Audio Drama Review: The Nightmare Fair

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! After just coming off of the famous (or infamous) Zagreus, I needed a quick change of pace; and so today, we’re looking at the first in another range, the Lost Stories. We join the Sixth Doctor and Peri in The Nightmare Fair, where they face off against a very old enemy: The Celestial Toymaker! Written by Graham Williams, and adapted and directed by John Ainsworth, this story was released in November 2009, nine years ago this month. Let’s get started!

Nightmare Fair 1

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Part One: Following their last adventure against the Daleks (Revelation of the Daleks), the Doctor and Peri arrive at the Pleasure Beach fair in Blackpool for a bit of relaxation. They are unaware that they are being observed by an old enemy… Meanwhile, a local man, Kevin, reports to the police about strange events from the night before at the fair—strange lights, a frightened man. It is the latest of numerous reports Kevin has made; but most also involve a strange Chinese Mandarin. Last night, the Mandarin wasn’t there. He also discusses his missing brother, Geoff. The police don’t take him seriously, and run him off.

The Doctor admits that he had an ulterior motive for coming to Blackpool: a disturbance in the time vortex, indicating danger. Elsewhere, the Celestial Toymaker—for that is who watches—prepares his servant, Stefan, to bring the Doctor in; Stefan, meanwhile, provides the Toymaker with the Doctor’s biodata, confirming his identity. Peri begins to hear the Doctor calling her, though he denies it; soon, the Doctor also hears his own name being called. He deduces that there is telepathy in use. As they continue checking out various rides, the Doctor notices Kevin following them. Peri ends up separated from the Doctor on a ride, sharing a car with Kevin as the Doctor follows behind. At the other end, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen. Peri reports to security, but to no avail. Introducing herself to Kevin, she enlists his help—but they are intercepted by the Toymaker’s servants, and forced to fight. Unintentionally, Kevin kills their captor; the duo then runs. Meanwhile the Doctor is collected by Stefan, and escorted to a cell.

In the tunnels beneath the fair, Kevin shares his story with Peri. They happen upon numerous mechanical dummies, as well as the machinery of the rides. Meanwhile the Doctor examines his surroundings, and makes rudimentary communication with something in the next cell by tapping on the pipes. Before he can continue, the Toymaker arrives and insinuates that the Doctor will be forced to play his games, possibly at the cost of harm to Peri if he refuses. Before he vanishes, he causes the wall between cells—which proves to be a solid hologram—to become invisible, revealing a clawed monster. However, the Doctor quickly reestablishes communication with the creature. The Toymaker watches from elsewhere, amused. In the tunnels, Peri and Kevin are briefly separated; and Kevin is taken to the cells. The Toymaker returns to debate with the Doctor about Earth and its inhabitants and their capacity for games, which fits right into his plans. He challenges the Doctor to one  more game, and the Doctor is obliged to accept.

Part Two: The Toymaker commits to not harming Peri. Meanwhile, Kevin rejoins Peri, but he begins to speak and act strangely. Meanwhile, Kevin is also in the cell with the Doctor—clearly only one of them is real. But, which Kevin is it? Kevin and the Doctor compare notes, and the Doctor recruits him to help build a strange device. Elsewhere, one of the Toymaker’s servants, Yatsumoto, delivers a large video game cabinet, and reviews its use; the Toymaker, delighted, authorizes the next phase of his plan, which will see the machines rolled out to the public all over the world. Meanwhile Peri realizes that Kevin no longer has a wound he received in their escape; and she quickly realizes that he is not real. Seeing that the game is up, he has her taken to the cells with the Doctor and the real Kevin. The Toymaker has Yatsumoto try out the game; but when he loses, a glowing creature of some sort is generated by the game, and kills him. Peri catches up with the Doctor, who fills everyone in on their status. The Doctor’s device removes the walls between cells completely, though the corridor wall remains intact. The clawed creature can be seen in one cell. In the other is a humanlike android, who quickly joins their cause, and reveals that he is an old and oft-rebuilt member of an expeditionary fleet, now far away. The creature, the Doctor reveals, is a Venusian, of a type that is known for their mechanical skills; the Doctor dubs him “Mechanic”. With the Mechanic’s help, and a hand—literally—from the android, the Doctor assembles a sort of helmet device, and puts it on Peri. At that time, Stefan arrives to take the Doctor to the Toymaker; the Doctor tells Peri to yell for him if she needs him.

