The Doctor was feeling blue and he didn’t know why. He had his suspicions, of course; it had been a long time since he left his home planet and he had been through many exhausting adventures. His old body was starting to wear a bit thin and, quite frankly, it scared him. He had never experienced Regeneration – or as it was sometimes known, Renewal – the miraculous capacity of his species to essentially shed all of the old and damaged cells of the body and become a whole new person. He’d heard horror stories during his days on Gallifrey about how it didn’t always go the way one hoped and the results could be unpredictable and frightening.
He pushed such thoughts to the back of his mind and tried not to think about them. Still, he needed a rest; a departure from all the running around and danger that seemed to constitute the bulk of his life these days. So, he was happy when the TARDIS arrived at the most innocuous place that he could think of; London in the year 1968, and let his young travelling companions Steven and Dodo explore the dubious charms of swinging London, while he made a beeline for one of the city’s many parks.
He avoided the major parks, too many people, and opted for a smaller, quieter park somewhere in that blurred area where the city became the suburbs. The Doctor had always liked parks. He could spend hours admiring the flowers and simply breathing in the fresh and relaxing air of the place. This one was called St. Oswald’s Park, an old Victorian park that still retained many of its original features and the Doctor walked through it, swinging his cane, quite blissfully at peace with the cosmos.
It was a glorious sunny day. Birds sang in the trees and bees hummed around the colourful, bursting summer flowers. The odd curious squirrel appeared from the high branches and darted furtively across the grass in search of food.
After a while, the Doctor began to feel a little tired and in need of a sit down. He considered sitting by the duck pond, but he found all that quacking quite distracting, so instead he headed for a small wooden pavilion partly hidden behind some low, well-sculptured hedges. He was delighted to see that it was a bowling green and there was a game in progress. A number of elderly men and ladies dressed in pristine white were quietly enjoying themselves in what the Doctor thought surely must be the gentlest of sports.
Others of around the same age were watching the game. The Doctor was happy to see that he didn’t draw even a single quizzical look as he pulled up a wooden chair and sat down to take the weight off his feet. He felt quite at home here and smiled broader than he had in many years when an elderly lady came up and offered him a cup of tea.
“Thank you, my dear,” said the Doctor, accepting the bone china cup and saucer. “That’s very kind, very kind.”
The game continued. The Doctor didn’t know very much about bowls but his inquisitive mind picked up the rules as it went along. It seems, thought the Doctor, that the object of the game is to roll your large brown ball as close to a smaller white ball, known as the Jack, as possible without hitting it. Your opponent can knock your own ball out of the way, if it means getting their own in a superior position.
The Doctor found the game very relaxing. He relaxed in his chair, sipping his tea and listening to the gentle clack of the balls. He was idly mulling over some of the more interesting geometrical problems posed by the game, when something entirely unexpected occurred.
There was a crash overhead like rolling thunder, which was unusual on such a bright and sunny day. The Doctor looked up, as did most of the players, who had paused in their game; the fluffy white clouds overhead turned momentarily red and then parted as something passed through them and descended to the ground. To the surprise of the Doctor, and the absolute astonishment of the bowlers, it was a small black spacecraft.
The ship landed on the ornamental Flemish garden near the bowling green, throwing up clouds of obliterated tulips and Calla Lilies, and emitting a rolling cloud of oily grey smoke. The Doctor rose to his feet and joined the bowlers in watching as the front of the vessel split open and a heavy metal ramp descended with an almighty CLANG.
Through the cloud of smoke, a figure emerged; he was about seven foot tall and dressed in steely grey armour. Twin red eyes glowed in the centre of his horned helmet. His booted feet clanged down the ramp until he stood at the bottom, aggressively surveying his environment.
“I am Gargan the Destroyer,” boomed a deep, modulated voice.
A silence fell over the bowling green. The Doctor raised an eyebrow; he surmised that the alien was probably expecting some sort of a reaction; howls of terror or teeth gnashing in anguish, but none was forthcoming. Gargan’s reputation had not preceded him – at least, not to North London – and besides, these people had lived through the Blitz, and had little to fear of a lanky bloke in a suit of armour.
Gargan persisted. He cleared his throat and said; “Across the nine galaxies, I have fought and conquered to gain sovereignty over a million worlds. Nowhere is the name of Gargan not whispered in hushed tones for fear of his mighty wrath!”
The Doctor was trying his best not to get involved and observed the proceedings with a rather forced air of cool detachment, but he feared that things were starting to get out of control and now might be the time to intervene. He was about to speak when a rather dapper old gent with a clipped military moustache beat him to it.
“All very splendid,” said Lionel (for such was the name of the dapper fellow); “but what do you want?”
Gargan squared his shoulders and raised himself to his full impressive height. “I come to claim the Green Crown!” he thundered.
There was another awkward silence.
“The Green Crown…?” queried a lady called Phyllis, who had been a great beauty in her day but now primarily collected milk bottle tops for Guide Dogs.
