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187-masquerade

Sometimes it takes me a while to muster up the chutzpah to tackle a story.

It’s not even in reference to an especially bad offering, necessarily – some stories come complete with or bring to mind glaring issues, either societally or intrinsic to the script.  Those rejoinders and commentaries roll off the tongue as easily as praise for more inassailable high water marks of a particular run, line or cast member.

But there’s others.  Ones where you listen to them four…five…ten times before you finally drag your resistant self kicking and screaming to the keyboard to knock out some sort of response, some weak intuition the story may possibly evoke.  Again, it’s not necessarily the “bad” ones.  It’s the blah ones.

Like the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:16, some stories leave the listener-reviewer with little to comment on.  Neither cold or hot, these are often the worst offenders in a way, because unlike the truly good or annoying ones, ones that move or trouble the reviewer enough to immediately reply with praise or condemnation of one level or another, these are effectively nothing.  The kids in your high school class you just can’t remember, because they never stood out.

In the end, these sort of middle-of-the-roaders get padded with praise for some small but notable fragment thereof – a single actor’s performance, a good soundtrack – where nothing else worthy of note actually occurs.   Because what we’re really feeling is a bit more frustrating.

Passive aggression isn’t really an option – we’ve been given something to review and pass our experience and impressions on to other prospective listeners, in the hopes that our combined efforts will adequately inform new buyers which efforts are best to dig into by comparison to others.  We can’t pretend a particular release didn’t exist, moving on to more noteworthy ones to speak for or against.

But admit it.  Who among us isn’t fighting back that annoyedly dismissive emotional response, again like the speaker in that earlier quoted verse, that “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, you are only fit to spit out of my mouth”?

And so we come to Masquerade, the latest in a trilogy of 5th Doctor adventures featuring the redoubtable Peter Davison and his oft-stated favorite companion, Nyssa (Sarah Sutton).

Now before we go any further, particularly after that preamble, let me state outright that this is not some sort of hackwork.  We’re not discussing yet another in a long line of explosion and shouting filled Dalek warfare adventures here (and if anyone out there doesn’t already know my feelings on the long running Doctor Who nemeses, feel free to check out either the New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield or more to the point, the Fourth Doctor Adventures’ Destroy the Infinite).

Also keep in mind that I’ve personally come, through the efforts of Big Finish, to absolutely love Peter Davison’s Doctor (who much like Colin Baker, has delivered a far more nuanced and impressive take on the role than was apparent in the original teleseries way back at the dawn of the 80’s).  To say I have favorite Doctors at this point is pretty silly – in fact, the only ones I still haven’t taken much of a shine to are Hartnell and Tennant!

But suffice to say that Davison never fails to deliver a solid, quite likeable performance each and every time, regardless of how strong the story in question may prove to be.  Similarly, Sarah Sutton, who I’d been acquainted with since her youthful work in The Moon Stallion, always brings a consistent delivery and welcome presence to her Nyssa.  So to put it quite bluntly, nobody’s on trial here.

The problem lies more in a question of lukewarmness.

First, we have the character of Nyssa herself.  Think about it.  Did she ever really have a standout episode in the teleseries?

People remember, for good or bad, Tegan.  Turlough.  Adric.  Even that stupid robot Kamelion, for God’s sake.  Sure, some people remember various persons among them with some measure of distaste.  I’ve certainly had a somewhat questionable opinion of Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric over the years, and for that very reason am quite looking forward to his return to the role later this summer – can his work with Big Finish show me a more likable, multilayered character than the one we’d been acquainted with from the John Nathan Turner era?

But think about it – Mark Strickson’s Turlough, in his all too rare appearances in the Big Finish era, has been an absolute delight.  And while Janet Fielding’s Tegan can be as whiny, snippy and annoying as ever as the scripts require, I’ve also come to appreciate what she brings to the “full Tardis” cast of late, and certainly enjoyed such efforts as The Emerald Tiger, Cradle of the Snake and The Whispering Forest.

Face it, these guys are like miracle workers…or they and the actors in question are both capable and willing to redress decades of pent up frustration at the respective issues, stymied plans and intentions or outright failings of their more compromised long-ago televised takes.  I’m inclined to believe the latter, more cooperative version.  It takes several ingredients to make a good meal.

But Nyssa…I always go back to Land of the Dead.  Fantastic story, and something of a template for any number of excellent Who audios since.

Winter for the Adept, which followed soon thereafter.  But since then?  Sure, Plague of the Daleks comes immediately to mind.  But other tales featuring a two person Davison/Nyssa axis (and not including Turlough and/or Tegan in the bargain)…other than Fanfare for the Common Men, I just can’t recall any that stand out.

Turlough solo with Davison, those were great.  Peri, particularly with Egyptian pharaoh Erimem, made one hell of an impression – in fact, the stories where Davison and Peri travelled with Erimem remain among my personal list of the best all around Big Finish audios ever recorded, right to this day.  But Nyssa?  Outside the two-to-four previously mentioned…not really.

More damning, Nyssa tends to vanish in a crowd situation.  When you have a strong personality present, like a Turlough or a Tegan, it’s almost as if she isn’t even there – the archetypical quiet girl, the shy kid at the party.  Only fit for endless rounds of possession by whatever alien entity du jour.  To say “Nyssa is possessed this episode” is practically a redundancy at this point – it’s nearly a given.

Then we have the story itself.  Crossing House of Blue Fire with, say, Robophobia, it involves the Davison Doctor and Nyssa being caught up  in pre-Revolutionary France and the parlor politics of the idle rich.  But does it really?  And what’s this robotic “steamroller man” circling in the shadows just outside their lush estate?

On paper, it sounds like a good idea.  Mixing a particularly silly light historical setting with hard SF and a dash of mystery-horror (what is the “shadowland”, anyway…and what menace lurks just outside of view?), you’d certainly think author Stephen Cole had a real winner on his hands.  And yet…

Somehow, it never quite gels.  The Doctor breaks through the veil of the historical setting far too quickly, with barely a chance for the listener to get acclimatized or buy into its validity and apparent reality.  The mystery-horror aspect vanishes all too quickly, in favor of the more mechanized ‘realism’ of the sci-fi underpinnings of the characters’ ostensible “true” situation.

We’re given another set of grumpy, essentially unlikeable characters to deal with (wow, it’s Liv Chenka and the crew of the Orpheus from Time’s Horizon all over again…and at least they delivered especially strong performances to make up for all their characters’ inherent unlikeability!), and I’m sorry, but the “steamroller man” himself is just lame.

Stuck with a really banal, unimpressive moniker and saddled with an especially childish rhyming motif, doubtless the character was intended to be “sinister through storybook familiarity”, akin to an evil, chainsaw wielding Donald Duck wreaking havoc.  Needless to say, in place of the intended chills, the “steamroller man” left two listeners completely nonplussed, if not rolling our eyes…

Is it a bad story?  No.  There were some good ideas here, that just needed more fleshing out.  Are any performances particularly of note, for good or bad?  No, it’s pretty much at or somewhere approximating the standard we’ve come to expect from the erstwhile Messrs. Davison and Sutton.  But that’s just it – it’s extremely, overbearingly, at best average.

And let’s face it, while a C spectrum grade (whether plus, minus or right down the middle is open to interpretation here) certainly passes, it’s not an especially impressive achievement.

And with so many far worthier efforts out there, that leaves Masquerade as something of an also ran, a badly beaten rookie who coulda been a contender…but simply wasn’t.

 

http://bigfinish.com/releases/v/masquerade-828

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