Written By: Mark Gatiss
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Featuring: Fifth Doctor and Turlough
Big Finish Summary:
The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Turlough to the London of 1702 where a mysterious highwayman roams the streets, a local occultist has made contact with the dead and gentlemen of fashion are disappearing, only to find themselves in a chamber whose walls weep blood.
The time-travellers become enmeshed in the hideous plan of Sir Nikolas Valentine, a gambler at the mysterious Diabola Club who always seems to have a winning hand…
Phantasmagoria once again highlights the uncertainty of the writers as to how best translate the beloved TV series Doctor Who into an audio book adventure.
The story begins in a packed 18th century club, where men are drinking and playing cards. At first, I heard the audio cues that highlighted that, though it started to become a confusing mix of loud voices and noises. Apart from a few touches, such as the horses & carriages and the highwayman character, this could have taken place in nearly any time; for a period episode, I wanted more period. There is an over-abundance of male characters, and though some manage to stand out, such as Dr Samuel Holywell and Sir Nikolas Valentine, it is hard to distinguish several members of the gentleman’s club from one another. Listening to scenes like this, it felt like a typical TV story that was turned into an audio story and no heavy handed lines like “look at his face”, without further explanation, could really extinguish that feeling.
Despite only being the second released Big Finish Doctor Who story, the plot was wafer thin; it could be easily squeezed into a revival 45 minute episode. As a result, the first three episodes flew by with not that much happening or being revealed; episode 1 comes in at a meager 19:57 in length. I wouldn’t have minded having further character development and moments that would showcase the central protagonists in that space but as it is, it feels like a basic science-fiction trope (the alien wanting revenge on another which takes place on Earth) that could have been taken so much further. The playing card as a literal death card was done quite well, but I wished its connection to Nikolas Valentine (a single heart on the card) wasn’t so obvious.
As was my qualm about the representation of the Doctor and the companion in the only other 5th Doctor adventure I’d experienced, The Land of the Dead, here there is a lack of personality coming from either The Doctor or Turlough. I’d put this down to the writers still trying to find their feet in these early Big Finish stories, though the upcoming The Fearmonger managed to do that well. There is one exception, that being The 5th Doctor’s love of cricket, which is what he and Turlough are discussing at the start of the story. That comes up, in typical Who fashion, at the climax, though the companion stating why he chooses to stay with The Doctor as a spaceship blows up around them – “It’s just not cricket” made me laugh out loud, and not in a good way. In these early stages, the Big Finish adventures feel quite hit and miss with the characterisation, but I know it’ll improve when the balance is struck and they treat it less like a TV series.
Overall, this isn’t a brilliant episode sadly. As was the case with the other 5th Doctor adventure I have heard, the potential is definitely there but it misses the mark somewhat and doesn’t put enough detail in the narrative. I finally finished the story on my 3rd attempt at listening to it, not a great sign I know, but I will definitely carry on with these reviews as I know there is better to come.
Overall Rating: 2/5