Review: Doctor Who – The Lost Stories – 01 – The Nightmare Fair

The Nightmare FairOver the years, there’s been a surprising amount of Doctor Who scripts that were never made: stories that fell afoul of budgetary and logistical issues; stories that were too similar to others; stories that were too awful for human consumption – the list of reasons for their non-existence goes on.

However, the biggest one-off clump of unmade Doctor Who stories came after the end of Colin Baker’s first full season, when Michael Grade decided to ‘rest’ the show. Eighteen months later, it returned with the 14-part The Trial of a Time Lord and the original ‘season 23’, upon which production had already begun, never saw the light of day.

At least not on tele. Some of them were novelised by Target back in the 80s/90s, but now Big Finish has taken it upon itself to adapt some of these missing season 23 stories as full cast audios; it’s also having a go at some other ‘lost stories’ from previous seasons in a new range of plays collectively called… well, have a guess.

The first of the range is The Nightmare Fair, former producer Graham Williams’ first solo script. He was given the task of writing a story that reintroduced the First Doctor’s whacky enemy, the Celestial Toymaker from (who’d have guessed it?) The Celestial Toymaker. To make things even easier, the story also had to be set in Blackpool.

Are you feeling the thrill yet?

The Lost Stories: Adventures that were originally written for the Doctor Who television series but never made. Now available to hear for the first time…

The TARDIS has been drawn to Blackpool in the year 1985, where the Doctor intends to investigate a dangerous space/time vortex… while enjoying some local attractions along the way. But an old enemy is watching from his base deep within the amusement park, a timeless being who craves revenge.

The Celestial Toymaker has returned. The game is on. And, should he lose, the Doctor will pay the ultimate forfeit…

Is it any good?
It’s a mix.

Now, on the one hand, you kind of have to wonder why these have been made at all. You could read the book or the script if you really wanted – it’s not going to be the same as the real thing, if they’d ever made that. It’s almost like a range for people with no imagination and who can’t read.

However, that would be a slightly uncharitable jibe. For those of us with more money than sense and who like something to listen to when at the gym, you can just about understand a fannish desire to be completionist and have these missing stories ‘wot were written by proper like TV writers’ adapted into plays, so you can consider them canon.

So the stated aim – so we have a set a criteria for reviewing purposes – is to create something, albeit an audio play, that’s as close to what would have been made as possible. And that’s hopefully enjoyable.

The story
As a story, it’s actually not bad. I have a very hazy memory of reading the book 20-odd years ago, and I’ve heard the fan charity-recreation from a few years ago, so I knew roughly what was going to happen (and that there was at least a low-quality production-bar that Big Finish could only exceed).

Despite my acquaintance with the story, it still felt relatively fresh. Like most of the stories of Williams’ era that were overseen by Douglas Adams, this is a relatively amusing affair with a little menace here and there. Williams, while not a great writer, manages to create a story that’s enjoyable and imaginative. There are attempts to have vaguely interesting secondary characters who help steer the narrative, something that’s slightly rarer these days.

You can see that post season 22, the accusations of gratuitous violence levelled at the show meant it was going to become slightly lighter hearted without Michael Grade’s interference.

But it’s not brilliant, although there are no really serious charges that can be levelled against it. In common with the era, Peri gets little to do but scream. The Celestial Toymaker’s scheme is lame, and Williams is merely jumping on the ‘video games are dangerous’ theme of the time. There’s also a depressing quality in Williams’ assumption that a long life can only lead to misery and suicidal thoughts. It doesn’t scale heights, but it goes up a few hills at least, and never really goes down into any deep holes.

As a story, It’s also hard to see how it would have panned out convincingly when production started properly: how they would have created the aliens, especially The Mechanic, on the budget Who had in those days is hard to conceive, and I suspect they would have scaled back or even cut certain things. So, ironically, by sticking to the original script and novelisation as much as possible, Big Finish have created something that’s almost certainly wouldn’t have been made. How odd.

The production
Here we have to consider something: how authentic is it? Well, not very is the answer. You can’t sit back, close your eyes and imagine the pictures that go with this, because they wouldn’t match up.

Time and speed have caught up. Colin Baker’s not as vigorous as he once was, and he’s starting to sound old now. That probably wouldn’t have been a problem, if he and the producers had decided to go for his 1980s portrayal: it might have spurred him on. But since they’re doing their level best to put that behind them in favour of the newer, nicer, kinder Sixth Doctor that they’ve introduced, he sounds slightly like a genial uncle now.

Nicola Bryant’s as lovely as always, but she really needed a bit more time alone with her accent, since it’s a bit wobbly. It doesn’t help that Williams appeared never to have spoken to an American in his life, judging by some of the dialogue he gives Peri, forcing English vocabulary and speech patterns on her that only someone with plums in their mouth can deliver.

David Bailie is exceptional, it has to be said (you may remember his as Dask in The Robots of Death) and he really does sound an awful lot like Michael Gough – the TV toymaker who’s now too old to play the part. You can understand why they chose him for this play, rather than another recent Toymaker.

But unfortunately, the rest of the cast is diabolical. They sound like they’ve been made from purest lead and have been given the task of appearing in panto. Quick, everyone, move this way… what are you waiting for? Oh yes, you’re made of lead.

Casting Big Finish stalwart Toby Longworth as Yatsumoto was also a very bad idea, since his performance sounds a teensy tiny bit racist; maybe someone Japanese or of Japanese-descent next time, guys?

The direction’s fine, and at times there’s a real feel of openness, as though you are actually on location. But the music and the sound effects? I concentrated. I listened so hard. But at no point did I think to myself, “Gosh, this sounds exactly like a 1980s production of Doctor Who.” Mostly, I thought to myself, “Ouch. That was bad.” Big Finish can do better than this and have recreated the sound of 1980s stories in other plays, so I don’t know why they’ve failed here.

On the whole, this is actually reasonable. I was expecting much worse, and I was actually surprised. There were no points when I wanted to stab myself to end the terrible, terrible pain, as with some of the latest plays. I wished they’d actually been a little less faithful at times, simply so that the dusty old plot could have more modern sensibilities, but I guess that’s not the aim of the project. And it is quite nice to hear the recreation of the story and think of what might have been.

Not wholly recommended, but I would understand if you’d want to buy it out of curiousity.

Amazon CD: £9.99
Big Finish download: £12.99
Big Finish CD: £14.99

Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
David Bailie (The Celestial Toymaker)
Matthew Noble (Kevin)
Andrew Fettes (Stefan)
Louise Faulkner (Woman)
William Whymper (Shardow/Attendant)
Toby Longworth (Yatsumoto/Truscott/Manager/Man)
Duncan Wisbey (Humandroid/Security Man/Geoff/Guard)

Writer: Graham Williams (adapted by John Ainsworth)  
Director: John Ainsworth


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.