Released October 2009
‘Castle of Fear’ commences Big Finish’s final 2009 main range trilogy, featuring the Fifth Doctor in Stockbridge, a popular locale for his long-past Doctor Who Magazine comic adventures. After the suitably bombastic and dramatic conclusion of Charlotte Pollard’s travels in ‘Blue Forgotten Planet,’ ‘Castle of Fear’ is a welcoming and more light-hearted affair that finally introduces the Rutans- one of the most enigmatic but important species in Doctor Who canon- to the audio medium.
From the start it’s clear that writer Alan Barnes, himself the former editor of Doctor Who Magazine, has drawn inspiration from such classic sources as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Blackadder, imbuing his script with spectacular wit that somehow manages to capture the feel of a comic strip adventure. Avoiding the common pitfall of relying on too much awkward and descriptive dialogue, Barnes manages to create a completely visual experience within the confines of the audio medium in a way few authors are able to manage.
Framing events with a panto-type play in the nineteenth century that ominously correlated with events in the twelfth is a masterstroke and, although the script itself isn’t necessarily the most complicated affair, its tremendous amount of unexpected twists and revelations will most certainly keep the audience’s attention from beginning to end. Likewise, all members of the cast are on top form. Peter Davison effortlessly carries each scene he is in, showing his adeptness within the humorous and off-kilter format, but Sarah Sutton most certainly gets some scene-stealing moments of her own as Nyssa tries to find her way in this strange historical locale. The guest cast members are purposefully over-the-top while still able to retain a dramatic air of humanity within their characters, verbose while empathetic even as supposed truths and assumptions are challenged. Simon Cooper’s Earl of Mummerset is particularly strong and enjoyable, but due credit must certainly be given to Bridget Spears as Maud the Withered and John Session as Sir Roland of Brittany as well.
As previously mentioned, though, ‘Castle of Fear’ marks the debut of the Rutans in Big Finish’s library. The ages-old nemesis of the much more famous Sontarans, these formless shape-shifters have made remarkably few physical appearances within Doctor Who adventures in any medium, but their very essence is one oozing with untapped potential. Fitting into the more comic confines of this story perfectly, the Rutans still manage to carry enough dramatic weight to prevent the entire production from devolving into farcical territory.
Appreciating that these sort of more comedic productions will always undoubtedly result in rather polar reactions, the story’s plot is suitably strong and the descriptions and explanations eventually given to the characters as well as the continuing twists on traditional conventions and expectations certainly continue to benefit the production as it proceeds. Even if the audience is unfamiliar with the previous Stockbridge comic adventures referenced, ‘Castle of Fear’ still presents a welcome change of pace and an intriguing beginning installment to this newest trilogy, at the same time providing a strong cliffhanger leading into ‘Eternal Summer.’ The successful inclusion of the Rutans proves that they still have so much more to give, giving hope that they will make a return appearance at some point going forward.