I listened to Gallery of Ghouls twice. The first time round I wasn’t so keen. The second time I had a lot more fun. This is a slow-burner…
It’s Brighton, 1833. The most gruesome events of the French Revolution from the end of the last century live on in waxworks exhibitions springing up over the Channel. In the same way that David Attenborough is my prime source of natural history information, Doctor Who has always been my main window into various historical periods – and I hadn’t realised that the enthusiasm for life-like wax impressions of famous persons began with death masks of heads removed by the French Guillotine…
So we have the ideal setting for some creepy historical shenanigans. This feels very different to much of Alan Barnes’s earlier work which is usually of a very high standard. Barnes is one of those writers who really gets Doctor Who and what makes it tick. He excels at complex, emotionally fraught epics – Gallery has a much more local feel.
As usual the draw of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, particularly this season featuring Lalla Ward as Romana II for the first time, are the lead characters and their repartee. I’m sad to say that, while there are some lovely moments, some of the banter between the Doctor and Romana is a little off. This is particularly the case early on with the introductory back and forth familiar from the era. This doesn’t spoil Gallery though it doesn’t start you off on a strong footing. And in fairness, anyone taking on this era is up against at least one of the UK’s foremost comedy/sci-fi writers…
Gallery is something of an homage to the way the British have perceived (or misperceived) the French over the centuries. There are plenty of preposterous accents on display and with good reason (spoilers). It stars the wonderful Celia Imrie, one of the vanguards of 1980s television comedy alongside the late, great Victoria Wood. More recently she appeared as Miss Kislet in The Bells of St John and tackles her part as waxwork proprietor, Madame Tissot, with gusto.
The setting and conceit of a menace lurking in the 19th Century Madame Tussaud’s-style waxworks is perfect for Doctor Who. It’s a shame then that this is an audio drama as so much of what makes waxworks work well in science-fantasy horror is they way they look – Dr Mori’s 1970 concept of the Uncanny Valley is as true of waxworks or window shop mannequins as it is of robots. Mori noted that we tend to feel more attracted to things that have human-like expressions or qualities (whether the cute robots like Wall-E or cars that appear to have smiles) but as things begin to look more and more like real people, we get less comfortable. There’s a valley on the graph of comfort vs human-like qualities where our comfort dips to unsettled horror around things that are almost lifelike but not quite. Given this, there is so much that could be done visually with a tale in this setting.
I think this may be why I enjoyed Gallery so much more the second time round. The visuals had had time to take form and solidify in my mind. I was also much more on board with the camped-up period setting having understood more of the denouement.
The ultimate motivation of the villain is a little forced and there are some dodgy bits of “science” fantasy poking in. Androids have “Praxis Fields” around the joints, which is how the Doctor can tell them apart from people. Apparently. Obviously this doesn’t matter in the slightest unless you’re pedantic about your fantasy science (ahem – always at your service).
The long and the short of it:
I’d like to say this is like listening to the isolated soundtrack from the glorious love-child of Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Girl in the Fireplace, but sadly it doesn’t live up to that. Nevertheless, Gallery of Ghouls is preposterous and silly and in the right sort of way. You need your imagination at its most lurid to get on board with the story but there is fun to be had if you do. Some of the dialogue doesn’t quite hit the mark but overall it’s a diverting period piece with big performances and Big Finish’s usual excellent sound design.
“God bless you, Hardy, and God bless you too, Chief Sea Devil…”
“Take her – she is not an artist. She is from Wolverhampton!”