Tony Fyler wigs out.
Doctor Who Does Dangerous Liaisons.
There you go – capsule review for you. The Fifth Doctor swanning about in ruffles and a powdered wig? C’mon, who doesn’t want to play with that?
Perhaps sadly, the masquerade of the Doctor, Nyssa, and short-run companion, 1911’s ‘posh old gel of the year’ Hannah Bartholomew, in aristocratic wig-and-fan France only lasts the length of the first episode, before it all comes over a bit high-concept hardcore sci-fi, a la Mawdryn Undead and Terminus, and you have to really cling on by your fingernails to keep a hold of who’s who, what’s what-now and where the actual peril is coming from.
Given that the French fan-dango is an idea that writer Stephen Cole openly admits was meant for elsewhere but wouldn’t leave him alone, it’s worked in to the concept of the sci-fi story underneath quite well, and the human crew of shadownauts (did I mention? Hardcore sci-fi), when we meet them, are an agreeable, if largely interchangeable bunch of Characters For Peril To Happen To. It would be going too far though to say any of them are especially memorable as themselves, which rather lessens the impact of Masquerade.
As we say, there’s a panoply of peril-sources, too. At various times, the shadownauts are frightened of The Dead Man, The Steamroller Man, the Doctor and Nyssa and the Machera, their equivalent of service robots on a journey into what is definitely a new frontier. They never entirely suspect what’s really going on until it’s revealed to them in expositional dialogue, but in a story as high-concept and generally confusing as this one, it’s hard to really blame them. It’s also fair to say that everything they do suspect turns out to be a genuine source of peril to them – and yes, that includes the Doctor and Nyssa.
So what’s it really about? Well, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, it seems to be about ‘a clever new way of crossing the vast interstellar distances, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace’. There’s a pioneering spirit to the shadownauts that’s maintained, even when it turns out that heir journey – shock, horror – isn’t what it seems to be either. It’s also about imperialism, and how people treat the people whose environments (lands, planets, it’s much the same thing) they conquer. Beyond that, there’s a whole lot of sci-fi gobbledegook that Peter Davison, in the extras, is delighted to admit he understands not at all.
Perhaps ultimately the point of Masquerade is to end the trilogy of stories which featured Hannah Bartholomew. Big Finish introduces short-run companions relatively rarely, and Bartholomew was an interesting if not an especially well-used one. Introduced in Moonflesh as a huntress of big game with a swagger that would have been considered ‘masculine’ in 1911, she also had some spiritual beliefs that were appropriate for the period and its experimentations with mysticism, along the lines that human life is just a period in the universe’s light, and after it, we move on and go round in a big circle, helping those who have their moment in the light. The events of Moonflesh show her a bigger concept of ‘the universe’ than she’s probably been aware of up till then, and she stows away on board the Tardis. In Tomb Ship she encounters the long-term very-nearly-dead, and a family ruled by obsession to the exclusion of all else. In Masquerade, she finds a purpose she can live for, albeit one that might well appall plenty of listeners, and when they escape, despite the Doctor berating himself for allowing her to stay behind with the shadownauts, there’s a genuine sense that Bartholomew has found the place she herself would have said she was meant to be.
So – is Masquerade one to buy?
Sadly, possibly not. It will depend how high-brow and hardcore you like your science fiction. Given that Who is a science fantasy show, more prone over its decades to the use of the convenient MacGuffin than the terminally lengthy exploration of deep philosophical science fiction possibilities, the idea of Masquerade being aimed squarely at Who fans seems unlikely. That said, it does feel entirely in keeping with some of the Fifth Doctor’s time, from the Bidmeadiness of his beginnings to the second season’s Black Guardian trilogy, which were rather steeped in the heavy stuff. More especially if you’ve come to enjoy Hannah Bartholomew’s ‘up and at ’em’ enthusiasm for adventure and for people, you’ll need to get through Masquerade to hear what actually happens to her after tangling with the Tardis crew. As a character, she was well worth listening to, and the idea of maybe having more adventures with her, dipping back into her timeline with the Doctor, would be appealing. Having more adventures with her as the
Doctor leaves her at the end of Masquerade? Less appealing.
While certainly the first episode has lots to recommend it, and the end point of Hannah’s story in time and space is worth a listen, unless you’re really into the hard stuff, it’s very possible Masquerade will fall in the middle of a very large Big Finish pack, where you know you should probably get around to listening to it one day, but where it doesn’t offer enough incentive in and of itself to make that day today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk