Written by Mark Gatiss
Released October 1999
“The bumble bee in the cow turd thinks himself king.”
I adore historical period adventures of Doctor Who. The 1960’s straight historical stories of the Hartnell and Troughton eras (such as Marco Polo and the Highlanders) are wonderful, but later adventures that infused the past with science fiction elements such as Talons of Weng Chiang, The Visitation, Mark of the Rani and Ghostlight are also some of the best stories in the program’s 26 year-long run. All of these stories benefit from the BBC’s skillful manner in producing accurate period pieces but they are also made remarkable by the historical setting. While studio-bound adventures set on space crafts or other planets are often sterile due to the costumes and polysterene backdrops, the period adventures have so much charm going for them. The supporting characters, ambient sounds and visuals combine in creating a rich world for the Doctor to traverse.
In Big Finish’s audio range, the programs are unfettered by the constraints of budget in creating a lavish televised Doctor Who story. The task of establishing a believable world lies in the script itself, supported by the voice actors and sound engineers. In the case of Phantasmagoria, it is a resounding success. Based on many of the League of Gentlemen scripts and his novel the Vesuvius Club, Mark Gatiss is a lover of English history. His skill in writing biting witty language is a boon to the gentlemanly Fifth Doctor and smarmy alien schoolboy Turlough.
The plot of Phantasmagoria is somewhat simple (an exiled alien criminal uses a devious ploy based on greed to rebuild his space craft while he is pursued by vengeful survivors of his crimes), but it is steeped in so much rich window dressing that it comes off as an adventure one would listen to again and again.
The Doctor, determined to teach Turlough classic rules of cricket, arrives in the home of Dr. Holywell sometime in the early 18th Century. He finds himself witness to an apparent attack from the supernatural realm upon seemingly unrelated victims. A student of the necromancy, Dr, Holywell claims to have knowledge from beyond the realm of the living, which the Doctor finds decidedly dubious. When Holywell conducts a seance for the Doctor, he realizes that the apparent cries from beyond are actually radio signals. Separated from the Doctor, Turlough finds himself in the company of socialites and career gamblers Jasper Jeake and Quincy Flowers. The pair are only too happy to welcome Turlough into their company if only to brag about their recent encounter with the highwayman Major Billy Lovemore. A strange man who waits for contenders sits at a table in the Diabola club, biding his time and folding his cards with gloved hands. He is Sir Nikolas Valentine, and he is building a sinister reputation amongst the club members, but he also being watched from afar by those not of this planet. The Doctor must use his nerve and intelligence to unravel the darkl mysteries of the deaths that surround the Diabola club without becoming another of Sir Nikolas Valentine’s victims.
There are so many wonderful touches to this story that make it remarkable. From the opening sequence in which the Doctor attempts to explain cricket to Turlough (is it really that absurdly complicated? As an American listener, I can only guess) to the characters of Quincy Flowers and Jasper Jeake (voiced by Little Britain’s David Walliams and the League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss, respectively). David Ryall as Sir Nikolas Valentine is a stunning villain complete with a sinister laugh and a deep resonant voice. His vocal sparring with the Doctor is very enjoyable. I’ve always been a big fan of Strickson’s Turlough, a frustrated and clever young alien who was neither brave nor all that resourceful as a companion but always with a biting comment to make. The scene in which he is annoyed into action to save a stranger from her attacker is fantastic.
In listening to Phantasmagoria, I have obtained a new respect for Peter Davison’s Doctor. As a first-time viewer I was initially enthralled by his reign as the Doctor, but as an adult my taste has drifted to the first three Doctors in preference. It seems like the Big Finish audio series is causing me to relive my teenage adoration of the 1980’s Doctors (Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy) who each enjoyed a second shot at their depictions of the time-travelling hero.
Doctor Who – Phantasmagoria can be purchased at local retailers and online from Big Finish.