"Phantasmagoria" is the first 'regular' Doctor Who story produced by Big Finish. Sandwiched between the televised adventures "Resurrection of the Daleks" and "Planet of Fire" we follow Peter Davison (as the fifth Doctor) and Mark Strickson (as Turlough) through an atmospheric adventure set in London, 1702.
Both the cast and the setting were curious choices for the second audio – the fifth Doctor and Turlough aren't the first Doctor / Companion duo that spring to mind considering those available, and historical Doctor Who stories were never as popular as their contemporary or future counterparts. They, however, weren't penned by Mark Gatiss.
Gatiss' plot is nothing particularly special, like his novels most of the interest comes from his wonderful characters and not necessarily what they are doing. Despite some excellent performances all round, with only just over ninety minutes of running time and only sound to tell his story I found "Phantasmagoria" somewhat lacking in depth, and couldn't help but feel that the story would be better suited to a novel. However, in some ways this works to the story's advantage; the four episodes fly past quickly yet Gatiss' still finds time to let his historical knowledge shine through, making the listener feel like they are really listening to something coming straight out of 1702!
Despite my reservations about the choice main characters, within minutes they were put to rest as both actors performances were torn straight out of season twenty-one – seamless. Moreover, in the early episodes Gatiss uses the character of Hannah as a sort of 'female companion' giving the play more of a 'traditional Doctor Who feel.' This works very well indeed as once you feel comfortable with her character, at the end of Part 3 the reveal that she is not who she seems to be is genuinely shocking – definitely the best cliff-hanger of the story.
The rest of the cast are excellent – Gatiss participates himself as 'Jasper Jeake,' a character that would easily be able to find a home somewhere in Royston Vasey, David Ryall is superb as the villain, Sir Nikolas Valentine, and Julia Dalkin does a tremendous job as Hannah Fry. I was quite surprised to here another familiar voice recurring throughout the play, that of a young David Walliams playing the ridiculously camp 'Quincy Flowers' – a role that suited him perfectly and probably led to the now-familiar to millions 'laydee' voice of Emily Howard!
As with "The Sirens of Time" the production values were fantastic – the soundscape of pre-Georgian London was every bit as convincing as the worlds we visited in "The Sirens of Time" and listening to the play the audio caused recurring images from "The Visitation" in my head, probably the TV story this play is most similar to. All things considered there is much to like about Big Finish's second release, and I'm sure that with a bit of fine-tuning these audio plays can only improve. If you liked "Nightshade," "Last of the Gaderene" or "The Visitation" then this story is definitely for you!
The 2nd Big Finish tale is still one of the best. Set in 1702 when Queen Anne was on the English throne it features the 5th Doctor and Turlough. To be truthful Dr Who has had better combinations of Doctor and Companion, but seeing as they spend a good deal of the tale apart, that's fine!
Both Davison and Strickson recreate their characters with ease. Davison's portrayal is particularly excellent - you could just see him parading through pre-Georgian London with his Cricket outfit. In fact that is the essence of what makes this adventure so great - you are in 1702 as you listen to it. Big Finish have re-created this period so well, you feel the cobbled roads under your feet, and imagine the chaos in the streets as the horse-drawn carriages trundle by.
The story is a simple one told well. Mark Gatiss is one of my favorite authors. Nightshade and Gadarene tell simple tales too, but they tell them in page-turning style, like all the best novels. Phantasmagoria fairly races past as you are so involved in the story.
The supporting characters are superb too, with Valentine - quite clearly the scheming baddie from the word go - excellent. Looking back over many Audios Valentine definitely stands out as one of the best, and full marks to David Ryall for a brilliant turn. The Doctor is ably supported by Holywell, as played by Steven Wickham - one of those wonderful middle aged eccentrics that light up the Dr Who world. Mark Gatiss himself plays Jasper Jeake - a rather amiable chap who finds the whole escapade exhilarating.
I also have to applaud the production of this story. The music, by Alistair Lock, perfectly compliments the action - with the right emphasis being given to relevant scenes. It gives the whole play an eerie atmosphere, like you are being pulled into something otherworldly, but also rather eccentric. All in all, this is a witty and engaging tale, and contains all the right ingredients for GREAT Doctor Who. 10/10
'Phantasmagoria' was only the second of Big Finish's Doctor Who audio adventures, but after the fairly dire 'The Sirens of Time' it was the one that first convinced me of the potential of the series' new format. Scripted by Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentlemen Fame, it is extremely atmospheric, boasting as it does a card game with a devilish opponent, ghostly voices, mysterious disappearances, and a notorious highwayman at work in London.
