THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
Phantasmagoria

Written by Mark Gatiss Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Running Time 90 mins
Released 1999
Continuity Between Resurrection of the Daleks and
Planet of Fire

Starring Peter Davison and Mark Strickson
Also featuring David Williams, Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss, Jex Fielder, David Ryall, Steven Wickham and Julia Dalkin

Synopsis: The Doctor and Turlough find someone terrorising the higher echelons of 18th century London using apparently paranormal means.


Reviews

A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 12/10/99

If Phasntasmagoria is any indication of what Doctor Who as an audio series is like, then long may the Big Finish Doctor Whos flourish. Taking similair plot threads from the P.R.O.B.E series, writer Mark Gatiss has turned out a wonderful Doctor Who tale. There is much to commend here, not least the setting; one previously unused in Doctor Who, where you keep expecting highwayman Dick Turpin to appear at any moment. This is only complimented by the sound effects which work perfectly, when in conjunction with the incidental music. Another strong plus point is in the characterisation, particularly of Peter Davison`s Doctor, whom Davison himself recreates with ease.

Less successful is Mark Strickson`s Turlough who lacks the usual wit and acidic comments, although he does work well with the character of Jasper Jeakes, played by Mark Gatiss. Outshining them all however is David Ryall as Sir Nikolas Valentine, a wonderful villain, in that you barely notice him to begin with, only for his character to gradually build up. Perhaps best of all is the story itself which harks back to the gothic Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who. Overall then Phantasmagoria is a must buy, particularly for traditionalists and is worth it just for the cliffhangers alone.


A Decent, Well Executed Romp by Peter Niemeyer 26/6/00

Phantasmagoria makes for a good addition to Big Finish's audio adventures. For the most part, there is nothing exceptionally fantastic about this drama, but there is nothing exceptionally abysmal about it either. I would liken it to Davison episodes like The Visitation, The King's Demons, or Frontios...solid middle-ground stories.

There are several upsides to the story. The production values were once again very high. (So far, I've heard only this and The Sirens of Time.) I liked the sound effects for the "phantasms" that periodically attacked as they conjured interesting images in my mind and helped to highten the tension. I also liked the realization of the alien voices that periodically discussed how the situation in London was progressing.

Davison portrayed the Doctor effortlessly. The plot wasn't exceptionally remarkable. (Alien bad person trying to exact revenge at some point in Earth's past...not really a spoiler given that many Doctor Who stories have taken this route.) But the story was well dressed. The setting of London is the 1700s and the gentlemen's card playing club were used to good effect, and the story did involve scenes that would have been too expensive for BBC to film (horse chases, scenes with lots of extras, and so on).

I can only think of two downsides to the story. One of them, unfortunately, was Mark Strickson's portrayal of Turlough. The voice of Turlough was obviously done by the same actor who played Turlough in the series, but something didn't sound quite right about him. Perhaps he's aged and his voice has changed, or perhaps he's unaccustomed to audio-only delivery. Whatever the reason, there was something about Strickson's performance that didn't ring true...like a root beer float made with freezer-burned ice cream.

The other downside was the way in which some of the supporting characters blended together and I had a hard time keeping track of which character was the one speaking. In audio drama, you don't have as many ways of distinguishing characters as you do in television drama. So when the supporting cast starts to reach a certain size, it becomes harder to keep track of who's who. Sir Valentine, Doctor Holywell, Hannah and Billy Lovemore were distinct enough, but the rest fell into something of a muddled jumble. But this is a minor quibble.

So all in all, it was worth the money. 8 out of 10.


All Hail Big Finish by Richard Radcliffe 31/1/01

The 2nd Big Finish tale is still the best after 15 audio adventures. Set in 1702 when Queen Anne was on the English throne it features the 5th Doctor and Turlough. To be truthful Dr Who has had better combinations of Doctor and Companion, but seeing as they spend a good deal of the tale apart, that's fine!

