Released August 2016
Following ‘A Life of Crime’ which saw Mel reunited with the Seventh Doctor and Ace, ‘Fiesta of the Damned’ finds the trio in the middle of the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Along with the losing Republican group led by Captain Juan Romero, the Doctor and his companions seek refuge from Franco’s Nationalist attacks in the small town of Farissa, a town beset by more alien horrors.
Considering how long Doctor Who has been around and how recent the Spanish Civil War was, it’s rather surprising that it has remained an unexplored time period until now. Without lecturing too much, writer Guy Adams is able to imbue his script with a considerable amount of factual history, in the process crafting a rich Spanish environment that brings the setting and time period to life immeasurably well. As is so often the case, however, the distinctly human threat- along with the inevitable topic of war and its ramifications- is only part of the story as an altogether more sinister alien presence is slowly revealed. The less bombastic threats are often the most successful, and the seeding device of an ages-old race that transforms anything it comes into contact with into an amalgamation of all of the species it has come into contact with previously is quite unique. The fact that the seeding process is spread simply by touch of those infected adds a wholly more terrifying angle to proceedings, especially as Mel and Romero find themselves under siege along with all of Farissa’s citizens.
Yet for all of the action that ensues in the race against time, ‘Fiesta of the Damned’ is perhaps most successful because of its characterization of and performances by both the leads and guest cast alike. Enzo Sqillino Jnr is superb as Romero, a man totally devoted to his country but who simply wants to return to his peaceful farming ways from before the war. At the same time viewing the different ways in which the war and events affect a leper ostracized by society, Farissa’s mayor trying to manage an impossible situation, and a journalist who can’t help but take sides and become involved is realistic and gripping, bringing the war and setting to life in much more subtle ways. While Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are expectedly strong as always as the Doctor and Ace try to get to the bottom of the alien mystery, it’s Bonnie Langford and Mel who the script services most. Big Finish has done wonders for the beleaguered character over the years, ‘Fiesta of the Damned’ takers her characterization to an entirely new level, showcasing a contemplative and mature woman who shares some wonderfully deep and anguishing scenes with Romero.
There may be a couple of scenes that go on just a little bit too long and there may not be too many surprises along the way, but the overall pacing of the story is level and tempered, in a sense evoking the styling of many 1960s and early 1970s stories. It’s rare that a story can combine characterization and action evenly and fluidly, but ‘Fiesta of the Damned’ manages to do so expertly. Along with superb direction that even more fully fleshes out the environment, the script and performances highlight how much life the historical genre still has in it for Doctor Who, with or without an alien menace lurking.