Catch-1782 by Alison Lawson

"Catch 1782", my favourite audio release of 2005, leaves me wondering just why it towers so monumentally in my affections over other releases, "Terra Firma" or "Dreamtime" for example, which just leave me cold.

I think it has much to do with atmosphere. An audio play isn't so much different to a painting, except in the medium of sound rather than vision. It helps that "Catch 1782"'s physical appearance (the cover) is so appealing as well - snow is always good in Doctor Who, and combine that with haunting and mysterious images of an old house and a regular in period costume and it evokes a classic time travel/winter crossover suggestive of "The Chimes of Midnight". A good cover, and half the battle is won.

Fortunately the play itself more than lives up to the promise of its glorious packaging. The key, I believe, is in its combination of a comforting setting and human focus. Witness the tagline - "Visiting your relatives can sometimes be trying...". It's not about Daleks or planets being invaded, but a family history. Meeting characters NOT essential to recorded history is always so much more satisfying because you don't get that camp impression of stagy period drama as with including Queen Anne or King George or whatever. There is no sound-bitable period of history or historical event here, and the horror of Mel being doped up on laudanum and trapped by Hallum in a time she can't escape from is more chilling than any amount of horseplay or headcutting of the sort found in the usual Earth-bound historical.

As with "Chimes of Midnight", the cast are also near-faultless - Jillie Meers as Mrs McGreggor comes over as sympathetic and a victim of her time, and there is further genius on display in the way she DOESN'T win Hallum the last time we see her... but the presence of her in the modern day painting (wearing the dress) suggests she might have done, according to the Doctor. The play is stuffed full of such wonderful invention and 'artefacts' playing some part in the plot: the trunk, the capsule, the dress, the strange ghost (later revealed to be Mel herself) and the delightful way that, as with all good time travel plots, everything slots together at the end in a way that you really should have seen coming but didn't.

This really is a good example of someone knowing the right devices and trappings to use, whilst still appearing to come up with something utterly original. An old house in winter, a ghost in the study... irresistible devices, and all focussed on the story of one man and the mystery of the strange prisoner he held in his attic. No-one is truly bad and the character of Mel undergoes serious trauma, her incapacitation being akin to a companion's worst nightmare, as no-one will listen to what sounds like rantings about the Doctor coming to get her. How often in plays set in the past is history depicted as a jolly, if dangerous stop-off on the TARDIS' bus-route? Here, the bus leaves without her and we witness whole months that Mel is trapped in a world she doesn't belong in, thinking she's possibly going to be there forever.

Beautifully written, clever and intriguing all at once. Boy, there's been some rubbish in 2005, but this is near-perfect.