THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Macra Terror
The Faceless Ones
BBC Books
The Roundheads

Author Mark Gatiss Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books page
ISBN# 40576 7
Published 1997
Continuity Between
The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones

Synopsis: The Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie visit seventeenth century England just after King Charles has been deposed by Oliver Cromwell.


Reviews

Wasted Potential by Robert Smith? 14/10/98

I must confess I found this book quite hard going. Not that it was especially dense, or tough, but it just didn't seem to motivate me in any way. I rarely cared about any of the non-regulars and any time there was the promise of some interesting developments Gatiss (as author) stepped in and took it away.

The Doctor isn't very well done, but that's not particularly surprising, given how few authors capture the second Doctor. He doesn't really seem to have all that much to do. Jamie's initial position of the seer of the future worked quite well, I thought (particularly as the obvious way to do this would to have the Doctor as mystic instead). Sadly this seems to peter out just when it was getting interesting.

What's worse is that the whole situation with the children's book had so much wasted potential. There was a real sense of menace over losing the book and then a minor character finding it. Unfortunately, Gatiss wraps it all up far too quickly and nicely. I found this really frustrating, because if this had been the central plot to the book, I think the novel would have been a much more interesting one. And instead of using the lessons that Richard Cromwell learnt from the book as a comment on his ineffectuality in his role in history, the Doctor simply hypnotises him and he forgets all about it! I thought this was an awful way to resolve what had started as an extremely interesting idea.

Ben has a fairly large subplot, involving him getting stuck on a sailing ship. Most of this works okay and Captain Winter is quite an interesting character. At least, she seems to have more life in her than anyone else in the book.

I'm not at all happy with Ben's callous attitude to murdering the villains in cold blood. He attempts the cold blooded murder of Stanislaus on several occasions and each time fails only because of authorial intervention. I'm sorry, but when I read a novel I'd prefer to see the characters deal with their moral dilemmas themselves, not have the author write in convenient escapes that just happen to save anyone from a difficult moral standpoint.

It's Polly's subplot that is supposed to echo the most with the reader and in some ways it does, but only because the other subplots seem to fall apart. She's probably the best realised person in the book and you can feel the torment and anguish she goes through. Unfortunately, the prologue seems to be setting something up that never gets referred to again.

The Roundheads has both good and bad points. It promises a lot more than it delivers, but what it actually delivers isn't atrocious. There are some good spots of characterisation but also the awful waste of the Doctor and Ben in certain places. Overall, it's a strain to get through not because it's a bad book, but mainly because it's an uninspiring one.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 8/7/01

A historical in every sense of the word, although more in the style of the likes of The Smugglers than The Massacre, The Roundheads makes for an interesting addition to the PDA`s, being a period previously uncovered by the series.

Characterisation by Mark Gatiss is strong with the regulars and supporting players being both readable and believable. The plot concentrates on the smaller aspects of the period in typical Troughton fashion, while the bigger events carry on around the TARDIS crew. In summary, it is hard to fault The Roundheads when it is being exactly what Doctor Who should be, pure escapism.


A Review by Keith Bennett 19/10/01

I think I would have to agree with pretty much everything Robert Smith? wrote in his review. This is a novel that ambled along quite well, but it didn't particularly excite or intrigue me in any way. Mark Gatiss (whose books Nightshade and St Anthony's Fire I have enjoyed in the past) indeed wastes the potential of the lost "book of the future", and the Doctor just doesn't seem like the second Doctor we see on our screens.

Ben's high seas battle is entertaining, but I found it hard to believe that the peg-legged, peg-armed, peg-nosed Captain Winter could have embraced him so warmly so quickly. And I did not like the way Ben went after Stanislaus at the end at all. It seems to go against all Doctor Who's morals, and was Stanislaus really all that evil (compared with the rest of the characters in the book) anyway?

This is a well written book, but nothing memorable - Mark Gatiss has done much better.


A Review by Matt Quarterstein 17/10/02

In high school, I had to study the English Civil wars. Oliver Cromwell, the Roundheads, the Cavaliers, John Lilburne, the Levelers, the Puritans - all that. Apart from all the essays and the exams we had to do on it, to me it was quite an interesting topic.

With this interest in the English Civil War, and with Doctor Who historical stories in general, I picked up the PDA The Roundheads with some positive anticipation.

