REVIEW: "Phantasmagoria" Doctor Who Audio CD Adventure

by Zepo
28 November 1999

Gatiss, Mark, _Doctor Who: Phantasmagoria_, (UK: Big Finish Productions,
1999), Audio Compact Disk, Two CD set jewel case.

[Image of Audio CD]

RATING: 9 (of 10)

     The recent audio adventure releases by Big Finish Productions are
supposed to herald the return of Doctor Who in grand style.  The first of
the offerings to find themselves into the hands of this reviewer is the
second adventure in the series.  The story, written my Mark Gatiss is called
"Phantasmagoria" and features the Fifth Doctor and Turlough in a historical
era adventure to London on March 8th of 1702.
     The CD starts with an announcer quickly telling us that Peter Davison
returns as Doctor Who.  In less than five seconds, Big Finish have managed
to recapture the essence of listening to Doctor Who on audio.  For all those
fans who love to listen to the old recovered audio versions of the missing
episodes, or who enjoy watching their taped-from-television video cassettes,
these intros are as much a part of the Doctor Who experience as the stories
themselves.  So even before a note of the Doctor Who theme is heard, the
pre-story narration transports one to a mindset many have grown to love.
     The Delia Derbyshire realization of the Doctor Who theme   starts each
of four "parts."  Perhaps the Davison Era version of the theme would have
fit in better, after all it was his era that was being presented.  None the
less, there was a wonderful feeling to listen to an audio adventure and know
that it truly was licensed "Doctor Who" and not a substitute.  It still
seems to prepare one a bit more for a Tom Baker era show than a Davison one
because of the difference in theme.  Also a hair disappointing is that a
very short fifteen second edit of the theme is used to close each part.
Hopefully future releases will at least allow the ending theme to run longer
than the opening theme (and hopefully by at least 20 seconds longer).
     The story itself is compelling and interesting and is set in after turn
of the century 1700s London, just before England and Scotland are united.
The story featurs the little discussed world of men's clubs in the Age of
Enlightenment.  While the strength of the story was grand, a lack of
narration explaining the look and feel of the period made the picture in my
mind's eye suffer.  One continually feels as though one is in the Victorian
period of "the Talons of Weng-Chiang" or "Ghostlight" instead.  For
instance, the only real hint of the date is when the Doctor and Turlough
find a newspaper that gives the date and year (the newspaper must be a
weekly as London's "The Daily Courant" became the world's first daily
newspaper when it started publication three days later).  None the less, it
can be feared that a narration may have given the story a bit less of the
feeling that one was actually watching (listening?) to Doctor Who.  The
background sounds, such as dogs barking or children playing 'ring around the
rosy' all add to a very wonderful story with depth.  The use of stereo in
the recording is excellent and allows one to see that the characters are
moving around the environment we imagine them to be in.  
     As for the story itself, it seems that there are strange ghosts that
seem to have attacked various people in London and that a number of citizens
have gone missing.  The missing men are all somehow connected to the
gentleman's club called The Diabola.  Davison portrays the Fifth Doctor in
all his glory, though perhaps a bit more mature and less fussy than the
youthful impatient fifth Doctor of the screen.  Mark Strickson returns with
a wonderful portrayal of Turlough, which might have made him an even greater
fan favorite if he would have appeared in more stories where he was such an
absolute ally of the Doctors.  The story's other voice actors are excellent
as well and play with the emotion and suspense needed to make this plot
work.  The story even takes a very proper Doctor Who turn as it is revealed
that much of the mysterious happenings in London are related to science
rather than the occult.  This is an element of what made Doctor Who so
intellectually stimulating, and has occasionally gone missing in the various
other Who offerings, such as novels, in the 1990s.  It's wonderful to see
this as an important part of this story that is set in the Age of Reason.
The story is so interesting that the first time one is presented with the
mysterious electronic voices in Part One, it truly makes one feel as if
there is a greater presence at hand.  Likewise, the climax of Part Three was
so suspenseful it might hold you in stunned silence as it did this reviewer.
It is wonderful to note that each part features a reprise of the previous
parts ending, just as most Doctor Who serial parts do.
     Attention must also be drawn to the packaging of this release.  The
cover art is attractive and continues along with the look of the past-Doctor
theme that BBC Worldwide has set for their products.  The insert booklet
included with the release features a few photographs of the recording
session, which is an excellent inclusion.  It helps relieve the curiosity of
knowing what the players in the piece looked like and also gave a sense of
being a part of the whole session.  Too bad that Doctor Who is not on our
screens, but at least the producers at Big Finish were aware enough that
Doctor Who is primarily a visual experience and fans would love to see even
behind the scenes photos.  Fortunately their best work has been in the audio
drama itself allowing us to use our minds to give us an aural experience
that helps us to visualize the story.  
     Also inside the insert booklet is a listing of the cast members for
each part.  Laid out somewhat like "Radio Times" program listings this style
is also reminiscent of part of the sub-culture of Doctor Who fandom.  While
this was well done, a more comprehensive listing of all the parts that were
played in each "episode" might have been even better.  Though it is a two CD
set, the more modern regular sized twin CD jewel case was used and
definitely makes this package attractive.  
     Each of the two CDs features two parts of the story and each CD is also
conveniently broken down into tracks to make it easier to continue if one
must break up the listen into smaller segments or if one is interrupted (god
forbid!).  The second CD has a short advertisement on it for the next
upcoming Doctor Who release "Whispers of Terror" as well as an add for the
audio Bernice Summerfield adventures also produced by Big Finish.  Even with
these adds, which were not particularly welcome, there was a touch of space
left over on the second CD.  The extra space on the first CD is not an issue
here as any inclusions there would break up the flow of the narrative.
However, the extra space on the second CD perhaps could (should) be used for
a short interview with the voice actors involved, or perhaps outtakes from
the session, or even crew members talking about how the engineering, mixing,
or even an effect, is done.  What a grand opportunity to give the purchasers
of a Doctor Who product a little bit extra for very little extra cost.  Just
a suggestion that hopefully will be taken seriously.
     The "Doctor Who: Phantasmagoria" audio adventure CD set is an excellent
inclusion into a Doctor Who collection.  On the strength of this offering,
the first story that this reviewer has heard, it seems that one should not
miss a single of the new Doctor Who audios.  Lets hope that Big Finish keeps
this level of quality with all their following offerings.

(c) Copyright Zepo, 1999.

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Last Updated December 22, 1999