Man, Big Finish has an enormous output. I love Doctor Who and I enjoy seeing every episode of the show that I can, but when I look at the scope of what Big Finish has created since it started making Doctor Who audio dramas back in 1999, and it’s just clear that there is no way I’ll ever have time to catch up on all of it (unless, you know, I end up in that well-stocked Antarctic bunker I’ve often thought about). In addition to their “Main Range” of dramas, which is hitting it’s 200th release around now, there are various and sundry other lines of Doctor Who-related material – stuff featuring Daleks, Cybermen, Time Lords, Alternate-universe stories, literary companion Bernice Summerfield, Sarah Jane Smith, and on and on. Add to the time the money issue (most of the dramas cost $20 or more) and it seems pretty clear that there’s a lot of material I’m never going to listen to.
And then along comes Humble Bundle, with their unbelievably cool deal of offering tons of stuff for whatever you want to pay for it (although you need to hit certain marks if you’re going to unlock certain parts of each package) and all of a sudden I have a pile of Doctor Who audios that I never thought I’d get around to buying. All of that to lead up to The Nightmare Fair, a drama from the “Lost Stories” line.
“Lost Stories” are adventures based on scripts for the classic TV series which for various reasons never made it to the screen. One particular run of stories are in this category because they were planned for Season 23 of the classic series, a season that ended up being delayed for 18 months and then completely re-worked before it aired. That resulted in a bunch of planned or proposed scripts being junked. One of the most best known is The Nightmare Fair, written by former producer Graham Williams and starring series regulars Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant (as Peri), and featuring the return of a famous enemy called the Celestial Toymaker, who had first (and last) appeared on TV in an eponymous story from 1965. At the time, he was played by Michael Gough (Alfred from the 1980’s/1990’s Batman movies), but here, he is played by David Bailie, an actor whom I have never heard of but the internet tells me that I’ve seen him on Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and The Pirates of the Caribbean.
And so, what is it like, experiencing this “lost” adventure from the 1980’s, brought back to life in glorious modern-day audio?
Well, unfortunately, it’s a bit of a reminder that Doctor Who back in Season 22 was not at its highest point.
The fault is not Colin Baker, who has consistently impressed in his re-creation of the Doctor in all of the Big Finish dramas I have heard. It is easy to imagine him as he was when he was on TV, being loud, bombastic, occasionally poetic, and very physically engaged in his adventures. Neither is the problem with Nicola Bryant, who not nearly as interesting as her co-star, but doesn’t do anything to warrant any real dislike or displeasure. And in general the rest of the cast is fine too, including Bailie as the main antagonist. I haven’t seen most of the original story (a position shared by most Doctor Who fans due to the fact that it was erased from the archives decades ago), but Bailie’s take on the character make him childlike, sadistic, and just a little bit giddy.
The problem is not the dialog either, which contains a number of fun interchanges and well-written lines. Neither is the problem the characters, who all pretty well delineated and in some cases surprisingly witty.
No, the problem is the plot. The plot of the story is first not very well suited for an audio adventure, and second not very good in general.
Basically, this is what happens: the Doctor and Peri explore Blackpool and find themselves lured into a trap set by the Toymaker. The Doctor is imprisoned but agrees to play the Toymaker’s game for the final victory of their ongoing battle. Then the Doctor is put in prison for a huge chunk of the story–long enough for him to make friends with fellow prisoners and to build a machine that near as I could tell was some sort of psychic megaphone, allowing Peri to scream so loudly she can stun a semi-omnipotent alien. The Toymaker finally, finally gets the Doctor to sit down in his challenge which turns out to be a giant arcade game. The Doctor is going to lose but then Peri uses the device, and the Doctor is able to trap the Toymaker in a force field.
I’m not sure if this is my imagination or not but I have the impression that a lot of stories from Colin Baker’s era of the program involved spending a lot of time with the Doctor on his way to the adventure, making a slow approach to where the action was really taking place. This story really falls into that trap. But worse is the fact that once the Doctor does finally get there, he winds up in a very boring-sounding prison cell for almost the entire rest of the time. One gets the impression that all the money in the episode was going to be spent in the Blackpool location filming and in a dodgy video game special effect at the end. But of course, this is an audio adventure, being played for an audience who has gotten used to audio adventures. And of course, the great advantage of an audio adventure is that it isn’t bound by a special effects / location budget. A bit like a comic book, it doesn’t really change the production costs much to move our story from a small studio apartment to a giant swamp inhabited by Mud Monsters. But of course, the story is an adaptation of a script that was written for those budget constraints. That’s fair enough, but it doesn’t make it a good audio drama.
The other big story problem comes with the Toymaker himself. We get a bit of his back-story, which is interesting enough, but unfortunately his front-story–what he’s actually doing in the episode–turns out to be uninspired and fairly dumb. There’s a lot of to do made throughout the story about the “Great Work” that the Toymaker is engaged in – what you’d assume was some sort of cataclysmic plan to plunge all reality into a never ending and hopeless game of War or something. Instead, it turns out to be just to stick people into a giant video game, more or less one at a time, until they die. This game is never described in any meaningful way, which is a bit of a conspicuous omission, but is implied to be a life-sized version of either Space Invaders or Combat. That is not a very interesting plan, people! The Toymaker’s eventual defeat is also uninspiring, and another sub-plot about a guest character looking for his missing brother also falls flat.
In the midst of all this, a bit randomly, there’s this guy who is a cyborg soldier scout trapped with the Doctor, who is implied to have a disgruntled space fleet out looking for him. I thought that this was the obvious thing to build the Toymaker’s “Great Work” around, figuring that the main threat in the story was going to come from the Toymaker manipulating this guy’s army into fighting a massive war with the earth. Instead, it turns out that the character is just one of the drama’s random cute ideas that has no real bearing on the story at all.
So all in all, quite the disappointment, although perhaps not any more than any story presented out of its context like this would be. I guess thanks to Humble Bundle, I’ll have the opportunity to find out.