What’s it about: Switzerland, 1926: the Doctor finds himself halfway up an Alpine mountainside, on his way to an exclusive sanatorium for the rich and famous run by the Viennese alienist Ludovic ‘Ludo’ Comfort. In between bouts of electric shock therapy, Ludo’s patients – including faded music hall turn Harry Randall, chess grandmaster Swapnil Khan and Lola Luna, darling of the Weimar cabaret scene – fill their time with endless rounds of Snap!, among other diversions. But the Doctor soon suspects that someone’s playing an altogether more sinister game. Someone with a score to settle…
The Real McCoy: ‘Who’s welcomed warm and everywhere by stalwart men and ladies fair, who to the children all is dear…the Doctor! Who gives the monsters such a shock, who likes a sidekick in a frock, who foils the Gods of Ragnarok…the Doctor! He travels through the Web of Time, he roots out tyranny and crime, we’ll cut him down before his prime…the Doctor!’ An intriguing mystery to solve in the first episode, the Doctor wakes up in a cable car on his way up a mountain in Switzerland with no idea how he got there. Being ahead of the other players is the best place to be if you don’t want to be checkmated. He might not know who he is but he knows he’s not the sort of person to say ‘lets go to Switzerland!’ in a toffy accent although an unexpected death at the top of mountain to solve sounds right up his street. He might have lost his grasp on who he is but saving people from electrocution seems very him. Oddly he seems to be decked out in question mark pyjamas! The Doctor is not so keen on the morning perambulation around the perimeter. In 15 hours he is caught up in an avalanche, drugged and received two electric shocks of considerable ferocity. In the talent contest the Doctor does what he does best and Sylvester McCoy does what he does best and that is to take up the stage and command an audience (just like his stint before the Gods of Ragnarok in Greatest Show in the Galaxy). It confirms my suspicion that McCoy is much better performer than he is actor but I really don’t want to criticise him in what is one of his strongest audio performances to date. It was all the Doctor’s plan – he helped them to defeat the Toymaker and bring the parts of him to Earth but because of his amnesia he has ruined his own plans for a change. He is the spanner in his own works.
Oh Wicked: Whilst Philip Olivier’s posh accent is slightly laughable (in an affectionate kind of way…he is supposed to be bad at it), Sophie Aldred’s turn as Bunty is absolutely believable – so much so that it took me some convincing to believe it was her saying the lines! Ace is insane enough to jump into a moving cable car and she reminds Queenie of Mad Fanny from the bicycle team with calves like flitches of bacon! How charming!
Sexy Scouse: Interesting to see the difference between Ace and Hex when it comes to lying to the Doctor and manipulating it. Hex hates it because in his amnesiac state he feels like a lost and lonely old man but Ace tells him to avoid feeling sorry for the Doctor because it can only get you into trouble. Being the one who the plan relies on or the universe will go down the plughole is doing his head and Hex will gladly push that role back on the Doctor once this is all sorted out. The Doctor in his amnesiac paranoid calls Hex ‘the Scouse lad.’ Turns out they have been stuck in the attic for a whole month and Ace tells him to get a grip once they are able to walk free (I’d give her a slap for that). Hex is later described as the Doctor’s ‘chunky young friend’ so even the Toymaker has noticed how buff he is!
Standout Performance: Nadim Sawalha deserves a massive round of applause for his playfully grotesque performance as the Toymaker and how he gets more gleeful as his opponents start losing and dying. It’s a standout turn as a villain which is all the more impressive because it is spoken in a monotone for much of the story, he’s a sadistic little games master at the height of his powers.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You cause an avalanche. Miss a turn.’
‘Gottle-a-geer, Doc-tor’ – that is a surprisingly chilling cliffhanger.
‘It all started with a serpent and an apple and look at the fruit salad we’re all in now!’