After much debate about his motives, the Toymaker causes the Doctor to play the video game; down in the cell, the Mechanic works feverishly to finish the helmet device, but can’t speak to Peri to explain what it’s for. Just as the Doctor loses the game, and the video monster emerges, the Mechanic attacks Peri, causing her to scream for the Doctor…and the Toymaker screams himself, as if struck, and falls unconscious.  The video monster turns on Stefan, and kills him. The Doctor quickly brings Peri and the others up from the cells, and they ransack the Toymaker’s living space, searching for a device. They quickly find it: the Toymaker’s telemechanical relay, by which he controls the various holographic systems. The Doctor wires it into his own device, just as the Toymaker begins to awaken.

The Toymaker threatens dire punishment; but the Doctor stops him. He has placed a holofield around the Toymaker, trapping him—and it is powered by the telemechanical relay. In other words, it is the Toymaker’s own brain which keeps him trapped, and will do so forever. Worse for the Toymaker, the field generates a time loop; he will have a repetitive eternity in which to go mad. It is barbaric; but for the Toymaker, as the Doctor points out, no other punishment is possible.

Meanwhile, Kevin finds his missing brother, who has been trapped here. The Doctor advises him to locate the patents for all the machinery here, which may make him rich—and will allow him to shut down the Toymaker’s entire operation. Peri, for her part, obligates the Doctor to take the Mechanic and the android home—but first, there’s still time for the fair.

Nightmare Fair 2

I was surprised to see how simple and direct this story was—but after recent main range entries, that proved to be a welcome change. The Lost Stories range consists of stories adapted from scripts which were never filmed; this story would have been the first of the proposed Season 23 that was annulled by the temporary hiatus of the series As such this story would have followed directly from Revelation of the Daleks; in fact, allegedly there was a line at the end of that serial which would have indicated the Doctor was taking Peri to Blackpool, the site of this story. That line was allegedly nixed when it became apparent that the show would go on hiatus. The story seems very small-scale for the series; it occurs in a very confined space, with a relatively small cast (though the accompanying interviews seem to indicate that many of these scripts were adapted down from the larger cast that a television serial would have afforded).

It’s a good thing, though, because the story flows very well, and is fun to listen to. The Celestial Toymaker is a villain who wouldn’t work as well, I think, in a highly science-fiction setting; he is the sci-fi element for the story, and needs no support in that regard. Placing him in a mundane setting just allows his particular talents and reasoning to shine. (I don’t count his toyroom from The Celestial Toymaker as a sci-fi setting, because it is only defined by his powers. In and of itself, it’s very nondescript.) He appears rarely enough that he doesn’t feel overused as a recurring villain. He plays especially well against the Sixth Doctor, for the same reasons that he worked well against the First; both Doctors share a high degree of arrogance, a similar wit, and a sense of mirth. To watch the Toymaker and the Doctor bait each other along is almost as satisfying as watching the Doctor debate with Davros. It wouldn’t be the same against, say, the Second Doctor, or the Ninth (or the Eighth!).

Most of all, you can tell that everyone involved with this production had fun with it, and was happy to be there (as confirmed in the interviews). That energy transmits over to the audience, and covers well for what might otherwise be toosimple a story. The story isn’t just simple, either; it’s gimmicky, at least for the time of its original writing—it capitalizes on the early days of the video game industry, when arcade games ruled, and home systems were still rare. The Toymaker’s games this time are electronic, and they have an edge to them.

Continuity references: The obvious reference is to the events of The Celestial Toymaker, with the First Doctor, Steven, and Dodo, for which this story serves as a sequel. The doctor mentions Magnus Greel (The Talons of Weng-ChiangThe Butcher of Brisbane). He mentions visiting Brighton (The Leisure Hive). He mentions Jamie after Peri finds a piece of Jamie’s clothing in the TARDIS (last seen in The Two Doctors, only a few episodes earlier). He mentions a man in Paris who was always hitting things (Duggan, City of Death). He makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to Romulus and Remus (The Twin Dilemma). The Toymaker refers to the 1914 Christmas Truce, which was attended by both the First and Twelfth Doctors in Twice Upon a Time (technically a future reference, but as the First Doctor was there, I’ll mention it). One of the trapped creatures is a Venusian, which have been mentioned many times since the Third Doctor era; of the various Venusian races that have been mentioned, it is unclear which one this is.

Overall: If the rest of the series is anything like this, we’re in good hands. A great start to a new (to me) range. Looking forward to more!

Next time: We join the Doctor and Peri, as well as old adversaries Sil and the Ice Warriors (a metal band name if ever there was one) in Mission to Magnus! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Nightmare Fair