14 September 2014

BF: Mask of Tragedy

I feel Mask of Tragedy will be a divisive story amongst its audience. It appears to commit very solidly to a style, and this will naturally immediately alienate a portion of the listenership. Personally, I've never really been a fan of ancient history. I couldn't tell you why, but it's never really done it for me. Perhaps it's just too far removed. There is of course that old cliche that the past is like another country and nowhere is that truer than in Doctor Who, as Hector finds out by the conclusion of this tale.

James Goss takes us back to an Athens of 421 BC and throws us into what I assume is a Greek Tragedy. Although I've stated I have no idea about this sort of thing above, there seem to be enough spoken clues throughout and it seems a very neat, Who-typical premise to tell a Greek Tragedy about a Greek Tragedy. This does have the effect of potentially throwing the listener off right from the first line of dialogue (and I did indeed get that 'what the bloody hell is going on?' moment - several times in fact) but satisfactory explanations are offered come the third episode and this really rewards repeat listeners. 

Goss immerses us in his world by having both Hector and Ace apparently (separately) narrating events. Both he and Philip Olivier play with listeners' expectations very well, knowing full well that an RP Hector, being treated as a God will only remind us of Hex, and his fate at the end of Gods and Monsters. Once you know the full story, this is of course completely false, but it was an enjoyable ruse. Picking up from the end of Revenge of the Swarm, the Doctor takes Hector on his first trip back into history. Immediately, the Time Lord's young friend is accosted by Aristophanes, a playwright he sponsors. I must say, Aristophanes (and Sam West, who plays him) stands out as the star of this story. He is known for his terrible and infamously unfunny plays, never managing to come above third in a local competition (of three entrants). 

What's interesting is that the Doctor has brought them to Athens on the eve of the Spartan invasion, and he seems to know that thanks to dialogue throughout the latter parts of the story. In Part One, he coos "this was supposed to be a fun holiday!" but it's revealed three episodes later that he deliberately brought them to this point. Surely he knew the sort of thing to expect, given he intended to make peace between Athens and Sparta? Granted, he probably wasn't expecting to be confronted with an army of zombies or a giant flying beetle with knives for wings (see the header image).  The way this unfolds - as with everything in Mask of Tragedy - is unexpected. 

Before too long, we're introduced to a perfect Greek twenty-something - Tyrgius. He has a telegenic mask (a telepathic projector), which has the effect of altering his perceived form. In this way, he can assume the role of a Greek human from 421 BC rather than revealing himself as the beetle he is. This mask is the basis of a lot of the trouble in this story, as Hector takes it as assumes the role of Dionysus, influenced by Aristophanes' theatre. To say any more would spoil the enjoyment of the story, which really is delightful in the way it twists and turns. Part of the joy is that it takes such fun in doing so. The period is recreated as a lively, bustling city of arts and politics - and a world in which they're often the same thing. I found it really enjoyable just to enjoy the machinations surroundings the city, which is massively unusual for me. I often find straight historicals pretty dull, but I don't have much experience of them in Doctor Who. I did feel that the period was researched deeply enough and written evocatively enough that this could have been conceived without the science fiction elements. I loved the idea that they all were aware and comfortable with temporal tourists, especially when their impact is so deliciously explored here: for Tyrgius this really is a holiday gone wrong.

For the elements of the story that were self-contained and didn't reference ongoing storylines, Mask of Tragedy was hugely satisfying. It uses interesting narrative devices to play around with the format and engages from the off. There's plenty of material for three leads, and Goss divides up the time equally. At points, Hector does feel like the third wheel (he's passed between Ace and the Doctor for company in an episode each for the first hour or so) but come the conclusion he is determined to mark himself out as different to his travelling companions. Ace gets a strong plot of her own as she leads the Spartan army into battle. She and this army are the most obvious of one of Goss' central themes: the oppression of women. 

Almost any historical will show you this is one way or another, but Ace vocalises her annoyance on the issue every few minutes. Knowing how important established events are, and being aware of the fragility of the Web of Time, you would've thought she'd have a bit more respect when diving into Earth's history. If she'd managed to start a female rebellion here, as it seems she tries to incite on a few occasions, the whole course of history could have been perverted. Athens heralds many important figures - how many of them would either have blinked from existence or been forgotten due to her actions? It seems a bit careless, and she is more petulant than normal throughout Mask of Tragedy.

