Audio Drama Review: Masquerade

We’re back, with another audio drama review! Today we’ll round out our recent trilogy of Fifth Doctor stories with Masquerade, #187 in Big Finish’s Monthly Range. Written by Stephen Cole, and published in June 2014, this story features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and temporary companion Hannah Bartholomew.

Just a reminder, I have listened to, and reviewed, these audios out of order, both in regard to the rest of the monthly range, and in regard to each other. If you’re reading my posts in post order, you may be a bit confused! However, the “Previous” and “Next” links at the bottom of the post will put the stories in order of their placement in the range.

And with that, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for those who have not listened to this audio drama! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip down to the line divider below. However, some spoilers are inevitable in any discussion, so read at your own risk!

The Doctor, his young ward Nyssa, and her governess, Hannah, arrive at the estate of the Marquise de Rindell near Paris, 1770. They find the area surrounded by heavy fog and cut off from the world. They meet the Marquise de Rimdell, her niece Helene, her butler Jean, and the visiting Vicomte de Valdac. They quickly discover that something is not right on the estate. The Doctor begins to hear the voice of someone calling himself the “Dead Man”; Nyssa visits the orangery on the grounds, where she meets with Helene, and hears vast machinery approaching. De Valdac takes Hannah to a strange, out-of-place pagoda on the grounds, and she begins to forget what she knows about herself. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes that he can’t remember who he really is, and becomes distressed at his and his friends’ apparent integration into the local time period. As his memories break through, de Rimdelle tries to have him removed from the property, but Jean is missing. The Doctor leads her to the wine cellar in search of Jean, but instead finds the voice of the Dead Man again. Helene confirms that the machinery Nyssa hears is real; she calls it the “Steamroller Man”, and says he is approaching. Hannah goes fully native, believing she really is Nyssa’s governess and that the Doctor is a visiting physician. Helene gets them all back to the house; outside the house, she begins to talk about something called “Shadow Space”, and then has a seizure. As the others go inside, the Doctor and Nyssa see the monstrous Steamroller Man looming over the treeline.

Two glowing figures appear, calling themselves the Maschera. Apparently by magic, they create a trench between the Steamroller Man and the Doctor, Nyssa, and Hannah, causing the Steamroller Man to retreat. Inside the trench, only shadows can be seen. The Doctor and his friends join the others in the house, finding that everyone’s real memories are restored. They learn that they are somewhere in Earth’s early future, and are engaged in an intergalactic expedition. This expedition is taking place before proper shielding has been developed, at a time when faster-than-light travel is known to drive humans mad; therefore the project utilizes the experimental technology called Shadowspace. Shadowspace is an artificial dimension into which a crew’s minds are placed, to occupy themselves in a simulation while their bodies sleep inside the ship. Rimdelle is a systems chief; Valdac is a neurologist; and Helene—or actually Helen, as she isn’t really French—is a professor, and the group’s leader. They quickly conclude that the TARDIS’s arrival seems to have caused problems in Shadowspace, damaging the interfaces that link them back to their “Home-D”, or home dimension, and thus to their bodies. The Steamroller Man is a data cleaning tool, now transformed into a rampaging monster; the Maschera are a protective program for the safety of the crew. They decide that the Steamroller Man is after the Dead Man in the cellar, as it would read him as anomalous data. They find the Dead Man, but he doesn’t appear to be a crew member. Meanwhile the Maschera disappear to stop the oncoming Steamroller Man again, and the Doctor manipulates the structure of the house via the damaged interface, thus warding the Steamroller Man off. Instead it finds a way into the cellar to attack Nyssa and Valdac. Rimdelle is then possessed by an unknown being, and declares they will all die without leaving Shadowspace. She passes out.

The Doctor leaves Hannah and Helen to watch over Rimdelle, and he runs to the cellar to help Nyssa and Valdac. Nyssa and Valdac aren’t waiting around; they are running for their lives, carrying the Dead Man with them. He seems to be regaining lucidity. The Doctor is interrupted by the Maschera, who tell him they won’t reveal the main interface with him because he is an alien, and not authorized to be here. He manages to convince them to let him help with the Steamroller Man. Helen realizes that the Orangery is the location of the main interface. The Doctor connects with Nyssa, Valdac, and the Dead Man, and Nyssa reveals that she thinks the Dead Man is also a program construct, the opposite pole to the Steamroller Man. The group reunites as Rimdelle recovers; she reports something cold and lifeless on the other side of the interface. The group heads to the orangery, where they find a destroyed Machera connected to the power source of the main interface. The interface is severed, apparently stranding them all here. The Dead Man becomes too heavy to move; the Doctor reluctantly allows Nyssa to watch over him, but warns her that he must be kept apart from the Steamroller Man. As the Doctor helps Rimdelle with the interface, they formulate a plan to turn its energy against the Steamroller Man. The Dead Man seizes Valdac and Nyssa as the Steamroller Man advances. Rimdelle tries to focus the interface energy, learning in the process that their ship is not in flight at all—so why are they even in Shadowspace? The Doctor sees the Steamroller Man roll over Valdac, Nyssa, and the Dead Man, and is unable to stop it; Hannah drags him inside. They execute the plan to attack the Steamroller Man, but the Maschera appear and try to stop the Doctor. The plan works, but Rimdelle passes out again; the Doctor demands answers from the Maschera, but they force him into the same energy field that was used against the Steamroller Man. Elsewhere, Nyssa awakens, strapped to a gurney, and find two Meschara watching her; they declare they are going to kill her now.

