The second Big Finish Doctor Who production offers the rare combination of the Fifth Doctor and Turlough traveling together after they parted company with Tegan, but before the events of “Planet of Fire”. Mark Gatiss, who would later write several episodes for the revived Doctor Who television series (including “The Unquiet Dead” and “Victory of the Daleks”), is the author of this audio play. I’ve never found his stories to be all that compelling, but they’re generally serviceable. And that’s the case with “Phantasmagoria”, a tale that places the Doctor and Turlough in a stock Doctor Who plot featuring alien influences in a historical time period.
The setting is London in 1702. A mysterious gentleman ensnares gamblers with a devilish card game, while the Doctor is trying to instill a love of Cricket into Turlough, who is having none of it. They both become involved with local events through a series of coincidences and each investigates the mystery from different angles. It’s not difficult to figure out what’s really going on, at least in general terms, assuming you’ve seen or read enough Doctor Who stories in the past. The specifics of the plot take some time to be revealed of course, but it’s obvious from the start that the occurrences are due to alien technology rather than anything supernatural. The question becomes “who?” and “why?” rather than “what?”. The answers to those questions is decent if uninspired. An alien criminal is attempting to repair his biotech ship using humans as raw material, and in this instance, he is picking and trapping his victims at the card table. That’s certainly a more interesting approach than hunting them down and shooting them, and it gives Valentine cover from the law, since there’s no way for anyone other than the Doctor to connect him with the disappearances. He’s just a card player at the local gambling establishment.
One thing that did catch me by surprise was the dual identity of Billy Lovemore/Hannah, and the fact that he/she was an alien in disguise who is hunting down Nikolas Valentine. It’s not immediately obvious that they are the same person, though the fact that Lovemore shoots the night watch who tried to molest Hannah does reveal a connection between the two. I had assumed it was a more mundane secret love affair, and he was simply avenging her. I did not see the alien in multiple disguise angle coming. That does connect to the sole plot point I don’t quite get. What happened to Hannah’s confederates, who discuss the situation several times throughout the story? After the third episode cliffhanger they’re never heard from again. Surely they should have had some reaction to her death. It’s odd that the Doctor makes no attempt to contact them and resolve things, though I suppose he never learns of their existence.
The biological ship is an interesting idea, but it seems to exist solely to give Valentine a reason to play cards with and kidnap people. In other words, the story began with the idea of someone playing cards with the devil, and branched out from there. It is a step above having Valentine kidnap people for slave labor or something along those lines.
One thing which must be pointed out here is the fact that Gatiss re-used some of his same ideas for “The Unquiet Dead”. The story is set London of the past, there is a séance used to try and contact the ersatz spirits, and alien influences are mistaken for the supernatural. To be fair, “The Unquiet Dead” does take these ideas and use them in an entirely different way, but there is certainly some recycling going on. It’s harmless enough for a writer to reuse his own ideas, and doubtless the vast majority of television Doctor Who viewers have never even heard of Big Finish or “Phantasmagoria”, so they won’t catch the similarities. It’s just worth noting they exist, in case you find some of the goings-on vaguely familiar.
As an American listener, all of the plummy British accents keep the various characters distinct and interesting, and each of the voice actors is different enough that I can tell them apart easily, which is of course important in an audio play. The plot and direction are straightforward, so it’s never hard to work out what’s going on. The villain is unrepentantly evil and nicely hammy which does liven things up nicely. And the dialogue is pretty smooth when it comes to exposition. There isn’t a lot of description passing for dialogue, or nothing that jumped out at me. People discuss their surroundings in a natural manner, so the dialogue seems appropriate for an audio play.
Overall: This story was produced during early days for Big Finish, and it’s a very straightforward story that offers a few surprises along the way, but is largely not too difficult to figure out. It’s good to hear a rare fifth Doctor/Turlough combination, and the story is almost worth it for that alone. “Phantasmagoria” is enjoyable, but not as compelling as some of the later stories would be.