Well, here we are with the second audio adventure in the Big Finish Doctor Who range, and it is a much more traditional affair compared to the blow-out three Doctors crossover that was The Sirens of Time. So, is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Read on further to find out.
“Use your brain, Turlough.”
Episode 1: The Fifth Doctor and Tulough find themselves in early 17th century London, in the home of one Doctor Samuel Holywell. Elsewhere, men of good standing continue to mysteriously vanish without trace. Is notorious Highwayman Major Billy Lovemore somehow involved? And just what is the game that the enigmatic Sir Nikolas Valentine is playing at his regular table in the Diabola Club?
Peter Davison returns as The Doctor, and thankfully, he seems to have found his old self, or rather, his old Doctor, a little more successfully this time out. To be perfectly blunt, I find that he often still comes across as a little low key for the lead in an audio production, but arguably that is more down to the personality of his version of The Doctor than any deficiency or laziness on Davison’s part, and really, he is just being true to that aspect of the character in his performance here. As such, it seems almost too nitpicky a point to raise any kind of serious complaint over. So consider this more an observation than a complaint then.
Joining him this time around is Mark Strickson as the pessimistic interplanetary ginger, Vislor Turlough. It’s an interesting choice for Davison’s first audio companion, but it works well enough, and the story gives him a reasonable amount to do, which for once doesn’t include being trapped or tied up some place out of the way of the main plot. In what seems to be a trend, Strickson’s attempts to recapture his Turlough character for audio do seem a bit wobbly in places. However, while this is certainly noticeable, it honestly doesn’t detract too much, and he’s still decent enough overall. I must say that I would have liked him to be a bit more prickly and acerbic in general though. After all, Turlough was often the most fun when he was being a bit of a dick, and he doesn’t seem anywhere near as reluctant to get involved here as he often tended to be in the classic series.
The rest of the cast round out this audio in admirable style, with a few performances being of particular note. Mark Gatiss is very good indeed in his role of Jasper Jeake, and adds a real spark into the audio whenever his character is on the scene. On the other end of the scale, David Ryall gives a rather schizophrenic performance as Sir Nikolas Valentine, at one moment suitably creepy to really great effect, the next completely over the top, complete with evil bwa-ha-ha‘s. You can practically hear him twirling his moustache in some of the latter scenes. It’s never awful, but it is unbalanced, and not in a particularly good way, which is a bit of a shame really. Dialled back in a notch in the offending scenes and it would have been a far more effective performance overall. David Walliams’ Quincy Flowers is also something to behold. A character that sounds a bit too Little Britain, so much so that at any point I expected the character to proudly proclaim “But I’m a lady!“, however in context of both the character and setting, it works just fine.
Getting into the story proper, this first episode is all about setting the scene, and putting the main players in place, as can be expected. And it manages to do so quite well, all things considered. The production in general also seems a lot more confident and self assured this time out, with a lot less problems in so far as inconsistent tone and performances of wildly varying standards. Plus, with this story returning us to the more traditional original series format, we get our first proper cliff-hanger. What? I like cliff-hangers.
Or do I?
“The air was full of phantoms.”
Episode 2: After the events of the previous night, Turlough has become separated from The Doctor. Finding himself in the company of Jasper Jeake and Quincy Flowers, he finds that they, too, are looking for answers.
Yes. I do.
Anyhow, during the second episode the story starts to pick up and generally get more interesting. Turlough being off on his own actually works pretty well, though it is a bit telling that The Doctor doesn’t seem in all that much of a rush to find him again. Mind you, this is the Doctor that left one of his companions behind to crash into a planet for arguing with him, buggered off leaving yet another on an interplanetary plague ship, and sent a third one running away with severe emotional trauma, so perhaps Turlough should consider himself lucky, all things considered.
Speaking of young master Turlough, when listening to his compatriots, Jasper and Quincy, I couldn’t help but be reminded a little of Jago and Litefoot from the Tom Baker classic, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. They just have that same kind of rapport and casual likeability to their banter and personalities. And that is no bad thing at all. Take a bow, Mr Gatiss and Mr Walliams.
And now, a warning. Be very wary of space emos. For they seem to have no point, other than to resentfully dole out exposition that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, and do so in as uninvolved and dull a manner as possible. Seriously, I now have conclusive proof that space emos = bad. Always. You have been warned. That is all.
Thankfully they don’t show up all that much, either here or in the rest of the story to come. But then, you wouldn’t really expect them to, would you? It’d be far too much effort. I mean Hell, they make Marvin the Paranoid Android seem positively enthusiastic by comparison. So we’re probably (the opposite of) lucky that they turned up the couple of times that they did. Unsurprisingly, they also seem to be alarmingly crap at their jobs, so much so that I strongly suspect they only have one ‘client’ and are in fact deliberately dragging the whole thing out as much as possible, just because they have nothing better to do. Oh how I wish they had something better to do.
“The voices of the dead.”
Episode 3: While searching for clues in regard to the whereabouts of a missing friend, Turlough is reunited with The Doctor, who is busily conducting his own investigation into these so-called ‘vanishments’.
As we power through the third episode we discover why Sir Nikolas Valentine will never be on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens (this week’s special feature: Walls of Meat. A how-to guide on making sure it’s pink in the middle.), and The Doctor finds Turlough, to much rejoicing. Or hardy any, really. But then, it is Turlough.
Things are finally starting to come together rather nicely, despite David Ryall going so far over the top in one scene that he may no longer even possess a bottom. The evil bwa-ha-ha‘s flow thick and freely, oh yes indeed they do. It’s all a bit much, really, but it’s still no Ruthley from The Sirens of Time, so one has to be thankful for small mercies. Things get back on track soon enough, and toward the end we get a rather nice confrontation scene between The Doctor and Valentine. Which is rather nice. And confrontational.
And no, I didn’t see that twist coming.
“Slaughterer of the unworthy.”
Episode 4: As the full horror behind the disappearances is unveiled, the Doctor discovers that not everybody is who they appear to be.
So, does it all come together in the end, then? Well, yes it does, and rather entertainingly so, to boot.
Putting Davison’s Doctor into a historical like this is just one of those things that always seemed to work, back in the day, and it proved a smart choice for his first solo Doctor outing in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. Mark Gatiss has delivered a pretty good romp here, which, in retrospect, also seems to share a few general similarities with what would later be his Doctor Who TV writing debut, The Unquiet Dead.
There are patchy moments, and a bit of padding, as can be expected I suppose, plus the perpetually bored sounding observers really are rather naff, but there’s also some nice lines, some fun characters, at least one genuine surprise, a rather nicely realised soundscape, a quality score, and a great sense of atmosphere. I mean, what more can you ask for? Well, less space emo’s I guess, but you can’t have everything.
I have to say that despite a few minor nitpicks, overall I found Phantasmagoria to be really a rather fun outing for the Fifth Doctor. More consistent than The Sirens of Time, and just an enjoyably old school type romp, one that I could easily buy into as being a proper part of Peter Davison’s run of Doctor Who stories. And surely that, in itself, is recommendation enough.
Next up: Colin Baker returns in Whispers of Terror