Phantasmagoria by Mark Gatiss

It’s only in retrospect that you realise that Mark Gatiss has pulled off the same trick three times as a Doctor Who writer. With ‘Phantasmagoria’, as with ‘The Roundheads’ and most recently with ‘The Unquiet Dead’, he’s written a solid, historically-based story which also succeeds in being successful traditional Who to set the tone for a new development of the series and reassure the core market of fans that yes, this is still the same character albeit in a new format. In the case of ‘Phantasmagoria’, it’s the early eighteenth century- the early scenes are constructed so as to give us the exact date, measured by the death of William of Orange and the accession of Queen Anne. Not an era normally frequented by the televised series, the late Stuart setting has both the familiarity of historically-set Who and the comparative novelty of a period not generally known these days.

Being Doctor Who, of course, the sense of period is evoked by the clichés of television and film-an era of highwaymen, fops, card sharps and maybe something darker. In fact, it practically writes itself once you add on a comparatively slight tale of an alien war criminal hiding out in historical London; it also helps that Peter Davison’s Doctor keeps the spirit of ‘The Visitation’ very much in mind. No, Gatiss’s interest is very much in the characters and in some particularly ripe dialogue- not least in writing the character of Jasper Jeake for himself and being allowed to ham it up shamelessly, again with a theatricality reminiscent of Richard Mace. In short, it’s very conventional Doctor Who and all the more enjoyable for it- there are precious few formats which could attempt the same story in the same setting and in that sense it’s exactly what the nascent Big Finish range needed. A straightforward story without too many narrative tricks (apart from one rather good one) which is comfortably still Doctor Who but uses the audio format to fill in for location filming and detailed period interiors.

The performances are generally solid- Peter Davison slips effortlessly back into the Doctor’s role and Mark Strickson has no difficulty in becoming Turlough once again, while Mark Gatiss as Jeake just about manages to keep the lid on his performance and David Ryall as Sir Nikolas Valentine sounds exactly as the villain of a historically-set Who ought to. There’s a problem, though, and its name is David Walliams. As Quincy Flowers and as Cotton the watchman, he’s instantly recognisable as he tries out what would in retrospect become some of his Little Britain voices, especially in crowd scenes where he should be unobtrusive. Still, as a fop or as a man of sentiment, Flowers does come across well as a comic foil for Jeake and never quite becomes the caricature he threatens to be.

So, a good second release for Big Finish; one which as an overall package stands up comfortably against the period of televised Who which it purports to recreate and has no obvious weak links. In many ways it provides exactly what the range needed in the crucial second slot- it’s more than just nostalgia for its own sake as there’s a sense of genuine care being taken to write an original but recognisable Fifth Doctor story for audio. In retrospect it’s less of an event than some of the releases to come; it lacks either a name actor (at the time) or a truly compelling and original villain, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and most of all feels right.