We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Phantasmagoria, the second in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
It’s London, 8 March 1702, and King William has just died. We join some locals in the Diabola Club, celebrating the king’s death and the ascension of his successor with some drinking, gambling, and—as always—gossip. Something isn’t right, however; the mysterious Sir Nikolas Valentine, playing cards alone, is not what he seems…and people are going missing. Meanwhile, the Fifth Doctor arrives, accompanied by Vislor Turlough, arriving inside the house of Dr. Samuel Holywell, a collector of antiquities and oddities. The Doctor and Turlough quickly get separated; Turlough is involved in a carriage accident in the street, and is taken in by two friends from the club, Jeake and Flowers, who tend his injuries.
Meanwhile, a third man—Carteret, a friend of Jeake and Flowers—dies in the street, apparently from fright, leading the Doctor to investigate.
The investigation leads the Doctor and the others first to Holywell’s maid, Hannah, and then to a flamboyant highwayman named Major Billy Lovemore; and in the biggest twist of this story, the two are revealed to be one. Hannah/Lovemore is not of earth; she’s not a shapeshifter, as it seems at a glance, but rather, is simply accomplished at disguises, and possessed of a voice changer as well. She has made her way to Earth to apprehend Valentine, who is also in disguise; beneath it, he is an otherworldly criminal known as Carthok of Daodalus. Hannah’s vendetta is personal; in addition to many other deaths, he killed her parents. Stranded on Earth with a damaged ship, he has been kidnapping people to provide bio-organic repairs to his ship (a premise that will, some years later, be repeated onscreen in The Girl in the Fireplace with the Tenth Doctor, and Deep Breath with the Twelfth Doctor). If he escapes, he will destroy the city in the process. The Doctor successfully thwarts him by turning his own technology against him; and Hannah sacrifices herself to destroy him. The Doctor and Turlough then program the ship to self-destruct.
This audio has some notable firsts for Big Finish. It’s the first single-doctor audio, as the Doctor Who range began with a multi-doctor story. It’s the first to feature a returning companion (or any companion at all) with Turlough. Mark Strickson’s return is particularly good; the longer I’m aware of that character, the more I like him. Turlough, once past the insanity of his early appearances, is a clever, loyal, resolute companion, filling the niche that Nyssa left behind in Terminus. Given that he is the only companion present, it must occur between the events of Resurrection of the Daleks (Tegan’s exit) and Planet of Fire (Turlough’s exit)—not a wide range, but certainly possible. The story is the first pure historical of the audios (The Sirens of Time had a historical sequence, but was mostly in the future), and I enjoyed it more than most historicals of the television series.
On the negative side: It’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking. All of the major plot elements have been done before; although, with this series, it’s getting hard to find things that HAVEN’T been done in some capacity. Some would go on to be done again onscreen, and better (see The Girl in the Fireplace, above). As well, it’s a slow starter; it takes until about the end of part three for the action to really pick up. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad story at all; it’s solid, and if it had been a classic serial, it would have been firmly middle-of-the-road, assuming it translated well to screen (and it should). It shares some elements with a number of serials: Ghost Light, The Visitation, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and City of Death all come to mind, as well as the two NuWho stories I mentioned above, and possibly Love and Monsters (with the idea of absorbing individuals for their life energy).
In retrospect, I think that beginning the single-doctor stories with the Fifth Doctor was a great idea. Davison is easily the most relatable of the living classic Doctors, and probably the one with the least debate about his character. It sounds weak to say it, perhaps, but beginning with someone who would not be controversial in any way was a wise move, given that the range was just getting established. Bringing back Turlough may not have been the most obvious choice—Tegan, I think, would have been more likely—but it certainly worked out well, and I’m glad they did it.
Next time: Main Range #3, Whispers of Terror! See you there.
All audios reviewed in this series can be purchased here from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below. This and many other audio dramas are also available on Spotify and Google Play.