The first Audio to feature that marvelous team of the 7th Doctor and Ace, is set in the near future. A time not too distant from ours - and one containing all the problems and political machinations associated with our time.
The Fearmonger is an entity that possesses people, one that stirs up trouble - so it can feed off the chaos. The author, Jonathan Blum, has thrown in many elements that amplify this chaos. The New Brittania party, led with villainous ease by Servalan (sorry, Sherilyn Harper) seem to be the focus of this anarchy. A local DJ, with his talk radio show, brings a great deal of antagonism to proceedings - stirring up peoples feelings, and generally getting on their backs. There are also a few madmen, complete with explosives attached - obsessed individuals who seek only to "kill the monsters".
The Doctor and Ace are caught up in this melee, and both strive to sort the mess out. Sylvestor McCoy and Sophie Aldred are excellent. Ace is right at home in this society- her natural aggressiveness finding an outlet. The Doctor is as manipulative as ever, and McCoy thrives on some wonderful dialogue. The highpoints are the Doctor and Ace's scenes together. The chemistry that the 2 actors have is a joy to listen to - and there are some wonderfully played moments.
The story has enough twist and turns to keep the interest throughout. The riots portrayed in Episode 4 are well realized - Big Finish seems right at ease with this Political Thriller kind of story. There are lots of gizmos that really are well brought to life.
For me the story was a touch too complicated, too many characters at times sounding quite similar to one another. I am not that keen on modern day, urban-based stories either - give me the countryside anyday. The Fearmonger was not the most original villain in DW History. The DJ was very irritating at times too.
There were a lot of things to like about this story, but a fair bit I didn't like. It is nice to see Big Finish stretch their imaginations to cover all kinds of story-telling, it was just a little too "real-life" for my tastes. And that's despite great performances from the leads. 6/10.
I hated Season 24. I loved Seasons 25 and 26. I went crazy for the Virgin New Adventures. Despite his abysmal start, the seventh Doctor has always been a favourite of mine. His bursts of moral outrage; his scheming; his plotting; the mystery surrounding the man. I would go so far as to say that the McCoy / Aldred line-up is one of the strongest in the history of the series. It was with great expectation then, that I picked up the first ‘proper’ seventh Doctor audio adventure – “The Fearmonger.”
A lot about Big Finish’s fifth release impressed me. I liked the New Adventures / more adult feel of the play, and I was impressed with how well McCoy and Aldred performed considering that it had been a decade since they strolled off into the Perivale sunset. I felt that some elements of the story were also very well done – I particularly enjoyed the Doctor’s scenes on the radio opposite Vince Henderson’s loathsome Mick Thompson, and how (very much in the spirit of the two final TV seasons and the New Adventures) the Doctor took on the role of the master manipulator, “…putting ingredients together and warming the pot…” as the blurb for Part 4 claims. Moreover, I found it interesting that the Doctor and Ace seemed to be working more as a team than previously (be it on TV or in print); Ace seemed a little older than in “Survival,” slightly more seasoned and most importantly privy to the Doctor’s plans, more like the Ace we see in “Cat’s Cradle: Warhead” and around that era, likely the timeframe for the setting of this adventure.
More negatively though, I didn’t find Jonathan Blum’s plot very original and the story never really grabbed my attention until the final episode. Big Finish have a very difficult task with these audio adventures because unless they hold your attention for the duration of the play, your mind can wander and if you lose concentration you can find yourself out of the story pretty quickly. This story left me with the same kind of feeling I had after reading “The Highest Science” or “Timewyrm: Apocalypse”; you pick up a book (or an audio drama) expecting so much, and when you are met with something distinctly average you can’t help but be disappointed.
Perhaps its me. I’m not sure. It does seem like I disagree with the most vocal element of fandom. Well, not always. It seems that to like the McCoy era, the average fan has to be below a certain age. That’s simply one man’s opinion, of course.
It is because of this that I have chosen the most unlikely story from a very unlikely era. In the Fearmonger, the McCoy years, so often slated by myself and others as the lamest set of stories, are in fact completely vindicated. In fact, this was the second Big Finish story I had ever heard and I thought it was completely wonderful. Over the last few years, I had forgotten this story, overlooked it, ignored it even, but upon another listening I was reminded why I felt it was well done.
Its first great success in having a clear and distinct story line. One that is favorably graced with a concept that not only serves the audio medium, but is positively done justice by it. Without endless recounts of the plot line, the notion that the voice only one person can hear comes across very well. The Doctor and Ace play out the mysterious set-up (plopped down in the middle of the story without the usual introduction) with excellence that justify all the praise they are given by their admirers. For at least 10 minutes we are not even certain that Ace isn’t acting as some sort of rogue terrorist. By the time we are introduced to the real plot, I found that I was compulsively drawn into the future world where a Bob Holmes like double act of the totalitarian leader Jacqueline Pearce (Sherilyn Harper) and her accomplice Hugh Walters (Roderick Allingham) were driving the UK with hatred and anger.