I was not disappointed. Not a bit.

The ol' TARDIS drops the 2nd Doctor, Ben, Polly & Jamie off at London in December 1648, not too long before King Charles is to lose his head to Cromwell and his parliament. Wanting to teach Jamie more about Britain's past, the Doctor decides to stay, and as usual, the gang is split up. Ben ends up in Amsterdam on a pirate adventure much like The Smugglers, Polly gets caught up in a plot to rescue the King and the Doctor and Jamie end up meeting General Cromwell himself.

The plot is satisfying simple, despite having many, many threads running through it. There are twists and turns, but all of these the reader can get their head around quite easily. Mark Gatiss has made all the pieces fit. The reader is left at the end of this book feeling that it was a clever story, rather than a contrived one.

Not only is this story clever, but it is a joy to read. Gatiss' writing style is compelling and detailed, drawing you into the world of 1648. His descriptions are so vivid, you almost feel as if you are there at times.

Gatiss has a particular knack for characters. The people we come across in the world of The Roundheads are colourful, fun and full of depth. Everyone from Sal Winter, the busty, peg legged captain with a silver nose, to Nathaniel Scrope, the smelly, but friendly man who digs saltpeter for the Roundheads. All of these have a part to play in the plot, all have a life of their own, and all of them have something to say. The characters from history too are just as interesting to read, from the proud yet cautious Oliver Cromwell, to the timid and burdened Richard Cromwell, to the arrogant stuttering King Charles. Gatiss has challenged what is known about these figures, particularly in their appearances, he has given General Cromwell a warty face for example, but this serves to make the characters more human and in the end more believable.

Gatiss has made things so vivid that a boil on Cromwell's buttock has a life of it's own! Erm...

These historical characters also interact well with the TARDIS crew. One of the fun things about a Doctor Who historical is when the Doctor and his companions meet the famous figures, whether it be Marco Polo from Marco Polo, or Nero from The Romans. The Roundheads has this same sense of fun, particularly with Richard Cromwell and the Doctor.

The TARDIS crew too are portrayed well, they are neither cardboard cutouts or way out of character. Sure, Ben has some rum and has a swordfight or two, but all he does is in the context of what is going on in the adventure.

There are some minor niggles. In the midst of the story is a so-called romance between Polly and a character. If there weren't signs of Polly's longing for him at the end of the book, I wouldn't have even seen it was a romance. It seems to be the only rushed element of the story, which is sad because the prologue is built around it. Also, like so many other recreations of Cromwell's England, Gatiss has put the members of Parliament in the Puritan garb, that is, the black with the big white collar. It is on historical record that purtians wore many more colours than black, some of them quite bright in fact. Although it's not really key to the outcome of either this story or to history, it bugs me that no one seems to get that right.

I should not be complaining. I really shouldn't. The Roundheads is a good read. If you are fan of the Troughton Era, get it. If you are a fan of Ben and Polly, get it. If you are a fan of historical stories, get it. Heck, if you like PDAs, it's a good one to get.


A Review by Brett Walther 18/12/03

When Russell T. Davies is drafting writers for the new Doctor Who series, I sincerely hope Mark Gatiss will be at the top of his list.

Gatiss' love for Doctor Who is evidence in every page. He's a gifted storyteller, and an expert at infusing each of his books with an energy that makes them nearly impossible to put down.

Although The Roundheads isn't one par with Gatiss' Last of the Gaderene -- probably the best Doctor Who book I've ever read -- it is nevertheless a great novel.

The story is thoroughly refreshing and reminiscent of the early days of the programme in that it's a straight historical -- a group of Royalists are out to involve the Doctor and company in their scheme to free the doomed Prince Charles. There's no gadgets or alien technology trying to pervert the course of history; just the Doctor making a complete mess of things on his own!

Justin Richards' Dreams of Empire will forever be my benchmark for the characterization of the Second Doctor. Against that admittedly high standard, Gatiss fares reasonably well in bringing to life the team of the Doctor, Polly, Ben and Jamie.

Gatiss uses The Roundheads to foreshadow the lovely relationship that's about to blossom between Jamie and the Doctor by pairing the two of them off fairly early in the story. There's also a touching sequence in which Jamie tells the Doctor that he finds Polly and Ben slightly intimidating, which instantly reminded me of the unforgettable exchange between the Doctor and Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen, and it's no less effective in adding an extra dimension to a companion.

