Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 005. The Fearmonger by Jonathan Blum (February 2000)

The Fearmonger is an excellent story, with a strong premise, a host of wonderful scenes, some great characterisation and a nebulous but intriguing threat. It feels highly reminiscent of the McCoy era in general; I can picture it slotting nicely (in terms of tone) between Seasons 25 and 26. And yet it is a step forward: the near-future setting, with its hate campaigns, its terrorists, and its finger-pointing media, might have rang true in 1988, but it is so much truer in the late 90s, and feels truer still today. There is a simple reason for that, and one the story itself reinforces: we don’t stop fearing the Other; xenophobia and scapegoating are circular, repeated habits of the human race (see Mick Thompson’s show ending with “you point the finger…”) Particularly in light of the post-9/11 paranoia, this story feels phenomenally prescient. A story about how fear governs politics, alien intervention or no. Like the best McCoy scripts, Blum’s tale works a science-fiction threat, one that’s both abstract and legendary, into a neatly done social commentary that avoids being overly preachy and would slide well into the anti-Thatcherism of Cartmel’s stable of writers.
Much like Whispers of Terror, the story exploits the audio medium highly effectively. The most obvious is the inclusion of Thompson’s radio show to represent the media at large, complete with chirpy soundtrack, listeners calling in, and so on. Additionally, the Fearmonger as something not at all visual but that hides in people’s voices (or so we are led to believe for the majority of the narrative) is another highly effective trick, and a worthy successor to Justin Richards’ experiment with how far audio could go. It is these stories which explicitly and consciously function as audio adventures which I feel I am going to enjoy most. And, again like Whispers of Terror, this is an abstract threat: a creature of pure fear as opposed to pure sound. It’s a worthy threat for McCoy’s Doctor and one which allows Blum some clever lines on voice and sound and rhetoric – my particular favourite being  “the way she’s speaking, the roar of the crowd, the rhythm, the repetition…all designed to stop people thinking and start them feeling. Sounds without sense” referring to public speaking, not alien trickery. The Fearmonger in the flat works much better here than it would on-screen.

Let’s talk about the Seventh Doctor. Because my oh my, is he on top form here. McCoy gets a wonderful script for his quirky, enigmatic lead, and imbues even the quietest lines with real menace. From the stunning opening of Part 1 (for sheer bravado I think the most glorious part of the whole story) in which he appears, manipulative and cunning, in Thompson’s studio, in medias res already fully aware of the adventure he’s embarking upon to his juggling antics atop a car mid-riot, this is a tour de force for the Seventh Doctor. Blum’s script gives him wonderful lines so thick and fast it’s rather hard to catch them all: “It’s radio. No one ever needs to know I’m here unless you talk to me” (oh, the meta); his creepy address to Walter: “you’re absolutely right. There is a monster out there”; the beautiful ’21 seconds’ moment; “What kind of moron are you?”/ “the kind who knows what to look for”; and on and on (more below).

Sophie Aldred gets off to a strong start on audio as Ace too. Her interaction with McCoy is as good as ever, whether it’s the lovely running joke of him asking her to pass him various items (culminating, rather wonderfully, in ‘frying pan’), or the mistrust creeping in throughout as we hurtle towards their confrontation in part 4, the two performers barely feel like they’ve been out of these characters for a year, let alone a decade. She gets a couple of nice nods to her backstory in both Survival and Remembrance, and it’s good to see her world fleshed out further in the form of Paul Tanner. Seeing her replicate the Doctor’s famous Happiness Patrol moment at the end of Part 2, but not as effectively, is a nice little moment complementing her character development as a figure who is changed by the Doctor’s outlook and attitudes.

The guest cast is one of the strongest too. Jacqueline Pearce is reliably excellent as the rabble-rousing Sherilyn Harper, Vince Henderson spot-on as the half-entertaining, half-irritating Mick Thompson, and Hugh Walters’ plummy tones work wonders as Roderick (particularly in the character’s best line “There comes a time in every man’s life when he must put aside personal advancement and take a stand for what he truly believes in… in my case, I’m proud to say that that time has not yet come”). The production complements the script well and is highly effective. While the score isn’t perfect, it can be very creepy at times, and the way the world is built up around these central characters works wonders with convincing its listeners – from breaking glass to crackling flames, from the chirpy DJ music to the roar of a mob, this hits ‘immersive’ from the off and then stays there.

So a success all round. From its intriguing opening (‘people these days are afraid to point the finger’) to its final, very McCoy era denouement in which we learn where the monster truly resides, The Fearmonger is a top-drawer audio adventure. Should we fear ‘the one with the speeches, or the ones with the guns…’ – the story leaves this nicely understated and ambiguous. Words can be every kind of devastating you want.

Other things:
“You don’t like using the word ‘evil’, do you? It’s too powerful.”
After being called Captain Righteous, a classic 7 speech: “You’re faced with something you fear, so you have to give it a name don’t you? Nothing that makes it sound serious, like evil. Just something glib, a catchphrase, a bit of noise. But the thing I’m looking for doesn’t have a name, not yet.”
“A night off. I had one of those once, I’ll never forget it.”
The psychology into Walter not wanting to press the button on the bomb is very Seventh Doctor: “If you think you’ll know you’ll want to stop.”
People seem to know about the Doctor fairly quickly. Roderick’s grasp of the UNIT file etc.
“Two parts genius, one part panic.” The Doctor’s MO, basically?
“Do you want a dangerous fugitive staying in your flat?”/“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.”
“Score’s one-all then.” very Ace line
It’s a lovely scene between 7 and Ace in the flat. “…reach your hand in and change everything?” “Yes…but then I’m a silly old man with far too much time on his hands already.”
“Human is a relative term, and I will admit, my relatives are rather odd”. McCoy is great. Nuff said.
The Doctor’s leaning on the side of revolutions, but here not getting too involved in the politics, skirting round the edges. “I refuse to be responsible for the fall of every sparrow.”
“I know where talk gets you. It’s listening you might want to try.”
“Roderick, could you kindly not start agreeing until after I’ve said something?”
“It’s them or us.”/“Isn’t it always?”
“Firebombing her petunias isn’t much of a statement.”
“Oh, guns, guns, guns!”
“You know just once I’d like to come up with an elegant plan that doesn’t involve lots of last minute rewiring.”
“We know what a little fear can do to someone’s perceptions.”
“It’s past the butterfly stage, and into the hurricane.”
We get a repeat of Whispers of Terror’s “this is all being recorded” trick
“I’m still astounded it all went according to plan…well, to hope, mostly.”
“They’re all slaves to their fear out there.”
The Doctor vs Harper a great McCoy scene “You made the mob and now it’s coming for you…” Him leaving her, and the silence that ensues, is more powerful than a great speech.
The misdirection throughout is quite clever, as is the final twist that the Fearmonger was in those who heard the voices, rather than those doing the speaking. “There is a monster…but it’s not in me. It’s in you…”

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