Tony Fyler buys an ice cream.
When Doctor Who was ‘rested’ for 18 months in 1985, it did no good for anybody. The programme felt weak for the first real time since 1963, vulnerable to the decision-making of either morons or hard-headed businessmen who were determined to make the BBC more efficient, depending on which side of the politico-economic spectrum you speak from. It made it easier to bully, to the extent that when it did come back, bosses could demand the head of Colin Baker as the price of keeping the show on the air, and a few short years later, after pitching it against leading British soap opera Coronation Street, it made it easy for the bosses to shrug and claim the programme was unloved, cancelling it for years.
Also, of course, the resting period led to Doctor In Distress. No, I’m still not over that.
But what did we actually lose, in terms of additions to the Who mythos?
Well, we lost The Nightmare Fair, for a start. The opening story of the ‘missing’ – for which read de-funded – season, it would have pitched the Celestial Toymaker against the Sixth Doctor and Peri in the cheery, and yet in the 80s moderately dismal British seaside town of Blackpool. Arcade games were starting to be really big in 1985, and the Toymaker would have had enormous fun with digital games of death.
We know this because author Graham Williams and Target actually novelized this ‘missing story’ back in the day, and fans read The Nightmare Fair with a combination of awe at the ‘newness’ of the story, and simmering bitter resentment that they’d been cheated out of its TV incarnation.
Since then, The Nightmare Fair, as well as a host of other ‘missing’ stories, have been rendered as audio stories by Big Finish. So what about The Nightmare Fair? Does it even remotely live up to the longing that fans have held in their hearts for it since it was removed from its place in the TV run?
Yes and no is the probably irritating, diplomatic answer. As plots go, it’s a bit run of the mill – Toymaker in a funfair, video games of death, yadda yadda yadda. It also has the feel of a bit of a dodgy mid-eighties story, and had it been made on TV at the time, there’s every chance that now it would look kitsch and dated – the ‘monster,’ such as it is, even struggled to look threatening in the Target artwork. If you remember Drathro, the L3 robot from The Mysterious Planet – the story that eventually took the place The Nightmare Fair would have occupied – it was all very well and actually quite a clever design, but you couldn’t really get away from the fact that it looked a bit like it was made of cardboard boxes sprayed silver. The monster in The Nightmare Fair might well have looked a bit like a fluffy purple puppet covered in pointy things.
We’ll never know, because of course, The Nightmare Fair never made it to TV in 1985.
Big Finish has remained fairly faithful to the original, but has given it a darker tone with the soundscape, evoking the real creepy potential of a funfair where things are never what they seem, and where things could turn on a dime from trying to give you a thrill to trying to kill you or keep you trapped forever in a labyrinth of pointlessness for the amusement of an immortal sociopath. Key to this tone is the Toymaker himself – Michael Gough, the original lord of the toyroom, had a thinness of voice that made his Toymaker feel aristocratic, endlessly bored, moderately disengaged from everything going on around him. When he laughed, it felt like the laughter of a celebrity, untouched by the world or its people.
You get a different vibe entirely when you ask David Bailie to step into the Toymaker’s shoes.
David Bailie, for those trying to place the name, played Dask in The Robots of Death (among much else in an illustrious and convoluted career). Ironically there, his voice was thinnish, and aristocratic, and bored. But that of course was nearly forty years ago. David Bailie’s voice now is like good scotch and gravel, like peat and treacle pudding, like the angry cork in a genie’s bottle. You get more than your money’sworth with him as the Toymaker. He’s not afraid to get down and growl if he has to, and there are moments in The Nightmare Fair when the aristocratic disdain falls away and that growl comes out to play, making your truly wonder at the life of this immortal character. David Bailie, matched with a sound design that mixes flashing bulbs and deserted, creaking metal, gives The Nightmare Fair on audio dimensions it could hardly have expected to deliver back in 1985.
There are still some elements of 80s kitsch that come through – the Doctor playing a video game to save humanity should work, as a concept; it’s no odder than anything else he’s done to save humanity, and we confidently expect a script soon where hopping becomes vitally important to the safety of the world, and the Doctor leads us all in a game of Fatal Hopscotch – “Don’t put your second foot down. Put your second foot down and you’re dead…” – but ultimately, playing space invaders to save the world feels just a little bit odder and sillier still because the rationale is never sold with as much emotion as it should have been – it wasn’t in the book, and it pretty much isn’t here either, though the audio version comes a lot closer to success.
A very peculiar, but by no means unwelcome development is the return of the 80s Sixth Doctor and Peri relationship – while it will always be true that Big Finish has redeemed the Sixth Doctor and allowed him to have the character journey that Colin Baker always planned he would have, mellowing and becoming more the hero he knows he is, it is rather refreshing to get a shot in the arm of the pure, multi-coloured snappy Doctor of the TV series on audio, especially given his volcanic relationship with Peri at this point in his history.
So – does it work?
Let’s just say that the Big Finish version of this famous missing story, adapted from Graham Williams’ original and directed by John Ainsworth, is about as good as it was ever going to get. The tone has been adjusted to deliver some proper creepy moments, and the Toymaker, much as I’m a fan of the Michael Gough original, is a far more interesting creation in the interpretive hands of David Bailie. The proper, young, shouty Sixth Doctor is a slice of joy too, for all the mellowed audio version is ‘right.’ Oddly, it’s Peri who’s less successful in the original version here than she has been in later audio years, but that’s simply because she was a character so badly in need of depth and backstory on TV, and she’s had a chance to grow into both in the audio stories, so shoving her back into the TV mold feels more restrictive than it does in the case of the Sixth Doctor.
But ultimately, who’s zooming who? The Nightmare Fair is one to get for curiosity value alone, even without the towering performance of Bailie or the creepy soundscape. You want to know what’s been made of the story you never got to see.
Ultimately, what’s been made of it is probably a better job on audio than the budgets of its day would have allowed. So ultimately, maybe the rest in 1985 did something good after all.
Still bitter about Doctor In Distress though.
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