What's it about: 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?
The Real McCoy: For once the Doctor wants to fit in and he dons a toga for this visit to Athens. He pays for one of Aristophanes comedies to be put on every year. How interesting to hear the Doctor admitting that Mel fitted in far more comfortably in Athens than Ace does. Oh that this were a Seventh Doctor and Mel story...gosh when did that role reversal happen? Does anything ever work out the way the Doctor plans it? I love the idea of the Doctor fronting an argument that saving lives is irresponsible, just like he did in Medicinal Purposes. He hates the way the universe works but what happened in history happened in history and there's not a damn thing he can do to change that. Hector declares him a cunning old fox...that's just how we like him.
Oh Wicked: Ace has spent her time in the TARDIS watching Hollyoaks? It's either that or she has spent a few months in the future and never missed an episode. What an entirely unproductive waste of her time. Is it my imagination or has Ace reverted back to her childish days in this latest trilogy? After the embarrassing days of Colditz ('I hate Nazi's!') and The Rapture ('Dance McShane, dance!') I thought they were promoting a tougher, smarter, more mature Ace who was mentoring Hex through his time travelling days. All of a sudden she is overly emotional, reactionary and prone to some very immature moments. Unfortunately sexism is rife in this period of history (isn't it the case in all periods of history before the suffragette movement?) and you can just imagine Ace's calm and collected (not) reaction which hardly brings out the best in Sophie Aldred's performance. There is a question of Ace's ability to act...which unfortunately reminded me of Aldred's inconsistent ability in the area of audio drama. The tone of the two stories is completely different but check out Lisa Bowerman's commentary in James Goss' Bernice Summerfield adventure The Winning Side - now that is an actress narrating with passion. Aldred's efforts in comparison are a little amateurish. She hollers her way through the opening scenes of episode two and it gave me a right earache...and blow me if she's hollering away right at the end of it too. Remember when Leela joined forces with Boudica and marched on her enemies? Imagine Ace doing that with the Spartans but with about one hundredth of the conviction. It was humiliating listening. 'I'm sick of Gods!' This character is beyond tired now, her endless adventures being churned out of the storytelling factory for over 20 years (the TV series handed the baton over to the novels and the comic strip who handed the baton on to Big Finish). Someone make it stop. 'You lying Spartan! You said you didn't lie!' Oh please.
Alter Ego: Hector does not enjoy being compared to Hex all the time, which is kind of difficult given that he is exactly the same character, right down to how Olivier chooses to play him. Towards the end of episode two where the Doctor and Hex had spent the entirety together I found myself saying aloud 'this is Hex!' There is no differentiation between the two characters despite what the script constantly points out. It snatches away the bold decision to get rid of the character in Gods and Monsters and instead turns it into a weak manipulation of the audience, tempting them with the idea that he has snuffed it when a carbon copy is to be dropped in their laps immediately afterwards. It's Star Trek Nemesis all over again. The only thing worse than being a range that refuses to take risks is one that pretends to take them and then chickens out. Hector's mind is still vulnerable from his previous adventure where it took a battering from the Nucleus of the Swarm and he is in no fit state to control the consciousness of the city once wearing the mask. When he rants about history not being fun and games and how impotent he felt in not being able to help people...haven't we been here before with Hex? Hector has a paddy and wants to go home. Good stuff, let's get through Signs and Wonders and hopefully that will be an end to him.
Standout Performance: Those that find the jolly musical commentary in The Gunfighters annoying should steer clear of this adventure...Sophie Aldred's narration is so amateurishly enthusiastic that I wanted to stuff a rag in Ace's mouth at some points (that goes for all her bawling in the main body of the story too). Philip Olivier's attempts on the other hand are pretty intriguing, simply because of the accent he chooses to sport. Olivier's hysterical response to having the mask crushed on his face was the first time I really sat up and paid attention, such was the intensity of the performance.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'Athens: cradle of civilisation and temporal tourist hotspot.'
The Spartans are like 'Daleks with good hair. All curls and ringlets...reminds me of Wham.'
'Let's not stand around a wait for the reviews!'
'We've done nothing but help the Doctor invent light entertainment!'
Great Ideas: The opening scenes of Signs and Wonders suggest that this is going to be one of the more impressive stories to come out of the main range this year; Athens is introduced in a beautifully scripted overture and Hector is already written into the narrative. An intriguing opening. You have to have a hero, a villain and a chorus, whether you wanted them or not. Beetles with huge wings like flashing knives...that's a pretty sinister visual. Tragedy dispersed by comedy...there is some mileage in that and Goss goes some way to realising the idea.
Audio Landscape: Cheers, jeers, clapping, steel on steel, crackling flames, birdsong, a dog barking, chickens crowing, heartbeat, chorus of frogs.
