OK, I guess I’m being somewhat unfair here: the titular coward is none other than Vislor Turlough, and while his character was a charter member of the Self-Preservation Society, he is certainly not a coward. He never really wants to get into the situations he finds himself mired in but, whether he wills it or no, he always deals with the consequences.
Well, almost always.
Turlough complains a lot, more so than Tegan ever did, and he’s a bit of a high-minded alien figure as well, looking down disdainfully on the human race in general. We’ll see, over the course of the next three plays, how his travels with the Doctor take on a different tone to those with Nyssa – when the entire terrible trio is in the Tardis, Turlough’s sharp edges are rounded slightly by the presence of Nyssa and Tegan.
Speaking of those plays, which in my mind constitute a mini-season in themselves, they were actually produced singly between 1999 and 2005, before Big Finish even thought of their plays in terms of seasons. Yet there are common themes to the three, not least of which is Turlough’s non-human status. So, without further ado, let’s head onwards to Phantasmagoria!
Phantasmagoria, by Mark Gatiss
That byline is for me a proper sign of quality. Gatiss is a long-term fan of and writer for Doctor Who, from the Virgin New Adventures, through the BBC Books Missing Adventures, the Big Finish plays, and even Nu-Who TV episodes. You can tell that he loves everything that made old-school Who such fun to watch – the elements of fantastical horror, mixed with alien technology, grounded in well-researched historical Earth settings – think Horror of Fang Rock, for example, and then bring that teatime terror into the 21st Century.
Phantasmagoria, meanwhile, is set in the year 1702, hard on the heels of the death of William of Orange. The Doctor arrives in London just in time to witness the death – ostensibly from fear – of a man fleeing from terrible spirits. Temporarily split apart, Turlough finds himself in the company of two of the dead man’s friends, and they attempt (with many pauses for food and drink) to investigate the foul deeds being perpetrated by Sir Nikolas Valentine…
Desite the presence of both David Walliams and Gatiss himself in the cast, the script doesn’t feel top-heavy, and the pace is perfect for the admittedly slender plot. There’s lots of colourful period swearing, which always makes me laugh aloud, and there’s plenty of opportunity to play with some of the tropes of the day – housemaids, dark magic, highwaymen… If there’s any problem at all, it’s that Turlough himself doesn’t really do very much in the play. He’s forever somebody else’s foil, whether it be for the Doctor himself or for Gatiss and Walliams to play off. The villain meanwhile is suitably mustache-twirlingly evil, and I got the feeling the role might originally have been intended for the Master (though I might equally be wrong on that score) – he certainly played a long enough game for that to be the case, but I guess that wouldn’t have worked in the continuity.
For the feel of the play alone – an excellent romp, and definitely an easy way into the range for new starters – this one gets a wholehearted thumbs-up.