Big Finish: Doctor Who - Philip Hinchcliffe Presents Vol 04, The God of Phantoms, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - Philip Hinchcliffe Presents Vol 04, The God of Phantoms, Review

Tony’s feeling like a blasphemer.
Philip Hinchcliffe is, as the youth say, a #Mood.

In a sense, it’s the mood that makes a series like Philip Hinchcliffe Presents a viable project. Within Doctor Who fandom, there’s a sense of knowing the kind of Doctor Who that was made under Philip Hinchcliffe, and more than a sense that it represented some of the most absorbing, engaging, spine-chilling Doctor Who made by anyone, ever.

That’s WHY Philip Hinchcliffe Presents… works. It’s a thumbprint of mood, and frequently, it’s a thumbprint of greatness even when, as here, other writers take many of Hinchcliffe’s ideas and see them across the finish line. To be fair, if you’re going to have a writer collaborate with Philip Hinchcliffe, then Marc Platt, who co-wrote God of Phantoms, is going to be your go-to, as a master of similar themes and moods, turning up the uncertainty and horror and worldbuilding so you get something that’s as rich and flavoursome as you remember the Hinchcliffe era being.

Weirdly then, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that God of Phantoms doesn’t quite… work.

WHY it doesn’t work feels like a combination of several things. In the first place, it feels like a 6-part story with enough concentrated storytelling for a 4-parter. That means there’s a lot of mood needed to fill the remaining run-time.

In its defence, the mood is THERE, so it’s only by around the middle of episode 5 that you’re starting to heave some sighs and wonder if it’s cheating to play it at 1.5x speed. But still, it’s a feeling that grows on you as episode piles on top of episode.

Then there’s the fact that some of the storyline feels deeply familiar. It’s the Fourth Doctor and Leela, on a world which is well-described in its weirdness, but which breaks down into two warring factions of former colonists, at war for Reasons, while both worshipping the same god.

So… like The Face Of Evil, then?

Yep. Especially like it when it turns out that the God of Phantoms of the title is… well, NOT the Doctor – there’s no giant Mount Rushmore face here – but the god does have a distinct conviction that they’ve fought the Doctor before, the last time he was here.

Except the Doctor firmly believes he’s never been to the planet before. So there’s that Face Of Evil familiarity of false narrative – or possibly, hidden truthful narrative – to the story, and eventually, there’s the Doctor coming to terms with whatever the truth of the past may be.

There are story elements of old technology having been allowed to become redundant and a return to agrarian semi-primitivism here too, as well as a gradual possession storyline as the God of Phantoms fights to re-establish itself in the world.

There are ghosts, maintaining the notion that those who are physically no longer there are never forgotten (reminiscent of Silence In The Library), and there are zombies, dying and then getting up for a bit of a lurch. Because who doesn’t love some space zombies, right?

All of this might sound like a bit much, and if it does, we’d entirely sympathise – it’s quite a bit to keep your head around over the course of six episodes, alongside a story of young love, death, resurrection and primitive patriarchy. Meanwhile, Leela makes friends, encounters unlikely authorities, is forced to lie to the Doctor and to keep secrets from him for his own good, falls into a trap that makes, when you really get down to it, not that much sense, fights in a war, refuses to be evacuated and deals with the seeming death of the Doctor.

It’s really a LOT to keep track of, and eventually, it starts to overwhelm in a way that suggests it needed stripping back, rather than piling on. Except that to strip back rather than to pile on is antithetical to the mood that is Philip Hinchcliffe Who.

So – religious and cultural war between tribes of people descended from colonists, technological regression, possession, ghosts, zombies, potential false memories, missing chunks of the Doctor’s past, a bit of Romeo and Juliet love… anything else?

Well, yes, but that’s when we start getting into Episode 5 and 6 overload. To be absolutely fair, we’re Doctor Who fans, we can cope with most of what’s come at us up to that point. Then there’s the Brain of Morbius-style mental battle between the Doctor and the God of Phantoms, some shenanigans with an uncooperative Tardis, and some traipsing through its corridors (Invasion Of Time style), all before we’re done.

