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The Natural History of Fear

Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #54
Nick Mellish

When I was trying to work out what to write in this review, I realised that I was going to have great difficulties in actually describing ‘The Natural History Of Fear’. In some ways, it’s more of a concept than an actual story. What would a society be like if it stripped away individuality? You have no names, no identity other than your job; questions may not be asked since questions lead to questions, and there is no concept of a world outside the one you live in. Here in Jim Mortimore’s script there is no city outside of Light City, no rules outside of the rules given by the rulers. The Editor, the Conscience, The Sub-conscience and the DJ all are there to help citizens through the day, but are even they stable enough to rule? If you break the rules, you go on ‘holiday’ and have your memories erased, altered, your personality stripped and moulded until you are something new- the same, but different. It doesn’t matter though, because you are just another person. Not an individual, not a named thing, just someone among many such someones. Try your best to be a good Prole, or you could be in trouble.

As you can see, even writing an introduction to this play descends into something vaguely fictional, such is the nature of the play. It feeds on imagination in a dull world, making the listener question everything around them and re-evaluating themselves. It’s a play about asking questions when you’re not supposed to, damning the consequences and staying true to yourself when all those around you are becoming someone else. They were a Nurse, and now they’re a Conscience; they were a loving husband, and now they’re a suicidal Terrorist; they were an Editor, and now they’re the Doctor.

It was a stroke of genius to not assign any of the cast members a character name on this play’s CD inlay, since to do so would be to deny the play one of its points: in this play, you can be whoever you want to be, but never yourself. As the notes so rightly point out, it’s the performances that count, not the characters: sentiments echoed throughout the play by those in charge.

So tightly structured that you cannot analyse it without having to look over the whole thing several times over, Jim Mortimore has written one of the most thought-provoking, intellectual and damn brilliant ‘Doctor Who’ scripts of all time. People have commented on how the society of Light City is taken straight out of George Orwell’s book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, but to be honest I do not really care because it has taken that as a basis and created something on top of this foundation that is very different and just as brilliant. After only listening to it once, I shoved it high up in my list of favourite things to do with ‘Doctor Who’ ever in the same way that I did when I’d finished reading ‘Alien Bodies’ by Lawrence Mills for the first time. Both stories challenged my perception of just what ‘Doctor Who’ is capable of, and both have done it in a way that could never have been done on television without losing a lot of their impact.

In fact, this story could not work on television period, such is the way its ending transpires. Throughout the play, I was trying to work out just what was going on and why, but I never for a second guessed the ending here: the Doctor is not the Doctor after all, because the Doctor has not been here for years.

The revelation of this fact is handled amazingly well; rather than build up to something really big, reaching an indicated catastasis, the revelation is instead delivered in a line amongst many. It’s a line that warrants attention as soon as it is said, but not one that you expect is going to reveal everything, when it does in fact do just that.

“Tell me how many legs you have,”

“Eight of course.”

It’s a bombshell dropped without any prior warning, save the fact that Part Four has been going on for a while now, so if any coherent conclusion was about to arrive, now would be a good time for it to do so. Such things matter not though, given how good the dialogue is at that point, and especially given how good a delivery the lines above are given.

In fact, this is a play full to the brim with great lines. From the small (“This is the voice of Light City”) to the larger (“A fist is not a threat, a gun is not a threat, a word is a threat”), lines stick out left, right and centre.

Another great thing about the script is the way it uses everyday words and transforms them into something quite different and nastier. The next time somebody tells me they’re going on Holiday, for example, I’ll probably do a double take. The same feeling of defamiliarity is present with other words: Conscience, Editor, spinning top, question, why. Even Disc Jockeys become entwined in conspiracy in Light City, and I fear that this mentality will infect my views of all around me for a while yet.

The script is also littered with humorous references to ‘Doctor Who’ itself as a fictional creation. We have files ranging from Axon to Zarbi, excerpts played from previous Big Finish Eighth Doctor Audio Adventures on the radio, mentions of Episodes of Infotainment lost forever. What makes such references work so well is that they sit in with the plot perfectly well, aiding it and adding to it.

