One would-be assassin is in a mental ward. Another’s on the run. Their intended victim is stirring up the mobs. Terrorists are planning a strike of their own. A talk-radio host is loving every minute of it. A Whitehall insider whispers about a mysterious UN operative, with a hidden agenda. Everyone’s got someone they want to be afraid of. It’ll only take a little push for the situation to erupt – and something is doing the pushing.
But you can trust the Doctor to put things right.
Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor in The Fearmonger.
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor);
Sophie Aldred (Ace)
Jacqueline Pearce (Sherilyn Harper)
Mark Wright (Stephen Keyser)
Mark McDonnell (Walter Jacobs)
Vince Henderson (Mick Thompson)
Jonathan Clarkson (Paul Tanner)
Hugh Walters (Roderick Allingham)
Jack Galagher (Alexsandr Karadjic)
John Ainsworth (Hospital Tannoy Voice)
Alistair Lock (Hospital Doctor / Heckler)
Written By: Jonathan Blum
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
Doctor Who is a program that has rarely touched upon politics. Aside from a throwaway line, or a character as a caricature, or pretty much anytime the legislative apparatus of Gallifrey appeared, there is very little direct political allegory to be found. An exception to this rule can be found in a Seventh Doctor serial, The Happiness Patrol, which was a admitted shot at the government of Margaret Thatcher according to Sylvester McCoy.
So what happens when the Doctor and his pupil find themselves in the middle of a racist political party on the verge of power, a terrorist front who will stop them by any means necessary, a talk-show host providing commentary on the whole mess, and an alien creature created to stir up emotion? What you get is one of the best Big Finish audios so far, a storytelling triumph that rings true today, over a decade after its initial recording.
In a bold storytelling choice, The Fearmonger begins in media res. Mick Thompson, loud-mouthed call-in talk-show host, is talking about the assassination attempt upon Sherilyn Harper, leader of the pro-British, anti-immigrant New Britannia party and doing his best to ignore the odd little man who has wandered into his studio, waiting for the would-be assassin to call in so he can talk him out of another attempt on Ms. Harper’s life. As Harper and her right-hand man Roderick proceed with their plans for Election Day, Ace is doing some legwork of her own, tracking down an associate of the assassin who happens to be in bed with a terrorist organization, the United Front, who wants nothing more than to put a bullet into Ms. Harper. But what is it that is motivating the assassin? Why does he hear the echoes in Ms. Harper’s voice when no one else can? Why does she instill such fear in him? What will happen when that fear spreads to others? And what happens when a noted chessmaster is forced to improvise nearly every move?
The Fearmonger is a rich story that demands attention. Starting right in the middle of things requires the audience to play “catch up” for an episode, as the Doctor’s plans are in motion even before the exposition is provided. The players are familiar. Loud mouthed shock jock, right-wing politician preaching unity and strength against outsiders, terrorist who believes that violence is the only way; The Fearmonger was written well before 9/11, but Jacqueline Pearce (who played the villainess Chessene in The Two Doctors), Vince Henderson, and Jack Galagher bring those familiar stereotypes to life, as people who have the best intentions or mean no harm, but end up causing trouble by their actions, familiar concepts to anyone who has the brass balls to listen to Fox News or CNN for five minutes before switching the TV off in disgust, muttering about how Timelash was better than what they just watched.
It takes a while for the whole story to come together, but the listener is never left wanting, or waiting for something to happen. The cliffhangers are top-notch, especially the ones at the end of the second and third episodes. The transitions between Mick Thompson’s radio show, the quiet, desolate hideouts of the terrorists, and the riot-filled streets of London happen with a quick pace that breathlessly pull the listener along. There are shocking moments strewn throughout, and the twist, when it hits, will grab any Whovian worth their salt by the throat in a sudden manner that, worst of all, makes perfect sense.
Normally I open with the Doctor and the companion before diving into the heart of the story. By no means am I slighting Sylvester McCoy or the lovely Sophie Aldred (author’s note: she was my first childhood crush after seeing her in Ghost Light, even if to this day I have no idea what the hell was going on in that serial!). McCoy’s Doctor was the chessmaster, always a move or two ahead of his opponent. Here, he admits that the situation that the creature has wrought means he’s improvising most of the time, as the human factor has become incredibly unpredictable. For someone used to seeing the Doctor with things under control and a proverbial ace up his sleeve, McCoy does a fantastic job, maintaining that he’s in control and doing his best to keep up with his adversary.
One of the tricky parts of doing political allegory is heavy-handedness. There’s making your point, and then there’s shoving that point down someone’s throat. McCoy’s Doctor is very pointed in his remarks (“You don’t talk, all you do is make noise”) (“You like what she stands for, but you don’t like her methods, you think that will change once she’s in power”) (“You wanted the people on the edge, well those people are coming for you now”) but he doesn’t pass final judgment on anyone. He just wants to stop the creature and help those who can’t help themselves, like Walter, the would-be assassin who just wants people to see what he is seeing and can’t stop himself from taking the actions he takes. McCoy is stern, but fair.
One of the things I always enjoyed about the Doctor and Ace was their teacher-student relationship. After years of travelling across the universe, with wide-eyed adventurers, doubting scientists, and fellow Time Lords, it’s only fitting that the Doctor seek out someone to not only teach, but instruct and mold. Sophie Aldred jumps right back into the role of Dorothy “Ace” McShane, both as companion and student. The moment the first “Professor” hits the air, the relationship is established; she’s the Student, he’s the Master…in a matter of sense, of course. Ace is a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and thankfully, much less “80’s speak.” She’s not blindly following the Doctor providing a mouthpiece for exposition, she’s following instructions, doing her part, and in one moment, taking a page from the Doctor in The Happiness Patrol to talk someone out of shooting her. This serial could have taken place right after Survival and no one would have been the wiser.
Final Snyopsis – Politics and Doctor Who rarely mix. When they do, you get a cracking piece of audio drama, as relevant today as it ever was, with surprises aplenty, fantastic characters, and the Doctor showing everyone, including Ace, just why he’s respect and feared across time and space. 5/5.
Next up – Tracking a nexus point in time, the Doctor meets Dr Evelyn Smythe, a history lecturer whose own history seems to be rapidly vanishing.
Colin Baker as the Doctor in The Marian Conspiracy.