20 July 2014

BF: Masquerade

Masquerade marks a real rise in quality for Big Finish's main range. So far this year, the series has yielded three sub-par affairs, one enjoyable entry and a complete knockout. This story fits best in the second of those categories. I couldn't really tell you why the last two stories didn't really work when this one does, there's just something about each that either works or doesn't. Not least to mention is the plot, and Steve Cole has certainly devised an intriguing premise in Masquerade. 

Before listening, I expected this to be a relatively typical 'pseudo-historical' set in seventeenth century France, with the Steamroller Man being some kind of alien attacking an ball nestled in the heart of the upper echelons of society. I was completely wrong. I try to avoid trailers so as not to build up any preconceptions, so I think this must have been born mostly out of the cover and the synopsis (which I think I read a while ago, before I subscribed). 

We begin this tale with the Marquise de Rimdelle complaining of boredom to Vimconte de Valdac as she peruses her estate. She speaks of the approaching mist, and this is the first of countless deceptions by Cole. The listener's ears are naturally pricked by this revelation - how many times have we had to deadly mist either encapsulating a setting or turning out to be dangerous? And while it is important to the plot (it turns out to be former) it isn't a focus at all of Cole's story, so busy is he unfolding its many, many layers. The Doctor, accompanied by his young ward Nyssa and her governess Hannah has arrived on her estate, having been invited. However, this isn't simply the trio impersonating historical culture, they actually believe the setting they find themselves in is completely real. 

Like Mark Morris, Emma Beeby and Gordon Rennie before him, Cole writes with confidence. The difference is though that he has conceived a credible scenario, and one which actually holds some interest and mystery. Soon, the Doctor begins to realise that everything is not as it should be. This is normally something that would come about in a lengthy scene in the second or third episode, but Cole's script doesn't have two episodes to waste and this development is necessary to peel back the next layer on the story: the Steamroller Man is coming. Interestingly, Nyssa (the only other non-human) also senses something's up.

Soon, the Doctor becomes acquainted with both the Steamroller Man and the Dead Man, in the first of many fantastic performances throughout Masquerade from Sean Brosnan and Andrew Dickens. The Steamroller Man sounds like he could have marched straight out of Time Works - he has the same mechanical, echoey robotic voice that would suit the tone of the Eighth Doctor adventure perfectly. That's a high compliment, as the sound design on that particular story has got to be towards the top of the pile in my opinion. The straining tones of the Dead Man are really evocative, and it's amazing that as he grows stronger he actually carries a quality that makes it sound like he's growing weaker. Not to contradict the material, but as a second layer to the performance. Class act from these two.

Memories begin to resurface for members of the guest cast, and the truth of the situation is revealed (still pretty early on; Cole really doesn't hang around!). Helene (the Marquise's niece), the Vimconte and the Marquise herself are revealed to be members of a crew from the far future. I did have suspicions this might turn into a Girl in the Fireplace-style scenario, but once again the writer has trumped my expectations. The land they find themselves in is called a Shadow-Space and it's an extra-dimensional bubble where humans seal their minds whilst their ships are travelling at warp speeds, to avoid stress and damage. A scenario is generated by the computer for the humans to inhabit, but they are not supposed to become aware that their surroundings aren't real; there's a bug in the system. 

This is when we meet the Maschera - robots designed to operate the Shadow-Space and keep it operational. It seems that they've been failing in their task then. Indeed, when our protagonists discover the interface link between the real world and this space, they find an inactive Maschera by it, having sabotaged the system. The Steamroller Man was a jokily-named piece of software intended to roll out any issues in the Shadow-Space (transparent to its residents) and the Dead Man a similar purpose. Only they have bled through to reality (or what would seem to be reality at the moment). Then we find out that a craft landing aboard the ship during warp drive would cause the computers to fail, and its thought that this is exactly what the TARDIS did. Is the Doctor to blame for the fact that none of them may escape the Shadow-Space?

