16 July 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Stephen Cole

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: June 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 16th July 2014

France, the year 1770: by special invitation, the famous 'Doctor', friend of Voltaire, arrives at the lonely estate of the lovely Marquise de Rimdelle – once a hostess to the highest of high society, now isolated by the strange, pernicious mist that lingers round the countryside.

But there's more in that fog than mere vapour, confesses the Marquise's strange niece to the Doctor's ward, Nyssa. She senses some uncanny machine circling the fringes of the estate, in the space between the shadows. Watching. Always watching. She's given it a name: 'The Steamroller Man'.

Meanwhile, the man in the cellar talks to the Doctor; a dead man, trapped behind the cellar walls. The Steamroller Man is coming, he says; coming to smash the place down. It seems the Doctor has been drawn into a very dangerous liaison…

* * *
Before I even start this review, I want to note that it is going to contain spoilers, not just for this play but the other two in this recent Fifth Doctor/Nyssa trilogy also.  You have been warned!

The third in this most recent run of adventures for the Doctor and Nyssa sees them joined once again by Hannah Bartholomew, the latest TARDIS stray who we met at the start of this trilogy and surprised us all in the midway point (or did so to this listener at any rate).  Masquerade starts off with us all on the back foot. You rather feel like you’ve skipped past the first three-or-so tracks when you begin the tale: plenty of things are afoot, and it’s up to us to play catch up. It is quite a neat and refreshing move and gets the story off to a good start. One thing I really admired the play for was not doing the usual thing of keeping a twist to one side until the cliffhanger to the opening episode. Within a few minutes, you are aware that things are not all they appear to be: The Doctor is not acting like The Doctor, Nyssa is not acting like Nyssa, and no-one else seems quite right either. Stephen Cole doesn’t shy away from being bold and blatant in his set-up so early on, and, again, this is something to be applauded. It bucks the trend and gives us something pleasingly original instead of the same old story trotted out yet again. It’s the sort of thing Big Finish can do so well at times, so it was nice to have it here.

Sadly though, Masquerade never lives up to that opening burst of ingenuity and flair. The story that follows is fine (things remain not what they ought to be, people keep being not who they appear to be, the regulars carry on getting to have some good “There’s something wrong with my mind!” moments) but, ultimately, nowhere near as strong or interesting as the opening would have you believe, which is a pity. Even the main antagonist lacks the required stench of fear or bite to really make all the elements gel.

Crucially, for a tale which so neatly bucks the trend to begin with, things later on feel increasingly... familiar. Cole’s writing is fine enough, but there is too much that feels like we’ve seen it all before.  I had that a little bit with Tomb Ship last month, being able to directly compare like-for-like that story to another Fifth Doctor one, and whilst that isn’t the case here, you can still see the numbers beneath the drying paint, sadly.

Even the very ending can be seen coming, and what happens next (as in, in future releases)... well, sadly I can imagine. I can imagine that there is a clear ending here but that, as with Hex and Flip and Charley and, arguably, even Nyssa, Big Finish won’t stop. Because the ending here clearly signals the end of Hannah. But will it be? I doubt it somehow.

The very ending feels rather rushed, as if it’s missing a TARDIS scene to tie things up, which perhaps gives the impression more of a pause before Hannah returns in some guise than a full stop, which it should be for the story to make any sense at all. It feels like Hannah was never intended to reappear beyond Moonflesh and now Big Finish are uncertain what to do with her: do they kill her off? (Yes, sort of.) Do they keep the doors open? (Maybe: explains the way the tale just... ends without any sense of closure.) Or does it reflect Hannah being a very late addition, so they can dispose of her character without any grand gesture, as if she were just an additional cast member in this story only? (Possibly.)

I don’t know what happens next.  Maybe Hannah will return. Oddly, I think they need to tie up the ending here in some way, but I would rather see her staying put. An acknowledgement of her fate perhaps hanging over The Doctor and Nyssa in their next adventure before carrying on afresh? I think this would work better than the alternative, which is having her come back and making a nonsense of this story’s plot. I guess we will see.

What I do know is that this speculation is perhaps more enjoyable to engage in than listening to Masquerade was. Heck, the fact the original CD pressing and download were missing about five seconds’ worth of dialogue created more drama than you get for the most part in this play.

A series of diminishing returns, I hope the next Fifth Doctor and Nyssa trilogy glows brighter.

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