Friday, 29 January 2010

The Fearmonger written by Jonathan Blum and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: One would-be assassin 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. Can’t you?

The Real McCoy: A far better debut than his appearance in The Sirens of Time. As a seventh Doctor detractor a story has to do something very right for me to be this impressed by his character. It capitalises on all of his strengths, his quiet menace and jettisons all the histrionics. The political backdrop allows the Doctor to thrive, weaving in and out of various peoples plots, not really caring about the affairs of state but using them to manipulate various people and bring the alien he is hunting into the open. He is elusive and sneaky, his first appearance is on Mick Thompson’s radio show making undermining comments in the background and baiting him into confronting him (‘You don’t like words like Evil’) so he can make his broadcast. There is a real feeling that the seventh Doctor is a force to be reckoned with; mention is made of his work with UN paymasters, department C19 running covert black ops projects since the 70’s. Interesting how outsiders view his work with UNIT, turning it into something far more menacing than it actually was. Described as a freelance consultant and describes himself as a silly old man with far too much time on his hands. At his age there is little left to fear except when Ace is gunned down. I adored the scene where he stands outside Harper’s house baiting Walter into throwing his petrol bomb at him (‘Missed me!’). The Doctor juggles on top of a car in the middle of a riot, it’s almost Troughtoneqsue. Perhaps the best example of how morally ambiguous this Doctor can be is when he finally confronts Harper about her nasty politics, never condemning her but walking away and leaving her to the mob she has created. It is a surprisingly callous yet satisfying moment. I’m not sure how many other Doctor’s would feel this natural in a story of guns and bombs and politics.

The Ace of Hearts: There has been an abundance of Ace stories now, on TV, comic strip, book and audio…she has conquered every medium. As the audios continue most of the television companions benefit from character development and extra adventures but Ace was already pretty well fleshed out by the time the audio adventures began. It pains me to say it but this is probably the best adventure she appears in, aside from her nice relationship with Hex there is nowhere for her to go. Her belief in the Doctor is absolute; her biggest fear is that he might have been taken over by the Fearmonger. Ace works well in this sort of near future gritty setting and has friends (Paul) that she can turn to, making her feel grounded. She admits that she is a calmer person now, because the Doctor believed in her and that had she not met him she would probably be joining the terrorists in fighting the racist Britannia Front. She talks Walter out of suicide and when things get a bit too fluffy, Ace trying the same ‘look me in the eye’ technique the Doctor used in The Happiness Patrol, she gets shot. She still has questions about whether the Doctor is still toying with her fears.

Great Ideas: The creature’s backstory is handled quickly and efficiently – it comes from a planet where the leaders wanted to stir up emotions so created creatures that would do just that – love, hate, fear, lust…keeping it in balance. Unfortunately the one responsible for fear ended up on Earth (as Ace says this would be a very different story if it had turned out to be the lust creature!).
Using Mick Thompson’s radio show to comment on events is another clever use of audio narrative – these scripts are constantly innovating to keep the stories alive on audio.
The twist that Britannia were funding the terrorists to fuel the right atmosphere of fear and sympathy for their party comes from no where and gives the story more layers.
Another great twist is where the Fearmonger has been hiding – not in Harper or Thompson, the people who are stirring up the hate but in Walter who was experiencing the most fear. Its leap into Ace and her confrontation with the Doctor makes a nice paranoia role reversal.