Both Davison and Strickson recreate their characters with ease. Davison's portrayal is particularly excellent - you could just see him parading through pre-Georgian London with his Cricket outfit. In fact that is the essence of what makes this adventure so great - you are in 1702 as you listen to it. Big Finish have re-created this period so well, you feel the stoney roads under your feet, as the horse-drawn carriages trundle by.

The story is a simple one told well. Mark Gatiss is one of my favorite authors. Nightshade and Gadarene tell simple tales too, but they tell them in page-turning style, like all the best novels. Phantasmagoria fairly races past, you are so involved in the story.

The supporting characters are superb too, with Valentine - quite clearly the scheming baddie from the word go - one of the best villains in all Dr Who. The Doctor is ably supported by Holywell, one of those wonderful middle aged eccentrics Dr Who dreams up in droves.

All in all this tale contains all the right ingredients for GREAT Doctor Who. 10/10


Fantastic by Robert Thomas 26/11/01

This story is by no means my favourite, but it comes pretty close. There is only one way to describe this story, I seriously believe it is impossible not to enjoy this story. Everything in this production comes across well and there are no glitches at all or anything else that comes across bad. Davison and Strickson go on to show what we already knew from Planet of Fire, that they could have been one of the shows best double acts if things had turned out differently. Turlough manages to bring an edge to this story that no other companion could. The Doctor is just pure fantastic in this, forget about Davison saying he had trouble recapturing The Doctor, he is perfect here. Other things to look out for are a few great killer one liners, Jasper Jeake, great twists and fantastic cliff hangers.


Carry On, Jeake... by Brian Phelan 3/6/05

The Fifth Doctor? In a pseudohistorical adventure? In London? Get out! Yes, there is quite a bit in Phantasmagoria that will feel familiar, and in some cases, even stale. Just from the CD cover one can infer that at some point the Doctor will play a game against the villain, in this case a game of cards. The world is not at stake, alas, but the gameplaying motif easily brings to mind The Curse of Fenric, and further afield, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Whovians will also find traces of Ghostlight, The Time Warrior, The Visitation, The Mark of the Rani... well, one gets the picture. Phantasmagoria is not original in any sense, both inside the Whoniverse and outside of it. The plot, which unfolds as a mystery, will fail to surprise the listener. The one plot twist that was unexpected, which is revealed at the end of episode three, adds up to small beer when it is all said and done; it does little but lead to the development of another boilerplate character with unsurprising motivation. Granted, it's the kind of revelation that makes one want to go back and listen to the preceding chapters again; but upon doing so, however, I realized how little difference it made, how few clues were laid out earlier in the story, how inconsequential it all was.

And yet I find myself recommending the story to the curious reader. For it's not the journey that matters in this case, it's how one gets there. And as it unfolds, as the predictable story becomes clearer, Phantasmagoria is quite entertaining. It's 1702, and the Doctor and Turlough arrive in London, where men are disappearing under mysterious circumstances. It is notable that this story features the Doctor and Turlough only; no other companion is involved. Only one television story featured this particular Doctor/companion combination, Planet of Fire, and that introduced Turlough's replacement, Peri. It is worth commenting on this, because the Turlough-Doctor dynamic is somewhat unique; the two have something of a male mentee-mentor relationship that is unique to the television series; it would be hard to say the same of, for example, the First Doctor and Stephen, or the Second Doctor and Jamie, or even the Fourth and Fifth Doctors and Adric. Phantasmagoria opens with the Doctor tutoring Turlough on the finer points of cricket, and even though they are separated for much of the story, it is clear that Turlough looks up to the Doctor as something of a role model and teacher, and the Doctor accepts and adjusts to these roles. Turlough even imitates the Doctor's heroism and investigative techniques.

"Investigatory" is probably the one word that would best describe the Doctor in this story. He is a gentleman certainly, in keeping with the Fifth Doctor's television incarnation, but he is also a scholar, and he spends quite a bit of time in the library and consulting with another doctor, Samuel Holywell, about the missing men. Peter Davison's understated performance works well in this role; there is a logic to the Doctor's actions and words. He is not leaping into action but rather coming to it slowly as the culmination of much mental labour. In the end, of course, the Doctor is a voice for truth and justice, as he should be. But his morality is not burdensome or awkward on the listener. It is his decency rather than his righteousness that is attractive. Mark Strickson as Turlough gets off to a shakier start. Some of his readings are wooden and stilted, or given curious inflections. But he comes around admirably to the role, and in the end carries his portion of the narrative well.

