Sunday, 22 June 2014

Masquerade written by Stephen Cole and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: France, the year 1770: by special invitation, the famous 'Doctor', friend of Voltaire, arrives at the lonely estate of the lovely Marquise de Rimdelle – once a hostess to the highest of high society, now isolated by the strange, pernicious mist that lingers round the countryside. But there's more in that fog than mere vapour, confesses the Marquise's strange niece to the Doctor's ward, Nyssa. She senses some uncanny machine circling the fringes of the estate, in the space between the shadows. Watching. Always watching. She's given it a name: 'The Steamroller Man'. Meanwhile, the man in the cellar talks to the Doctor; a dead man, trapped behind the cellar walls. The Steamroller Man is coming, he says; coming to smash the place down. It seems the Doctor has been drawn into a very dangerous liaison…

An English Gentleman: 'You have such a pleasant, open face...' The Doctor isn't quite feeling himself, forgetting the most obvious information as he waltzes his way through the highest in the land of French society. He thinks it is better to travel quickly through life and let his deeds call loudly after him. Paris has been kind to him on occasion. He can't get used to the clothes of the period, he is used to something with deeper pockets to secrete all his gadgetry away in. Given where his incarnation begin it seems that the fifth Doctor has become quite that expert on recursive occlusion. The first time I felt a real beat of emotion between the Doctor and Nyssa in this whole trilogy was when he thought she had met her maker at the hands of the Steamroller Man and quietly whispers 'Nyssa, not you...' is if she meant more to him than the others. There was a time when it was suggested that there might be more between these two than meets the eye and I would like to see that explored in more depth.

Alien Orphan: When Nyssa is left to explore a Grove she remembers a similar one in her childhood that she used to tend. When she is told that she speaks in dry details, as if she is reading from the page it is supposed to point out that she is living a fiction. However isn't that how Nyssa always speaks?

Miss Bartholomew: It appears that Cole is dealing with the introduction of Hannah Bartholomew in the best way possible, simply accepting that she is along for the ride and getting on with telling his own story. But it soon becomes apparent that her effortless drafting in is an important part of the plot and one that the Doctor and Nyssa have forgotten. She's not the sort of woman who is bowled over by fulsome flattery which makes her stand out in this period. I was wondering if the Order of the Crescent Moon might turn out to have made a big name for themselves in the future but that wasn't the case. At least Hannah expands upon the Order and it is used to give her character a little more (much needed) depth. She used to think she might be wrong in believing in things that other people find fantastic but she has seen such sights with the Doctor and Nyssa that she knows now that fantastic is the common place. Hannah isn't afraid of dragging the Doctor to safety when the situation calls. Her sacrifice at the climax does show that she was firm of character right up to the end and does leave her open to a return appearance. Since the character has hardly set my world on fire I cannot say it is something I would desire...but it does leave the producers with the possibility nonetheless. More time was needed to explore this character rather than shoving her into three plot-heavy stories where her inclusion boils down to make a handful of brave decisions. I still don't really feel as if I know who Hannah Bartholomew is beyond her belief in the Order and that is a missed opportunity after she has appeared in three stories.

Standout Performance: A lovely chance for the assembled cast to prove their worth in two very different roles, acting up as historical French aristocrats and dialling the performance right down when the characters regain their real identities. I continue to be haunted by Francesca Hunt's aristocratic accent however, as it sounds as though she has a particularly nasty cold.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'A perfect dream of life?'

Great Ideas: Unlike Moonflesh and Tomb Ship there is something less traditional and immediately mysterious happening in Masquerade that dragged me to try and solve. With Antidote for Oblivion and The Brood of Eyrs both taking the archetypal approach of Doctor Who storytelling it has started to feel as if all the innovation has been bled out of the main range. Thank goodness for Steve Cole, not a writer I would credit with being especially audacious in the past but simply getting on with telling a good story, who has structured this tale so we are kept guessing (and thus interested) for much of the running time. The idea of these people, this setting being cultivated just as somebody would with plants is chilling and very deftly introduced. The Steamroller Man sounds like something from nightmares and his saying ('You will be mine to roll upon...') is memorable. There is no soil beneath the ground, only darkness and upon this discovery the title of the story starts to take on a much greater meaning. Shadowspace is a physical realm created inside a pocket dimension and fitted to specially designed human spacecraft. It was created to make possible super distance space travel for humans, where the minds of the astronauts can be placed inside a living avatar to survive the stresses of the environment of space travel. Earth Central needs the human Empire to spread beyond this galaxy but test pilots were driven insane by the stress of warp mechanics. The consciousness is transferred to a customised shadow spatial body for the duration of the journey. What a fascinating idea. What an unexpected twist. What a great premise for a story. I haven't said that for a while. It is basically a similar concept to a Star Trek holodeck story with the scenario being an illusion except this time the people involved don't know that that is the case and there is a very personal stake in returning to the real world - if the illusion is still running then it is terminal for them to return to their real lives (although this does come dangerously close to the same scenario that plays out in the superlative DS9 episode Our Man Bashir). There's trouble afoot for the Doctor when it transpires that the TARDIS landing is what caused the systems crash, he's responsible for the degradation of the Shadowspace fantasy. The Steamroller Man is a data tool to delete corruption from the scenario generator but following the systems crash its function has grown distorted. Attempting to destroy all data...including the crew. The Internment Bay is the storehouse for their bodies whilst their minds are in Shadowspace. Home-D is not a spacecraft after all but an outpost was researching and traversing intra-dimensional energies, set up to facilitate new ways of traversing the universe. Where the development of Shadowspace is at an advanced state. There was an infectious outbreak in Home-D, a fatal sickness and the bodies were placed in stasis whilst Shadowspace became their sanctuary. The humans sought a cure for their sickness by coming to Shadowspace but the Meshera stole into their space whilst they slept. They intend to make the humans carriers of the disease so they can return to Home-D and infect millions. Far and wide through the human colonies, killing millions and returning those systems to the alien races they usurped them from.