Of course not, if nothing else, Steve Cole is asserting the fact that he isn't one to rest on a simple solution - in a good way. It turns out that the ship isn't in flight and has been compromised by an outside force. Nyssa and Valdac manage to break through to the real world and discover that two races with a grudge against the humans have impersonated the Maschera - the Vasteryoi and the Tendragons. One thing I must mention is the names Cole invents for this story are really good, must better than the bland one-noted theme of Tomb Ship. I think my directorial preference would have been to pronounce the last of the three names with the emphasis on the 'gons' to give a pronunciation of ten-dra-gonnes rather than just ten-dragons as we got. But small matter. These two races have come together after the humans ravaged their planets for their own use. There's themes of empire that aren't explored to their full potential with Hannah, but they are certainly more successful than in Moonflesh

This seems like a really exciting period in Earth's outreach, and I'd love to see a few stories set in Cole's vision of the future. This feels like an all-too-brief snapshot of a brave universe, and I wouldn't mind spending more time in it. It's astonishing the journey that the listener goes in Masquerade. By Part Three we're wondering who the Maschera really are, but in Part One we don't even have any idea that they exist. Cole manages to progress his story with expert prowess without it ever feeling rushed or underserving his characters. It all makes sense in context, and the payoff of the explanation is plausible, logical and satisfying. 

I should be clear though, I'm really not a fan of renaissance France and it's not a setting I would have chosen. There are elements of this story that don't work for me, such as the relatively brief conclusion. To say I don't like them is going to far, I'm simply left indifferent. Where Cole must score big points though is with Hannah Bartholemew. This is undeniably her best story of this trilogy, even moreso than when in her natural environment. It's interesting to note that Masquerade was recorded before Tomb Ship, some seven months earlier in fact. This leads me to question how she can have such a major role here and such a frankly pathetic amount of screentime (so to speak) in the last release. I thought originally it was because the producers had decided late to bring Ms Bartholemew back, but that surely can't be the case. Given that Moonflesh was recorded thirteen (yes, 13) months before Tomb Ship, there really doesn't seem to an excuse. But I suppose that only serves to highlight how good she is here.

Hannah's membership of the Order of the Crescent Moon makes her quite a prominent figure here, in addition to the fact that she's human (actually a minority here, which is a refreshing change). Spoilerphobes read no further. Her departure is handled quite swiftly, like most of the ideas in Cole's high-paced play. In fact, it feels a little too brief, and it feels unnatural that Nyssa moves the Doctor on so quickly. I'm hoping that there may have been a few adventures in between stories, else Hannah's out the door as soon as she's through it, which really is a disservice to any character. I'm not blaming Cole here. This would ordinarily be fine as the conclusion to a trilogy, it's just a shame that we never really got a proper second story for her, which I would have hoped would've been significantly different to the usual companions' first experience of the extra-terrestrial. I realise that she's hasn't necessarily died, but I still think it's too soon for Hannah to leave. One of the main range's weaknesses at the moment in my opinion is how often it chops and changes between teams. The Seven/Ace/Hex series has been relatively stable, and the Five/Nyssa/Tegan/Turlough trilogies ran for four years with only 1001 Nights interrupting their run. I think two consecutive trilogies is probably about right for most teams. Obviously that's not a hard and fast rule, but I think especially the second Flip series would have been more hard-hitting had it come off the back of her first. 

Still, the decision has been taken and in January the Fifth Doctor will once more be joined by Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough, so it seems unlikely that Francesca Hunt will be back for the foreseeable future. Just to get a little pet theory out there: I think it will be at least partially set in E-Space. Sadly, it doesn't seem like there will be a place for Steve Cole on the writing team because of his commitments to the Young Bond series. He handles Davison's Doctor well here, and much more maturely than any of the writers of the last two stories. Here, the Doctor actually behaves like an adult and has aims and curiousity. He is intelligent and this is shown, not just told. Davison also seemed re-energised by this comparatively strong material and relishes the chance to plant his Doctor in a new setting. As the puzzle spirals out of control, it's really enjoyable to have the Fifth Doctor at the nucleus of the swarm (sorry, that's August) storm. That's not something I'd often say about his TV stories, due to the writing. He does actually seem to care about Nyssa for the first time in a long time too, so that's an improvement.

