If you remember last week, I was complaining about Charley and the weakness of The Creed of the Kromon in general. You’ll be pleased to know that I was singing a different tune when The Natural History of Fear finished. To start with, I was thrown into a story midway, making me pretty convinced I’d put CD2 in the CD1 slot on my car stereo. (Yes, I’m still listening to the audio CDs I’d bought at the start of Big Finish’s run.) Since I was driving and couldn’t stop to comfortably swap the CDs for a while, I let it play. Then I was sucked into the world just enough that I wasn’t going to bother. I figured the worst it meant was that I’d be listening out of order. As it happened, I had it right all along but “people being people”, we question ourselves. I was pretty sure I remember checking but thought I was mistaken anyway. Reality had an apt lesson in mind.
Among the many things that caught my attention was the theme music. It’s a warped version of what we know. I attributed this to the Divergent universe. Then I was surprised to find a very strong correlation to The Prisoner in the story itself. Questions are a burden to the residents of Light City. They lead to freedom, which leads to dissatisfaction. The residents of Light City are reminded daily that “today is high productivity day.” This element runs deep but I confess, I was on the lookout for a repeat of last week: coming off an idea that failed after minute one. Unfairly, I had begun to doubt the writers. When I heard a question asked, and it appeared to be overlooked, I was quick to take note. But no sooner had I noted it, than one of the characters reprimands the questioner. It seems this time around, someone was paying attention.
On top of the idea, there’s a little hidden commentary about lost episodes of a show and how all episodes are kept in archives, barring those lost episodes. They are even catalogued from Axon to Zarbi; an interesting thing in the Divergent universe, but it’s not without reason. This might as well have been a parallel universe story where the Doctor is real. In fact, that is part of the story! The citizens of Light City can watch exploits of the Doctor’s life as Infotainment. This seems weird as The Doctor has been given the role of The Editor. Think of him as one of the Number 2’s in The Village; he’s allowed extra freedoms to be able to rewrite people’s personalities. Charley is a nurse who had her personality wiped but no one has a name. So it seems odd that they would be allowed to watch the exploits of the people they were. When the Doctor (Editor) is determined to be using too much of his power, the powers that be opt to give him a pass, but the Doctor shares a very important message: those in power should be held to an even higher standard than the general populace. An important truth!
The story also explores themes like the idea that guns and weapons are not a danger; words are dangerous. Ideas matter. Orwell’s thought crime is recreated here as Word Crime. Stupidity is examined as a means of natural selection, thinning out the herd from those who can’t survive. There are so many good ideas throughout this story which made it hard to take note while I was driving. (I keep a notepad to make quick notes at traffic lights, but when there are so many great ideas, it gets tricky.)
At one point, the Doctor is called Charley’s “psychological cushion” and I think that can apply for fans as well. We do rely on the Doctor for a form of emotional help. “Reality is a function of memory.” Wow… the sheer volume of ideas throughout this story impressed me more than many of Big Finish’s stories in a long time. This one stuck with me for 2 days while I thought through how I was going to share a review of this story.
The sound design is excellent as well and worthy of note, but by episode 3, I started thinking that this story would make an incredible season-long televised story. Partly because, by the end of episode 3, we’re no closer to the resolution. Usually by this point, we can see the plan in action that will bring about the end. Not so here which struck me as an impactful way to keep the audience watching, episode after episode. In fact, when I was thinking how amazing this story would be, it was based on the fact that I could see all the “revisions” done to the Doctor and Charley as an episodic plot thread, playing a Prisoner-esque game with the audience. Then episode 4 happened.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW. Please decide if you want to proceed. I urge you to listen to the story first. (Retail: $2.99 on the Big Finish website. at the time of writing) Parental warning: there is a mention of rape, which did catch me by surprise. Be aware that this story is probably a bit advanced for younger audiences.
In episode 4, the story is reaching a conclusion and I had to take the CDs in because I had arrived home and didn’t want to stop. With 2 tracks left, I saw no easy resolution. And then the discovery that made me realize this could not have taken place on TV because the Twilight Zone-like ending reveals that the Doctor and Charley left Light City a long time ago. The people we’ve been following are not the overwritten forms of the Doctor and his companions but members of Light City that sound like our heroes. We remember what the Doctor and Charley sound like, so we create the image in our heads never once questioning what we are hearing. We know that’s got to be the Doctor and Charley. Reality is a function of memory. But the reality our memory created was not actual reality. And therein lies the brilliance of this episode. Writer Jim Mortimore pulls the rug out from under us, subverting all expectation. The Doctor and Charley left lifetimes back from the perspective of the inhabitants of Light City. There are no enemies because there are no “good guys”. We are just introduced to a place the Doctor traveled through. Can we be sure? Yes. The inhabitants of Light City are not bipedal humanoids. I was floored. I was glad to have finished this in my house; I might have driven into a ravine if I’d still been driving by this point!
There are a lot of good episodes of Big Finish and there have been a number of excellent episodes. This was definitely a top contender for one of the best of the run so far. Where The Creed of the Kromon left me feeling lackluster about the next story, this one had me dying to start the next one. The Divergent universe finally came to life! ML