His mind still weak from invasion by the Swarm, Hector is easily overrun by the mask. He controls the people of Athens, and seeing the power it affords him, Cleon (current ruler and tyrant) has a go. This is a really neat idea, both in concept and execution. Although the peoples of Goss' Greece don't understand the technology they are more than intelligent enough to be able to use it. Many assume that everyone in the past was stupid, and I'm glad that Doctor Who continually suggests otherwise. The same comparison could be made of technology like mobile phones and the internet nowadays. Probably 5% or less of users in the UK have any idea how they work, but nonetheless almost everyone can use them. Goss takes this principle and adapts it to fit his tale and the fact that the plot comes from nowhere makes this all the stronger. A lot of my notes from the early episodes can be struck off because they are all explained later on, but the bamboozling mystery was quite fun.

It's hard to say much without spoiling every twist and turn of this story, but it's definitely one that you'll want to hear with no prior knowledge. As soon as Big Finish released this and Signs and Wonders simultaneously, I tried to schedule them in at the earliest opportunity. I wanted to experience the conclusion to the Hex saga with as little foreknowledge as possible. It is fair to say though that almost every time you think you've got something worked out, this contorts out of recognition, into something more exciting and innovative, whilst staying true to Goss' vision and setting. Whilst we only really get to meet two Athenians (Cleon and Aristophanes) the entire city is portrayed through these two men. Not just in who they are, but what they say too. It's refreshing for them to be so up front, and I relished it.

The Doctor is an odd beast here. He wants people to understand the way he works, but even he doesn't seem sure of how that is until the very end, when he tries to claim a supposed victory was planned. Hector calls him out on this, and their relationship stumbles somewhat. The Seventh Doctor says he last visited Athens with Mel, who fitted in much better than Ace. What is it with the regulars and being so rude and confrontational this time? Both the Doctor and Ace keep comparing Hector to Hex, but I'll talk more about that soon. Remarkably, the Doctor does actually change his clothes for this adventure, but keeps his umbrella handy (I loved the "it might rain" line). He revels in the setting and so do we as a result. Sylvester McCoy fills the part with more confidence than in the previous play, and seems to be relishing the period material. The Doctor is written consistently, and this is no doubt thanks to Jonny Morris' script editing in addition to James Goss' scripting.

Ace has undergone something of a regression in the few minutes since Revenge of the Swarm. She's written pretty maturely, apart from the overdose on equal rights. Undoubtedly my favourite portion of this story featuring McShane is in the first episode, when she and Hector are just sitting around, enjoying the place and each other's company. After they were implied to be 'close' in Revenge, I did wonder whether we'd see further into their relationship. It's brilliant that on some level at least they can just connect and have a good time together. Her best line from this scene, in delivery and writing, for me was "Cos guess what? Woman!" Just the way it's played and when it is in the conversation works for me.

I feel bad griping about Hector. When first introduced, he was a hard Scouse gangster who didn't take no shit. Over a couple of weeks with the Doctor and Ace, he's softened right up into the old cosy Hex in all but name. I was somewhat relieved at the end of Part Four when he makes his position clear, because it shows that there is still Hector in there. Ace may've worn down his exterior, but on the inside he's a different man. Just stating that your character's different doesn't actually make them different, so this defining moment was welcomed by me. I felt for him throughout, and Philip Olivier's performance was often exceptional. I do feel that Ken Bentley should pull the actor into line a bit and remind him he's playing the same part as in Afterlife from time to time though. 

Samuel West and Alisdair Simpson are both excellent in their roles as Aristophanes and Cleon respectively. They are both totally believable and play the parts with such conviction. The pair (of characters) were at school together, and so have a longer and potted history. Their opposing stances could easily come off as cliched in the hands of lesser actors (not to say the writing's bad, but sparkling dialogue can be destroyed by miscasting) but instead feels like a long-term, slow-burning aggravation. They have different ideas about things but essentially want the same thing. They care deeply about their city, and approach preserving it in very different ways. The pair of actors prove that they could have supported a historical, but they deal with the supplied material very well too. Samuel West shows off a very wide range, varying from hilarious to tragic in much the same way the play attempts to (and does).