The use of a Spinning Top as an image symbolising revolution whilst also being a practical item that ties all of the TARDIS crew together is a nice one; it’s an archaic item surrounded by the advance technology, yet one that sits neatly in with all that I happens in Light City. Besides, the conclusion reached at the end of the play is that when there is nowhere else to go, revolution seems to be the answer, which leads us right back to the Spinning Top; it links the TARDIS crew and Light City now, and also uses its nature to be symbolic of the events in the play: it is inevitable that said Spinning Top shall spin if spun, just as it was inevitable for revolution to occur. People denied it, but throughout the play everything led towards it.

The acting throughout this play is just superb. There is a real feeling of believable terror, claustrophobia, fear, paranoia and despair present in every actor. Even when supposedly stable in their position, an underlying tension is present in each character, each one of them knowing that they could change at any moment. I feel that it would not be in the spirit of the play to single out any actors, so I shall not, suffice to say that they are all quite brilliant and play all of their roles excellently.

The Directing by Gary Russell is, again, truly great. To pull off something this good cannot have been an easy task, but it is one that has apparently been relished, the result being something quite special.

The Sound Design by Jim Mortimore himself is great too, with some lovely use of the Stereo Field at times and a nice ambient background being built up as the play progresses. The use of the distorted ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune that bookends each Episode, albeit in a slightly different variation each time, is a neat trick, again showing off how this is like we expect ‘Doctor Who’ to be, only through a view askew. Another nice addition comes after the play has ended. Following a trailer for ‘Dalek Empire’, you get to hear the music and background noises created for the play. Even on their own, they are powerful elements that command attention, but when added to the power of the script itself, their intensity magnifies. Eerie, to be sure, but also strangely beautiful, the elements are nice additions to have as isolated pieces.

‘The Natural History Of Fear’, to my mind, cannot be recommended highly enough; the script is ingenious, the performances are terrific, the Sound Design and Directing are above par in the best way possible and the play manages to stay with you long after the CD has finished playing. This is a play that requires analysis and acts as a catalyst for discussion, but it is also something with the simplest and most easily deciphered messages at heart. I cannot really conclude this review as there are so many more things that I would like to say, but I fear it would be repeating points made elsewhere perhaps or maybe it simply not be required. Either way, I’ll end it here.

Eddy Wolverson

“The Natural History of Fear” is a brilliant concept, brilliantly written, and without wanting to over-use the adjective, brilliantly executed. The dystopian nightmare is not a scenario the show has ever explored so openly before, and Jim Mortimore strikes gold in how he takes our favourite TV show and uses it in the story itself as a version of a TV show – an ‘infotainment.’

The story’s central theme and setting is lifted straight out of George Orwell’s “1984”, but this is no way detracts from one’s enjoyment of the story. In fact, I’d say that if you had read that particular novel or are a fan of Orwell’s work then you will enjoy the story all the more, while if you aren’t familiar with Orwell’s work you will find it a refreshing change to the familiar Doctor Who format.

The story’s greatest strength, in my opinion, lies in the medium through which it is told. Some audio adventures Big Finish have produced were crying out to be made as TV stories or movies, while others like this one have been carefully constructed to exist purely as sound. Jim Mortimore undertook all the sound design himself so what the listener hears is as close to the writer’s vision as you can get. The voice of Light City, the rumbling of the drones; it all creates a vivid picture in the listener’s mind. Moreover, like in “Omega,” for example, the plot itself relies on the story being told only through the audio medium, as major plot twists in the final episode would be spoiled by the opening shot were this a TV story.

Complaints? Only minor niggles really, nothing to do with the story itself, more to do with its place in the grand scheme of things. Every time Big Finish release another story in the eighth Doctor collection I get a strange feeling of unease as I stick it in the CD player. I have no idea whether I’m about to be thoroughly entertained or sat cringing throughout. With almost three audio ‘seasons’ under his belt, Paul McGann’s Doctor has given us stories up there with the very best of them – “The Chimes of Midnight,” “Seasons of Fear,” and “Neverland” to name but a few, though like any other Doctor he’s also delivered a few disasters – “The Stones of Venice” for one will forever remain unforgiven.