The roots of 'Phantasmagoria' are well known; it is inspired by a sketch from 1997 Edinburgh Festival live performance of The League of Gentlemen in which a card player finds himself embroiled in a card game with a man who might be the Devil. If it is the same sketch as the one that appeared on The League of Gentlemen Live DVD, the card player in question offers bets his soul on the game, only to find himself facing the impenetrable rules of "Go-Johnny-Go-Go-Go-Go"… Here, the concept is expanded on and taken more seriously; Sir Nikolas Valentine's opponents are given a playing card as a souvenir, which contain homing devices and record their recipients' biodata, allowing Valentine to capture them and enslave them as components of his damaged organic spaceship. It is a deceptively simple plot, made interesting by the carefully handled revelations as to whom and what Valentine really is, and thanks to the supporting characters, the period atmosphere, and a witty script.
Given my fairly patchy knowledge of history, I have no idea whether or not the period feel evoked by 'Phantasmagoria' is authentic or not, but it makes for a rich backdrop to the story. The ever so slightly grotesque characters make the story feel almost like homage to the Blackadder School of history, and the presence of a cross dressing highwayman inevitably draws comparisons with the Blackadder the Third episode 'Amy and Amiability'. But there are far worse sources to emulate, and 'Phantasmagoria' benefits greatly from the comparison; Hannah is not the only Blackadder influence, as the slightly caricature Jasper Jeapes is another. Writer Gatiss's performance as Jeapes oozes relish, as he adopts a cod accent and delivers his lines with a roguish glee. Everything is slightly exaggerated, with the names a perfect example; in addition to Jasper Jeapes, we also have a Quincy Flowers, and of course Sir Nikolas Valentine himself, whose alias is clearly intended to be a sly nod to the name "Old Nick", sometimes used to describe Lucifer.
The dialogue is superb, adding to the period feel and handled very well by the actors. Lines such as "Prithee, good sir" are delivered with ease and sound both perfectly natural and reassuringly historical. There is also a great deal of wit, such as when the Doctor describes the Diabola Club as "obviously a broad church", to which Jeapes replies "No, it's a tall narrow building". There is also Holywell's description of the club as a place of vice and infamy, where its clients can drink, gamble, and spend time with whores; he then adds that he's been trying to gain membership for years. Steven Wickham is very good as the amiable Holywell, who happily rises to the challenge of aiding the Doctor, as is Julia Dalkin as Hannah Fry, a serving maid with a secret and alien past. Gatiss, whom I've already mentioned, is perfect as Jeapes, leading me to assume that wrote the part for himself, and he captures some of the appeal of Michael Robbins' Richard Mace from 'The Visitation'.
As the villainous Sir Nikolas Valentine, secretly alien criminal Karthok of Daedalus, David Ryall is quite magnificent. His voice drips with devilish glee and the role is well scripted; Gatiss has no trouble in incorporating his Devilish card player idea into the framework of a Doctor Who story, and Karthok's motivation is simple but logical as he recruits his unwilling victims to the cause of repairing his ship and escaping from Earth. Valentine is thoroughly evil, his dark past as explained by Hannah entirely consistent with his disregard for the lives of others, and the image of drained husks inside his fleshy craft is a literal chamber of horrors. In addition to all of this, he also comes across as intelligent and cunning, having managed to insinuate himself into Earth society with considerable success.
'Phantasmagoria' is Peter Davison's first solo outing for Big Finish, and whilst his best audio performances will come later, he is still very good. He puts in a calm and thoughtful performance, as the Doctor applies himself to solving the mystery of the men who have disappeared, and is largely proactive throughout, as he slowly works out what is going on and eventually identifies his opponent as Valentine. Interestingly, the Doctor more or less manages to remain in control throughout the story, and is seldom truly in danger; even during the final confrontation with Valentine he has clearly prepared for it, as his ploy with the almanac and the playing card makes clear. Incidentally, the way in which the Doctor neatly befriends Holywell by admiring his collection of antiquities is hugely refreshing, when one considers how many times the Fifth Doctor had to jump through hoops to gain people's trust in his television adventures.
Unfortunately, Turlough comes across far less well. It is great to hear Mark Strickson return to the role (and I gather, to acting) and Big Finish's exploitation of the brief time in which the Doctor and Turlough travel without other companions (Kamelion notwithstanding) has as much potential as their use of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa combination, but the characterisation of Turlough does quite ring true. His overriding priority for self-preservation is captured when he flees in terror at the end of Episode One, but for most of the time he's rather too brave. He is uncharacteristically chivalrous when he leaps to Hannah's defense in Episode One as Ned Cotton tries to force himself upon her, and his decision to follow Valentine, and especially his decision to enter Valentine's house, seems even more out of character. Given the potential of Turlough as a character, and the fact that Strickson is generally very good in the role, this is a shame, as is the fact that he gets saddled with some woefully clumsy expository dialogue in Episode One, as he wanders about Holywell's house talking to himself.