‘I’ve played against myself!’ ‘And lost, Doc-tor…’
Great Ideas: Harry spells out the word TARDIS on the scrabble board and explains that it is ‘something you climb into.’ Are they being forced to play games in order to stay alive? Mysterious people in attics always have the answers, the Doctor would bet his hat on it! A room turned into a giant chessboard – the perfect game for the seventh Doctor. Scenes of characters asking questions and the presence knocking in reply is a marvellously economic way to create tension especially when it comes to questions like ‘are you trying to get out?’ A little wooden man sits in the cupboard that turns out to be the Celestial Toymaker, a spirit of mischief from the infancy of the universe. Children tend not to kill their opponents when they lose but the Toymaker loves deadly games. He’s a hyper dimensional being with a sliver of reality all of his own and he sometimes pops out of it to kidnap new players (such as his first two encounters with Doctors One and Six). He can’t survive too long beyond his domain – those are the rules laid down in the childhood of the universe. The Toymaker brought his selected guests to his world and made them play games and they challenged him to play the games against them – slaves against their master. They had a moment of victory and overpowered him together and the playing cards blew up around him like Alice in Wonderland. He turned into doll, which they divided into segments and they each eat one up with a little piece of him each of their heads. They used the ECT machine to keep him confined to their unconscious minds because if they didn’t know that he was there then he couldn’t escape. A dummy that steals a human voice – brrr! If you break the rules you forfeit your place in the game and Toymaker gets a part of his consciousness back. The Toymaker offers the winner of all the games the chance for him to sit on their knee and for them to have anything they desire, a prize that is too much for this bunch to refuse as they all turn on each other. Plan A was for Ace and Hex to be in charge to ensure that they all got their juice and wouldn’t remember what had happened and who was in their head until the time when all the pieces of Toymaker broke down. The Toymaker gave up his powers willingly because he wanted to know what it was like to lose but it was ghastly and soon began manipulating his way back up into a position of omnipotence.
Audio Landscape: Popping, crackling gramophone, the rattling cable car heading up the winding mountain, the doorbell chiming, a very amusing moment as the Doctor and Queenie scream as they are electrified by the door knocker, the exploding machine, clockwork people advancing, birdsong in the morning, the Doctor panting and crunching across the snow as he runs around the facility, a ear splitting avalanche threatening to consume the Doctor when he gets too curious, massive chunks of ice splitting away from the mountain, something shuffling and giggling in the cupboard, Queenie screams suddenly and it scared the life out of me, shouting from amongst the snow drifts, banging and preparing for the talent contest, tickling the ivories, a clockwork robot with clanking footsteps, striking a match, I find the Toymaker’s clip clop talking very frightening for some reason – the sound of an artificial vents doll with murderous intent, a game show set being conjured up from the ether, Elsa is electrocuted into a little doll, crackling fire, a thumping heart condition.
Musical Cues: As well as some creaky and jolly games music on the gramophone, the score for this piece is perfectly in tune with the sadistic fun of the Toymaker and his machinations. I love the dramatic thrust of the music as the Doctor and Queenie try and outthink the avalanche. There’s a playful riff on a marching band as the preparations for the grand talent contest get underway. I love the sinister stings when the Doctor realises the Toymaker doll is in the room overhearing him. The piano is in full swing during the talent contest and plays everything from ‘roll out the barrels’ to an Egyptian theme. The gameshow jingle is absolutely horrendous which is extremely appropriate. As the Doctor moves his pieces into their final position to defeat the Toymaker there is an insistent, dramatic drumbeat playing which adds to the forceful nature of his winning flourish.
Standout Scene: The first cliffhanger is a corker that reveals that grand players who have orchestrated this whole endeavour for the Doctor are…Ace and Hex? Miss Lola Luna sings a delightful song that is loaded with witty dialogue and her voice is pure smoky lounge singer. The game of sudden death is terrifying – they listen to each other’s heartbeats and the one with the slowest heartbeat is the winner? Who would be able to control their heart in a situation of life and death?
Result: With hints of literature and poetry, dark games and an atmosphere of playful menace, The Magic Mousetrap is a blissfully unusual seventh Doctor adventure which reminded me of my personal favourite of his televised stories - Ghost Light. We open with the mystery of the amnesiac Doctor which is playfully answered and brings Hex and Ace into the story in a manipulating fashion before the tale turns its attention on its star returning villain whose appearance is built up with considerable menace and excitement. Once he is unleashed from his cupboard the Toymaker proves to be more sinister than ever, taking the delight and sport out of games and cutting straight to the murder (and enjoying his players fear as he does so). It’s a story that manages to be surreal without losing its grip on reality and to twist the nature of everyday games to give them a threatening angle. The last episode is absolutely chilling with Toymaker free and murdering his way through his jailers and the Doctor desperately trying to outthink a malevolent omniscient being. This is the best McCoy story since The Settling thanks to Matthew Sweet’s love of the grotesque and Ken Bentley’s extraordinary direction that keeps things fun and frightening. Top class mischievously intelligent audio drama: 9/10