Doctor Who: Serpent in the Silver Mask – Starring Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding, Matthew Waterhouse, Samuel West, Phil Cornwell & Sophie Winkleman. Written by David Llewellyn & Directed by Barnaby Edwards – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
If you take the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets and throw it into a blender with most of Agatha Christie, nine times out of ten, what you get is a gloopy, unconvincing mess.
Welcome to time ten.
Welcome to time ten, in fact, that makes all the gloopy, unconvincing mess worth sitting through.
It’s a joy, this story. It’s the kind of story you want to finish, and then loop straight back to the beginning to listen to again.
We instinctively like the kind of twisted storytelling that goes on in David Llewellyn’s brain, because there are so few, if any, undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s – why are the Fifth Doctor and his Tardisfull of friends on Argentia, a giant space station out of sync with the rest of time, which is used as a tax haven? Because where locked-off time and real time meet, you get a kind of crystalline growth – time fungus, if you like. And what are those crystals useful for? Well, one thing they’re useful for is building new sonic screwdrivers. Everything about that makes perfect sense within the Fifth Doctor’s universe. From there on in, the Doctor and Co, like a Miss Marple or an Hercule Poirot, find themselves invited to the funeral of Carlo Mazzini, the head of a most unusual family. For reasons that also make perfect sense within the script, every single member of the Mazzini family is played by Samuel West, and once the will is read, the hunt is on to unmask a killer before they plough their way through the entire family.
There are sympathetic robots, unsympathetic robots, a detective who’s out of his usual league, red herrings galore, a wonderful variety of murders, lashings of brisk and deliciously dark comedy, a flirty Tegan, a chatty Doctor and Things For All The Companions To Actually Do – always one of the challenges when you have a full Tardis – in here, and the pacing is crisp and brisk and helps the storytelling logic along. The result is a glorious romp with grisly murders, with all the high-profile guest cast adding layers of texture to the fun. Samuel West is staggeringly good throughout, Peter Davison’s on form, Phil Cornwell adds some gruff gravitas as Superintendent Galgo, and a supremely punchable robot as Zaleb 5, and Sophie Winkleman as Sophia, secretary to Carlo Mazzini brings a breezy and increasingly infuriated voice of authority to bear as the Doctor and his friends try to track down the killer.
To add even more to the fun and the potential moral confusion of right and wrong, while Tegan’s getting soft and somewhat sweet with a member of the Mazzini tribe, and Adric is…being Adric, disappearing up ventilation shafts, finding bodies and being attacked by severely creepy dolls, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, somewhat against her usual serene stereotype, is getting stroppy and irritable – ‘It’s horrible,’ is her summary judgment on the Argentia station, and she dislikes almost everything and everyone she meets from there on in. To be fair to her, most everyone she meets is a member of the Mazzini family, and a bigger collection of screaming grotesques it would be hard to imagine. West, as the whole horrible lot of them (with, possibly, one exception – spoilers!) is magnificent, and the rest of the cast turn up their game to 11 to play along with him. As in Kind Hearts, the gender of the family-member is no bar to him, and neither is age or accent – there are a pair of thoroughly revolting yuppie twins, all ‘Yah, totally,’ and ‘I know, right?’, there’s a grand dame with access to perfume and poisons, there’s a kind of ‘bluff Northern businessman’ uncle, and the time-travelling son of Carlo Mazzini, the initially-deceased, who feels almost born for Alan Bennett to inhabit. All of them are conjured into life by West, and you believe utterly in the reasons why such a thing would be possible and necessary, allowing you to sink into the adventure and enjoy every mad, funny, dark, grotesque, wonderful minute of its madness.
Serpent in the Silver Mask is almost two hours that pass like one, so engaging is the writing, so en pointe the performances. It’s one that, once you’ve heard it, will always float up in your mind when you contemplate re-listening to something. It’s a testament to the fact that there’s not a piece of work, not a style in the world, that can’t be folded in to the Doctor Who universe, and in the hands of Llewelyn, Barnaby Edwards on crisp directorial duty, and a cast that feels like it’s having enormous fun, Serpent in the Silver Mask proves that such stories can be utterly triumphant. Tony Fyler