The Doctor is shown in a bit of a transitional phase here. at times, he's got traces of the camp clown of his very early stories (The Highlanders), but as I've suggested above, Gatiss introduces subtle suggestions of the darker, more manipulative Doctor to come (a la Evil of the Daleks).

It's a bit shocking to have Polly developing a romance with one of the historical figures, though, seeing as I'd always thought of her and Ben as a bit of an item. Considering this adventure takes place immediately before The Faceless Ones (and come on, we all KNOW they hooked up at the end of that one... don't we?) it came as a surprise that Polly and Ben's relationship in The Roundheads appears strictly platonic. Everyone who's read Steve Lyons' lovely The Murder Game knows otherwise!

But Ben's friendship with pirate captain Sally Winter steals the show. The one-eyed, tin-nosed, peg-legged mistress of the seas is larger than life, yet develops a really sweet camaraderie with our favourite little sailor, and the subplot involving the seafaring duo in the Netherlands was one of the books most exciting bits. I was hoping Captain Wrack from Enlightenment would show up just so that Winter could keelhaul her all the way up the Thames, but alas... There's not a continuity reference in sight -- and I'm honestly thankful for that!

The Roundheads has similarities to earlier historicals in Doctor Who in terms of educational value. Before reading this book, I admit to knowing very little about the English Civil War (Canadian school systems are obsessed with domestic history only, unfortunately), but I came away with enough knowledge about the conflict and the key players to feel confident, should the topic ever arise in, say, some ghastly trivia game I might find myself playing. On the other hand, I would probably fare rather poorly, seeing as how I have no idea which characters are historical figures, and which are fictional creations. Oh well. There goes that idea.

I could of course look it up in a history book or some such, but I'm on Christmas holidays right now and damned if I'm going to read anything but Doctor Who!

8/10


A Review by Finn Clark 30/43/04

Believe it or not, I preferred St Anthony's Fire! The Roundheads generally just bored me, but eventually I got somewhat annoyed. I don't think it's good history and it's certainly not good Doctor Who.

I'll address the latter point first. The Roundheads is a dull, unambitious plod with what's probably Mark Gatiss's laziest writing to date. Its action scenes are actively bad and I was only ever entertained by the Doctor-Jamie double act, which admittedly has its funny moments. I also liked the very Troughtonish 'Every Boy's Book of the English Civil War', no matter that its introduction screams "plot device". Has the Doctor ever needed a history book before? Will he ever again? No, and no. It's not even as if its presence or absence makes any difference to his ability to deliver historical info-dumps when necessary; it just vaguely goes missing and then vaguely turns up again. Someone finds it, but it's no one who matters. Ho hum.

Meanwhile Ben gets involved in jolly nautical adventures which make life on the ocean wave seem dashed exciting, what ho.

However despite all that, my chief gripe is that The Roundheads doesn't get to grips with its subject matter. It's like a comedy historical in its failure to take 1648 seriously, but it's not funny. Oliver Cromwell becomes a joke character while the Cavaliers are flat-out baddies, with no attempt to explore their point of view. Mark Gatiss's sympathies blatantly lie with the Parliamentarians (to which I have no objection) but unfortunately he assumes that ours do too. We're supposed to cheer when Cromwell is saved and the king is executed, no matter that the Puritans weren't exactly heroes. These are the same people who perpetrated The Witch Hunters only 44 years later, while at the end of this book Cromwell is only months away from Irish massacres so appalling that even today they're mentioned in the same breath as the 19th century potato famines.

The English Civil War split the country, dividing families and pitting fathers against sons. Yet after all that bitterness and bloodshed, on p204 the Doctor actually says, "Cromwell's too intelligent to take us for Royalist spies." Oh, of course. Silly me. If they were Royalist spies they'd be stupid, right-wing and ugly. The only time any of the TARDIS crew addresses the whole issue, it's Ben in a pub on p46 saying, "'Ere! If we're lucky we might see them cut old King Charlie's head off!" (But to make up for all this, there's an in-joke about 20th century politics with a Eurosceptics dig on p149. Sigh.)

