The fifth installment of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range was The Fearmonger, starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Now, here’s the interesting thing: every episode of classic Who has a format for episode endings (see Roger’s excellent series on cliffhangers). When a companion is put in jeopardy, the tension mounts and those cliffhangers are exciting but you always know the companion will survive because we know how each companion exits the series. With an exception! Ace has a final story in book form, but Big Finish is not necessarily following on from The New Adventures. So this creates a sense of dread: could they write Ace out of the series? An episode that puts Ace in harms way might in fact be the end. Well, gee, that is something to fear!
OK, we know it’s unlikely that Ace will die but the second episode ends with a gunshot and McCoy’s almost-pleading “Ace!” Now, I get annoyed by the episodes that wrap up with a loud sound and then the music, but this is different. There is actually alarming! The threat levels in this story go beyond a single cliffhanger. This story is different. While there is a villain, a monster even, the bulk of the story takes place in a frighteningly real world. This CD was released in 1999 but it’s far more relevant now than it was back then. There’s a politician willing to do anything to get to power. There’s the radio broadcaster who doesn’t necessarily give real facts. There’s the madman who thinks he has to kill because he’s doing the world a service; he has to! These elements are not normally what the Doctor goes up against; the Doctor hunts down monsters! And while there is a creature, not unlike the “Dove” from Star Trek’s Day of the Dove, feeding off people’s fear, it is so secondary to the first three episodes that it barely features at all. The main threat, which is perhaps more monstrous than an actual creature, is paranoia, fear, greed, lust for power… all very human emotions. And that’s what makes this episode more frightening than many of those that come both before or after.
It’s not flawless, but what is? I found the most annoying thing about it was when the Doctor appears in the recording studio of talk show host Mick Thompson, Mick doesn’t know how to keep going without stammering about the man in the booth with him. I found that irksome! Even if someone got into the recording studio, the DJ/talk show host would be trained enough to know how to deal with that! Still, it’s a minor quibble! Meanwhile, Mark McDonnell as Walter Jacobs steals most of the show. His paranoia and fear carry the listener because we never feel we are safe; he might snap at any moment. Jacqueline Pearce (Chessene from The Two Doctors) doesn’t have a big enough part. (Strangely, I like her voice even though she sounds like she must have been a smoker! But on the subject of voices, for the first time ever, Sophie’s bothered me! I’ve listened to others with her and she doesn’t sound the same! I can’t say why this was! Heck, maybe it was me!)
It’s pretty evident that Big Finish was stepping up its game even at this early stage. They were doing things with audio that the show could never do. (I mean, let’s face it, when they tried a news broadcast episode, we ended up with that idiot DJ in Revelation of the Daleks!) I don’t think this one will ever be a classic because it’s a very atypical episode, but it does bear a listen because it is different. Sometimes those differences really make a standout story. This is not one of my favorites because I want more creatures, but for a story that is relevant, it does matter. I’m glad Doctor Who had a story that might explain what’s going on here in America. Next time I’m listening to CNN, I’ll be paying attention; maybe I’ll hear something in a voice that no one else has heard before. ML