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Reviewed by Jon Preddle

It's hard to believe that 17 years has past since Peter Davison and Mark Strickson appeared together on Doctor Who. Although both actors have aged, their voices are unaffected by the passage of time, so while listening to Phantasmagoria I found it very easy to visualise the actors as they appeared back in 1983. Despite his apparent discomfort in The Sirens of Time, Davison has this time managed to recapture perfectly the fifth Doctor's vocal mannerisms. Strickson did come across a little bit wooden in places, but when he hits his stride we get the Turlough of old.

The Big Finish audios are a breath of fresh air after nine years of text-only new adventures. The sound-only medium shows clearly that no matter how well-written a book can be, it is the performance of the actors that makes Doctor Who what it is. There is no way that the humorous first TARDIS scene, in which the Doctor tries to explain the rules of cricket to Turlough, would come across so well on the printed page as it does here.

Set between Resurrection of the Daleks and Planet of Fire, Phantasmagoria places the Doctor and Turlough in early 18th century London. Mark Gatiss, who wrote and performs in Phantasmagoria, has crafted a familiar pseudo-historical ‘alien stranded on Earth’ scenario of the sort that worked so well on televised Doctor Who. There's a mystery to be solved, and like any mystery, there are clues and red-herrings thrown around for good measure. As is usual, the Doctor and companion get separated early on, and end up investigating the same mystery but from different directions.

There is another degree of familiarity about this story. I can't get rid of the feeling that Gatiss has written a plot for a BBC novel. I guess that with Big Finish employing the same writers who have proven themselves in the text medium we are going to get styles similar to that in the books. The Big Finish range is still too young to establish a style of its own, but I'm sure it will eventually. I shall be keeping a keen eye - and ear! - on their progress.

For all its advantages, the audio medium does have its drawbacks. Although the CD insert includes a cast list (which has a clever layout based on the old Radio Times style of credits) it is sometimes hard to distinguish one character from another until their name is mentioned. And in some places the music and sound effects drown out the voices.

Despite these issues, Big Finish must be congratulated for their work. The production values are of a professional quality, with highly effective use of stereo sound effects and music. My main gripe about the audios as a whole is that despite the close attention to detail and the desire to make these resemble as close as possible the TV era they are supposed to fit into, the ‘wrong’ theme music is used. It may be a trivial point to some, but to me it just doesn't feel right to hear the cliffhangers whooshing into the Pertwee / Baker theme rather than screeching into the Davison theme. If Big Finish want to live up to their bold claim of making these audios canonical, the audios need to have all or nothing...

This item appeared in TSV 59 (January 2000).