The other great thing this story has going for it is an excellent supplemental cast (frankly unusual in the early Big Finish stories) as well as a completely realized audio portrayal. At every point in the story, the listener is completely able to imagine the action. In short, this is one of the earliest examples of Big Finish’s great contribution to the world and fandom of Doctor Who. In fact, I think it very likely that their success had a great deal to do with the show coming back at all. Bravo.
Now, forgive me if I write negatively of other stories. Let it be known that I do appreciate this wonderful diversion. I love audio and I’m so glad that audio drama found an outlet, especially as its with my favorite show.
'The Fearmonger' is the first Big Finish audio to feature the popular combination of the Seventh Doctor and Ace and it manages to capture the feel of Season Twenty-Six whilst also tapping into the essence of the early New Adventures, which is unsurprising given writer Jonathan Blum's well known fondness for that era. The plot of 'The Fearmonger' is very straightforward, with the Doctor and Ace teaming up with would-be assassins and terrorists to stop a monster that he has foreknowledge of, but the story is about considerably more than this.
'The Fearmonger' is of course about fear. The eponymous monster is a parasitic alien force the origins of which are merely hinted about, which amplifies and feeds off the fear of others. The actual monster however is merely a narrative tool, which Blum uses to explore more human fears. The issue of political bias in Doctor Who has provoked fierce discussion on the Internet, with the often left wing New Adventures (especially those written by Paul Cornell and Blum's wife Kate Orman) drawing particular criticism from fans whose political opinions tend more towards the right. It is inevitably galling when a writer uses Doctor Who as a mouthpiece for political idealism that a particular reader or listener happens to disagree with, and this is a problem that in many ways is specific to tie-in fiction; a reader with left wing ideals for example can simply avoid the work of a mainstream writer known to have right wing politics and vice versa, but the obsessive nature of many Doctor Who fans compels them to complete a collection. Consequently, an unusual circumstance arises in which a fan will purchase and read or listen to a novel or audio story by a writer whose work he or she knows that he or she dislikes simply because it forms part of a range. I of course know this all too well from personal experience; I detest the Doctor Who novels of Terrance Dicks and Christopher Bulis (albeit not usually for political reasons) but continue to buy any new ones that they happen to write out of a desire to maintain a complete set of the novels. Despite all this however, such political bias in a piece of fiction is inevitable; if a writer actually cares about what he or she is writing rather than being content merely to churn out bland formulaic pap aimed at fans who want generic TV tie-ins, then they will to some extent write about they know about and believe in.
All of which rambling brings me back to 'The Fearmonger', a story that on first glance might seem like a recipe for provocation. Initially it appears that the main protagonists are not the Fearmonger itself, but the New Britannia party, a right wing organisation seeking to slow down or completely stop immigration, an issue that is currently extremely topical in the United Kingdom. The usual arguments that emerge in a polarized debate between "left" and "right" are soon deployed, as rather than an in depth examination of the pros and cons of immigration policy, the New Britannia party are increasingly portrayed as racists in the vein of the BNP, as they talk of "good, honest white people" whilst dismissing counter arguments as political correctness gone mad and a fear of being honest. But 'The Fearmonger' is cleverer than that. The New Britannia party is initially portrayed as villains, whereas Walter Jacobs, who attempts to assassinate party leader Sherilyn Harper, is a figure of sympathy, driven to attempt murder by mental illness and the fact that he can hear the monster within here and is desperate to stop it. The script is geared to making us feel sympathy for Walter, as he frequently breaks down and is terrified of the Doctor's establishment past (which is presumably a nod by Blum to the article penned by Paul Cornell that started the so-called "Pertwee backlash" several years ago). As the story progresses however, the nature of good and evil is brought into question. The terrorists who seemingly oppose the New Britannia party are "just a few street thugs who've got their hands on guns and bombs" and relish the opportunity to inflict violence and they are themselves on the payroll of Harper and her assistant Roderick Allingham who are seeking to stir up racial violence by sparking off conflicts between those who oppose the party and those who support it. The supporting characters thus do not easily divide into left and right wing, many of them are simply people who cause and use fear to achieve their ends.
