One thing I love about classic Doctor Who, particularly the Peter Davison/Fifth Doctor era, is how many stories have an ambivalent ending. The Doctor and his companions certainly make it through to the end, but whether they triumphed, or did any good at all, is up for debate. The Fifth Doctor often finds himself drawn into hopeless situations where the best outcome is simply leaving intact. For all that Peter Davison was, at the time, the youngest actor to play the Doctor, he had a preternatural talent for playing the character as a sort of Time Lord Ulysses, careworn after years of being haphazardly flung around time and space. Stephen Cole‘s “Masquerade” (2014) for Big Finish excels in evoking all these facets of the Fifth Doctor era.
I’ve been excited for “Masquerade” since Damien May‘s gorgeous cover art was revealed. As a scholar, student, and aficionado of the eighteenth century, I’m practically starving for more Doctor Who stories set in my favorite historical period. It was with the David Tennant/Tenth Doctor story, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (2006), that I became a devoted Doctor Who fan.
Another element of classic Doctor Who that I enjoy is plot misdirection, where the audience expects one kind of story and gets something altogether different by the end. Since the Doctor has a habit of dropping in on bad situations in medias res, the audience may get three-quarters of the way through a story before the real stakes becomes clear. “Masquerade” does this well, too. I was all amped for a tale of eighteenth-century French intrigue, and ended up with a zero-sum game of consciousness hijacking and attempted interplanetary genocide taking place in a far-future virtual reality.
It’s all in a day’s work for the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and their fun, blustery, early-20th-century pal, Hannah Bartholomew. Ms. Bartholomew stowed away in the TARDIS at the end of “Moonflesh,” the first of this 5/Nyssa Big Finish trilogy, and popped up in the second, “Tomb Ship,” to the confusion and consternation of all. In “Masquerade,” Francesca Hunt plays Ms. Bartholomew with all the verve and spark that made her so welcome with the relatively-placid team of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa over the course of the two previous stories.
Ms. Bartholomew’s character had a minor arc threaded through the trilogy, reaching its conclusion here in “Masquerade.” I like the idea of a short-term companion on a quest of her own, one who passes through the Doctor’s life on the way to achieving her own destiny. Satisfying, too, to have the Doctor accept that the people he travels with are free agents who must be allowed to make major decisions for themselves, including staying behind — in one form or another — to help recovery efforts. That is, after all, how Nyssa will depart the TARDIS in “Terminus” (1983).
You could even imagine these three stories, ending with “Masquerade,” as the Doctor guest-starring in Hannah Bartholomew’s narrative, rather than the other way around. What she could only believe before, the existence of supernal beings, is proven to her beyond question. How wonderful to find that kind of certainty, and to take such comfort in its discovery that she’s now fully prepared to move on to the next phase.
The nature of Ms. Bartholomew’s life was fundamentally altered upon meeting the Doctor; fitting that the next change should be her own choice, and a selfless one at that. Ultimately, the Doctor cannot save most of the space station’s crew, fix Shadowspace, or appease the diasporic aliens dispossessed by human colonization. However, just by turning up in 1911 back in “Moonflesh,” he and Nyssa set Hanna Bartholomew on a path to finding a new purpose, as well as a community that will benefit from her presence and her strength.