Standout Performance(s): Jacqueline Pearce, Servelan herself in a role that makes her a truly nasty piece of work and unusually sensitive at the same time. Sherilyn Harper is a political hothead with some strong opinions about immigration and keeping Britain pure. I loved it when she was on the air talking to Walter, viciously condemning him (‘All your guns and bombs and you don’t even have the guts to face me’) and when her true plots are revealed, stirring up the hate and violence she is left at mercy of the mob she has incited and pathetically begs the Doctor not to leave her (‘Now everyone thinks I’m responsible!’). Pearce gives a committed performance and has a perfectly throaty and mature voice to make such a complex character work.
Vince Henderson deserves kudos for making Mick Thompson a believable DJ – irritating and entertaining in equal measures!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you want a dangerous fugitive staying in your flat?’ ‘Well of course not!’ ‘Well then don’t upset him and he’ll be a nice fugitive staying in your flat!’
‘The Tandoori menace that’s driving decent fish and chip shops out of business!’
‘I refuse to be responsible for the fall of every sparrow.’
‘You made the Mob and now their coming after you.’

Audio Landscape: It seems to me that the more domestic the setting, the more realistic the sound design. This will not always be the case as there will be some terrifying and moody SF stories coming up but so far Phantasmagoria and The Fearmonger have had the best audio environments by far. The riots on the streets are particularly loud and effective; people screaming, sirens, horns blaring, traffic shooting past, bottles smashing. I really love how they transformed Harper’s voice at the end of episode one, the alien inflections slowly get stronger and stronger turning this thriller into something far more interesting. The first terrorist statement is fantastically scary, a horrible modulated voice and forceful, pulsing music. The assassination attempts are appropriately chaotic. The Fearmonger in Paul’s flat makes a great scene, a nervous, fizzing, crackling ball of energy.

Musical Cues: Dramatic, edgy and keeping the story fast paced, this is an excellent score that really sells the moments of danger.

Isn’t that Odd: Sophie Aldred is mostly good but occasionally she is a little too hysterical. She has several scenes where she has to chase Walter about that don’t come off as well as they should. I’m glad Ace is shot at the end of episode two as she almost falls into McCoy parody with her ‘look me in the eye’ speech.

Something I learnt from The Inside Story: Ironically Jon Blum almost had a nervous breakdown writing this story! His rewrites were a profoundly miserable experience that Russell made feel like an unnecessary crisis. Gary Russell, Stephen Cole and Nicholas Briggs all had misgivings about the initial scripts. It was almost considered unsalvageable.

Standout Moment: There is a really nice quiet moment between the Doctor and Ace in episode two (’40 years ago Harper wouldn’t have even been out of the ordinary. Things do change.’) – a really nice character moment which is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist attack. The change of tone is shocking and effortless.

Result: Welcome to the world of bombs, guns and politics join the Doctor and Ace for a New Adventures style thriller. Whatever problems the script might have had have only served to make it a tight piece of writing, the real joy of this story is how it keeps surprising you with its guts and its edgy storytelling. Sylvester McCoy gives one of his best ever Big Finish performances, suggesting layers to his character that we rarely see. From the arresting assassination opening, through several terrorist attacks to the disturbing riots of the last episode, the Fearmonger keeps you on your toes and never loses sight that although it is telling the story of an alien menace it has a very human point to make about tolerance and racism. Aside from the main plot the additional treats are manifold, the terrific dialogue, Alistair Lock’s filmic score, the astonishing Pearce/Roderick relationship, some lovely quiet moments between the Doctor and Ace, Paul Tanner being one of the more realistic turncoats… The Fearmonger was the first Big Finish story I listened to and it had me hooked. Aside from a few awkward moments this is an assured production and the best story so far: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


Snowkatt said...

I bought this audiobook recently, on Humble Bundle along with 8 others

I have a bit of a backlog, ( 212 and counting) so I will be getting to it in oh say 2020, no doubt.

Of that line up there which is the best to begin with, ...and the best one to avoid ?

Frank said...

I always found this one pretty atrociously written, with s pair of classy guest performances being the only real saving grace of the whole audio. But then, I've since discovered that I've never got on with Blum's work, hadn't paid much attention to the writers back in the day, but recently realised his three Who books are all ones I pretty much outright hated (a rarity for me, as I usually find something to enjoy), so just one of those things, I guess. One of Big Finish's early misses for me, I'm afraid, right up there with Red Dawn for pure awfulness.