And they are all people; Blum takes great pains with his script to demonstrate this fact. I personally have no sympathy with Harper's politics but I can't help feeling some sympathy for her at the end as the Doctor forces her to admit that she is motivated by fear. When he tells her, "You had to make sure they were a little bit afraid" it is hard not to feel satisfaction as her policy of telling people that they can't trust anyone comes back to haunt her, but she's so pathetic at that point that it is also hard not to feel pity. Roderick is less sympathetic, but his concern for and loyalty to Harper seems genuine and he does not hesitate in trying to divert blame for the riots away from her whilst his own career is shot down in flames around him, an impressive willingness to take responsibility without being forced to which is sorely lacking in many real politicians. Alexandr Karadjic is a bully with a gun, who shoots Ace in panic and loses control when he realises what he has done, despite his willingness to threaten people with guns before and after the event; ultimately, he's a coward with far fewer principles than the bigots who have employed him. Then there is Mick Thompson, a thoroughly irritating DJ who feeds, in his own way, on the fear of others by exploiting it for his radio show. The Doctor condemns his manipulation of the truth and of people's opinions for the sake of his own career but later makes use of it to control the riots. Finally, there is Walter Jacobs, the most human character of all, a tortured soul who is manipulated by the Fearmonger, which preys on his fear of the New Britannia party and what it represents. There is a magnificent scene in Episode Four in which the Doctor confronts Walter, telling him that he needs to believe that Harper is a monster so that he could justify his intention to kill her and convince himself that he isn't well.
Crucially, Blum avoids the trap of using the Doctor as a mouthpiece for his politics. The Doctor is preoccupied throughout with the Fearmonger, dismissing Harper as "a human sized problem" and refusing to directly participate in the downfall of the New Britannia party. He reminds those around him constantly that they are motivated by fear, even if they refuse to admit it, telling Walter, "You don't like using the word evil do you, it's too strong" and "You're faced with something you fear, so you have to give it a name." He serves as a reminder that good and evil are complex concepts, and are categories that humans do not fall easily into. The script does this via other characters too, posing the question "Just because she thinks we get a raw deal on immigration, suddenly she's an alien?" via Paul Tanner, and ultimately laying bare the fact that Harper, despite committing evil actions, is not some archetypal mastermind, but a woman driven by her own fears. The Doctor does try to reassure Ace that Harper is no longer a member of a minority as his companion once more despairs at the prejudice of others, telling her, "Forty years ago, Harper wouldn't even be out of the ordinary", but for the most part he observes humanity's foibles from the outside; he fights the monsters, but he doesn't try to interfere in the workings of society.
As for Ace, she is in many ways the character we know from her television stories, uttering such awful lines as "Shut up toeface", but she also demonstrates a maturity that paves the way for later stories, especially 'Colditz' and 'The Rapture'. There is also a superb scene at the end of Episode Two as her faith in the Doctor, restored after the trials and tribulations of Season Twenty-Six, leads her to try and emulate him; Blum turns the "throw away your gun" scene from 'The Happiness Patrol on his head by demonstrating that whilst the Doctor is virtually indestructible, his human companions are not. When Ace challenges Alexsandr's willingness to kill by telling him, "Look me in the eye, do you really want to - " she is cut short by a shot as he fires his gun. The character is also well served by Episode Four, as the Fearmonger's possession of her makes her believe that it is the Doctor who carries the creature, until her trust in him finally makes her realize that she is his host.
The cast is uniformly excellent; Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred recapture their television personas perfectly yet improve upon them with neither of them demonstrating the often shaky acting skills that occasionally blighted their performances in the television series. The Doctor feels like the darker, more manipulative figure of McCoy's last two seasons and McCoy is especially impressive when the Doctor expresses his grief at Ace's shooting. Jacqueline Pearce gives a quite, understated performance as Harper, the Servalan clone of 'The Two Doctors' nothing but a distant memory, and Doctor Who veteran Hugh Walters, who previously played Shakespeare in 'The Chase', Runcible in 'The Deadly Assassin' and Vogel in 'Revelation of the Daleks' is perfectly cast as the prim Roderick.
Ultimately, 'The Fearmonger' makes an impressive audio debut for the team of the Seventh Doctor and Ace. There are some nice twists firstly as Roderick and Harper are revealed to have employed the terrorists, and secondly as Walter and Ace turn out to have been the real hosts for the Fearmonger. There are other nice touches too, such as the rare example of expository dialogue in Episode Four that actually works well, as Thompson reports in the riots. All in all, it proves rather promising for Big Finish's use of this TARDIS crew, promise that sadly has not yet been fully delivered on since.
This is going to be an odd review. I really enjoyed The Fearmonger. It was a well written story, and was well told. However, this production has a few things which hit at the heart of the series that disturbed me.