My only other criticism is the presence of the unnamed aliens in brief scenes during Episode One, as they comment on their client's (i.e. Hannah's) mission on Earth; it rather interrupts the flow of the episode, and would perhaps have been better left over until the Episode Three cliffhanger. Overall however, 'Phantasmagoria' works very well, and it is nice to hear a witty and entertaining pseudo historical adventure in the midst of the generally rather grim Season Twenty-One.
On first listening I was astonished at how my initial enjoyment could turn to such disappointed disgust by the plays end. While repeated listens have softened the harshness of my feelings towards the plays faults, this is still very much a story of two halves.
The first two episodes are simply fantastic. There’s some great banter between the 5th Doctor and Turlough, and with Tegan absent (hooray!) this is an intriguing and (still) underused pairing. The set up of the mysterious gambler (familiar from the League of Gentlemen live set) is a great hook, and the deliciously fruity performances of Gatiss, Ryall and Wickham are perfectly just on the right sight of being outright comedy. The only performance I’m not totally enamoured with is Jez Fielders Poltrot, who sounds uncannily like a bad Paul Whitehouse impersonation to my ears. Doesn’t suit you, sir.
Things start to go wrong during episode 3, with the revelation of the real identity of ‘Billy Lovemore’, which immediately brings to mind Blackadders similarly trans-gendered Highwayman, and lowers the tone somewhat. In fact the whole of this corny ‘alien seeking revenge for parents killer’ plot is highly unwelcome, and leads to a wholly unsatisfactory climax (complete with nauseatingly predictable HEROIC SACRIFICE finale). The Doctor gambling for his soul against a card player in league with the devil is perfect dramatic material – it’s really all you need – revealing some silly stock aliens to be behind the action is a disappointingly mundane resolution. To make matters worse, not only is this a cliché for Doctor Who, it’s also exactly the same premise Gatiss used the year before for his 7th Doctor BBV audio Repubica. Turlough also suffers from an unexplained imbuing of heroic recklessness in the final episode, as he suddenly decides to confront the villain in his lair, completely contradicting the previous episode when we’re told he’s only looking for the address to inform the Doctor.
This play still has a lot going for it, with some great performances – but boy, what a letdown. Based on the evidence of the first two episodes this had the premise and the talent to be one of Big Finishes best ever plays, but instead it is content to slide into predictable Who mediocrity. What a pity…
Following on the heels of the first Big Audio Doctor Who production, "Sirens of Time," we are treated to our first full-length serial starring Peter Davison since "Caves of Androzani." Presumably this story takes place between the television serials "Resurrection of the Daleks" and "Planet of Fire." As a huge Davison fan, and one who was disappointed in "Sirens," I awaited this story with some trepidation and came away from it with mixed feelings.
The story opens in London, 1702 at the Diabola club, an exclusive "gentleman's club" wherein gambling and other forms of debauchery rule the day. We are introduced to Edmund Carterette, Jasper Jeake, and Quincy Flowers and the devishly sinister Sir Nikolas Valentine (acted in grand tradition by Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss, David Walliams, and David Ryall). The Doctor and Turlough are re-introduced with the Time Lord painfully explaining the rules of cricket to his companion.
Following the introduction of the central characters the story unfolds slowly over the course of four episodes. Mystery prevails in the first episode as we wonder just who is Nikolas Valentine? Obviously a gambler, but when asked "what game he is at," he replies: "What game do I play? Oh a long game my friend, a very long game." Ryall's portrayal is top-notch, on par with Roger Delgado's Master or Valentine Dyall's Black Guardian. In fact I wondered if Dyall's Guardian served as the "template" for Valentine. But be warned if you want to maintain your respect for the character and Ryall's acting, skip the final episode.
The greatest strengths of the episode are the strong production and the acting. It is not at all difficult to imagine you are in England in the 18th century. Davison slips painlessly into his role as the Doctor and Strickson does an adequate job with a character that was not that good to begin with. In fact, all of the primary actors do a fine job with their roles.
The primary downfall of this production, and "Sirens" for that matter, has been the rather lackluster story content. While "Phantasmagoria" appears to be building to something, we end up with what is basically a rip-off of the conclusion of "City of Death." Valentine is revealed to be a psychopathic alien criminal on the run. His biomechanical ship has been stranded on Earth and he has intermittently (every thirty years) been processing human brains to reconstruct it. Now the ship is ready for blast-off, the down-side being that it will destroy all of London. The Doctor ultimately defeats Valentine using reverse-psychology, poorly. Valentine touches a playing card which he has been utilising to download the bio-data of the individuals he is using to repair his ship. The Doctor had previously been "downloaded" in such a manner, but escaped by destroying the card. Unfortunately for Valentine, he lacks the knowledge that all he need do is destroy the card to escape. Please. Valentine's final scenes are agonizing to listen to as he degenerates into your typical maniacal villain dead-set on destroying the planet for no apparent reason.