Valdac wakes up as well, and interferes, stopping the Maschera from killing Nyssa. He manages to kill one of the Maschera; the other claims that they were trying to save Valdac. Meanwhile in Shadowspace, the Maschera attacking the Doctor reveal that they have their own interface to Home-D. Suddenly the energy field fails as Rimdelle awakens; she reveals that she drained off the energy. The Maschera reveal they are aliens of a pair of races that humans have subjugated. They seize control of the minds of Helen and Hannah. The Maschera with Valdac also reveals its identity, and derides humans before Valdac kills it. He wakes up Nyssa, who thanks him; however he notes that he doesn’t actually feel anything. They find the bodies of the other members of the group, who are all still in Shadowspace. The Maschera in Shadowspace threaten to control Rimdelle as well, and to kill the Doctor, but they are destroyed by the suddenly revived Dead Man. He claims that as the Steamroller Man was made to cleanse, he was made to kill. Outside, Valdac reveals they are not on a ship at all, but in a research outpost called SORDIDE Delta—the “Scientific Outpost for Research and Development of Inter-Dimensional Energies”. It is the base where Shadowspace was developed—and he and his crewmates are part of the team responsible. But, where is everyone else? They find a large number of corpses, and realize they and the group still inside are the only survivors. Nyssa suddenly remembers that the TARDIS was dragged here by the distortions of Shadowspace; two of the now-dead crewmates, controlled by the Maschera, forced Nyssa, Hannah, and the Doctor into Shadowspace. Dead Man reveals that the Steamroller Man was intended to expunge the aliens, not the humans; he reveals that this is the research base rather than a ship. There was a plague aboard the base; everyone was placed in Shadowspace for safekeeping while a cure was found, but the Maschera took the opportunity to break in. He now has the power to destroy Shadowspace—a literal “Dead Man” switch—but the Steamroller Man is now gone from the equation. However, this all means that Nyssa and Valdac are still alive, in Home-D…along with the plague, and the invaders.

Valdac and Nyssa learns that the plague vastly increased emotions, turning people into killers. Valdac had devised a desperate cure—one that cuts off all emotion from humans, much as Valdac is now. Meanwhile the Maschera come for the Doctor and the survivors; the Dead Man tries to attack them, but fails. As all the pieces fall into place, it is revealed that the aliens—posing as Maschera—caused the plague, which Valdac then cured. The aliens then planned to quietly reinfect everyone, and with the “safe” travel afforded by Shadowspace, the humans would spread the plague everywhere, causing humans across the Empire to turn on each other. It’s a subtle but effective long-term plan of revenge—but to make it work, they must expel the Doctor from Shadowspace. Rimdelle warns that they are making Shadowspace unstable—but instead of using it directly, the Maschera seize control of Rimdelle, and set all three women against the Doctor. The Doctor locates the power packs where Rimdelle diverted the energy field, and deploys it to knock out the Maschera, freeing Hannah, Helen, and Rimdelle. The Dead Man states he can sense another power supply which he can use to end Shadowspace. Nyssa and Valdac find the TARDIS, but can’t get in; they instead decide to follow the Maschera to their interface. The Doctor and the others follow the Dead Man to the strange pagoda, the site of the Shadowspace side of the Maschera’s interface; the other side is in the base control room. Valdac tries to kill another Maschera, but fails and is shot; Nyssa kills it instead. Valdac succumbs to his wound and dies.  The Doctor and the others find the interface, as well as the entranced minds of the rest of the crew—it seems their bodies weren’t corpses after all—but they are accosted by the Maschera Prime, the leader of the Maschera. It refuses to see reason, and insists on retaliation against the human Empire. It gives them a choice—become the tools of the Maschera, or die. Nyssa activates the interface from the Home-D side; she can’t get in, but she manages to contact the Doctor. The Maschera Prime warns that an alien’s DNA will destabilize Shadowspace again, possibly trapping them all forever. Hannah intervenes, forcing the Doctor into the portal; he awakens in Home-D, as Shadowspace begins to collapse. Before the Maschera can react, the Dead Man draws power from the interface, and detonates.

The Doctor tries to bring everyone out, but is too late; the survivors awaken, but with the cure intact, they awaken emotionless. Hannah is among them. She urges the Doctor and Nyssa to leave, stating that without them, she can make a life here, where she may be able to integrate. She warns them not to worry, and says that millions of lives have been saved; “the matter”, she says, “has been concluded correctly.” The Doctor wants to bring them back to normal, but Nyssa agrees; it can’t be done. She leads the Doctor back to the TARDIS to make their exit, as Rimdelle and the others—also emotionless—awaken.

