The Labyrinth of Buda Castle
Tony Fyler feels a hunger.
If you’re looking for an indication of tone for the last couple of seasons of Tom Baker’s time, the time he shared with the Second Romana, you could do worse than to set a story in a European city, with them trying to get some uninterrupted holidaying done. The Labyrinth of Buda Castle, by Eddie Robson, takes elements of tone from the likes of City of Death and particularly Shada, beginning with a case of garbled Baker-Ward gibber that rivals the whole ‘May Week’s in June’ malarkey on a Cambridge punt from the opening of Shada. As with previous story The Wave of Destruction, the tone is determinedly in a Douglas Adams/Graham Williams vein, and there is in fact something of Scarlioni or Skagra about the villain of the piece – a creepy-voiced ‘vampire’ that manages to go about the place with a name like Zoltan Frid and having absolutely no sense of humour about it.
In fact, let’s cut right to the chase and address Zoltan Frid. He’s not from around here, but he does enjoy several of the things that make a great vampire legend – skulking about in the dark, draining blood and knowledge from his victims, turning them into either parasites like himself or massive violent monsters, and he also has a sense of suave grandiosity that fits him well both in terms of hanging about in Buda Castle with its Dracula connections (Vlad the Impaler having once been imprisoned in the titular labyrinth under the castle), and in terms of coming up against late-stage Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, both of whom are quite prepared to call his blood-drinking bluff and talk like aliens to an alien. Mark Bonnar turns in a truly creepy vocal performance that was apparently inspired by Mercedes McCambridge, who gave voice to the demon that possessed Regan in The Exorcist. Bonnar’s work, like McCambridge’s, pays off majestically – while Buda Castle is short in storytelling terms because of the format of the Fourth Doctor adventures at Big Finish, Bonnar’s Frid stands proudly alongside Julian Glover’s Scarlioni and Christopher Neame’s Skagra as a performance, giving this story an almost polar opposite to the screeching, semi-hysterical villains from the previous story, Wave of Destruction. Dismissive, sure of himself and imperious as hell, Bonnar’s performance as Frid is rarely loud and shouty, but is possessed of a low-key malevolence that deserves special recognition. We hereby present him with the 2016 Project Torchwood Sword of Creepy Villainy. May he wear it long and proudly.
What else does a story from this period need? Well, it needs a plot, some characters to like, some characters to kill, and some characters to redeem along the way.
Enter Celia Soames, Vampire Hunter. This delightfully clueless Scottish girl on the trail of ‘Dracula’ when she runs into the Doctor and Romana, and she’s almost like the intellectual Duggan of the piece. Kate Bracken, no slouch in geeky roles, makes Celia come gleefully to life like a young Agatha Raisin, and her story arc is kept interesting all the way to the end. Anjella Mackintosh brings a brisk efficiency to Anita Kereki, a sociologist whose colleague, Miklos Garaber, becomes the unwitting victim that draws the Doctor and Romana into Frid’s affairs. And Peter Barrett is particularly effective as Guard-Major Priskin, charged with keeping the public out of the labyrinth due to flooding and general weirdness. Like Celia, he has quite a long and complex journey through this story, and Barrett makes him a believable, flawed, realistic human, so we care what ultimately happens to him.
In terms of actual plotting, there’s a logical progression, certainly, but less that’s conspicuously successful. There’s much beggaring about in the caves of the labyrinth, a healthy dose of sci-fi science underpinning the mysticism of Frid’s vampirism, and a pace that pushes the story that there is (the rise and rise of Zoltan Frid) along well, so there’s never a chance to stand around getting bored. There’s also some fun had with various vampire myths – climbing unscaleable walls, passing unnoticed when he wants to, not being able to cross running water and having a serious aversion to sunlight. For all the talk of Dracula in this story, Frid’s awakening is taken straight from a later entry in the grand blood-drinking mythos, The Vampire Lestat, by Anne Rice. But in terms of plot, this is a story that seems to just be on the brink of really getting somewhere and exploding into a great, peril-rich second act, when it’s undone and ended by the Doctor and Celia in a handful of heartbeats. More than any of the Big Finish Fourth Doctor Adventures in recent series, this story feels like it should be part 1 of a two-disc release, as though there’s much more that could have been made of Frid’s ascension, and the nature of what he actually is, if he’s escaped at the end of episode 2. The ending, when it comes, has elements of wonder about it – and leads us to endless speculation about how close the Doctor is to the events of Warrior’s Gate and his eventual regeneration in Logopolis – but at the same time feels overly convenient, as though Robson was having enormous fun, and then realised he had half a page to wrap up the second episode. Maybe that’s down to Robson, maybe it’s down to the direction from Nick Briggs, maybe it’s down to a push for realism, in that sometimes, plans that are too grandiose come to a grinding shuddering halt. Either way, it feels like this story could have been a two-disc, four-parter, and it leaves us wanting more of Zoltan Frid.
One to buy, then? Well, the way 2016 has been treating ageing legends, you’d be foolish not to snap up every crumb of Tom Baker you can get, but that’s damning The Labyrinth of Buda Castle with faint praise. The tone of the story is dead on for the Second Romana period, and Robson has written a villain, in Frid, that’s actively interesting even when you strip him of all the vampire allusions. Add the vampire allusions back in, and give him to an actor like Mark Bonnar and you’ve got something that feels really quite special, and which, unlikely as it sounds given the way the story ends, would be great to hear more of going forward. The supporting cast are all solid, with Kate Bracken a standout as Celia Soames. If the plotting feels like the first half of what should have been a longer story, you can view it as being an unsuccessful two-parter or a great four-parter that could-have-been. What it actually is is a great, memorable beginning (and maybe end) for one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures’ stand-out villains to date. More Zoltan Frid please, Big Finish. Somehow. There has to be a way – after all, vampires always seem to die at the end of their movies, only to come back again for a sequel. Go on – honour one more vampire trope and bring Frid back for a second (ahem) bite.
Meanwhile, Fourth Doctor fans, get The Labyrinth of Buda Castle now, for fun and drama on the Danube. You won’t regret it.