Musical Cues: The music leapt out at me immediately as being something quite different from the norm and expertly composed...I shouldn't have even looked to see who it was. Fox and Yason have done it again, providing music that builds in the epic scope and mythological importance of the Athenian setting. Whilst it contributes to the cacophony of noise in the later episodes just listen to this score on its own...it really is very good.
Isn't it Odd: Although it plays about with the time tourism idea agreeably enough, the gigglesome DWM strip Hotel Historia and the BBC novel of temporal mind fuckery that is The Last Resort devoted themselves to the notion and explored it with more effort. I could have done without the intrusion of science fiction elements at all if I am honest - what has happened to the pure historical these days? Goss has the flavour of Athens at his fingertips, he could have written a perfectly gripping straight historical recounting the attack of Athens by the Spartans and I'm almost willing to bet it would have been a knockout. Maybe dented by this TARDIS team a little, but much more gripping. Considering the time it is set in there are far too many pop culture references in this story and why this TARDIS team (who have rarely gone in for this sort of thing before) should start sounding like they are working from a Russell T. Davies script is beyond me. It was pretty distracting and not it a positive way ('Look out Germaine Greer! Guards!'). The story ends with a double pun, one about the Beatles and one aping Superman and neither are as funny as the author thinks they are. Wouldn't it have been nice for the beetle to have been the Terravore from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster? I'm starting to tire of historical characters being quite so blasé about insane science fiction concepts. You're time travellers from the future, says Vincent Van Gogh, I knew it as soon as I looked at you. That's a time machine and Martha is from the future, deduces Shakespeare. Aliens visiting Athens is just like the Gods popping in, says Aristophanes. Groan. Self awareness can trip over into narrative smugness. For everybody else who bought into the idea that Hex became one of the Ancient Gods then the suggestions that this might dovetail into that (Olivier's English accent, Hector taking on the bearing of a God) might get very excited. I was just hoping it would bring this misbegotten arc to a close as quickly as possible so the seventh Doctor could be free of its shackles and head off for some fresh adventures. Too much noise, not enough discussion, the third episode devolves into a lot of action that we can't see and shouting. The end of episode three and EVERYBODY is screaming screaming screaming screaming... The Doctor has had a go, Ace has been doing it all the way through, the people of Athens are in uproar, the Spartans have unleashed their battle cry and now Hex is bawling out hysterically...prepare yourself for a barrage of noise in this one. Bring some painkillers.
Standout Scene: McCoy was mega naff (to quote Ace) in Revenge of the Swarm but seems on much surer footing in this story, its quirky tone playing to his strengths as an actor. As such his speech to the jurors in episode three is a real oddball highlight and he aces the monologue in a way that he rarely does when he asked to deliver a dramatic speech (think of the climax of Battlefield or the 'evil from the dawn of time' speech in Curse of Fenric).
Result: Big Finish just don't know when to let it go, do they? Hex brought a spell of success for a handful of trilogies so rather than bring his character to a natural end they resurrect him in a new guise (after killing him off in the most hysterical fashion) and have this perverted story arc hinder what might have been some very decent stories (well, not Revenge of the Swarm). Without the impediment of the Hector arc running through it like a stick of rock, this might have scored higher. Mask of Tragedy starts out as a rather jolly affair, perfectly entertaining for the most part without ever being enthralling. I expected much more from James Goss but that is only because he has set the bar for himself extremely high (The Last Post, In Living Memory) and I was hoping that dipping his toes in the main range for the first time would be the jewel in the crown this year, just as John Dorney's The Forth Wall managed a few years back. The dialogue is perky, the pacing excellent and there was an element of wit that made it very easy to swallow down. It is a perfectly serviceable Doctor Who story that has all the predictable elements in place (history, aliens, a villain). Somewhere along the line though it all devolves into a chorus (hoho) of hysterical noise, trying to deafen the audience and posing as drama. What really spoils things, though, are the regulars. I'm bored rigid of this line up and not even a writer of James Goss' eminence can find anything new to say about them. Ace seems to have devolved back into a child, Hector is Hex for all they mention otherwise and the Seventh Doctor has nothing fresh to do with these companions. Everything has been said about this line up that is going to be said and continuing it just because they were once popular has the adverse effect of poisoning their run. I haven't been this fatigued by companions since the endless eighth Doctor and Charley saga. McCoy needs somebody new to bounce off (Sally would have been ideal). This is very much in the same vein of Starlight Robbery in the ill-fated second Klein trilogy, a bout of frippery before things get very serious indeed. It's nowhere near as successful and let's prey that Signs and Wonders doesn't turn out like Daleks Among Us. You wouldn't think a story of plague victims and encroaching Spartans could be spun as light entertainment...and if I'm honest I'm not sure it should have been. In Mask of Tragedy science fiction encroaches on history and murders any lasting impact, which is a shame because there are some lovely conceits that are rooted in real history (such as the Doctor being Aristophanes sponsor, a genuine figure in his life). This wasn't appalling but there were times when I wanted to shut myself in a dark room and make all the screaming go away: 5/10