However, despite initial inconsistency the eighth Doctor’s audio adventures really came into their own during ‘Season 28’ though the high standard seems to have dipped slightly in this run. Whilst “Scherzo” brought us a fitting closure to the Doctor / Charley love story in a very unfamiliar setting, “The Creed of the Kromon” was merely a traditional corridor romp. It did, however, introduce us to the fascinating Kro’ka, the crucible world and new companion C’rizz, setting the scene for future stories in this alternate universe, so it did strike me as a strange choice to move away from this format immediately without having a story or two first to establish our three heroes making their way through the various zones in search of the TARDIS. Moreover, having only been introduced to C’rizz in the previous story, we don’t have time to become ‘used to his character’ as it were before we have Conrad Westmaas playing a different character here. That said, Westmaas (as well as McGann and Fisher) acquits himself admirably. In fact, apart from about ninety seconds of dialogue placing this story in one of the zones and a brief piece of narration lifted straight out of the “Scherzo” pre-credit sequence, this story could have taken place anywhere, quite easily in our universe; even with another Doctor! I think it would have worked better perhaps as a stand-alone story with the Seventh Doctor and Ace in our universe, where there isn’t a huge story arc which frankly needs to be addressed explicitly in each story. Big Finish can’t lift the Doctor out of our universe, out of time, give him a new companion then forget all about it!

Continuity gripes aside, the story is wonderful, and whilst I might complain that it doesn’t forward the larger storyline at all that fact might encourage the more casual listener to pick up this intriguing offering from the Big Finish team.

Richard Radcliffe

Just when I thought Big Finish were back to telling easy, traditional tales (Creed of the Kromon), along comes the Natural History of Fear. A play that was so far out, so obscure, so different, so intellectual, I totally didn't get it at all!

I've recently been described as something of a traditionalist on the Ratings Guide - fine by me. I will admit that I struggle at times with more complex and intellectual Doctor Who tales. Not to say I don't have any brains, but I do prefer (generally) the more easy and straightforward stories. I think I get into that mindset, most of the time when I listen or read or watch, that is akin to unwinding - letting out the alleged worries of the day. An audio, a book, a comic, a TV production, they are all there for me to be entertained first and foremost. All stories are there to take me into a magical kingdom, with traces of reality, but with large dollops of Fantasy at the forefront - I'm not even that bothered if it is all explained, it's mostly about imagination and atmosphere. The beauty about Doctor Who, amongst many other things, is the way is juxtaposes Fantasy onto Reality - a key feature of its success over the years.

Like many other Doctor Who Fans I expect, I have been accused of having my head in the clouds too much. "You don't handle reality that well, do you" was the famous retort from my loving Mum whilst in my early 20s. "You're so much more comfortable with Fantasy". She wasn't having a go, just stating a fact. Out of her 8 Children I was always the one who would strive for isolation, to disappear into a book for long periods. On family Holidays in my childhood and teens I would find a secluded beach or field, and lie in the sun with my book - that was the best, most hassle-free, Holiday companion (even though I wasn't adverse to the charms of other Holiday liaisons either!).

I have since grown up, and whilst still largely a cloudwalker, I can appreciate all kinds of unreality - not just the easy-to-understand kind. A Traditionalist I may be usually, but after a few listens I usually get what Big Finish authors are trying to say. There's so much imagination and wonder out there amongst Doctor Who writers, I simply hate to be missing out on some bit of magic. I was very hopeful for this story. Paul McGann (with quotes everywhere) said it was one of the best scripts he had read, Doctor Who or otherwise. That's quite a recommendation to live up to - and made me even more determined to discover its intricacies.

Written by Jim Mortimore, Big Finish Sound Engineer, (whose written 2 excellent books - Eye of Heaven and Blood Heat, and a few other average ones), we are brought to Light City - haven for a suppressed society, 1984 Orwell like. Such communities are not unusual to DW - Varos, Happiness Patrol planet to name 2 previous TV examples. Along comes our 3 heroes - The Doctor, Charley and C'Rizz - to stir things up.

Jim Mortimore uses his expertise in the field of Sound and Editing in this production. It is quite unlike anything else Big Finish have produced, and is rather inward looking at the whole Doctor phenomenon. The entertainment of the masses is indeed the Doctors past adventures. Just who are the Editor, the Conscience and the Revolutionary Woman? They sound like the Doctor, C'Rizz and Charley - but they talk about our heroes as being elsewhere.