Masquerade piles on the mysteries right from the start! We have any number of questions that need answering. Who is the mysterious Dead Man, and what is wrong with him? Who or what is the Steamroller Man? How can this be eighteenth century France? (My first indication of that problem was the name of the Steamroller Man; the steam roller was only patented in 1867, nearly a century after the ostensible date of this story, and yet the locals know to call the Steamroller Man by that name.) Why are the Doctor and his companions dressed in period clothes, and why don’t they appear to know who they really are? What is the Vicomte de Valdac up to? (Nothing, as it turns out; he was playing a role, and didn’t know he was playing it.) Why does Helene seem to know more than she lets on?

Which brings me to the only real issue with this story: One could get whiplash from changing perspectives and plot threads so much and so often.  The story is lightning fast, and a bit hard to follow as a result. I was listening with my daughter in the car, and found it hard to give the necessary level of concentration to adequately pay attention to this story. Ultimately I had to re-listen to parts of it. But, it was worth it, because it all comes together in the end!

And I do mean “the end”, because the resolution of the story comes about a minute and a half before the ending theme. Even seconds before the end, one is left wondering if the Doctor won’t pull some final ace from his sleeve. Because, although there are relatively few deaths for a Doctor Who story, this is decidedly not a happy ending. Our heroes win, and many lives are saved—but at what cost? The survivors, except for the Doctor and Nyssa, are drastically changed by the events here, and not for the better. At best the story is, as Hannah Bartholomew says, “concluded correctly.” It’s a victory, but it feels a bit hollow.

I’ve heard it suggested that each incarnation of the Doctor is shaped by what he perceives to have been the problems with the previous life. Further, I’ve heard it suggested that the Fifth Doctor perceives himself to be less active and effective than other incarnations, leading to the bombastic, emotional, fully engaged Sixth Doctor. I won’t go so far as to say I believe that theory—at best the jury is still out—but if it’s true, this is the type of story that supports it. The Doctor is left at the end frantic at his own sense of failure, his desire to do more; so much so that Nyssa practically has to drag him back to the TARDIS and tell him to leave well enough alone. It’s a bitter pill for him to swallow, and I’m curious to see (eventually) where he goes next. After all, for better or worse, this is the exit story of a companion, and thus disproportionately emotional.

That companion, of course, is Hannah Bartholomew. Here at the end, I feel that she’s flown under the radar; she’s been a lesser character in each of her three stories. In Moonflesh, she precipitated the story’s problem, but she did so off camera, and then bailed out in the final episode. In Tomb Ship she was instrumental in the ending, but did little prior to that. It’s the same here; in Masquerade she is ultimately the hero who saves everyone, even the Doctor, but she does little before that except get possessed by the Maschera. She certainly could have used more character development; we still don’t have a strong picture of the kind of person she is. Even her affiliation with the Order of the Crescent Moon—arguably her most unique characteristic—is barely touched on. And that’s a pity, because in the end, she all but gives her life for the Doctor. Thus far, this trilogy constitutes her only appearance, but I’d like to see more stories with Hannah, possibly set between these installments (she hints that she’s been to several worlds with the Doctor, where in this trilogy she really only visits Earth, one spaceship, and one research outpost in an unrevealed location).

Continuity References: Only a few; keep in mind that our characters spend a portion of this story without their own memories, so they don’t make the usual offhanded references. The Doctor mentions seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris (City of Death, although he may not be remembering accurately at this point). He tells Rimdelle that he was present at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (The Massacre). Hannah mentions the Order of the Crescent Moon (Moonflesh). Nyssa mentions tending the Grove on Traken (The Keeper of Traken). And, not a particular reference, but a thought about timeline placement: Humanity is referred to as a “Human Empire”, and yet this is very early in the spacegoing history of humanity. That would almost certainly place this story in what would retroactively be called the “First Great and Bountiful Human Empire” (first hinted in The Long Game, first seen in The Lost Flame).

Overall: It’s an enjoyable story, but I have mixed feelings about it. The pacing is uneven, and there’s a lot of content to unpack, probably more than its runtime supports. Hannah gets a bad deal in the end, as well. But, it’s a thought-provoking story, and it provides a glimpse into a time period that has been largely avoided in Doctor Who, and for that I’m grateful. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you’ve already finished the other two entries in the trilogy.

Next time: Who knows! Ultimately we’ll get caught up to this point, and continue with Monthly Range # 188, Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories. But, as we’ve come here out of sequence, we’re not ready for that yet. Ideally we’ll get back to where we came from in the Main Range, with # 51, The Wormery (which we previously skipped). We’ll see! See you there.

The Masquerade and other stories in the Monthly Range can be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page can be found here. You can read the TARDIS wiki’s entry for Masquerade here.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.