Big Finish Folly, Part 15d – Masquerade, by Stephen Cole
The Marquise de Rimdelle has visitors! Though her grand estate is flooded with an eerie fog, Voltaire’s friend The Doctor has ventured out from Paris with his young ward and her governess. Joy! Conversation, games, scandal! But it’s not just the liaisons that are dangerous – the bizarre mechanical Steamroller Man circles the estate, there’s an invisible dead man in the shifting corridors of the cellar, and the Maschera are behind it all…This latest Fifth Doctor trilogy concludes with a much less straight-forward tale than either of its two predecessors. Masquerade begins as a costumed romp, albeit one in which the characters seem to have forgotten who they are and why they are here. Shades of twentieth-century absurdist theatre creep in to the scenes as the Doctor and the Marquise struggle with their lines and motivations, and Hannah Bartholomew and the Comte de Valdac engage in a one-sided and half-hearted seduction outside a pavillion in the grounds. Very quickly, however, Stephen Cole is riffing off a different genre – the virtual reality second world (Avatar, The Matrix, Inception).
It’s not as confusing as it could be, but there’s a heck of a lot of expository dialogue required to bring the audience up to speed once the Doctor realises where and why they are in this situation – especially since (Inception again) the first explanation isn’t the entire truth. The “no emotions” revival proves to be both chilling in its potential and also a bit confusing.
The other factor that doesn’t quite ring true is the character of Hannah Bartholomew. Enjoyable in the first tale, and a surprise in the second, here she’s plainly a fish out of water and, even in the earlier scenes, her red shirt is showing a little bit. Her arc is neatly concluded – as well as being left as open as the story will allow, but the ending is still obvious when it comes.
On the other hand, the Steamroller Man is joyfully terrifying, the murderous rhyming couplets it spouts more than dark enough for teatime TV. In a visual medium, it would drive kids back behind the sofa without a moment’s hesitation.
Summing up? Fun, and dark, as Fifth Doctor stories ought to be, but perhaps one added layer too many. A while longer in wigs and pomp could well have been more fun.