I listened to the story over 2 mornings. Getting up for Doctor Who on UK Gold on a Saturday and Sunday has been most enjoyable since I obtained Cable TV 6 months ago. I usually watch the TV offering, then try something else - often an Audio. This weekend it was this one. Whether I am totally awake at this hour in the morning is up for debate - and maybe that's why I was utterly confused on first listen.

Paul McGann was excellent, and clearly loving this different role - same with Charley. They were playing other characters, but glimpses of their familiar roles were apparent throughout. Then there was the vague Castlist, with no characters to speak of - clearly this was complex and worthy of greater attention. Then there was new comp C'Rizz - I lost track of him completely on that 1st listen (that can't be good in only his 2nd story). With only one story to define his character, it is unfortunate he is somebody else here. I had glimmers of recognition as Episode 4 rolled, as it backtracked to the Doctors arrival at Light City. I was convinced that I could understand this complex drama eventually.

Thus onward to a 2nd Listen - and like Flip Flop and Creatures of Beauty, I was sure I would get it eventually. Much, much better. I actually followed the story pretty well. I appreciated the production much, much more. I really thought it was very clever the way the Doctors and his Companions had influenced and coalesced into the Community. It's a tremendously wordy piece too - full of subtle asides about freedom of speech and the individual in society.

I have now heard Natural History of Fear again - with my wife. She got it on first listen, the clever clogs. I found my 3rd listen even more rewarding, and I marvelled at the structure and the production. After hearing each episode we ended up talking about it at length - I can't recall any audio producing that level of comment between us before. We both admired the way it made us think. I'm so glad I gave this fine story the attention it deserves. You just know these stories are going to make sense in the end - and you just know there is plenty to love about them. My eyes are open! 9/10

Paul Clarke

It is well known that during recording of Jim Mortimore's 'The Natural History of Fear', Paul McGann apparently declared it to be one of the best scripts he's ever read. This boded well for the audio, especially since I'm one of those fans who actually like Mortimore's Doctor Who novels and was very much looking forward to seeing what he would do with the audio format. I wasn't disappointed; 'The Natural History of Fear' is superb.

The territory covered by 'The Natural History of Fear' is largely familiar. It is virtually impossible to discuss a story such as this without mentioning 1984, but the potency of Orwell's celebrated novel is such that I have no problem with the subject matter being revisited by other authors, since it nearly always works. From the moment that the listener hears the Voice of Light City, it becomes clear that this is a deeply oppressive society; lines such as "This is the voice of Light City. Welcome to your new workday. Today is high productivity day… Your state loves you" and "Productivity through happiness" immediately creates the impression of a totalitarian "nanny state" the rulers of which think they know what is best for their citizens and who don't like to be troubled by awkward questions or indeed free will. Brainwashing is a recurring theme of the story, with the Nurse announcing in Episode One, "You sound like you don't believe in the common good… This is what happens when you don't watch regular infotainments." Tellingly, questions are forbidden because, "Questions breed questions" and anyone found guilty of asking any must face the Conscience. But brainwashing is just the tip of the iceberg; 'The Natural History of Fear' is primarily about identity, which becomes clear gradually as the Editor muses, "A prole with a name. Curious" and we get disturbing references to "minor personality revision". The Nurse is told, "Very soon we'll never have met. We'll be happier then."

What really makes 'The Natural History of Fear' memorable is the way the topic of identity is beautifully exploited to misdirect the audience. The whole premise of the story is that nobody can be certain who he or she is; every major character here undergoes revision and nobody can remember who he or she was before the process. Mortimore allows us to believe on first listen that we know where the story is going as a result; the casting automatically means that we assume that the Editor, the Conscience and the Nurse are the Doctor, Charley, and C'rizz, brainwashed into forgetting their past. It is, after all, the obvious conclusion, and the scene in which Fisher's character recalls the events of the Doctor and his companions' arrival reinforces this impression. My conclusion upon listening to the story for the first time was that the three regulars would regain their true identities and escape from the nightmarish situation in which they found themselves. The Editor (McGann) and the Conscience (Westmaas) both start to question their society independently, further misleading the listener as to what direction the story will take, the intention presumably to hint that they are gradually regaining their memories. When we hear, "The broadcasts - they're real memories" the fact that the infotainments are seemingly derived from old Doctor Who stories, with references to Axons and Zarbi, makes sense. The Conscience believes that the Doctor is living amongst them, revised, and he wants to reassemble the Doctor's memories and recreate the Doctor in the name of revolution. "You are the Doctor! That's why you can remember things you shouldn't be able to!" When the new Conscience/former nurse explains that the Doctor's memories are stored in the ubiquitous spinning top, it seems as though we know what is going on.

