Fighting Fantasy returns! The classic series of books is reborn for its 35th anniversary as a new series of audio dramas
Many Doctor Who fans of a certain vintage with remember the popular Fighting Fantasy books. Beginning with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, they were unique fantasy adventure books that sat on many shelves alongside Target novelizations. In many ways they were the forerunner of interactive entertainment. From page to page, the reader would decide a course of action and follow the story where that decision led (“If you retreat, turn to Page 18; if you try and sneak past the sleeping monsters turn to Page 37”)
Scholastic UK relaunched the range, popular during the 1980s and 1990s, in time for the 35th Anniversary celebrations. Old classic titles were reprinted and newly authored ones joined the range.
Now, Fighting Fantasy is expanding to bring its unique sense of adventure to the world of audio drama. The range involves a host of names well known to fans of Doctor Who audio. And tapping into this established experience looks set to authentically recapture the originals in high quality productions. The releases each adapt a classic Fighting Fantasy book. Appropriately, the first to be adapted is that very first book – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Thoughtfully a new subtitle – The Hero’s Quest – to distinguish its alternate take on events from the original.
Meet the New YOU, Vale Moonwing
Because, for entirely sensible reasons, there are changes required in adapting a book that was also a game. The original books usually a featured a hero simply known as “YOU”, like some inverse of Paul McGann’s Withnail and I character. This was handy for the reader to project themselves onto the blank slate of the game’s hero. But wouldn’t be very satisfying for a drama. And so we meet Vale Moonwing played by Rachel Atkins. Atkins has played parts in well over a dozen Big Finish plays, but is probably best known as Ro-Jedda, the conniving (and literally man-eating) alien Mayor of Cardiff in their Torchwood series.
As Vale the warrior elf, she provides the necessary mix of sternness and determination. Vale single mindedly pursues her mission to penetrate the caverns beneath Firetop Mountain and destroy the evil warlock Zagor. Although Vale is undoubtedly the lead, Cassius Stormblade ‘s joins her as a sidekick closer to the book’s “YOU”. Like “YOU” Stormblade’s primary concern is getting his mitts on the fabled treasure chest of riches that Zagor and his labyrinth full on monsters protects.
Tim Treloar, himself no stranger to Big Finish fans, plays Cassius. As the lead of their Third Doctor Adventures, he’s not just a Doctor, he’s the Doctor. The… well, most definitely not the original you might say. Recasting beloved late actors as their distinct incarnation of the Doctor will never stop being controversial. But it’s a testament to Treloar’s ability and charisma that so many listeners have accepted him in the role. Rough and tumble brawler Cassius is a world award from the velvet sophistication of the Third Doctor. But Treloar fleshes him out enough in his performance to bring pathos to some of the difficult choices he faces.
The listener make not get to control the action, but the play remains fundamentally about the choices we make
The eponymous warlock himself, Zagor, is played by another familiar name, Toby Longworth. Having previously voiced the robot bird Caw alongside David Tennant in animated adventure Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest. On disc, his incredible range and gift for accents and voices have seen appear in dozens of roles in Doctor Who audio, both big and small. As Zagor he provides his menacing tones in a bass so rich it’ll rattle your ear drums. Many of Zagor’s scenes involve him being both troubled by Vale’s steady progress into his mountain lair, and contemptuously smug about her chances in the same line. Longworth deserves praise for creating a characterization for the warlock where this actually works.
The conflict between Vale’s and Cassius’ overlapping but competing agendas – assassination and theft – is the team’s neat solution to the other necessary change. For there are no choices for the listeners here. This is, quite literally, not a game. Instead we follow a direct path through the story. Yet in various ways this play changes the plot into a story about choice. In some ways, this is quite explicit. The opening scene sees Vale encounter a mysterious old man in apparent need of help in the snowy countryside. And you can practically hear the unspoken “To go closer, turn to Page…” as she makes her decision. But Cassius must also weigh his emerging loyalty to Vale against his greed. And Vale herself, by the end, has to question quite how much she’s prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of her goal.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is an essential purpose for those seeking a hint of pure nostalgia
The resolution hits a darkly witty tone worthy of a Twilight Zone tale. The following coda is surprisingly melancholic and reflective for an otherwise straightforward tale of hacking and slashing. Yet the meditation on the choices one makes, and having to live with them, is a clever nod to the story’s origins.
And those origins mean that The Warlock of Firetop Mountain does need to be judged for what it is. And on the basis on what it’s trying to do. Normally Blogtor Who would furrow our brow at some of the dialogue on display here – so ripe you could slice it up and put it in your salad. Most of the characters are more like plot functions than rounded personalities and there is lot of scenes of Vale or Cassius describing their surroundings or Zagor delivering monologues to his head Goblin about what beast or trap he has up his sleeve next. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is not a hour of your time that will be much troubled by depth or subtlety. But anything else would feel untrue to the source material and the net result is exactly what an adaptation of Fighting Fantasy should be.
With four more plays already available, the Fighting Fantasy audio universe may yet build a deeper, more complex world for Titan
All the same, this first adaptation hints at the return of some characters in further adventures, and seeds potential for later plays to delve a bit deeper below their surface. Smartly, room is being left here for the world of Titan to slowly become a richer, more complicated world as listeners become more used to the new format.
For anyone familiar with the Fighting Fantasy books, of even fantasy role playing in general, this will raise a nostalgic smile with it accuracy and style. And for true fans of Jackson and Livingstone’s books it’s an absolutely essential purpose. However, for those arriving in the Fighting Fantasy completely fresh, its likely to be more bemusing than anything else.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: The Hero’s Quest
Join elven hero Vale Moonwing (Rachel Atkins) and adventurer Cassius Stormblade (Tim Treloar) on their quest deep into Firetop Mountain. Can they survive the deadly traps and evade the undead army of Zagor (Toby Longworth)? Can they stay alive long enough to confront the dark warlock himself? A new adaptation of Steve Jackon and Ian Livingstone’s 1982 classic.