to keep out of things as much as possible. Roberts seems to be writing the Hartnell Doctor that sabotaged his own ship and endangered his crew in order to satisfy his curiosity (The Daleks); but the Doctor of season two had mellowed extensively and was less prone to such recklessness - he would certainly never have meddled to the point where Cecil's part in the plot could have been found out, drastically affecting the future of the United Kingdom.

Apart from this, the adventure is quite an enjoyable romp, which trots along at a nice pace, with quite a bit of heart-racing suspense. Despite my aforementioned misgivings at the Doctor's role in affecting history, it's different from other points of view. The moment when Guy Fawkes is killed in front of Ian is stunning, making an excellent dramatic twist. The character of the Spaniard adds a nice element of mystery. The standard plot device of separation from the TARDIS is also used to good effect and the biting of nails continues to the very end, with the attempt to re-enter the ship by means of a mock exorcism.

There's an uncomfortable moment when you're led to believe that this might not be a purely historical adventure after all - namely when Vicki enters the mysterious tree and wanders around. I thought the inevitable - is it a spacecraft? The Spaniard was certainly enigmatic enough to be an extra-terrestrial. Then - gasp - the thought occurred, was the tree in fact a TARDIS? Coming before the programme's first televised account of a TARDIS other than the Doctor's own, The Time Meddler, I would have considered this sacrilegious! But fortunately that wasn't to be. The Doctor also seemed to think so, with another cute in-joke - "I thought this... episode of my life... was going in a different direction!"

I also like the structure of the chapters - a four part story, with three chapters in each. Each part ends with a typical Hartnell TV cliffhanger - dramatic dialogue, usually entailing an ominous threat. (The pacing and structure of the adventure convincingly feels like a four-episode story.) On a down note, Roberts tips his hat - way too much - to other Hartnell historical tales. Namely The Romans, which sees the initial Doctor/Vicki and Ian/Barbara separation, keeping them apart until the end; and the lecherous designs of James upon "Victor" echoing Nero's attentions on Barbara. He also echoes The Crusade, with Vicki's dressing up as a boy. These references are a bit unnecessary, in my humble opinion. There's a difference between knowing your Who, and blatantly showing it off in a most unoriginal way. That Lynda La Plante reference is also a bit unnecessarily postmodern.

But despite its shortcomings, The Plotters is enjoyable. It's certainly a novel I would pick up again. 7.5/10

A Review by Finn Clark 2/4/04

A few years ago, Gareth Roberts was fandom's God-Emperor. His Virgin novels were adored by all and he could apparently do no wrong. However since then there's been a reappraisal of his work, with negative comment and his books doing ever-worse in online head-to-head competitions. The time has come for a backlash against the backlash. I just reread The Plotters and laughed myself silly.

Admittedly it's daft as a bag of farts. The plot twist in Chapter Eleven is ridiculous even given the story logic we've seen so far in London 1605, to the point where I'd actually guessed it in advance but rejected it as too silly even for Gareth Roberts. Hodge and Firking are annoying, being a double-act of Shakespearian Fools... except that unfortunately they're real fools instead of the Bard's self-aware commentators. Their bawdy badinage in the inn at the beginning wears out its welcome before you've drawn breath, though in fairness Hodge gets a speech on p269 which features Gareth Roberts being almost serious. Oh, and look out for Ian's typo-induced sex change on p228.

However none of that matters. The Plotters is a comedy, by which I don't merely mean that it contains gags. I'm talking about story structure. Any resemblance between this and regular drama is purely coincidental, though having said that Barbara ends up getting a nice scene or two with Guy Fawkes. This book's characterisation and plotting have one aim only: to make you laugh. I've read grimmer P.G. Wodehouse novels. Gareth's TARDIS crew is a riot, starring a Doctor who's pompous, untrustworthy, grossly self-deluding and generally a disreputable old baggage. Vicki is blatantly a mouthpiece for the author's low opinion of the character, which would have been annoying in a normal book but here is a scream. Ian and Barbara usually play straight guys to the rest of the cast, though they're not afraid to take the piss when necessary and get involved in the banter. Ian's opinion of the Doctor is particularly amusing:

"It can't do any harm. If the Doctor was here, he'd open it."
Ian frowned. "Oh, and he's a model of good conduct."
The incidental characters are a lively bunch, with my favourites being Haldam and Ofley. They reminded me of an old Skinner and Baddiel double-act. The real historical characters are nicely portrayed despite the book's comic tone, with King James I/VI and Cecil being better-drawn than their counterparts from a few straight historicals I could mention. Incidentally James was every bit as outrageous as the caricature within these pages, if not even more so in certain ways. (His personal hygiene was considered appalling even by the standards of an era in which people bathed twice a year.) <

Theoretically this is another "we can't change history" story, but Gareth Roberts has his own take on the concept. Instead of making his regulars agonise about the whys and wherefores, he just dumps them in the manure and uses history as a plot device to tie them in ever-worsening knots. I liked it! And then there's the plot twist in part three... I imagine American and Australian readers merely understood it, while being English even on second reading that was a "scrape my jaw off the floor" moment for me. Like most British children I was brought up as an Orthodox Pyromaniac, every 5th November detonating explosive devices and conducting human sacrifice in effigy to celebrate Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up Parliament. Brilliant. I'm still in awe.

Serendipitously the years since 1996 have been kind to The Plotters. The Doctor's apparent interest in the King James Bible nicely echoes his meddling in the original in Byzantium!. Meanwhile the p249 dig at Michael Howard is even more topical these days, unless he meant another Howard. For all I know Gareth Roberts follows Australian politics.

This book is a joy. There hasn't been enough comedy in the Who books, probably because it's harder than you'd think to write a genuinely funny novel. (If you don't believe me, check out the 'Humour' section of your nearest bookshop.) The Plotters made me laugh out loud, which is an experience I've had with precious few authors, Who-related or otherwise. This novel is every bit as good as we said it was in 1996, to the last smidgin.