Oh, and death. Lots and lots of heaping, steaming, battlefield, poisoning, and personal death – again, once you buy into the mood that is Philip Hinchcliffe, if you don’t have an impressive body count by the end, you start to feel slightly cheated. No cheating on that score here, the people fall like flies, whether we’ve emotionally invested in them or not.

Oh, and then there’s the poetry, of course.

Just for a handful of heartbeats towards the end, there are words spoken in an epic poetical style, passed back and forth between the Doctor and the God of Phantoms, somewhat echoing the narrated introduction to The Deadly Assassin, as the mental battle for control is delivered in a kind of mythologized story style, as it will undoubtedly be recorded by future generations of the planet’s people. The poetry stops short of a yea or a verily, which is always a blessing, but it has that Gilgamesh or Old Testament vibe of a good smiting about it.

It’s all… just a little… too much, and by halfway through Episode 5, you’re looking back a little wistfully at the false ending that could have served perfectly well as a genuine ending, before you go round the final loop of battle and tidying up that leads you to the ACTUAL ending.

Here’s the thing, though. With a solid villain at the core of the thing, we’d forgive God of Phantoms a lot more than we end up doing, because it would all feel like it paid off into something huge and cataclysmic – to be fair, a distinct thread of the mood that is Philip Hinchcliffe Who.

Here, there’s a whole lot of battle, and travel, and body horror, and zombies, and false memories and the like, but the God of Phantoms themselves is… a bit meh. We won’t spoil it for you by telling you which of the cast plays the role, and that’s not really relevant in any case, because it’s not the playing of the part that makes it feel too small for the story. It’s the sense that there’s alllll this stuff going on, and the god at the heart of it all seems to have to be talked up by everyone (including the Doctor to some extent) to move the needle of awe and terror at all.

The truth is that the human the god possesses – and what they’re driven to do to win their god’s favour – feels more scary while they’re human than they ever really do once they come into their godhood and start roaring about teaching the Doctor a lesson.

That means that more of the run-time is dependent on mood and talking up the threat towards the end than really should be.

There’s edgy fun to be had with the Doctor’s sense of certainty that the god-possessed human is just going doolally because the Doctor’s never been to this planet before – it’s by no means on the same scale, but there’s a sweet little throw-forward to the likes of The Timeless Children there, with everything the Doctor believes actually being wrong or incomplete.

But all in all, the ending of The God of Phantoms takes a lot of layered characterization and worldbuilding and pays it off with a lot of sound and fury that ultimately doesn’t deliver the sense of completion it should, because it fails to maintain our investment into Episode 6.

It’s important to acknowledge that there is a LOT of good work here – the world feels real, the history is layered in well, and it provides a good opportunity for Leela to assess what the Doctor has taught her, and whether he might just possibly be wrong about everything, at least as far as she and her nature is concerned. There are touching moments when it feels like the Fourth Doctor is acting his age, forgetful and unsure about the world, and Louise Jameson brings Leela’s complexities to bear, telling him that she will remember things for him, so he can forget. That’s a scene that’ll have you sniffing and no mistake.

The only problem with God of Phantoms is that we don’t really buy into the Big Bad threat of the god itself, and it feels like it spends too much time towards the end looking for a way to bring itself to a conclusion, having purposely driven by a perfectly good conclusion a while earlier.

Lots of Tom Baker and Louise Jameson is never in any circumstances a bad thing. Lots of Philip Hinchcliffe and Marc Platt, for that matter, is never in any circumstances a bad thing. God of Phantoms is a whole heaping handful of good things, with an ending that struggles to maintain its upward trajectory of scary doom beyond a point where we want it to be neatly done and dusted.

Doctor Who: Philip Hinchcliffe Presents Volume 04: The God of Phantoms is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 September 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Tony 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

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