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Doctor Who - The Lost Stories 1.1: The Nightmare Fair

December 13th, 2009 (08:41 pm)

Big Finish's project to take stories once commissioned for television Doctor Who and adapt them for audio is a welcome addition to their range, but leads to a curious listening experience. The Nightmare Fair seems to be extremely faithful to the script that, had all been well and Doctor Who not been a victim of Michael Grade's remodelling of BBC 1, would have gone before the cameras in April 1985 for broadcast in January 1986, as part of the 'original' season 23.

The Nightmare Fair would have marked the return of Graham Williams to Doctor Who, five years after he left the producer's office. There's a lot about The Nightmare Fair which is suggestive of Williams's method, as producer, of studying the bestseller lists to get a sense of popular culture trends and use them in Doctor Who. In some alternate universe where Williams remained producer for another year or two, I suspect that we might have seen a story about arcade video games earlier than we did. This being said, there's a lot about the treatment of the phenomenon by The Nightmare Fair which is defensive and more suggestive of the cultural conservatism in the programme under John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward. The video game industry is depicted as 'foreign'; the Celestial Toymaker's video game expert is Japanese and the Toymaker is preparing to move his centre of operations from Blackpool to California. Blackpool's attractions could be read as representing embattled British studio-based television in the mid-1980s, besieged by new forms of entertainment, and run by bosses with other agendas.

The Nightmare Fair is famously one of John Nathan-Turner's mid-1980s 'shopping list' stories; having been to Blackpool in summer 1984 so that Colin Baker could not only put in a personal appearance at the BBC Enterprises exhibition there, but also open an unrelated space-themed ride, he saw advantages for the Doctor Who brand in basing a story at Blackpool. Reviving the character of the Celestial Toymaker, previously seen in the 1966 story The Celestial Toymaker, for some reason also seemed like a good idea. The Toymaker was a character that fans of a certain age were particularly nostalgic over, but he was very much a product of a fantastical road which the programme had had to turn away from. The Nightmare Fair was written by someone with different ideas of what Doctor Who to those of Donald Tosh who had initiated the original Toymaker story. Perhaps in consequence, in The Nightmare Fair the Toymaker seems diminished in comparison to his first appearance. He is limited by space and time and is an organic entity; in The Celestial Toymaker it's possible that he appears in the form he does simply because that is the way the human mind rationalizes him. His declaration that he is the space/time vortex made no sense when I read the novelization and still doesn't now.

Otherwise this story retains the structural problems of much of season twenty-two; nothing very much happens in the first forty-five minutes and the listener is treated to extended corridor sequences. Indeed, these carry on into the second episode. Much of the minuteage of the extras package seems devoted to apologising for the return of Peri to a less proactive role than Big Finish listeners are used to, though Nicola Bryant gives her usual spirited performance even in the role of line feed. Colin Baker's Doctor seems arrogant and unlikeable; it's difficult to imagine this script retaining the loyalty of early Saturday evening viewers.

There is one decision which begs a question: Stefan, the Toymaker's principal henchman, is so obviously written as a retread of Herman from City of Death that it's surprising to hear him played as an Estuary English speaker, despite his origins in the army of Frederick Barbarossa. So far, nicht so mitteleuropäische. Perhaps this draws attention away from the ethnic stereotyping elsewhere in the script. Herman seemed to be a nod towards Williams's co-authorship of City of Death, as is the Doctor's mention of Duggan; the walls in the Toymaker's lair work in a similar way to the perception-filtered ones in the maze in The Horns of Nimon. Perhaps, as the Toymaker sought to regain his power as the author of worlds, in 1985 Graham Williams sought to emphasize his then-neglected historic role as one of the principal authors of Doctor Who.


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: December 13th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I've always found fandom's fondness for the Celestial Toymaker, and The Celestial Toymaker rather baffling, despite my usually being a big fan of the Hartnell era.

I have the novelization of The Nightmare Fair, although I remember very little about it. Your review does not encourage me to revisit it or to get the audio.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 13th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
Hartnell words

I agree - but the Toymaker seems to have appealed to a lot of child imaginations in the 1960s. I found the dramatization of The Nightmare Fair more accessible than the book, but there's still a hollowness to it.

Posted by: Nicholas (nwhyte)
Posted at: December 14th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)

Yeah, it's just not terribly good. The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, the Toymaker's own problems are puzzling and his fate rather incomprehensible, and I just couldn't really care what was going on. It's a shame that the best of the three missing stories was the one they couldn't get agreement to produce.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 14th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
Argue mainly

I'm not keen on The Ultimate Evil particularly, on the basis of the book; but you expressed the problems of The Nightmare Fair more succinctly and accurately than I managed!

Of the remaining stories, I'm looking forward to Paradise Five and Farewell Great Macedon, though regret that the latter won't be a full cast recording.