Review by Jacob Licklider
Philip Hinchcliffe Presents is a Big Finish range that is tangentially related to The Lost Stories in that it is a range from the mind of a previous writer doing stories that fit in line with that era of the television show, but not actual ideas which were ever proposed. Philip Hinchcliffe, enjoying the work done adapting his lost story The Valley of Death, began to work with Marc Platt to produce his ideas, alternating a six and four part story. Four stories were released across three releases between 2014 and 2017, so imagine the surprise when a fourth release was announced for August 2021. As described in the behind the scenes interviews, The God of Phantoms is a story that just came to Hinchcliffe and has been in development at Big Finish for a while as Platt worked and reworked the outline into a usable form. Recording actually happened in February of this year, not too long before it was officially announced, and like any Philip Hinchcliffe Presents release is one focused squarely on mixing gothic horror and science fiction. While the range itself has been incredibly varied with stories like The Ghosts of Gralstead and The Devil’s Armada being classic horror and The Genesis Chamber being more straight science fiction, The God of Phantoms actually most feels like a story produced by Hinchcliffe’s successor Graham Williams in The Stones of Blood.
The God of Phantoms makes great use of the six episode format, allowing listeners to have a very slow burn of things, starting with the Doctor and Leela arriving at a human colony which has found itself technologically catapulted back in time to a 1700s/1800s lifestyle where a village is under siege by loggerheads and phantoms. People end up dying and coming back, eventually being revealed to being recorded in a sort of memory bank. Hinchcliffe’s ideas come straight out of The Face of Evil with the technological and alien background bleeding through, but this goes further with an under-running plot of Time Lord scheming. The Time Lord aspects of the plot are perhaps unexpected from a producer who was most well known for not bringing back returning foes, yet this is a script that hinges on Time Lord secrets. The identity and implications of The God of Phantoms isn’t revealed until the fourth episode, with the first four really focusing in on how odd this village is, but slowly peeling back the layers that this is a human colony and the implication that the Doctor has been here before. Leela eventually is the one who makes contact with a Time Lord emissary played by Mandi Symonds in a sequence that just brims with tension. Louise Jameson gives this acerbic drive in her performance, Leela not wishing to be used by those who she sees as above her. She’s the one to stand up to the bureaucracy and non-interference of the Time Lords. The emissary essentially tries to get her to convince the Doctor to leave and eventually gets her on their side to try and save the Doctor.
The threat of death hangs in the air throughout the story with Tom Baker’s performance reflecting the type he gave during the Hinchcliffe era, with humour but that undertone of real sorrow. The village is plagued essentially by unseen terrors, the people of the village essentially provide the conflict throughout most of the story until the main antagonist is revealed to gain power. The most interesting couple of villagers are the Claypoles, played by Nigel Fairs and Mandi Symonds, who essentially represent that conservative religious figure of authority in a village like this. The story is full of little idiosyncrasies that add this layer of Britishness, they have a daughter called Hetty who is the emotional core of the story. Her life is the one which is really what matters for much of it. There are ghosts right from the beginning, but they don’t really pose a threat until the second half which is when the stakes increase. While the story is full of Hinchcliffe’s charm, it would be remiss of me to neglect the talents of Marc Platt, who took the outline and made it a functional script, reworking several sections that would have most likely worked on television, but couldn’t on audio. Ken Bentley’s sublime direction also adds to an excellent release mixing the best of the range together.
You can get it on download/CD from Big Finish.
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