‘The Castle of Fear’
Written by Alan Barnes, directed by Barnaby Edwards
Released October, 2009
The Doctor is introducing Nyssa to some Earth culture by showing her a Mummer’s play in 1899 Stockbridge. The performance is confusing as it uses half-remembered facts muddled by the passage of time. Nevertheless the Doctor is amused until a blue box is wheeled on stage and a white-coated stranger wearing a vegetable in his lapel makes an appearance in the play. Clearly this demands investigation, leading to a trip back in time to 1199 Mummerset.
The Doctor and Nyssa find a cursed castle haunted by strange spirits. The returning Earl of Mummerset, having arrived fresh from the crusades to reclaim his birthright, is dismayed to find that it is infested by demons. Offering up portions of land as incentive, the Earl requests help from anyone brave enough to free his home from evil. A visiting knight, Roland of Brittany, answers the call only to get wrapped up in proceedings that are far above his understanding as the castle is protected by what appears to be an electric barrier put up by a very real evil intelligence waiting in the center of the castle like a wicked spider.
The Doctor braves the curse of Mummerset Castle and comes face to tentacle with an old enemy.
Comedy is a very risky thing in Doctor Who and even Alan Barnes acknowledged this in the behind-the-scenes extra material. It is often used to soften an otherwise horrific situation and this story does have its share of nail-biting tension, yet in the end half of this adventure ends up sounding like a poor-man’s Monty Python sketch. Davsion has a very sharp wit and as he has appeared on stage in Spamalot and Legally Blond he is no stranger to humor. He handles the rather lousy jokes and puns quite well, all things considered. The real offender here is guest artist John Sessions who positively devours each scene in glaring obnoxious over the top acting as Roland of Brittany, the ‘Freunch Ka-night.’ Equally grating is Joe Thomas as Hubert, the doddering Earl of Mummerset… and Susan Brown is positively gut-wrenching as the crone Maud the Withered wailing ‘DOOOOOOOM!’ for far too long. The supporting characters are just deadly and the dialog even worse.
Listening to the extras, I learned that these Big Finish productions are created in a very short window of time, so that may be why there was no opportunity to reign in the comic performances, but the end result is a garish story that is so unfunny that the Mummers play looks almost dignified by comparison. Yet the worst comic story was a long way off, in the dire Heroes of Sontar.
So why bother listening to this at all? The third part, often referred to as the ‘run around’ episode on TV actually saves the story with the appearance of the Rutans, a monster only glimpsed once (to date) on screen 1977’s The Horror of Fang Rock. A chameleonic being, Rutans were represented by what looked like a party balloon covered in snot and fly paper, but presumably the intention was that they were green jellyfish-like creatures. I adore obscure monsters like the Rutans, Voord, Yeti and the like, so I was very happy and surprised to hear them crop up here and raise the drama from silly to deadly. The Doctor presumes that the Rutans are hot on the trail of Jingo Linx who crash-landed in the 12th Century (referencing 1973/4’s The Time Warrior), but is mistaken. The Rutans are stranded, desperately attempting to build a power source using their crippled craft and the primitive technology of the era. Using their cloning techniques, the Rutans have created an army of drones to do the hard work and develop a hospitable environment for the aliens.
Of course, the Doctor cannot just stand by and let any of this come to pass. Luckily Nyssa is on hand to assist him in thwarting their plan, but it has long-ranging effects into the 19th Century. Arriving back in 1899 Stockbridge, the travelers find that they may have saved the past but the Rutan clones are no less effective in unearthing a newly grown Rutan ship from the ruins of the old one. Desperate to stop them once again, the Doctor destroys the ship which launches them out of time and space into another adventure.
Developed as the first of a trilogy of adventures centered on Stockbridge (including The Eternal Summer and Plague of the Daleks, The Castle of Fear is an homage to the Doctor Who comic strip of the 1980’s. As such, perhaps Barnes decided to make the characters broader than usual and the tone quirkier. A writer known for his monumental contribution to Eighth Doctor’s legacy in print and audio, I was surprised to see just how far into the realm of silliness he took this one. Several scenes seem to exist solely to set up unfunny jokes. That said, the general plot is interesting and the notion of tying events and consequences together is a clever one.
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