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Doctor Who, as a franchise, seems to have as many incarnations as its title character. A British TV series, Doctor Who ran from 1963-1989, easily the longest running SF series in the English language (and presumably any other). It chronicled the adventures of a scientific genius and cosmic wanderer who journeyed through time and space, getting into trouble, righting wrongs, etc. The Doctor, a humanoid alien, would periodically rejuvenate into a new actor . . . usually with a new personality and wardrobe. There were consistencies, of course -- he was invariably eccentric, righteous, and garishly dressed -- but with enough room for an actor to bring his own spin to things. "Who's your favourite Doctor?" is a question that can probably be heard at any science fiction convention.

The series was eventually cancelled . . . and immediately spun-off into novels that continue to this day, expanding upon the series, rather than just mimicking it. Along the way there were movies -- two features in the '60s that adapted storylines from the series but changed other aspects of the premise, and a TV movie in the '90s that continued directly from the series. Both attempts met with lukewarm responses from fans. There have also been comic books.

Another medium has been added to the list: Audio.

Doctor Who: The Fearmonger

Produced by Big Finish and licensed from the BBC, these full cast audio plays have brought back many of the actors who've played the character, as well as their various Companions (the Whovian term for "sidekicks"), in new, feature length adventures.

"Doctor Who: The Fearmonger" is the fifth of these new stories produced and the first to reunite Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor, and Sophie Aldred, the brash, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Companion, Ace.

The story has the Doctor and Ace arriving in a London, England of the near future (at least, so the liner notes identify it). A right wing political party, New Britannia, is gaining popularity, leading to an assassination attempt on the party leader by an unstable man who believes an alien monster inhabits the leader's body. The Doctor, it turns out, believes so too, and identifies it as a Fearmonger, an entity that stirs up hate and fear and feeds on those same emotions. Caught between the extremist rhetoric of the Right and the increasingly militant violence of the protesting Left (embodied by a terrorist group, the United Front), the Doctor and Ace set out to stop the creature and calm emotions even while London threatens to disintegrate into chaos and rioting.

Overall, The Fearmonger is a well mounted production. The vocal performances are subtle and effective, both the guest stars (including Jacqueline Pearce, best known to SF fans as the villainess in another British TV series, Blake's 7) and, of course, McCoy and Aldred themselves. McCoy and Aldred have always played well together and, despite this being their first "official" Who audio, they're no strangers to the medium. Previously they had performed in another series of audio dramas for a company called BBV playing not so subtle riffs on their characters (first as The Professor and Ace and then, when the BBC's legal department started grumbling, as The Dominie and Alice). The loyalty of Doctor Who fandom, and the sense that the BBC had kind of let the side down by cancelling it, has led to a whole slew of unofficial and semi-official spin-offs employing some of the actors associated with the show both in straight-to-video films and in audio plays.

There is a genuine complexity at work in the Fearmonger -- technically, emotionally, and even structurally. The story employs some of the ideas introduced during McCoy's tenure as the Doctor on TV, by making his version of the character a little more enigmatic, and a little more omnipotent, than other incarnations. The story begins with The Doctor and Ace already hard at work to uncover the Fearmonger, which can leave listeners feeling almost as though they've missed some introductory scenes. It makes the story initially a tad confusing -- but that very obliqueness can make it hold up better for re-listenings, allowing the listener to pick up on nuances missed the first time through. Which is not necessarily such a bad idea for something which the audience is expected to buy, rather than rent for a single listen.

The story boasts some genuine twists and turns and unexpected revelations, while characterization often surprises -- people who do bad things might redeem themselves, while others turn out to be not necessarily what you assumed. As well, the dialogue is often sharp and thoughtful, with scriptwriter Jonathan Blum clearly seeing it as more than just some throwaway gig. It's an ambitious concoction, as much a socio-political thriller as it is a monster hunt. There's running about and strategizing, but there's also time for quieter, introspective moments, such as a scene where The Doctor and Ace discuss that ubiquitous metaphor of the butterfly who flaps his wings and causes a hurricane. Although every Who-fan has his or her favourite Doctor and Companion combo, the interaction with Ace is arguably among the pairings that most fully blossomed into a complex relationship, and the continuation here of the interplay between McCoy and Aldred invests the story with genuine heart.