Emily Tucker plays the leader of the female Spartan army Adonia - a pretty tough lady. She fits the slightly eccentric feel of the piece without ever losing the realism of the situation. Adonia uses Ace to get into Athens - lucky she had the Nitro 9! - before massacring the population. Ace is indignant, saying that she was betrayed and generally having a bit of a strop. It should be at herself for being so naive. Countering the fraught "you said you wouldn't lie!" with "I lied." feels like it could have slipped off the page of a Steven Moffat story, but the difference is that Adonia a much more credible character than the likes of Tasha Lem or River Song. That response was all Ace deserved for being so stupid, but Adonia later returns, having seen the error of her ways.

Ken Bentley injects a real energy and enthusiasm into proceedings. He must've jumped with excitement when this one dropped through his letterbox. It remains uncannily faithful to the message of Doctor Who whilst telling a completely new tale. As I said, I think more directional discretion was needed with regards to Hector, but aside from that this is a pretty polished production, as Bentley's so often are. Mind you, the third episode is a bit of an assault on the ear drums with multiple fights and various sound effects and screaming. It didn't put me off as it may some, only added to the experience we were building of this land. Even so, it could have done with toning down a fraction. 

Need I have looked who scored this story? I don't think so. Lauren Yason and Richard Fox are back and I've recently been enjoying their standout efforts for the Companion Chronicles, so was delighted to have them onboard. Their music is adventurous, ranging in scale, exciting, dramatic and quite simply first-rate. I don't know how they always manage to get it so right, but the incredible score (certainly worth a listen in isolation) fits the tone and content of this serial down to a T. The sound design is also worthy of a mention, even if it did get a bit much at points. The sound effect used to denote Tyrgius' arrival was brilliant - the crashing of blades, a buzzing, a warm fffffmmmm. The noise of wings really reminded (for some reason) of Mark Haddon (as Christopher Boone)'s description of a tube train arriving from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - the clashing of swords, metal on metal. An odd comparison to make, I know, but it's what sprung to mind.

James Goss is another of those writers who's written surprisingly little. This is his first Main Range title, you might be surprised to know. Despite this, he has a formidable reputation and going purely off the strength of this four-parter (although his CC The Last Post is simply phenomal) it's not hard to see why. The imagination on display is impressive and I hope to see his name popping up more in the schedules in the future. An excellent choice for the second story, Mr Morris. Well done.

I think Mask of Tragedy will long be fondly remembered for being 'that time when Big Finish did a Greek Tragedy'. It may divide opinion now, but I think it will be looked up favourably retrospectively, in the same way Protect and Survive is now thought of as a modern classic. It whips along with some cracking pacing, engaging narrative hooks, great sound and music and pretty competent performances from our three leads. Aldred once again doesn't manage to reach the same heights as either McCoy or Olivier, instead bawling her head off quite unnecessarily at some points. I liked the flashes of moments from simultaneous of future events that are peppered through Mask of Tragedy; they help set this apart from the norm. Everyone seems to be trying very hard this time around and it pays off. The joyous atmosphere that pervades this, the sense of wonder (and doom when appropriate) is palpable and exhilarating. The techno thriller Revenge of the Swarm was all well and good, but here is a properly immersive world. Jonny Morris' script editing is to a high standard, matching James Goss' writing. This isn't the best play of the year, but it's one of my favourites. In much the same way The Dalek Invasion of Earth is like a comfort story, this will probably one I love returning to with hindsight. This was a bit of a tricky one, being the calm before the storm, but the script team manage to build up to events that could prove climactic for Hex very well whilst still constructing a story that's glorious in its own right. Samuel West is a revelation and I think now we have to hope that there's a Seventh Doctor and Mel tale featuring his Aristophanes on the way in the none-too-distant future.

This even made me want to go and look up some Greek history. Job done, Mr Goss.

In a Nutshell: A snappy, layered story that rewards repeat listening hugely.

You can buy Mask of Tragedy from Big Finish here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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