Castle of Fear, by Alan Barnes
Ah, Stockbridge. We’ve been here before – in Circular Time, and in the DWM comic strip stories. The 5th Doctor’s spiritual home, somewhere west of Pershore. Net curtains, cricket, glasses of lemonade on the village green, Chief Inspector Barnaby arresting Miss Marple for multiple mass murders… wait, no – that bit hasn’t happened yet. Still, you get the idea.
This being one of Big Finish’s more recent adventures (released in October 2009), the monthly range had settled into three-episodestory batches for each Doctor – ripe for the sort of “mini-season” that this story heralds. So some cast members pop up in different guises across the plays, while the over-arching theme is that of The Village That Never Changed. Not a bad idea – but how is it executed?
This first play isn’t the strongest of the three, despite having John Sessions in the cast. The mummers are most definitely in town, and there’s a whole lot of mugging and fnarrring going on. Maud the Withered is mistaken for Maud the Strumpet, the jokes dip below the waistline, and you’d almost expect the Master to pop up out of the thistles to shout “He’s over there!” Stuck somewhere between Monty Python and Grade-era corpse-kicking, this is an uncomfortable listen, and the 5th Doctor is badly out of place. John Sessions makes a massive meal of a terrible French accent until you realise…umm…the accent’s supposed to be that bad. Then it starts to make sense. Of sorts.
And the villains? A race of aliens that most definitely shouldn’t be on Earth during the 11th century? Their first appearance in the audio plays (they didn’t make that many in the TV run either) ought to be more memorable than this, to my mind. The sudden rash of deaths that follows their emergence runs quite counter to the whole tone of the play thus far, giving Sessions’s band of knights a medieval red-shirts feel that should have more impact than it really does.
The pace of the last quarter of the play really does pick up however, and many of the comedy elements fall by the wayside as the gravity of the situation becomes clear. Stockbridge’s history settles into line, there’s a rather nasty accident with a waterwheel, and an impending explosion and cliffhanger to deal with…
…the fall-out of which is explained in the next play, of course.