Matthew Kresal looks back at Sylvester McCoy's debut Big Finish adventure, The Fearmonger.
In 2000, Big Finish was just beginning a now sixteen year journey making audio dramas based on Doctor Who. The Fearmonger, written by noted Wilderness Era novelist Jonathan Blum, was the first proper Seventh Doctor audio story released by the company. Despite have been released all that time ago, the story continues to hold up well and is perhaps more relevant now than it was then.
Both Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred slip comfortably back into their roles of the Doctor and Ace respectively. Despite having had more than a decade pass between their final television appearances in Survival, one gets the feeling from their performances that they had never been away. McCoy's Doctor comes across strongly and authoritatively, walking in and out of situations and facing down people with a variety of means and motives. Aldred's Ace comes across even better as a slightly older and more mature character who tries to play the Doctor (in a way not too dissimilar from Clara Oswald in recent TV stories) but with results that are quite different and that show the price that can be paid for trying to play the Doctor's part for him. The two of them bounce off each other wonderfully, thanks to a combination of both the actor's chemistry and a good script that gives them some excellent moments, especially in parts three and four.
McCoy and Aldred are helped by a good supporting cas. Jacqueline Pearce, best known for her role as Blake's 7 villain Servalan, gives a quite sinister performance as Sherilyn Harper, the right-wing politician whom much of the story centers around. Harper's right hand man is former government official Roderick Allingham who, as played by Hugh Walters, can be menacing even while giving a restrained performance. On the other side of the spectrum is Vince Henderson (Sophie Aldred's husband in real-life) as loud-mouth radio host Mick Thompson who thrives off the political chaos Harper is causing that seems to be a threat. The real threat though comes from those like Jack Gallagher's Alexsandr Karadjic, who leads a terrorist group that is not what it seems, and Mack McDonnell as Walter Jacobs, for whom the title holds a special meaning and role. Then there's Ace's old friend Paul Tanner (Jonathan Clarkson) who gets pulled into the midst of the chaos and mayhem. It's a good supporting cast for a good story.
Moving on from the cast, there is more about The Fearmonger to recommend. The biggest reason is the script by Jonathan Blum, one of the writers who contributed to the BBC Books ranges during the Wilderness Years. Early on, Big Finish worked to recruit writers like Blum as well as others who had contributed to Who fiction up to that point. While behind the scenes issues detailed elsewhere (such as in the sadly out of print The New Audio Adventures: The Inside Story) led to this being Blum's only Big Finish audio story, it nevertheless is a strong one that evokes not just the latter days of the original TV series but also, in the more adult in terms of its plotting, that of the 1990s Virgin New Adventures book range. It is also a well constructed story that has enough twists to keep the listener attention throughout its nearly two hour length, especially in the cliffhanger department.
Yet The Fearmonger has one great flaw in it. Its greatest attribute is, paradoxically, its greatest weakness. The story, while having some science fiction attributes, is more political then anything. In fact, if one removes the Fearmonger creature all together and changed a few things round, one might find a good political thriller sitting at the heart of it all. By being so overtly political it looses touch with the science fiction elements to the point that the science fiction (the creature of the title) feels out of place and seems to have little to do with the plot. One could easily imagine it instead being done as something akin to a modern day historical where the Doctor and companion arrive and find themselves becoming involved in the events, since it does seem to tie into at least one person Ace already knows. Perhaps that is a hindsight granted by more than a decade and a half, but it's hard to look at it as too much of a flaw as this element also gives The Fearmonger a staying power that many of the other early Big Finish stories lack. Sherilyn Harper, the right-wing politician whom much of the story centers around, might well be based on 1990s era Australian politician Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party. With a presidential election gearing up here in the United States and with all of the issues that Harper is campaigning on are topics being discussed. With the British National Party existing and questions being raised about Britain's place in the EU, both could easily exist in 2016. As a result, The Fearmonger is a story with a resonance despite being released 15 years ago.
Despite some flaws, there is plenty to like about The Fearmonger. From solid performances to a strong script from Jonathan Blum, it's also a tale that has all the trappings of a good Doctor Who story. While it might be lacking in the science fiction department, its more overt political nature is both a pro and con. Yet it's that political elements that gives it a resonance that's stronger now than it might have been back in 2000. Above all else, The Fearmonger represented the new beginning for the Seventh Doctor's adventures through time and space. Sixteen years later, those adventures are still going strong and that might well be the biggest legacy of this story.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.