“Yes,” boomed Gargan the Destroyer. “I have heard tell of this symbol of monarchy and I needs must acquire it for my trophy room, to go with the thousands of others that I hold signifying my rule over all beings.”
“Ah, I think you misunderstand,” said Lionel, rather bravely (but then he was a Desert Rat). “It’s not the Green Crown, it’s Crown Green. Crown Green Bowling, do you see?” He held up one of his bowls in demonstration.
If Gargan’s brows had been visible, they would have been furrowed. “Crown… green…?”
“It’s a game,” said Phyllis helpfully. “A contest.”
Finally, something that Gargan understood. “Aha!” he roared with renewed vigour; “I have participated in thousands of such contests. My gladiatorial skills are without compare! See my mighty weapons!” He brandished his two arms and the armour seemed to fold out of itself into a pair of huge, razor-sharp swords.
The Doctor let out a sigh. He’d realised that he wasn’t going to get away with not getting involved after all. Things had spiralled out of control and there was now a genuine possibility that someone could get hurt.
“If I may intervene…?” the Doctor stepped forward and no-one seemed inclined to stop him. “This is not a test of strength; this is a contest of skills and finesse, do you understand? I see that you don’t.”
The Doctor turned to the bowler nearest to him; an elderly West Indian gentleman called Desmond and said: “If I may borrow your ball, sir?”
Desmond passed him the ball and the Doctor strode forward into the centre of the green. “Now then sir,” the Doctor said to the alien warlord; “if you’d kindly put away your… knives or whatever they are, I shall try to explain. Come over here.”
Gargan’s mighty swords folded back into the cuffs of his armour and he took a few stomping steps towards the Doctor.
The Doctor started to explain: “The idea of this contest, game, whatever you want to call it, is to roll two of these large brown balls along the ground and to try and get them closer to that small white ball than your opponent.”
After an awkward pause, Gargan the Destroyer said: “And…?”
“And therein lies the skill,” smiled the Doctor. “Of course, your opponent can knock your bowl – that’s what these are called, you know, bowls – out of the way in order to get his or her own bowl closer.”
There was a longer, awkwarder pause. “That’s it?” said Gargan, astonished.
The Doctor nodded. “Yes, as I said, it’s not a martial conflict; it’s a test of skill. A contest au pleasance, if you will.”
“Au pleasance…?” boggled Gargan the Destroyer.
“But the victor wins the Green Crown?”
“There is no Green Crown. That’s just the name.”
“Then what are the stakes?”
The Doctor felt he was losing this conversation. He turned to the bowlers for help. “The stakes…?” he asked in desperation.
“Well,” said Lionel; “at the end of each quarter, we do award a small trophy to the best player.”
“There you go,” said the Doctor to Gargan. “A small trophy. There is great esteem in having such things, you know. Yes, great esteem.”
“A small trophy?” snorted Gargan derisively. “The Idol of Mantak Ran’zhoum, which I won in a conflict to the death which lasted an entire Martian fortnight, is the size of a whole moon!”
“Well, it’s not size that counts, is it?” snapped the Doctor. “It’s the principle of the thing, hmm? It symbolises your victory.”
Gargan harrumphed: “I am wasting my time here. I shall return to my command ship and lay waste this entire land mass with a rain of fire. Good day to you all.”
The enormous alien turned and began to stomp to his shuttle, but the Doctor knew exactly how to get him back.
“Well, if you’re afraid…” he said in a small voice.
Gargan stopped in his tracks and spun around angrily. “Afraid?” he roared. “How dare you suggest that the mighty Gargan the Destroyer should be quailed by a pathetic human game?”
The Doctor threw his arms wide in mock bafflement. “I can see no other explanation, sir.”
Gargan the Destroyer stomped back down the ramp towards the Doctor, where he faced off with the diminutive Time Lord. “Gargan the Destroyer triumphs in EVERY contest!” he insisted.
“Of that, I have no doubt,” said the Doctor obsequiously. “But the proof of the pudding is in the baking… er, the eating, so to speak.”
Gargan grabbed a bowl from the nearest member of the team. In his mighty, gauntleted hand, it looked like a small marble. “And all that I must do is propel this brown sphere at that white sphere?” he asked.
“That is very much the size of it,” confirmed the Doctor and the bowling team nodded in agreement.
“Child’s play!” boasted Gargan. He stomped to the edge of the bowling green and suddenly hurled the bowl across the surface with all his considerable might. The little brown ball shot past the jack at tremendous speed, punched a hole in a hedge and disappeared into the distance.
“Ah, now see, herein lies the misunderstanding,” began the Doctor, clutching his lapels. “The idea is to place the ball as close as possible to the Jack, do you see? Whereas your ball is currently still travelling down the M4 towards Plymouth.”
“Bah! Puny game!” harrumphed Gargan.
The Doctor tapped his chin. “Obviously this game is too delicate for a warrior of your stature. We need to expand the playing field over a much wider area!”
