The “Phillip Hinchcliffe Presents” range has been hit or miss with me. Some are classic moody sci-fi horror that the man is known for, others have been plain and not very interesting. Sadly “The God of Phantoms” falls into the latter category for me, which was especially bad given the story was over three hours long! Let’s take a closer look…
The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Leela to a colony world in the distant future – but they are not the only visitors to this place. The people of this planet are seeing the ghosts of their lost friends and relatives. And the ghosts are stealing people.
Trapped in the middle of an escalating conflict, the Doctor and Leela investigate the source of the spirits and find a diabolical machine, a terrible secret… and a foe long since forgotten.
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
There were some good ideas at play here, especially a twist that The Doctor had been to the colony planet before and defeated the “big bad” of the piece Flindor (Tim Faulkner) only the memory of it was traumatic enough that he didn’t remember. The Doctor was forced to construct things at a fiery forge which made for good “unsure what they could mean” flashbacks and when he regained his memories and fought Flindor again at the end it not only included defeating the foe within the body of a scientist he’d been manipulating but also a showdown in the TARDIS that included the internal dimensions going doolally and people having to rope climb down to the console room. So the ending was good fun at least.
There are some other good ideas too. Charles Hookham (also Tim Faulkner for a reason that’ll make sense in a few words time) the man who was under the control of Flindor (see?) built a machine that drained people of their life force and stored them in order to gain enough energy to resurrect Flindor, leading to ghostly images of people wandering around asking others to remember their name. That lead to some spooky cliffhangers and fake-outs of The Doctor and Leela appearing in the same fashion across the story, plus Hetty Claypole (Aurora Burghart), a local girl Leela befriends, is rescued from the machine and returned to life. Good spooky Hinchcliffe atmosphere (especially alongside the soundscape and background music)
No matter how potentially good or bad any Big Finish story is it more often than not has a great cover!
I’m normally a defender of the six or more part stories, saying that shortening them down to a traditional four parts would only hurt the storytelling but I really have to say that this needed to be trimmed down. Not only is it six parts but each part is over 30 minutes long, making it the equivalent of closer to an eight part story and there just isn’t enough here to sustain it. The first two or three parts are barren with only the odd ghostly appearance or mysterious flashback dragging the story along. There are side-stories involving the colonists fighting monsters or the original tribal inhabitants of the planet plus a cliché love story between Hetty and a local dim-witted British farmer stereotype, but it doesn’t really help it.
Actually that’s another thing, did we really need another isolated English village style community? Even as a space colony we get the same few cliché caricatures and storylines… couldn’t they have been a bit more intelligent, or have a different accent? … Anyway, it’s too long and the story isn’t good enough to cover for it. That’s the main thing!
There are a few story beats that felt familiar, like The Doctor not remembering being on a planet before was used as a plot point in Leela’s first TV story “The Face of Evil”, and The Doctor appearing as a ghost and tipping off his companion that he “must be dead” was done in the Twelfth Doctor story “Under The Lake / Before The Flood”. That being said neither are a direct connection and as such the story very much stands on its own two feet.
The God of Phantoms tells a fun story once it gets going… sadly that’s about an hour and a half into its three-plus hour runtime. Still full of creepy atmosphere and has a good ending, but maybe only worth it if you REALLY love the era and have a lot of time on your hands…