Masquerade does two things over the space of two CD’s: it serves as a fantastically creepy and menacing story in its first half and then falls on hard science fiction ideas similar to its 1980s counterparts from Doctor Who’s original run during the Peter Davison years.
The story opens with Nyssa and the Doctor dressed in wigs and period clothing as guests at the estate of the Marquise de Rimdelle, a once-popular socialite who is now isolated in her house due to a strange and foreboding mist that clings to the ground of her house.
But events are far stranger than that. The Doctor and Nyssa seem to believe the lie that they’re leading; they’re not just pretending to be of the period but seem to be convinced that they belong to it, something that piques the listener’s interest straight away. Eerily, on the outskirts of said estate is a mysterious machine, one that watches and waits but never intervenes, until now – something has interested The Steamroller Man’ and more than likely, as we find out, it’s to do with the presence of the Doctor and his friends.
Props must go to Stephen Cole who perfectly mixes Doctor Who with not only Sapphire and Steele but also the Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers from the 1960s. Masquerade’s first half is a wonderful thing, full of mystery and intrigue as well as some unsettling moments. The Doctor’s loss of memory is unnerving and reminds the listener how dangerous the world can be if we don’t have the Time Lord watching out for us.
The second half however, seems to fall slightly flatter, as the plot switches period settings and isolation for alien spacecraft and talk of Shadow Matter Universes and space plagues. The switch is one that leaves the listener feeling slightly disorientated as the two halves try to form a whole but never quite manage it. That’s not to say that Masquerade doesn’t keep one entertained, but as the action moves from one highly regarded setting to another altogether more basic one, the attention starts to wane.
Peter Davison is the true star of the story, in every sense of the word, managing to keep the tale grounded. His puzzlement at the beginning, bemusements in the middle and grief at the end help to remind us just how good his Doctor is. A special notification must go to director Ken Bentley who keeps the play flowing smoothly and brings Andrew Dickens as the mysterious and oddly terrifying Steamroller Man to life with a tremendous voice.
Perhaps this is not the strongest of the Fifth Doctor stories in its trilogy this year but for its first half at least, it’s certainly the most original.
Masquerade is available on CD or via download from Big Finish now.