By the second Big Finish release, Phantasmagoria, we have the fifth doctor traveling with Turlough. Right away I was reminded of The Unquiet Dead. No, not just because of the phrase “what phantasmagoria is this…?” because I do see beyond the use of one fairly obscure word. It had more to do with the style. This story takes place in the past, where people are haunted by “ghosts” and don’t understand what they are up against, but oh, yeah, this is Doctor Who, so the ghosts are actually aliens from another world. We’re in familiar territory before it was familiar territory. But it takes nothing away from the story. The acting is very good regardless of the reasonably familiar ideas.
It’s also interesting to think of the Doctor’s personality as each regeneration shuffles up his likes and dislikes. In this story, the Doctor is giving Turlough a lecture on why cricket is the greatest game in the universe. Two lifetimes ago, “wine, cheese and crackers” seemed like the only game in the Doctor’s play book and in 2 more incarnations, chess will be his game of choice. But for right now, cricket seems to be the Doctor’s thing and he wants to give Turlough an education. Luckily Turlough is a bit more like this fan and couldn’t care less about the sport. But for all we love of those “inside the TARDIS” scenes, the story doesn’t open up there which just serves to tell us that this Chekov’s Cricket Book will come in handy later. But first we open with a lot of dialogue between people we know nothing about. In fairness, clues are given to the time frame with the reference of the death of the king and Queen Anne, but alas, this fan may not like sports, but he also wasn’t paying attention in history class 20 years ago. I needed the Doctor to tell me the year was 1702.
After a fairly lackluster opening, I found myself being drawn in and especially liked some of the characters, particularly the (pre-) Dickens stand-in Samuel Holywell and Jasper, who helps Turlough and sounds far too much like The Visitation’s Richard Mace. And then there was Hannah who was really the big draw. Somehow this servant really captured me and I wanted her to go off with the Doctor. Well, at least for a part of the story. The story actually holds up very well and after a slow start, I found myself engrossed and anxious for the next part, but I was disappointed with an aspect of this medium. Again, listening while driving, the episode endings have to be strong, captivating. Unfortunately, twice they ended the same way: loud noises signifying something terrible… that get resolved in seconds after the next part opens. That, in my book, is not a something to impress. Luckily the story itself makes up for a lot of it.
Is this a showstopper? Not at all. The story is clearly doing things that could never have been shown on television. It does require a bit of suspension of disbelief in some aspects, like the main villain who always wears gloves, suddenly not having them on, but finding themselves in a house covered in human carnage would never be acceptable in Doctor Who. It just wouldn’t be cricket. Oh, look, I’ve done it. I used my Chekov’s reference from earlier in the review to bring us back to it now. Yes, that also happens and this is where watching a show like Babylon 5 hurts a person’s ability to enjoy another series. When you see how brilliantly a show can be written, a thing like this becomes glaring. The moment the Doctor told Turlough to read the book in the beginning of the story, I knew it would be important somehow later. I just feel there are stronger story telling techniques!
Despite its flaws, it’s a good story. Davison and Strickson are on point, as is the rest of the cast. One is almost inclined to believe the main bad guy is the devil himself. It’s not the best the range has to offer but it’s certainly part of a good initial run. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. How will Colin do in his own story? We’ll find out, next week! ML