Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 054. The Natural History of Fear by Jim Mortimore (February 2004)

“In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
-TS Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)

As a lead-in, three Doctor Who stories I’ve re-watched recently have been Kinda, Snakedance and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, three of the more experimental (and best, IMO) stories of the 1980s. But the show even at its most experimental still tends to be experimental in content rather than in form; it toys with psychological disturbances rather than killer monsters, plays fast and loose with symbolism as opposed to sequential events, but for all this, linear, logical structures, if not quite as disciplined as the Aristotelian model, remain, broadly speaking, intact. Even after February 2004, experimental structures like the unreliable-narrator clip-show-fest that is Love & Monsters or the superbly handled disjointedness of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon are few and far between. Big Finish, in the period we’re discussing, seem a lot more willing to experiment with the form of a piece of work, and alongside Creatures of Beauty and Flip-Flop, Jim Mortimore’s The Natural History of Fear is arguably one of the zeniths of that approach (can an approach technically have multiple zeniths? Discuss). Also like Creatures of Beauty and Flip-Flop, it’s rather difficult to review and indeed doesn’t make all that much sense until the story’s final moments. Like both of the others, it’s in the thinking about it afterwards that The Natural History of Fear really works its way into your head and won’t let go. This is a play about individuality, identity and consciousness, and the uncertainties thereof. It’s a play about asking questions, about interrogating the world you know and sticking to your guns when everyone else is going through personality alteration at an alarming rate (think of “if you can keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs” from Rudyard Kipling’s If). It’s a play about the dangers of any state, or any authority, which seeks to stifle critique, or inquiry, or indeed any kind of art.

Mortimore structures everything terrifically well, keeping us guessing as to what side the various characters on, allowing their different narratives and priorities to fracture, overlap, contrast until, mid-story, we have very little idea of who really wants what. Conversations are relayed through recordings, re-listened to, re-analysed. There are some really interesting twists and turns in the power games, too, and it’s really very hard to predict at any given moment who will have the upper hand next. The Editor learning that everything has been his delusion is a great twist, for instance – and his surprise return to the Whispering Gallery another one. The cliff-hangers are often curiously undramatic, and, I feel, deliberately so – landing slightly after the sucker-punch moment and cutting away to a different moment entirely several days later. Effectively, we jump from part to part with often minimal spatio-temporal relations between the segments – scenes get reflected and repeated, particularly in the latter moments of Part Three in which the seemingly all-powerful Editor is marched off like the Prole at the beginning. The Doctor becomes centre-piece of the story in a way one could never quite have predicted from the outset, his memories forming the basis of Light City’s further evolution as part of the pool with which the Proles are programmed – and delivered through a stunningly audio-only moment, as we learn just how many legs the inhabitants of Light City possess.

Did I mention nearly every line of dialogue is a doozy? “Today is High Productivity Day… Your state loves you. Happiness through acceptance. Productivity through happiness!” Mortimore’s Orwellian neologisms like the above, which is very close indeed to ‘War is Peace/Freedom is Slavery/Ignorance is Strength’ from Nineteen Eighty-Four, are highly effective (things like infotainment, breakfast-cubes, state-sanctioned marriage, word crimes, revisions, etc. – and as an aside, it’s not just Orwellian trappings here: the notion of the Jubilee, a “chance to break the rules” carefully controlled by the state, is actually a neat call-back to the medieval notion of the Festival of Misrule or the “Feast of Fools”, known as Saturnalia to the Romans and Kronia to the Athenians). Almost every line everybody says is echoed, re-invoked, agreed with over and over. Questions themselves are banned. Mortimore’s play may not just be about language, or even primarily about language, but it’s a damn fine musing on what language is and does, and how a writer can make familiar words unfamiliar if he tries hard enough. By the end of it even simple phrases like “going on holiday” have a sinister meaning. A society in which anything and everything can be revised at a moment’s notice, honed, nipped and tucked around the edges so that all shall stay within the bounds of banal harmony. That’s what we all do, after all, editing our memories, editing our perceptions of others as much as I edited the words of this review before posting it. If you can control people’s use of words, the way their memories work, the way they understand the intimate history of themselves and the vast history of their society, of ideas and feelings, of course the scary but inevitable conclusion is that you control something as basic and fundamental as who they are. “Reality is a function of memory. Change the memory and the reality changes right along with it,” after all.