Strickson's performance of Turlough is helped by the fact that, for much of the time, he gets to play alongside Mark Gatiss as Jasper Jeake. Jeake is a nicely drawn character, an eighteenth century Fallstaff, anxious for his next meal and bragging of false heroics. He has at least one laugh-out-loud line, and several more that should make the listener smile. Jeake's friend Flowers, voiced by David Williams, has a much less substantial role, but sticks in the memory as a classic fop. In a colour-by-numbers plot such as is present in Phantasmagoria, much rests on the performance of the villain. David Ryall's Sir Nikolas Valentine succeeds about half the time. For most of the recording he is quietly manipulative and contemplative, and Ryall is suitably subtle. Unsurprisingly, by the time of the climax Valentine's initial smoothness is interspliced with mustache-twirling tendencies. Although never as painful as your standard non-Delgado Master portrayal, there is a bit too much evil laughing for my taste. As for the other supporting performances, nothing is truly memorable nor noticeably awful.

Though hardly groundbreaking and sometimes painfully trite, Phantasmagoria is ultimately a worthy Big Finish adventure that rewards multiple listenings, more for the performances than for the intricacies of the plot. It is recommended for fans of the Fifth Doctor, who stays true to form, as well as those looking for an enjoyable diversion.


How wonderful! by Brian May 6/6/06

Phantasmagoria is a delight! Extremely well written, very funny, exceptionally acted and a professionally assembled and directed production.

This Restoration runabout is filled with colourful characters, witty dialogue and actors who are clearly enjoying every moment of it. Peter Davison is fantastic; it's obvious he's relishing being the Doctor again. David Ryall is wonderfully OTT as Sir Nikolas Valentine, but he never takes it too far. The fiendish card player is one hundred per cent pantomime villain, but Ryall knows when to rein in the character, underplaying when necessary, and is quite frightening when he taunts the captive Flowers in part three. Flowers and Jasper Jeake are a double-act Robert Holmes would have adored. Writer Mark Gatiss plays the straight man to David Walliams's ultra-camp fop. Everyone is excellent, with the exception of Mark Strickson. Don't get me wrong, he's not terrible, but just sounds uncomfortable settling back into the role of Turlough. Granted, 15 years is a long time, and he sounds older and more mature, but it's just not the same character at times. It seems the actor is aware of this, and hesitates accordingly (like Sarah Sutton in her Big Finish comeback, The Land of the Dead).

Turlough has one grating, out-of-character moment, which is more down to the scripting than Strickson's performance: his insistence to Jeake that "There's a mystery here!" is not the alien schoolboy at all. But that's the only real weak point in the writing and elsewhere he's written very well, particularly when he defends Hannah against Cotton's advances. This is very much in character for him: he's a coward, but steps in when he has to (and confesses "This really isn't me at all" so drolly!) Initially I didn't like the idea of the Doctor inviting Hannah and Holywell into the TARDIS, but then I remembered this was very much the norm in the fifth Doctor's televised reign, Black Orchid especially, so it's true to the feel of the serials. There are some cracking lines (Holywell on the Diabola Club: a pious condemnation "Drinking, wenching, gambling!" immediately followed by a despairing "I've been trying to become a member for years!" is priceless). The story is spooky when appropriate, but it's mostly the pseudo-historical romp it's meant to be - and part three's cliffhanger is fantastic.

Technically it's brilliant: the music and sound effects are superb, contributing immensely to the atmosphere. The score has a lovely period feel, but the background noises - town criers, hawkers, children playing, horse-drawn cabs, ticking clocks - are the piece de resistance. They're more than effective in making you believe it's 1702. It makes Phantasmagoria all the more a pleasure to listen to.

Highly recommended. A joyous outing indeed! 9/10