If there's a chief sticking point with the story, it's the way the storytellers seem a bit soft on the New Britannia Party. Granted, Ace makes her contempt for the extreme right obvious, and The Doctor chastises a character who says he doesn't support the party's more extreme policies, but supports the party itself (as if such a distinction will absolve the supporter of culpability if New Britannia is elected and implements those policies). In a piece of drama, it's fair to argue that politics must be muted, that it's meant to be entertainment rather than an essay. The idea behind The Fearmonger is to have The Doctor and Ace caught between the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. The Doctor criticizes a shock jock who calls the New Britannians "Nazis," dismissing the shock jock's convenient labelling as "noise."

The problem is, The New Britannia Party is a racist party, speaking of a "white" England. Right wing parties are often accused by their detractors of being racist, but usually such policies (at least in The United States, Canada and, I assume, England) must be inferred, since the parties are careful to avoid anything blatant. In such cases, it can be argued that "Nazi" labels are premature, or needlessly incendiary. But in The Fearmonger, New Britannia's rhetoric goes beyond "trickle down" economic policies or school uniforms or other right wing policies that can be put in the category of political opinion. It's a racist party. Period. To argue that violence is not the way to combat it, as The Doctor does, is perhaps still legitimate. But to categorize the debate as merely political is, at best, naive.

As a technical production, The Fearmonger is well done. There are invariably the confusing bits that occur in almost any audio play, where action scenes degenerate into scuffling feet and shouted voices and some confusion, but this is rare -- although the climax is a problem. Overall, the mood is well-maintained; locations are evoked readily; and there's a nice use of incidental music which lend it a rich, cinematic air that many audio plays lack. The voices are well cast too, not just for the quality of the performances, but their distinctiveness -- the varying timbres and accents mean you never find yourself unsure who's speaking. The concepts also cleverly exploit the audio format, with the Fearmonger able to be heard in the voices of those it possesses, rather than be seen.

For Doctor Who fans, the experience is a welcome return, and the producers are clearly as much fans as their audience. The adventure opens with the traditional theme music, and the two hour story is broken up into four chapters, just as the TV series featured adventures serialized over more than one episode. It's hard to believe that, some ten years after the TV series was cancelled, The Fearmonger can be so evocative.

For non-fans who might be interested in delving into the neglected medium of audio, the story shouldn't be any more confusing than any time someone dives into an on-going series. There are a few cryptic references here and there, including to the Doctor's past association with a certain U.N. organization. The nature of the relationship between the two leads is, perhaps, not clearly explained (Ace was a troubled juvenile delinquent taken under the Doctor's wing). At one point, the distinctive groaning of The Doctor's time machine, The Tardis, is heard -- but it's not really explained for the uninitiated. On the other hand, because the story, and all characters save the Doctor and Ace, are original to this production, it doesn't require any prior knowledge to follow the plot.

The Doctor Who audio adventures from Big Finish appear to be going strong, producing something like one a month, with all the living Doctors taking part save Tom Baker -- Baker, arguably the most popular Doctor, has apparently not ruled out participating, but so far has not done so. But McCoy, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Paul McGann (who portrayed the character in the TV movie) have all performed in a few, and performed exceptionally well. I've actually enjoyed some of them more in audio than I did in their TV versions. As well, many of their old Companions have joined them. Even deceased Doctors are represented in audio. The BBC has retrieved audio tracks of early Doctor Who TV stories where the video has been lost. Adding narration to smooth over confusing bits, these have been released as audio dramas featuring early Doctors William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. The late Jon Pertwee performed in a couple of Doctor Who radio plays in the early 1990s that have also been released for sale. Even Tom Baker is represented in audio, having performed in one or two audio productions in the 1970s, and the BBC has re-released one such short play on CD, paired with an edited audio track from one of Baker's TV storylines.

Decades ago, it was a fairly regular practice to turn around and perform radio adaptations of hit movies, often with the same actors. Now, popular TV series spin off into novels, comic books, even video games, but audio is an all but forgotten medium. One can only imagine Chris Carter recruiting Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny to do a full cast X-Files audio play, or the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or . . . well, fill in the name of your favourite show. These Doctor Who dramas seem to prove there's life in the medium yet -- that, when done well, audio dramas really can hold their own against television and movies. Too bad, in North America, there isn't the same recognition. At least, not yet.

 

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A writer and critic, D. K. Latta's fiction has appeared in Adventures of Sword & Sorcery, On Spec, Challenging Destiny, and many others. He is a contributor to Pulp & Dagger, a Webzine devoted to modern pulp-era-style adventure stories and serials. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.



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