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Audio Drama Review
Athens, 421 BC – an ancient civilisation of philosophers and poets, and the birthplace of theatre. The Doctor has decided to show Ace and Hector how it all began, with help from the great comedian Aristophanes. But life in Athens is no laughing matter. There’s the ever-present threat of invasion from the Spartan horde. The plague that turns people into the walking dead. The slavery. The tyrannical rule of the paranoid, malicious Cleon and his network of informers. And the giant flying beetle with knives for wings that stalks the city streets at night. What Athens needs is a hero – and who better to be a hero in ancient Greece than a man called Hector…?
Ah, a historical Doctor Who story… but, you may be wondering, is it one of those educational ones, such as Marco Polo or The Aztecs? Alternatively, given its classical setting, should we expect something more comical, like The Romans or The Myth Makers? Or will it be one of the science-fiction ones, with aliens and time-travellers in danger of derailing the course of history? The answer is: all of the above.
Mask of Tragedy is clearly a well-researched play, with writer James Goss enlightening us as to the origins of theatre, the nature of the Greek chorus, and the meaning of the word ostracise. I learned even more from the writer’s sleeve notes, which reveal just how many references to the works of Aristophanes he has packed into his script. For example, the character’s mention of “cloud cuckoo land” isn’t the anachronism I initially took it to be – the Greek playwright coined this phrase in his play The Birds.
Aristophanes (portrayed in a wonderfully dry manner by Samuel West) was a comedian, so accordingly there’s a lot of humour here – much of it as bizarre as the historical playwright’s work. It transpires that the ancient Greeks are quite used to encountering time-travellers, and casually enquire as to which century the visitors hail from. This being a pivotal and popular point in history, the place has been overrun with temporal tourists. Goss quite deftly interweaves his educational, humorous and sci-fi strands, so that when, for example, Aristophanes says that the word xenopsychosurgeon is “all Greek”, the listener takes this simply as a joke… but then the man goes on to explain the three Greek terms that make up the word: meaning other, the mind, and handiwork.
In what might be regarded as something of a hangover from Goss’s work on The Companion Chronicles, there are a couple of narrative threads in which Hector (Philip Olivier) recounts recent events to the tyrannical Cleon (Alisdair Simpson) while Ace (Sophie Aldred) does the same for her female audience. These – especially the mystery surrounding Hector’s fate – add intrigue to the first couple of episodes of this four-part story, though this dissipates when the main storyline catches up with these throw-forward plot elements.
There is some unfortunate repetition of dramatic beats from the previous release, Revenge of the Swarm, with Hector still proving susceptible to mind control. Partly as a result of this, his character development barely moves forward, and his berating of his fellow travellers for their casual attitude towards historical tragedies plays out pretty much like his strop at the end of Revenge of the Swarm. In fact, it also feels like just the kind of arguments that the Hex of old used to make, though the Doctor and Ace seem oblivious of this.
Meanwhile, the juvenilisation of Ace continues. As the teenager loudly marvels at the might of the Spartan army and offers to teach them how to gatecrash a party, she sometimes sounds like an enthusiastic Jeremy Clarkson. Perhaps script editor Jonathan Morris is going somewhere with this, paving the way towards firmly establishing these releases as pre-The New Adventures novels…
CD extras include 15 minutes of interviews, the highlight of which is Samuel West delightfully recalling his long-term love of Doctor Who and his happy memories of getting his first chance to appear in the show – even if it was in Dimensions in Time, standing in for an absent Sir Ian McKellen!
Listeners with a more knowledge of ancient history than I have will probably get more out of the main story than I did, while the ongoing Hector arc continues to tread water. Even so, Mask of Tragedy is an inventive and original performance.
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