The history isn't inaccurate, but I found it bland. This book is neither one thing or the other, too unengaging and trivial for a straight historical but not funny enough to be a comedy. I've no objection to silly history if it's entertaining (e.g. The Plotters), but this ain't. If an author must downplay the interesting bits of an era then I'd like to see something else put in its place to compensate.

The Roundheads was covered in the infamous Jackie Jenkins Shelf Life in DWM 258, in which Alien Bodies received a bewildered, uninformative skating-over while The Roundheads was praised to the skies in a review that seemed more interested in Virgin-bashing. Presumably it has its fans and in fairness it's a cosy, traditional read. It has recognisable and fairly lively versions of the Season Four regulars in another lightweight adventure. I suppose you could recommend this to someone who doesn't read much but is easily pleased and wants to be reminded of all those classic Troughton stories like... um, The Highlanders. If you know nothing and care less about 17th century English history, I suppose this might pass muster as a bog-standard runaround.

However personally I'd suggest that anyone looking to read Mark Gatiss doing the 1640s should pick up chapter four of Nightshade.


Able companions! by Joe Ford 18/10/06

That was absolute magic from beginning to end, a firm reminder of how good the PDAs could be if they really tried. I am currently in the process of reading every single PDA in a row and so far I am pleasantly surprised at how good they are considering their less-than-stellar reputation. The Roundheads kickstarts a blistering run of five truly excellent books in a row; following this you have the gritty and fan-pleasing Face of the Enemy, the experimental and magical Eye of Heaven, The Witch Hunters with its powerful and dramatic storytelling and the mighty fine character drama which is The Hollow Men.

The Roundheads is a perfectly judged representation of its era, capitalising on the amazing fun the early Troughton era exhibited. Saying that this is not just some throwaway holiday novel but an expertly plotted political thriller set in a great period of history so you can really get your teeth into the facts. As a package, it is one of the most wholesome Doctor Who books about, offering up plenty of laughs but some tragedy, contemplation and even some heartbreak. I read this in two chunks, the first thirty pages one morning before work and the remainder when I got home the same day.

I knew straight away that Mark Gatiss would be one of the first authors to crack the puzzle that is capturing Troughton in print. Describing his scruffy attire, his love of the snow, getting hopelessly lost in the TARDIS, it all screams of that cheeky little Time Lord with a twinkle in his eye. I love how he can turn on a moment from mischievous charm to utter seriousness, especially when he realises in horror that he has dropped a book printed in the future! Frequently hilarious too, especially when he and Jaime are trying to convince as seers of the future! It radiates Troughton so well that you don't even realise that the Doctor spends much of the book incarcerated.

This story is set between The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones and so as a sly wink to the reader Gatiss separates Polly and Ben (who were on their way out) and pairs up the Doctor and Jaime to prove what an ideal pair they would make. You have to laugh at Jaime's naivete during this period, wandering around history being perfectly honest about his knowledge of future events and being dubbed McCrimmon, powerful seer of Culloden! All Jaime wants to do (as ever) is eat and sleep but it is quite to see the Doctor making him comfortable in his time-travelling life and at one point Jaime does admit that he is starting to feel as though the TARDIS is his home.

But The Roundheads belongs to Polly and Ben, two of the most underrated companions, one last hurrah before their unfortunate dumping in the next story. 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 times. 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 entertainment as 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!). The eternal child, 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, Ben 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 and entertaining this character is and how much his very human elements were helping to captivate an audience a long time before we ever heard the name Rose Tyler. Ben's sequences are written with such gusto it is hard to not get swept away by them!

Polly too deserves much praise for her contribution. We get to learn some things about her life in London; 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. In one brilliant moment, she realises that when trapped in history's key events her actions are no longer insignificant. And in true sixties style she flirts like mad with the lecherous guards in order to poison them and free the King.

But there is also a guest cast here that are brilliantly portrayed and vital to the plot. Cromwell is portrayed as a character with much depth, willing to plot against the King, to fight to the death but still weep when he gets a letter from a member of his family. His son, Richard, an effete man if ever there was one, gets one of the books most startling moments, when he finds the Doctor's civil war book and discovers his father will die in ten years and that he will be remembered as an embarrassing footnote in history. Copper is a vile, chauvinistic bully who definitely gets his comeuppance at the end, but commits some terrible acts such as trying to rape Frances Kemp. I loved O'Kane, the burly Irish sailor who tries to wipe Ben from the face of the Earth, I laughed my head off when he fell into a barrel of gunpowder with his beard all sizzling and blew his head off! Then there is the very charming Christopher Whyte who has to use Polly to help free the King but feels terrible about it, when he learns of Prince Rupert's plans to bring in a Catholic Invasion Force he gives the Doctor the information he needs to stop the King's plans.

