The Labyrinth of Buda Castle is a fairly solid piece of Big Finish, despite being yet another take on the vampire trope. The spoiler-shy can proceed without garlic and a stake. Should be fine…
The big draw of the Tom Baker era doing Gothic, at least for me, is the way the adventure occupies claustrophobic spaces in gothic sets in the same way that it occupies the nooks and crannies of folklore and legend. We tip-toe along with our heroes hiding in the sewers under a Victorian theatre between blood-sucking, standing stones or holding our breath in a priest hole lest an ancient alien god hears us.
And of course this can translate brilliantly into audio, especially where Big Finish do such a sterling job in conjuring up rich scenarios in sound. The other thing that really does it for me is that look of dawning horror on Tom Baker’s face mixed with just a hint of glee. Similarly that’s there if you’ve got the mental visuals at the ready.
The other important thing is, of course, the story. Labyrinth is a nice romp – over a bit too quickly if anything – but there did seem to be something a little lacking here. It’s 1980, we’re in Budapest with the Doctor and Romana (the Second), and there’s vampiric mischief going on. But unless I missed it, I don’t think we really get a clear sci-fi style explanation for the “fiend” in this outing and that’s in spite of some thoroughly welcome involvement of microscopes and would-be exposition on “morphic fields”.
Story-wise this is a major crime for me. There’s a difference between coming up with a name that describes what you want something to do and saying that’s what did it, and creating something with the appearance of an explanation. The talk of “morphic fields” does very little in this story; in fact we’re left with all sorts that is unexplained. Ultimately I felt there was an entire backstory missing for our overall respectable villain.
Another quibble was the big twist regarding one of the characters. There was no foreshadowing, no change in performance and not really any consequences for the story. I ended up feeling that there was a good idea for an ending, a good idea for a setting and then the rest was a bit by-numbers.
Despite being utterly wonderful as always, I sometimes find that the audio incarnation of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor defaults to cheerful wackiness regardless of the occasion and that we lack a little of the variation in performance we got on-screen. That said, in Labyrinth, Baker’s delivery includes a bit more acknowledgement of jeopardy and darkness – mixed in with some lovely comical moments. In particular the denouement subverts the genre in a tongue-in-cheek manner that’s very of the era.
The script overall is good and well paced. It doesn’t confuse with too many characters and, as I’ve said, there are some great moments. That said, not all of the dialogue works; in particular the era’s trademark banter between the Doctor and Romana doesn’t quite hit the mark. Certainly Romana seems to be lacking some of her usual fizz this time round.
The supporting cast give a generally good performance. There are no clangers here, though the character of Scots Vampire Hunter, Celia Soames, doesn’t seem to make much sense regardless of how much we learn about her. Then there are the standard landan-accents for the military wherever in the world they hail from – it’s a minor point and I really didn’t mind.
The long and the short of it:
The Labyrinth of Buda Castle is fairly good. It’s definitely not bad. I could just leave it at “good” but I was left with the feeling that I was missing out on the amazing story that this hadn’t managed to be. However if you’re into stimulating your ’70s Doctor Who visual memory centres then this will do you proud. There’s lots of atmosphere and some pleasing moments.
The Labyrinth of Buda Castle is available now on CD or via download from Big Finish.