Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions
Writer: James Goss
RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)
Release Date: September 2014
Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online
Review Posted: 16th September 2014
“Athens, 421 BC. An ancient civilisation of philosophers and poets and the birthplace of theatre. The Doctor has decided to show Ace and Hector how it all began, with help from the great comedian Aristophanes.
But life in Athens is no laughing matter. There’s the ever-present threat of invasion from the Spartan horde. The plague that turns people into the walking dead. The slavery. The tyrannical rule of the paranoid, malicious Cleon and his network of informers. And the giant flying beetle with knives for wings that stalks the city streets at night.
What Athens needs is a hero. And who better to be a hero in ancient Greece than a man called Hector?”
Before I even get going, I’m just going to take a second to assert what I did in my review of Revenge of the Swarm: I’m not going to bang on in this review about whether or not they should have brought back Hex/Hector. They shouldn’t, but that’s a discussion for... well, probably the release after this one. Instead, I’m going to focus on the play as its own entity, away from these things, for now at least.
The second in this trilogy of Seventh Doctor/Ace/Hex-sort-of-ish plays, Mask of Tragedy takes us back to Ancient Greece, a time of political reform, war, new ideas, philosophy, and, it turns out, space tourism and a lot of fun. Barely two minutes have passed before it’s revealed that in Greece around this time, everyone is well aware of time travel and aliens, because... well, because it’s Greece around this time, so every time traveller wants to visit it!
It’s a great idea: funny, silly, cheeky, a little bit Iris Wildthyme, and perfect for a play that honestly made me laugh aloud at least twice an episode. I simply was not expecting this play to be as funny as it is. I’ll confess that despite liking James Goss’s writing and the Seventh Doctor (heck, I like all the Doctors, even... no, no, especially Edmund Warrick), this play didn’t hold much expectation in my mind before listening to it. Perhaps it’s due to my apathy towards the resurrection of Hex/Hector, but regardless, it is often the way when two plays in a run get released in the same month: you’re aware, especially so in this case, that a finale of sorts is in the pipeline, and so it’s easy to lose sight of what else is there. I remember when this happened with Paper Cuts, which proved itself to be one of the best Sixth Doctor/Charley adventures out there, and this is certainly every bit as strong a release as Revenge of the Swarm was last month, so I dearly hope it doesn’t get overlooked.
The play kicks off with Ace acting as a Greek chorus and giving us hints of what’s to come, which is at once confusing and intriguing. We’re then thrown into the action, with Hex still not the Hex we once knew and the Seventh Doctor in a toga, keen to take a trip into history, but one with an ulterior motive, as it soon transpires that he is sponsoring the comic playwright Aristophanes and, in his own words, wants to keep an eye on things due to the nature of all things time travel converging on this one place in time and space.
We soon get a playwright bemoaning his art being sullied by an audience’s taste for fart jokes, Ace as a proto-Feminist freedom fighter, a not-very-good space traveller who is only there for kicks and lessons, Spartans a world away from their depiction in 300, and Hex/Hector lost and adrift in a time he finds hard to cope with, with the titular mask proving that he is not the man he was. Indeed, Ace and the Doctor find themselves treading on eggshells to not remind him that he’s not this guy they once travelled with, and this is shown up time and again here when Hex/Hector is thrown into the past and expected to cope in the way Hex used to be able to. Indeed, this is a play which uses the Hex/Hector plot device to full effect, both with regards to story and drama, and it is also a play which doesn’t forget what has just come before, with Swarm proving itself to have an effect on his character here, too. It’s an example of continuity being used in a smart and effective way, as opposed to a clunky one. You don’t need the lines nodding towards Swarm in there, but it helps explain a few things.
Sylvester McCoy and Philip Olivier are in fine form throughout the play, though Sophie Aldred perhaps suffers a little by having an Ace who is used mainly for comedy and is given some... questionable lines. I’m sure having her bellow “I’m gonna teach ya... how to gatecrash!” works well in a comic strip, but on audio it’s a little bit wince-inducing. That said, Aldred does spar well with Emily Tucker, with whom she is paired with for a fair chunk of this play, and she plays some of the tender moments between her and Hex/Hector rather well. Why do birds suddenly appear, etc. I suspect we’re heading towards tears before bedtime with this budding romance, as hinted at in Swarm as well.
Mention has to go to Samuel West as Aristophanes in this play, who manages to be blackly funny and wonderfully dour in equal measure throughout. He also steals the show in the CD extras by being so damn nice and loving towards Dimensions in Time, which is genuinely touching and pleasingly fan-ish to hear! It does make me sad though that he never once wishes upon someone that they are doomed to go on a journey... a very long journey.
Whatever my misgivings towards Hex/Hector, the same cannot be said for this play which, like Revenge of the Swarm, is good fun throughout. We have an ending approaching though: a definite ending this time, apparently. I am not sure that I really believe Big Finish on this one, but let’s play along with them and say it’s true. I want it to be true, and if that play can be as good as the two preceding... well, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised once again. Here’s hoping.