Politics is such a dirty business and this book is steeped in it. You've got Cromwell and Copper who want to bring down the King, cut his head of a give Parliament a chance to rule. To do this they are manipulation a romance between Frances Kemp and Thomas Culpeper, who is a firm Royalist to find out all of the King's plans. But in return the King is being (secretly) aided by his exiled nephew who plans to assassinate Cromwell when he is at Parliament bringing his evidence against Charles, using a foreigner with a plague-infected dart so the general will never know he was even murdered. The book is slightly unbalanced in favour of the Parliamentarians but in true historical style we get to see this conflict from both points of view; both Cromwell and Charles come across as great men trapped in impossible circumstances. And you've gotta love who Thurloe has Culpeper executed, just because he doesn't like him... I told you politics was a dirty business.

The colourful writing is extremely attractive and readable and instantly noticeable; sod the works of Christopher Bulis and Gary Russell, this is the work of skilful writer. Mark Gatiss' prose is blisteringly good, astonishingly visual, hugely entertaining and in places qutite inspired. The book chugs by effortlessly and I was actually jotting down sections to slot in this review because it read so well ("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.").

A delightful read and anyone questioning the validity of the Past Doctor Adventures should pick up this delightful book immediately as it not only provides you with a authentic Troughton fix but is a damn good story in its own right.


A Review by Steve White 21/6/13

After the second Doctor's regeneration into the third, Doctor Who dropped the vast majority of its historical stories. After reading The Roundheads, it is easy to see why. The trouble is that, unless you have an express interest in the period on display, it is just boring, which does little to make you want to read further. In the case of The Roundheads, if you don't care for the English Civil Wars, then you will be bored for at least the first third of the book.

The first third of the book is set up introducing you to far too many stereotypical characters. Most follow actual history, but again, if you don't know about the English Civil Wars, they are just names and the plot threads do get a bit confusing. In summary, the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie arrive at the end of the English Civil War to find a plot underway to rescue the King (he is meant to be beheaded). Polly goes off with Cavillers, Ben gets press-ganged at sea, whilst the Doctor and Jamie get caught by the Roundheads as spies. It all seemed very drawn out, with Mark Gatiss showing off the time period more than advancing the story, which just made it a very long read. Luckily, the book does improve. The later two thirds do have excitement and a fairly decent story plays out to a satisfactory conclusion.

My issues with The Roundheads' storytelling doesn't end there though. Characters and plot devices appear and disappear at a whim, with sometimes no logical explanation for it. For example, the Doctor and Jamie are thought of as spies straight away, whereas Ben is able to get close to Sal Winter after just one boozy night. Likewise for the first (and probably last) time ever, the Doctor needs a book about the English Civil War only for it to rather unsurprisingly get lost and end up in Richard Cromwell's hands. Whereas you could forgive this blatant plot device if it was used properly, the whole storyline regarding it just fizzles out.

Characters next and again Mark Gatiss falls short. It is the second Doctor you are reading about, just. In fairness to Gatiss, Patrick Troughton's Doctor is the hardest to write for and he actually does a reasonable job, but Steve Lyons's characterisation in The Murder Game was far better. Ben and Polly seem to have a purely platonic relationship, which is odd given this book is set near the end of their tenure and The Murder Game a mere 4 books ago had them pining after each other the whole way through. Jamie comes across the best, and Gatiss shows that he is unsure about life in the TARDIS, which is nice.

The remaining cast, as mentioned, are all pretty much stereotypical of the era and most based on real-life people. The only two characters of note are Sal Winter and Nathanial Scrope, the former being a one eyed, peg-legged, metal-nosed pirate captain and the later a toilet cleaner come Roundhead spy.

In summary, The Roundheads is pretty disappointing novel. It isn't bad per say, but it struggles to hold your interest which taints the good parts of the novel.

5/10