Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 002. Phantasmagoria by Mark Gatiss (October 1999)

Phantasmagoria (a somewhat anachronistic title – the word itself didn’t seem to exist until the late 18th century) could not be more of a Mark Gatiss script if it tried, could it? And yes, with all the pros and cons that entails. Let’s start with some positives: Right from the harpsichord-soaked in medias res opening  as a cards game in 1702 plays out this IS Doctor Who as Mark Gatiss envisages it: the fruity dialogue, the period colour, the lovely turns of phrase, a good stream of witty jokes. No other writer for the show (except perhaps Robert Holmes, and that won’t be the last time I mention him) seems to write lines with as much relish as Gatiss – lines like ‘they claim you to be in league with the very devil himself’ or ‘a pox on fashion’ with its resultant, quite ludricously anachronistic Meat Loaf ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ reference. And he does it well. There’s no doubt about it. Sure, it feels like he’s borrowing from something else, and not just from a general literary trend, he’s borrowing explicitly from within the Who canon – this is sort of The Visitation by way of The Masque of Mandragora – and he is visibly wallowing in nostalgia because he can, but to be completely honest Robert Holmes did that too. There are problems with the nostalgic approach, but luscious atmosphere isn’t one of them. Between his script and the excellent, fluid, confident production (a big step up from The Sirens of Time in terms of production values, I feel) the world comes to life: ring-a-ring-a-roses, the clink of cutlery, the cheer of the club, the howl of the wind, the crackle of fires, bells, horses, and so on.

The story is chock-a-block full of Gatiss tropes that imply he’s been rewatching Holmes: necromancy and black arts, the ‘spirits of the dead’, and by God Jasper Jeake is so Jago-influenced it hurts (I genuinely laughed at his line about Valentine/Carthok’s lair, the same one he later calls “this chamber of the damned” – “I really must give this fellow the name of my decorator!” It helps that Gatiss is playing Jeake with such gusto, of course, but the character really does come to life). In fact this is a very solid guest cast, with an unrecognisable David Walliams on good form, and Samuel a rather good stand-in companion for the Doctor.

Turlough’s role here is solid if unremarkable, playing the confrontation with the lecherous drunkard nicely even if it’s a hopelessly worn trope by this point and tedious that even in 1999 we’re doing “save the screaming damsel” scenes like this. Similarly his “it wouldn’t be cricket, would it?” is a great moment, paying off that terrific opening TARDIS scene in which Davison and Strickson have great chemistry (the ‘silly’ gag is particularly good).

Davison is very strong here: he’s more authoritative than usual, whether grandfatherly in comforting the terrified Hannah, ordering Turlough to read up on cricket, or confronting Valentine/Carthok in the climax. He’s also excellent on Ming and porcelain in the early scenes, inveigling his way into Samuel’s home. The way in which he saves the day is – unusually for Gatiss – a rather neatly done resolution.

The story’s weak points lie on the other side of what I feel may be the Big Finish dichotomy: how much to adhere to classic Who, and how much to deviate. Put simply, this barely deviates at all. The writing of female characters is pretty shamefully weak and like much of his work this is an almost all-male cast. The cliffhangers are all soundly in place – and don’t get me wrong, they are terrific cliffhangers; part 1 is good, but part 3 is fantastic – but the plot almost gets more and more noticeably slim as you go on, until by the end it’s so pseudo-traditional that you start to wonder what the point of it is. Gatiss seems to have calculated that if he goes for as classic as he can manage and does his best to nail it, it should pull off. It works more or less, but there’s a real danger to trying to do the same Doctor Who in 1999 that was done in 1982: I want something more exciting, more experimental. But I suppose that so long as Big Finish moves forward, there’s no harm in looking back from time to time.

Other things:
“I’m a rational chap.”
“That’s a very pretty speech,” says the Doctor, puncturing Valentine’s eulogizing.
A Warriors of the Deep moment – “I should have been able to save her” – very Davison’s Doctor.
“If I were you I’d stick to snap in the future” – good final gag.

No comments:

Post a Comment