Doctor Who Big Finish- Phantasmagoria


Story 02

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.

Read other Big Finish reviews at the Daily P.O.P. here.

13 thoughts on “Doctor Who Big Finish- Phantasmagoria

  1. I am afraid I don’t share your high regard for The Visitation and Mark of the Rani. I think those two were very uninspired stories.

    I have not yet listened to Phantasmagoria, but I am not a big fan of Mark Gatiss, so I am not sure how well I would like this.

    So far Davison has not impressed me much in his audio performances. It certainly does not help that his voice sounds so different from how it sounded in the early 80s.


    • You are right that Davison sounds far ‘huskier’ than he did when he was 29-31, but I can overlook it. In my opinion, the BF Audios require a lot of work on the listener’s part to ‘get in the mood’ as it were including looking past the fact that the actors sound so different. But I really am enjoying them immensely and have to again say that they have renewed my interest in the 80’s era.


      • I think 80s Doctor Who was the best. Season 18 was in my opinion the most consistently strong season of Doctor Who ever. The three Davison seasons had some real gems, the Baker era had a good Doctor, even if not so many decent stories and the Seventh Doctor era was brilliant.


      • Each era of Doctor Who is marred with flaws, but if I had to choose, I would cite the 60’s as the best. While the plots toward the end of the Troughton era did become repetitive, it was so innovative in music and special effects and the acting was by and large top notch. Too bad a great portion of this time is largely lost, but perhaps one day more episodes will be discovered.

        I know that you have no love for Pertwee and dislike the Hinchcliffe era which rules out most of the 70’s for you. I do agree that season 18 is very strong and I hope that it gains more followers as in my experience it is often passed over. I enjoy the 80’s episodes but on the whole it was just too hit and miss for me, largely due to JNT and the shifting script editors who each had drastically different approaches.


  2. By the way, last night I watched the 1981 BBC series ‘Day of the Triffids.’ It was produced by veteran Doctor Who director David Maloney (Talons of Weng Chiang, Genesis of the Daleks and others).

    Have you seen that series?


    • Matthew, yes I have seen it once a very long time ago when it was aired on my local PBS station. I remember liking it a lot and purchased a first printing paperback of the novel but have yet to read it. What did you think? If you’re interested in drafting up a review, I could post it here and direct readers to your excellent site.


      • I was blown away by the quality of it.

        As somebody who has watched Doctor Who from the same era, I had an horrible realisation of how pathetically cheap Doctor Who looked in comparison.

        It seemed the BBC could do science fiction really well when they thought it was worth investing money and effort in it.

        I expect to post a review of it sometime soon (I think it has enough connections to Doctor Who for me to include it in my blog). When I do, you are welcome to reproduce it or link to it.


  3. Good review, sir – and I also love the way Mark Gatiss alternately plays with and pays homage to the more “ultra-traditional” episodes of TV Who. His “Missing Adventure” novel, Last of the Gaderene was a perfect example of that.


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