A lesser, but still annoying, problem with the audio productions has been the persistent use of the characters to blatantly describe what his happening. For example, following the sound of a blast, a character exclaims "My pistol has melted like led." While I recognize there are limitations to an audio production, it feels at times as though we are being spoonfed the action. When we take into consideration the persistent use of the Doctor's companions to explain what only he knows (a near constant pattern in the televised serial) and add to it this component of the audio dramas, it can be quite over the top at times.
The bottom line is that the actors perform well with a script that, barring the initial episodes, lacks suspense and substance. Despite this, the story is more cohesive than it's predecessor. I am thrilled and excited to have Doctor Who back in production, but I do wish that the producers would be more selective in the scripts they accept. Given the fact that there have been a number of well-developed Doctor Who novels published over the past several years, it is very disappointing to listen to a shallow production. Perhaps Big Finish's goal of producing one story per month is too high. I hope the quality of the stories themselves improve; however, given the liner notes of the upcoming "The Land of the Dead," I am not optimistic. The author, Stephen Cole, writes "A combination of unforeseen events and shifting schedules left me with only a week to come up with the scripts for the 'Land of the Dead'." While Stephen Cole may be a good writer, I'm not sure that even the best scriptwriter could accomplish much in a week. We shall see.
The Doctor and Turlough arrive in London in 1702 where a strange series of incidents have occurred. The mysterious Sir Nikolos Valentine always seems to win his card matches, and has an agenda of his own to pursue. Highwaymen roam the streets and gentlemen are disappearing all over the city. It soon becomes apparent that there is very much more than is readily apparent occurring...
Mark Gatiss, author of the highly praised New Adventure Nightshade, makes his audio scripting debut with Phantasmagoria, the second original Doctor Who story from Big Finish and the first solo story with the Fifth Doctor and Turlough. And while there have been many releases since Phantasmagoria, it still stands up to scrutiny as an entertaining piece of drama.
Gatiss' novels have always had humour in, and considering that he's one of The League Of Gentlemen this is not a surprise. Phantasmagoria follows this trend with some of it being very amusing indeed, but in the best tradition of Doctor Who there is much more to it than just that with Gatiss showing a good line in the sort of horror that the television series always used to use to such good effect.
Peter Davison's episode of The Sirens Of Time was easily the best of the three that featured each of the three Doctors, and his performance in Phantasmagoria does build on this but Davison's confidence in the role seems to be lacking sometimes here in his performance. This is quite understandable really given that this is the first time that he's played the role of the Doctor properly since 1984, and with recent releases like Loups-Garoux and The Eye Of The Scorpion he has firmly re-established himself as a formidable Doctor. But concentrating on his performance here the first thing that is noticeable is just how different his voice is now. It still sounds the same, but there is an added maturity which comes from the fact that Davison is nearly twenty years older than when he became the Doctor.
Mark Strickson's performance isn't bad, but it remains unspectacular. It's not helped by the fact that he's not really given very much material to work with, and Turlough acts very out of character throughout a lot of this story. In a nice moment, Gatiss recognises this by having Turlough say that he's acting out of character for himself. But while that might make a good moment in the drama, it doesn't really excuse the fact that Strickson's performance suffers because of the unfamiliar character that he's playing here.
One of the most memorable aspects of Phantasmagoria is the performance of David Ryall as Sir Nikolas Valentine. His villainous turn here is quite marvellous and he remains one of the best villains to have appeared so far in a Big Finish production. Although there aren't any real standout performances from the rest of the cast, their performances are all up to a good standard and they ensure that the enjoyment factor of the story isn't compromised by any over the top or substandard performances.
The setting of the story in the early 18th Century makes this a historical based one, and whilst the quality of the story isn't as strong as those historicals who would follow, the London of 1702 is effectively recreated through the script and the sound effects used by the production team.
Phantasmagoria is hampered by its most inherent flaw though, and this prevents it from living up to the potential that it has. This flaw is its shortness. At just over eighty minutes long, Phantasmagoria is the shortest of all the Big Finish Doctor Who dramas released so far and this gives no real chance to develop depth to the story and the whole drama ultimately comes across as a little unsatisfying. Despite this though, Phantasmagoria has enough quality performances to prevent this feeling to dominant the entire experience of listening to the drama.
Judged against the majority of titles that followed, Phantasmagoria doesn't compare too favourably. But judged on itself it's quite an entertaining Doctor Who story. The script is good, if short, and the performances are never anything less than acceptable. David Ryall's Sir Nikolas Valentine is the most memorable aspect of Phantasmagoria as his character really stands out as was undoubtedly Gatiss' intention when he created him. While Phantasmagoria is entertaining enough, it never really reaches the level of quality that later release have, and the shortness of the story really works against it as the story never develops as fully as it should do. But it does have some noteworthy elements which ensure that Phantasmagoria is an engaging piece of drama but little more.