“Agreed! The Melee of Zastorius Gamma stretched over ten thousand star systems!”
“Well, I wouldn’t do that far, sir,” replied the Doctor. “But I d0 think that taking this contest out into space would be a better test of your considerable skills.”
Lionel thought that the Doctor was potty and told him as much, but the Doctor took the old gentleman aside and explained to him that his plan was to lure Gargan as far from Earth as possible.
“Oh, so you’ve got a plan then?” said Lionel, unconvinced.
“Of course I have a plan!” snapped the Doctor and he waggled a finger at Lionel. “It would serve you well to not be so cynical, young man.”
Lionel didn’t like having a finger waggled at him, but he did like being called ‘young man’ for the first time in 40 years.
Gargan was standing at the door of his spacecraft, pondering.
“I know what you are thinking,” said the Doctor t0 the alien warlord. “Your craft will not fit all of us; but fear not, for I have a craft of my own nearby and can follow you to the stars.”
The Doctor was unable to pilot the TARDIS with anything even remotely approaching accuracy, but he knew that he could lock the co-ordinates of his amazing space-time vehicle to those of Gargan’s vessel and ‘piggy-back’ to the correct location.
He pretended to do calculations on a notepad that he produced from his pocket. “Yes, I think the Gaia BH1 star system is just the right distance for what I have in mind.”
“Excellent!” boomed Gargan. “Then I shall crush these puny humans and claim the Green Crown!”
“Yes… erm, quite,” smiled the Doctor nervously.
The Doctor walked briskly back to his TARDIS, accompanied by Lionel, Desmond and Phyllis, who insisted on coming as official representatives of the Bowls Club.
The three pensioners were remarkably unphased by the fact that the Doctor’s ship was bigger on the inside than out; after atom bombs, heart transplants and the Beatles, they were prepared to accept that just about anything was possible.
“I like the round things,” commented Phyllis. “I think I saw something similar on Cilla the other night.”
The Doctor ignored her and set the co-ordinates to match those of Gargan’s ship. In no time at all, they were sailing though the stars and into the unknown. He switched on the scanner, which showed Gargan’s ship suspended in space as they reached their destination.
The warlord’s distorted voice boomed out of a speaker on the console. “We are here! What now?” he demanded.
The Doctor grasped his lapels. “Well, I think given what is at stake here, the Jack you should be aiming for is none other than the planet Earth itself!”
The three members of the bowling club were horrified, but the Doctor waved them into silence.
“Excellent!” boomed Gargan.
“There’s a large meteoroid to your left,” instructed the Doctor. “You can use that as your bowl.”
On the scanner, a blue light shot out from Gargan’s ship and pulled the enormous rock towards it.
“Splendid,” exclaimed the Doctor. The humans started to protest again, but once more the Doctor shushed them.
Gargan’s voice boomed out. “So, now all that remains is to hurl this rock towards the Earth?”
“Yes, yes,” began the Doctor; “But I think you might be a little too close. We must do these things right – rules of combat and all that, hmm?”
Gargan reluctantly agreed and his ship reversed several thousand miles.
“Here…?” he asked.
“Further back than that,” said the Doctor.
Gargan’s ship reversed some more. “Here…?” he asked.
“Just a trifle more, my dear fellow,” the Doctor smiled agreeably.
Gargan’s ship reversed a third time. He had just started to say ‘here…?’ when the meteoroid that he was towing was caught in the gravity well of the closest black hole to Earth and it – along with Gargan’s ship – were sucked into oblivion.
“Oh dear, how unfortunate,” said the Doctor with an audible lack of sincerity and he flicked the Fast Return Switch, instantaneously transporting the TARDIS back to London in the late 1960s.
Back at the Bowling Green, the Doctor relaxed on the pavilion as the team continued their game. Much to his relief, they were in ethical agreement with his actions and Lionel had even commented that he wished they’d had a black hole to flush Hitler down in ’44.
The Doctor, however, knew that the fate of Gargan the Destroyer was not terminal. Even now he would be exerting his martial ambitions upon the antimatter universe and may one day find a way back to seek revenge. He’d have to keep an eye out for that, though it would most likely be the problem of another Doctor.
Phyllis arrived with a cup of tea and an extra large slice of Victoria Sponge. “Thank you, my dear,” the Doctor smiled.
Meeting these people had given the Doctor a new perspective on life. Their bodies were wearing a bit thin too, but they didn’t have the luxury of renewing their cells and becoming young again; instead, they lived each day with a quiet glee, playing bowls, drinking tea – just enjoying the twilight.
When he compared it to the alternative – the all-consuming, directionless and ultimately impotent fury of Gargan the Destroyer – it was definitely the more desirable alternative.
The Doctor sipped his tea and took a bite of his cake. There was no hurry; Steven and Dodo were doubtless having fun of their own and didn’t need him hurrying then along on another adventure. He would afford to watch this game to its conclusion.
The universe could wait.