Audio Landscape: Crackling flames, a distracting whine in the Doctor's ear, unfolding paper, birdsong, a babbling brook, footsteps, dripping water, squeaking rats, explosion, lots of funny voices!

Musical Cues: The music is wonderfully, distractingly eighties. A pure synth period soundtrack of the exact type that would have been used during the period with moments that are akin to The Visitation and The King's Demons. Whilst I don't think the music is perhaps as accomplished as it could be were a genuinely orchestral piece of the sort Murray Gold produces for every episodes these days, it is authentic and does plant you directly in the era. And that is massive step up from the blustery action soundtracks that have plagued the main range for some time. It's different and stands out because of it.

Isn't it Odd: The voice for the Steamroller Man should have been worked on more. Considering the device has been distorted in a fantasy realm it could have sounded as frightening as the director wanted but instead it has the bored, world-weary inflection of Marvin the Paranoid Android (from the BBC version). Shouldn't Hannah suffer a little more culture shock finding herself in the far flung future? I wont pretend that I am thrilled at the idea of the character hopping aboard the TARDIS with the Doctor and Nyssa full time (I asked for a new companion to shake this duo up a bit but I'm not sure this nasally spiritualist and I would get on full time) but whoever decided she should thread through this trilogy should at least have the courage of their convictions and have her along for more than one story. Hannah is introduced in Moonflesh (shudder), makes a last minute appearance in Tomb Ship (wince) and then only sticks around for one story where she cannot be the focus because of the insane amount of plot Steve Cole has to work through. What was the point of all this? The character was hardly vivid enough to justify her inclusion in all three stories...just because.

Standout Scene: Masquerade is one of those stories that gets it's winning moments from the advancements in the plot. The story is constantly ripping masks away from the narrative, convincing us it is one thing when something quite different is actually taking place. The reveal of the Meshera and their intentions wasn't even on the radar in the first episode - that's how far this story progresses.

Result: Hooray! A decent main range adventure! One which is packed full of twist and turns, is held up by a great premise and features some nice characters. I had almost given up hope that the range had lost the ability to tell a story this enjoyable and much like the mostly generic fifth Doctor trilogy of 2013, this years trio of tales ends on a high. The first two episodes are terrific with a narrative that is constantly shifting and keeping you on your toes but things do stumble a bit in the third episode where there was an awful lot of technobabble and to-ing and fro-ing to be endured. The final episode is the best of the bunch, saving some nice surprises and a pulling a smart resolution to the plot out of the bag. I really liked how the story is structured so that the explanations are told on the go and at essential moment in the plot - too often of late there have been great lumps of exposition that really hinder the movement of the narrative. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Steve Cole is an underrated writer in Doctor Who circles and whilst some of his latter day audios haven't been to my tastes (The Whispering Forest, Kiss of Death) plenty of his earlier efforts were sublime (The Apocalypse Element, The Plague Herds of Excelis, The Wormery) and his novels too (Shadow in the Glass, Timeless). Masquerade is his finest audio for some time, a script that offers the cast some duel opportunities to play different characters and strong dialogue that ranges from period to hard SF. The regulars are reasonably served but there isn't much going on to explore them beyond their contribution to the plot, Masquerade instead is far more concerned with building its own world and having some fun with it. This isn't quite the strongest main range story of the year (Scavenger still takes that crown because of it's dramatic conclusion) but it takes a happy second place. Engaging and fast paced with a unique atmosphere all of its own and a story that evolves incredibly from one genre to a very different one come the conclusion: 7/10


Anonymous said...

Stephen Cole writing a good story of the Fifth Doctor? Impossible, and that I only use that word with Clara Oswald, however I consider that this story is better than the other two mediocre stories of this disappointing trilogy.

I feel sorry for Hannah Bartholomew, she was infinitely better than Thomas Brewster, but in the end she basically became a Nyssa version 2.0

Obviously the Fifth Doctor has fond for Nyssa, but I see them better as father and daughter or a teacher and his "favorite student". However in "The Butcher of Brisbane" Nyssa does not care to leave his family to be with a lunatic tyrant. When are you going to post a review of that history?

Anonymous said...

"(The music)... is massive step up from the blustery action soundtracks that have plagued the main range for some time. It's different and stands out because of it."

Spot on. The music may not be to everyone's taste, but it's something different at least.