The problem of course, is that half way through Episode Four, it becomes clear that there isn't going to be enough time for the Doctor and his companions to regain their memories and escape in a satisfying manner. The result of this was a growing unease on my part that the ending would be rushed, or a matter of ghastly contrivance along the lines of a dream; what I got however was a whacking great twist that left me with a broad grin and tremendous admiration that I had been so completely duped into assuming that I knew what was happening. The sheer audacity of the scene in which the Conscience tells the Editor, "The Doctor and his friends left Light City a very long while ago… The Doctor has two hearts, C'rizz is a Eutermisan, Charley a human. They're all bipedal, two arms, two legs. Tell me how many legs you have?" is remarkable. Mortimore's use of the audio format to fool the listener is magnificently displayed, as the Editor replies, "Eight of course."

This misdirection is a large part of what makes 'The Natural History of Fear' work so well, but that fact might suggest that listening to it more than once would be unrewarding. This isn't the case; the story works on numerous levels, as Mortimore plays with the society he has created. Neither politics nor sociology is my forte, but the influences here are obvious, with individuality fiercely repressed by revision of anyone that dares to question the status quo. Most tellingly of all, nobody has a name; everybody is defined by their role at any given moment. Nobody is above the law, not even the Editor, who fervently declares, "If anything, we owe more loyalty and more responsibility to the state than anybody". As in certain communist regimes, it is necessary to apply for permission to have children, and the proles are told, "You don't seem the type to need reminding how happy you are." The inherent flaws in such a social structure are explored, as the DJ points out, "There are things no one is allowed to know. But someone has to know them, how else could we remember what to forget?" The ending is fascinating, as Light City stands exposed as a sociological experiment that has reached an obvious conclusion; revolution. The Conscience explains the oppressive regime in the City, by telling the Editor, "Children need structure" and as the inhabitants of Light City rebel, she tells the Editor that he may be ready to build a new social order and to help his people find their soul.

There are many reasons for listening to 'The Natural History of Fear'. There are comments on the media, the infotainments angrily described as "suggestions, instructions they use to direct the way we think" (and perhaps even Big Finish specifically, with the line "Maybe the writers are getting lazy, reusing the same ideas"). But perhaps most of all, the three regular cast members are extremely good, even India Fisher who's acting I often have issues with. In particular, Paul McGann is superb, as the Editor becomes increasingly conflicted and obsessive, taking centre stage in Episode Three. He is told, "You're obsessed, paranoid. You've allowed your love to overcome your judgement" and McGann makes him sound increasingly unhinged, determined to stop the revolution and yet rebelling against the state to do so. His performance is especially impressive as the Editor sobs, "They're all dead" over and over again in Episode Four.

I have, ultimately, no criticisms of 'The Natural History of Fear'. Gary Russell does a fine job of directing, and the story sound superb. Some critics have noted that the story's placement is unfortunate, as there has not been sufficient time to develop C'rizz' character since his debut story, but this does really detract from the story, and it certainly doesn't detract from Conrad Westmaas' performance here. 'The Natural History of Fear' is by no means a traditional story, and after the pedestrian 'The Creed of the Kromon' it is a breath of fresh air. Personally, I hope Mortimore writes another Big Finish script, and the sooner the better.