Speaking of Nyssa, I'm still unconvinced that Sarah Sutton has it in her for voice acting. When Helene confronts the Traken early on, saying that she simply lists dry details without saying who she really is, I was a bit startled. This is how Nyssa has been written of late, and no-one seems to have noticed. It feels nice to have intelligent characters in a story again. Thanks to a combination of poor writing and flat acting (although Sutton may just have been uninspired by what she had to work with) Nyssa has been quite a dull character this year. There hasn't been many sparks of the brains she's supposed to possess. Maybe she doesn't like showing off, but here she's in her element. Cole has a much better handle on this team, but once again Sutton contributes little. Relistening to the aforementioned scene, I can tell she's trying to make it flatter, but it's only noticeable if you're listening for it. Otherwise, it sounds much like her standard performance. This only adds weight to the suggestion that I and a couple of other reviewers I've noticed (including Joe Ford of Doc Oho) have, which is to rest Nyssa for a little while. The last time Davison had a permanent companion and Sarah Sutton didn't make an appearance was March 2009. The last time he had a story with one or more TV companions and Nyssa wasn't one of them was January 2008 - six and a half years ago. She's been in 34 of the 61 Davison main range stories - quite an incredible statistic when you consider all those stories with Peri and Erimem are included.

Simon Robinson was on music and sound duties for this one and I must say I preferred his work in the latter department. I thought the sound design was outstanding, and perfectly matched the ideas raised by the script, and, crucially, in the same style too. The highlight has to be the modulation applied to Andrew Dickens' voice to turn him into the Steamroller Man, but the effects added when Nyssa and Valdac carry the illness is nearly as good. Robinson's music is very 80s, and at times I found it jarring. He seemed all too keen to play on the synths, even in the sections set in France, which just didn't match well for me. As an isolated score at the end of the first disc, it's pretty good, but when placed under the action just distracted my attention and made me appreciate the moments when the incidental sound overpowered the music. It's not bad, it just didn't fit in the same way some scores do. It does sound like it could herald from a 1983 TV soundtrack though, so I suppose that's a success. I know it worked more for others, but it just wasn't for me, sorry.

Another thing I must make a note of is the similarity of the opening episodes to Philip Lawrence's Question Marks - a one-part story featured on the Recorded Time and Other Stories anthology. In this story, the Doctor, Peri and a scientific crew wake up with no knowledge of who they are and must work it out before the setting they find themselves in kills them. Sound familiar? The first couple of episodes of Masquerade dip in and out of this plot, busying itself with other subplots and characters. I was often reminded of Question Marks when listening though, so I felt it necessary to mention. I don't doubt this was entirely coincidental on Cole's part, but the similarities (even in audio landscapes) are noticeable.

To finally conclude then, this is a reasonably strong entry. I realise it's incredibly easy for me to sit here and slag off work that people have spent a long time on, but this was much better than the last two. In fact, it was as good as both of them put together. While it was a decent send-off for Hannah, it does feel all too soon. You could put this story at the end of her second series and it wouldn't feel out of place. However, given that we've barely got to know her yet (this is the only story where she can stand on her own two feet without being questioned) it is a shame she's gone so soon. It would be nice to see what Cole can do with her in the future, given that he actually uses her background and makes it quite a key part of his story. The script is probably the most successful aspect of this production, and it's really enjoyable that the writer very rarely goes for the easy option. Cole credits the listener with intelligence by having a mystery to solve and putting realistic characters inside his scenario (within another scenario, if you want to be precise) and the initial premise is intriguing. All too often, it's taken as read that technology just works, so it's nice to travel to a point where warp travel is still in its pioneering days. It's an intriguing idea too, the Shadow-Space. Cole shows he has a brilliant mind, and puts it to good use. The dialogue he serves each character is excellent and the Steamroller Man is almost perfect in conception and execution. I would maybe just have liked the insanity to have been ramped up a tiny bit more. The sound design is brilliant and it's lovely to have Davison back on form. Damien May has also contributed his best cover in a while, and overall it just feels like good Doctor Who is back.

In a Nutshell: Masquerade is a marvel of storytelling and treats all its character properly. This is what Doctor Who should be like.

You can buy Masquerade from Big Finish here, and read the Doc Oho review here. Blogtor Who hasn't published a review yet.

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