The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Turlough to the London of 1702 where a mysterious highwayman roams the streets, a local occultist has made contact with the dead and gentlemen of fashion are disappearing, only to find themselves in a chamber whose walls weep blood…
The time-travellers become enmeshed in the hideous plan of Sir Nikolas Valentine, a gambler at the mysterious Diabola Club who always seems to have a winning hand…
Peter Davison as the Doctor in Phantasmagoria.
Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor)
Mark Strickson (Turlough)
Nicholas Briggs (Henry Gaunt)
David Walliams (Quincy Flowers / Ned Cotton)
Jonathan Rigby (Edmund Carteret)
Mark Gatiss (Jasper Jeake)
Jez Fielder (Poltrot / Major Billy Lovemore / Librarian)
David Ryall (Sir Nikolas Valentine)
Steven Wickham (Dr Samuel Holywell)
Julia Deakin (Hannah Fry)
Written By: Mark Gatiss
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
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Phantasmagoria is the second serial done by Big Finish, the first one being the multi-Doctor serial The Sirens of Time. It’s the first Big Finish production to star a Doctor by himself, the first one to feature a companion reprising their television performance, the first one that could fit into established canon, fitting between Resurrection of the Daleks and Planet of Fire, and the first one based upon an original story. It’s a solid piece of old-school Who that would feel right at home to fans of the original run, complete with the “classic” theme music from Five’s run, held back by too many secondary characters and a very quick running time that comes off as “rushed” rather than “brisk.”
The Doctor and Turlough find themselves in 18th century London just after the death of William III, with the TARDIS taking them to the home of historian Dr. Holywell. Down the street from his house, the Diabola Club plays host to gentlemen and their vices, specifically a game of cards where one player, even when he loses, always comes out on top…
While normally beginning with the protrayal of the serial’s Doctor, I have to deviate slightly from procedure and focus on the companion first. Coming back to the role for the first time since Planet of Fire, Mark Strickson jumps into the role of Vislor Turlough like he never left. From the first scene with him grousing at the Doctor as he tries to grasp the rules of cricket all the way to Turlough’s final one-liner during the climax, the exaspiration and friendship between Turlough and the Doctor is on display. Headstrong, eager to prove himself after the Black Guardian saga even as he flees during the first cliffhanger, and able to match the Doctor in wit, having Turlough as the first companion to return seems like a bit of an odd choice, and kudos to Mark Strickson for an excellent performance.
As for Peter Davison, the man, at least his voice, hasn’t aged a day. He plays the Fifth Doctor just like he always has – inquisitive, enjoying the mystery, and ready to sacrifice himself for others. Davison gives the Doctor his usual charm as well, downplaying the questions about him (the scene where he and Turlough explain how the TARDIS ended up in Holywell’s study is very amusing) and playing up the mystery. As soon as someone’s on peril, the Fifth Doctor is diving right in, head first, counting on things to work themselves out with only a “slight” bit of work from him.
While the Doctor and Turlough in fine form, it’s up to the plot and the secondary cast to carry the story. The plot will appeal to fans of historical-flavored serials, in terms of dialougue, accents, and the way that Nicholas Briggs brings 18th century London to life through the use of sound; carriages, town criers, night watchmen, and the sounds of drinking the gambling. With young men disappearing within the vicinity of the Diabola Club, screaming about the spirits of the dead coming to get them before disappearing, the stage is set for a classic “starts historical, turns into something else” Who serial. The villian is established immediately in the guise of Sir Nikolas Valentine, but his plot, his plans, and the reason for his schemes would fit right at home within the motivations of the pantheon of villains, especially to those familiar with a certain episode from Matt Smith’s current run.
Where the story falters a little bit comes with the secondary cast. Steve Wickham as Dr Samuel Holywell, Julia Deaken as his maid Hannah Fry, and David Ryall as Sir Nikolas Valentine stand out, but the rest of the cast become interchangable. Without visual cues, it’s hard to tell the gentlemen and the servants of the Diabola Club apart, and without proper characterization, it’s hard to work up any reason to care about the vanished men beyond the fact that they’ve vanished and it’s a mystery the Doctor is trying to solve. There’s also the true identity of one of the secondary characters that causes a few extra scenes to be added to the serial that could have been trimmed for time and clarity.
The serial itself is very brisk, clocking in at just under 90 minutes. But the story could have used a bit more time to clarify some issues and provide us with a few reasons to care about the secondary characters. For example, Turlough’s disappearance during the first cliffhanger is never really explained, and his reason for not going right back to the Doctor is hand-waved for a few scenes. The secondary character who reveals their true identity could also have used a bit more work as well, as their scenes come off as expected, but in a “deus ex machina” manner. And the highwayman doesn’t serve any purpose beyond setting up the third cliffhanger, which could have been easily set up without him. Since this is among the first of Big Finish’s production, these concerns are easy to write off due to growing pains and the production staff having yet to find its footing, concerns which are soon shrugged off in future serials.
Final Snyopsis – It’s classic Who with a classic Doctor, a classic companion, and a classic plot. It serves as a good introduction or re-introduction to the Fifth Doctor, gives Turlough a chance to shine, and will appeal to fans of historical serials. 3/5.
Next up – The Doctor and Peri find themselves in the Museum of Aural Antiquities, where every sound is stored for posterity – from the speeches of Visteen Krane to security service wire taps and interrogation tapes. But they also find an intruder, mysteriously changed recordings, and a dead body.
Colin Baker as the Doctor in Whispers of Terror.