‘Want me to see if they’ll do you a smoothie. A really nice one filled with spinach and tears?’When Doctor Who began in 1963, it had two intertwining remits – to be a family adventure show about a rag-tag bunch of adventurers in time and space, and to teach Britain’s children a little something about science and history.
Its teaching remit has always been the lesser of those goals, though certainly in the Hartnell days it took rather more pains to present civilisations and crises as realistically as it could (given post-war British historical understanding) than, say, New Who has done with its fluffy Churchill, its shoving Hitler into cupboards and its over-sentimentalised Van Gogh.
Fiesta of the Damned is, as you might expect from a McCoy-era story, somewhere in the middle. It takes pains to drop us into a believable chunk of the Spanish Civil War, giving us engaging characters involved in the conflict, but then for the most part skips over the idea of explaining why exactly the war was being fought. We know that we prefer the Republicans in this story, but we’re not really given any humanising counterweight from the Nationalist side in the conflict (tricky, granted, given the way history unfolded and the ideology of the Nationalists, but let’s not forget we’ve been to Colditz with the Seventh Doctor and Ace, and dealt with hardcore fascist ideologies, finding human beings underneath).
That said, Fiesta of the Damned is basically a solidly traditional space-zombie story that happens to be caught up in the Spanish Civil War, and unlike the early Hartnells, to be a properly engaging Seventh Doctor story, it’s by no means enough to let history be the whole story. So, alien space-zombies it is then, very much front and centre. That’s a good decision from writer Guy Adams, because as an alien space-zombie story, this one’s a cracker.
All zombie stories are essentially grown-up versions of the children’s game, ‘Touch.’ One group runs away, one group chases. As soon as the chasers touch the chased, the person who’s caught become part of a growing army of chasers. There’s the premise of every zombie movie every made, and it’s a good one. Adams shakes things up a little here, in a way already familiar to Tenth Doctor fans from an early zombie-story variant in the Chatterbox Doctor’s run, but there’s some well-judged scientific hokum on the way, both in terms of explaining what the alien menace actually is, and how it could theoretically be defeated. Again, there are ideas familiar from New Who in here – infections carried on space winds like dandelion seeds, reminding us of the Isolus from Fear Her, re-writing of the local genetic code having whispers of The Empty Child and School Reunion. In essence, what Adams does here is take our modern, New Who acceptance of some ideas and the sensibilities they bring, and without ever having the commission to bring those new monsters into this Classic story, he re-engineers the essentials of them into something elegantly familiar, while delivering a new species of villain.
Setting the villain loose in Civil War Spain allows us to dabble in the ideas and gender-stereotypes of the time, meaning Ace gets to be Remembrance of the Daleks-furious too, channelling a little of the character’s early youthful brashness without ever losing sight of the more rounded character she’s since become.
Speaking of character, while the plot may be alien-zombie-touch-in-Civil-War-Spain, give Guy Adams a commission to write an audio story and what you’re never going to forget are the characters, and it’s the characters that really stand out here too. Nor, in this instance, does that only refer to the story-specific characters we encounter – the Tardis crew all have added dimensions of oomph here that are very welcome. While Ace enjoys a touch of light flirting with 1930s ‘adrenaline junkie’ reporter George Newman (played with a straight bat by Christopher Hatherall, allowing the principled, complex character Adams has written to stand tall), Mel finds herself in deeper territory, not exactly falling hopelessly in love with Republican leader Juan Romero (Enzo Squillino Jnr), but certainly feeling more for him than a desire to flirt, and in a way, borrowing from Gladiator to remind him what he’s fighting for – the opportunity to return to the life of a farmer, to his warm and fertile fields, when war is done with him. Squillino gives Romero a layered reality, the gruff soldier now used to hardship, but reawakened to the humanity of his feelings in all areas, especially why he’s fighting for his cause. Bonnie Langford gets to add more flesh to Mel’s bones too – one of the benefits of doing work with Big Finish, and of landing a Guy Adams script particularly – while also getting to do more to advance the story than scream, which in her case must we assume be another of the benefits of doing Big Finish work. Tom Aaronovitch breathes life into the mayor of Farissa, the town used as a backdrop to tell us both some of the story of the Civil War and the tale of the invasion of the space-plague-zombies, and of extra special note, Tom Alexander as Luis the leper essentially describes the arc of the underlying moral for us – in hard times, people are less welcoming to those from outside, those who may infect their societies, but as Luis moves through the play, he becomes central to the salvation not only of the town, but of the whole world. What’s at least as involving is Alexander’s relentlessly cheerful portrayal of the leper who ‘talks to God,’ and Adams’ pleasing refusal to do the obvious and make the voice to whom Luis speaks be something to do with the aliens.
Sylvester McCoy too seems to be having great fun in this run of three stories. Having said he’d ‘found a new way to play the Doctor’ in A Life of Crime – which amounts to forgetful and cranky (notsomuch a new way then as the original way, but still a refreshing change of pace for the ‘arch-manipulator’ Seventh Doctor), he continues in much the same vein here, and the result is that he sounds much more like a considered version of his early, pre-Remembrance self, before everything went dark and broody. That said, there’s at least a sprinkling of broody here and there in Fiesta of the Damned, just to reassure us we haven’t gone back in time to some point between Dragonfire and Remembrance, but onward, to a Doctor who’s seen all the darkness, and seen some redemption from it too.
Indeed, that’s the main theme of Fiesta of the Damned – the Fiesta itself is a re-enactment of redemption, of masked devils being redeemed from their darkness and their true selves restored. There’s a very literal interpretation of the ceremony overlayed on the characters by the plot here, at least one of the Tardis crew having to be rescued from the alien zombie-corruption. But there’s also a sense of redemption from disease, and a societal redemption from the fear of strangers. The Civil War will go on once the Tardis travellers have disappeared into thin air, but just for a moment, at the end of the play, the town of Farissa is cleansed of its sins in terms of rejecting those who came to it in need, and were turned away.
Would that we could all be so absolved.
Fiesta of the Damned is a simple story with some great characters and a satisfying moral arc. There are times when the Spanish Civil War setting makes it drag, along with the necessary but occasionally distracting Spanish accents of the ‘local’ characters, and we’re left little the wiser about the conflict itself at the end, but as an alien-zombie story, it punches well above its weight and may well prove to be the stand-out of this set of three stories.
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 day, he 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