But first, the positive stuff. This is actually a very clever and superb 7th Doctor story, with perhaps a few passing resemblances with Terrrance Dicks' terrific novel Exodus, such as the hidden alien presence within a political leader, the Nazism, Britain in turmoil and so on. Exodus is also a good point to make with regards the Seventh Doctor, because it simply was the story that finally achieved something with the incarnation, which the TV series, even in it's more superior 26th series, simply failed to do. And this story takes Dicks' novel in good stead. Out goes the embarrassment of watching this Doctor in the TV adventures, where originally Sylvester was encouraged to camp it up by a totally shagged out producer. This is a very grown up Seventh Doctor, and because of this, the story benefits from the fact that we come into it some way in. The Doctor and Ace have arrived, have a pre-ordained mission and also have also manipulated events that the Doctor can find himself 'guesting' on a radio show. This is a writing and production decision that put a lot of pressure on the characters of the Doctor and Ace to actually tell us what the hell is going on. Because of all this, we can see heavily the portrayal of McCoy's Doctor - the one that is already doomed for the visit to San Francisco and it adds to the terrific mood and atmosphere. Sophie Aldred absolutely excels as Ace, based heavily on the character developed in the books. There is a certain strength about her, a reckless streak seen only briefly in the TV adventures. The rest of the cast also add a certain flavour, with Jacqueline Pearce producing a character that only she really can. The production again is superb and rich in it's aural atmosphere - scenes with the Doctor and Ace 'outside' are terrifically realized.
However, onto the problems. Unfortunately, its more due to the style then to the content. I'm a bit of a traditionalist as regards Who. There should, absolutely, not be any swearing in the series - as its simply too much of a cop out, and the show lasted all this time without it. Doctor Who is first and foremost a family series, despite the efforts of a number New Adventure writers to turn it into some sort of a cosmic porn show. I would have real problems letting a child listen to The Fearmonger, because of the language and the more sexual connotations then usual. It derides the innocence of the series, the reason of it's power and success - and to put it this way, the show survived nearly 30 years of transmission without stuff like this. Call me conservative yes, but The Fearmonger has a terrific sense of both traditional Who as well as an experimental type of story, but the script's workmanlike language at times simply destroys that impact. It isn't something you come to expect from the programme and as such derails the concentration. The Big Finish range isn't Cyberpunk, nor is it a New Adventures novel, but a logical next step for a dead from production TV series.
Sadly, with a certain ginger haired companion making an appearance in the next 7th Doctor story, the re-appraisal of this Doctor's time is likely to take a downturn. That's why in a way, The Fearmonger's successes are going to be cherished. And perhaps wait for the next 7th Doctor and Ace story which will finally establish the era.
With many of Doctor Who's original casts returning for the first time in years to their various characters, it's tempting to get rather glib about Big Finish's audio, The Fearmonger. After all Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy have never truly departed the roles of Ace and the Doctor, thanks to various fan audios and videos. Even without their distinctive performances, Ace and The Seventh Doctor have been given a thorough literary exploration (nay exploitation) by Virgin's New Adventures.
So it's a surprise that Johnathon Blum's play recaptures so much of their original zest, director Gary Russell pushing both characters in new directions that the actors seem to relish.
Finding themselves on near contemporary Earth, the time travelers discover the right-wing New Britannia Party on the ascendant in a Britain bubbling with racial tension. But an assassination attempt on its leader, the steely Sherilyn Harper (a flint-like yet frisky Jaqueline Pearce), reveals their true foe, a creature that feeds on fear itself.
Backed by Alistair Lock's superb contemporary folio work, and a soundtrack revisiting Remembrance of the Daleks' pizzicato strings the play creates a palpable atmosphere. More than mere moustache twirlers, politicians Roderick Allingham (a restrained Hugh Walters) and Harper herself have a seductive wit and intelligence that gives the proceedings a satisfying complexity. McCoy and Aldred have a similar focused intensity, both contributing some of their best work for the series, and the landscape of contemporary England allows Blum to heighten the realistic elements within their characters to great narrative effect. Shootings, riots and hospital trauma all have a satisfying dramatic impact, rather than being the window dressing of so much Doctor Who. Although Ace's, "look me in the eye, end my life" speech, while a brilliant demonstration of her fallibility, might perhaps have been helped if she had actually been present during the Doctor's periodic use of the same tactic.
The Fearmonger has an essentially impotent monster, a fact most of the time it successfully conceals and indeed enjoys parodying the sort of provenance Who gives to its monsters. While not a Fearmongoid from Fearmongos, it's odd that the story proceeds to do exactly this by speculating how the thing came to exist. For my taste it's enough, and appropriate given the McCoy era's lack of explanations, that it simply does.
Although the rest of the cast, as an array of occasionally indistinguishable twenty-something male characters, never quite make an impression overall The Fearmonger is outstanding. Perhaps, given its subject matter, multi-ethnic casting might have helped.
As the paranoia and uncertainty spreads to the Doctor and Ace themselves, Blum sensibly mines the depths of this fascinating relationship. Well acted, exciting and original The Fearmonger pushes Doctor Who in a direction some fans may find too naturalistic or dry, but it is one that might have paid dividends if the series were still on air. Above all, Blum finds a way to investigate contemporary ideology, develop character and tell an entertaining adventure story whilst navigating the sillinesses in the Doctor Who format which threaten to make such a project over earnest or ridiculous. Good Stuff.