Sean Bradshaw

When we are not allowed to question, our society can degenerate into a boring faceless one like in "1984". This point is repeatedly made in the new Big Finish audio by Jim Mortimore entitled: "DUH". Actually the title is "The Natural History of Fear" which sounds a lot better than what we get. The brief preview for this at the end of “Creed of the Kromon” seemed like a much better creation than the whole two discs of the actual story. The setting is a cruel, interchangeable society where questions are forbidden; our regulars Paul McGann, India Fisher, and Conrad Westmass, among others, play the voices of the society. You know the ending has to explain where our regular characters are, so it's a long wait until that point. Are the Doctor and his companions under some kind of mind control? Are they pretending for some reason? Meet you there in two hours! Clues slip out occasionally. Wheee... have fun, I guess.

The well-constructed sound design incorporates a motif of using the theme song (as well as one from the old amateur Audio Visuals) to encapsulate these events as part of an ongoing series of "infotainments". There are fanboy references to "missing episodes" and such. This device is intriguing and is combined with scary copyright warnings. It also has great cover artwork. Big Finish liked the sounds so much; they gave us an extra track of them, isolated. Thanks, yes, they're neat.

It has been noted that the story was once submitted as a Telos Novella, and perhaps with that shorter length, it might have been more successful. Compared to the recent Big Finish audio “Scherzo”, another experimental story, this feels like a drawn-out gimmick. Scherzo had one setting and that was it, but it did manage to go off on a character-based tangent. It was also deliberately shorter. The end of the last “Natural History” episode perks up, only 'cause the author felt obliged to explain things and perhaps refer to the title character. Seeing how the society eventually reveals personalities similar to the Doctor and his friends is interesting when it happens, and knowing the ending, it does get more listenable the second time. But still, c'mon. There are worse Big Finish audios, and this one is not stupid, it's just pretty disappointing.

The script may have looked nice on the page, prompting Paul McGann to exclaim how much he liked reading it, and so it is proudly noted in the packaging. Here's some "forbidden questions": since Big Finish enjoys promoting the fact that Paul McGann liked the script so much, does that mean we automatically have to enjoy it? Three episodes of sub-Orwell (thought crime!) followed by a limp ending do not a great audio adventure make. Why do we have to listen to this? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY WHYWHYWHY

There's one more to go in the current 8th Doctor series, but the recent announcements of more adventures in the divergent universe now come across as not very promising.

John Hoyle

Jim Mortimore produces an intelligent and interesting script in this, his first outing for Big Finish. It is no doubt an original and exciting idea, that of people watching people watching people watching people, although this could confuse a listener on first, second or even third hearings.

Given the time of day, this script is highly rewarding. Things are not so cut and dry as they usually are and there remain unanswered questions aplenty. The fact though that this serves to enhance the drama, rather than detract from it, is all credit to the ingenuity of the writer.

McGann rises to the occasion, not playing his usual Big Finish role, as does India Fisher. However, Conrad Westmaas’ Conscience is less enjoyable, because, being an unfamiliar voice at the moment, he often appears to fade into the background. Perhaps it is just the fact that his voice is not as recognisable as either McGann’s or Fisher’s. This multi-part playing is odd and perturbing on the first few listens but yet again makes for rewarding entertainment after one has grasped the piece’s format.

The decision not to give characters names, I think was a mistake. Although, it works on a literary level, it serves to alienate the listener as it becomes unclear who is actually speaking at some points, the actors’ voices not being distinct enough to put to one character.

My one major gripe with The Natural History of Fear is that it fails to be a clear, cohesive play on first hearing. The story doesn’t appear to stand up solidly on initial speculation and a first time listener to Big Finish would only be put off by this mish-mash of an adventure. There are few people who have the time of day or even the patience to listen closely to a drama such as this three or four times until it is understood. Although an intelligent and witty satire, this could be a story which fails to spark the interest of a casual buyer due to its sheer unusualness and its expectance of the listener to deduce.

I would argue also that the slow pace and gradual peeling of layers serves to make the story appear a little lacking in drama and plodding. However, this serves also to establish a world in which we can believe entirely.

In all fairness, this is a unique and highly intelligent drama which although usually a great asset in any play, also acts as its weakness. Perhaps it is too intelligent for its own good. The final boggling twist actually makes what we have previously listened to a little unbelievable, given that such creatures have created such intricate filing systems, etcetera.

A grand improvement on its third McGann season peers, but nevertheless a little over-ambitious, over-worked and just a tad indulgent.