To continue the Nineteen Eighty-Four comparison, one thing that people often use to claim Orwell’s superiority over Huxley’s is that, more logical though Brave New World may be, the former boasts the far more interesting and subtle characters. That is the crux in any of these sorts of stories, and it’s where totalitarian dystopias often fall short. The world has to be so faceless, so bleak, yet the characters must stand out from it. Mortimore’s characters do. Paul McGann as the Editor starts out awfully detached and quietly sinister, which he does well, but then descends more and more into a feverish, mad paranoia (those scenes in Part Four where he is tempting the rats to him with his own blood, brrr). He excels with the more sombre material he can get his teeth into – like some kind of increasingly alienated Kafka hero, or indeed like the hero of Gogol’s short story “Diary of a Madman”, in which the terror stems from the complete certainty of the delusion of the main figure, but because he is our only frame of reference we have no idea what the truth ought to look like. Similarly, India Fisher absolutely nails it; it’s always good to give your best actors something really rather different to grapple with – as we all know, it’s why Tennant is so good in Human Nature/The Family of Blood – and Fisher is really rather good here, by turns tearful, distraught, self-flagellating, and then taunting, mocking. Two very affecting performances from by-now BF stalwarts.

If The Natural History of Fear has a key flaw, it’s C’rizz. This story would work much, much better straight after Scherzo and it’s irritating that such a flaw could be so easily fixed; in a story where no one is quite playing their proper roles, we get very little of Westmaas’ character here, after what was frankly a pretty minimalistic start anyway. Sure, it’s more of a flaw with the placing requirements, and thus not necessarily Mortimore’s fault – this would be a wonderful stand-alone play for Eight and Charley – and sure, Westmaas might be good as Conscience 1, and sure, there’s a good bit in Part Four where the Doctor discusses C’rizz’s monkhood past. But we still have very little to go on with regard to the supposedly important new companion, which means that The Natural History of Fear sits a little uneasily within the arc.
Of course, the complete lack of any individual ‘characters’ here, the utter facelessness, also works in the tale’s alarming favour. There’s a strong tone of expressionist theatre, even Brechtian episches Theater, in which characters very rarely – if at all – are given something as colourful, flavoursome and individualist as a name. As I’ve been saying often of late (though that’s hardly a complaint), this is ideally suited to the audio medium, trading as it does in part on the surprising nature of different voices: there is little we can picture or imagine in this grim world aside from the characters’ words. As the story itself says, face and body are irrelevant – this is all about the id, the mind, the ideas… “the only rape here is what they’ve done to your mind, what they’ve done to all our minds. We’re all prisoners here; we just can’t see the bars!” This reminds me of the single most beautiful, and single most harrowing, line William Blake ever wrote – “the mind-forged manacles” from his poem ‘London’: the prisons in our own heads, the denizens of Light City having little idea what lies in the Beyond. It’s a wonderful fit with Shearman’s own aesthetic in Scherzo and the “thinking outside the box” concept a good match for the Divergent Universe as a whole. In fact, if we ignore The Creed of the Kromon (and we all want to), there’s a relatively tight-knit thematic unity between the DU audios. Just as the blinding whiteness in Scherzo was beyond the Doctor and Charley’s visual conception, so too are the proles metaphorically without sight: “the state blinds us from birth to the wonders of a world beyond their control. I’m here to take the blindfold off. Open your eyes!” It’s also a lovely counterpoint to Scherzo in that that play featured a very minimalistic cast of characters; here the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz ‘play’ a whole host of different people between them. “We all change, if you think about it,” as another Doctor once said, taking on different personas as we go. And as a final note of comparison, once again, the Doctor and Charley are coded as mother and father, in a timey-wimey sci-fi way, and her recollections of his memories recall the two of them merging to form one being.

“When a humming top is at the acme of its generation, it becomes so steady and quiet that it doesn’t seem to move. In this state it is said to sleep. Dormir comme un sabot…”: it’s a beautiful use of this French expression, which I had not heard of until now but apparently is as old as the hills (Honoré de Balzac was using it in the 1830s). Not just getting there years before Christopher Nolan, not just an excuse for Clayton Hickman to draw another gorgeous cover, this “child’s toy, nothing more” is at the heart of the story’s multifaceted lattice of symbols. I could perhaps have done without one or two of the more obvious “this is a metaphor” speeches, but the spinning top is, it is true, a powerful symbol of the cyclical nature of Mortimore’s story, of the speed and vigour with which society must agree to spin such that it does not come crashing down on the floor in a momentum-less heap. Always moving but never travelling. The citizens are productive but never advance. They revolve endlessly, endlessly sleeping. The Revolution builds momentum throughout the story’s four parts as the Editor becomes ever more feverish, until finally it breaks out on the streets. Change must happen sooner or later, after all, even if “no birth comes without pain”. It’s a hair-raising conclusion, as we hear the angry masses crying “WHY? WHY? WHY?!” over and over, freed of the necessity to avoid questions, yet little knowing as we do that however justified the righteous anger, there may be precious little cause for reforming optimism  (“there have been revolutions in the past, there will undoubtedly be more in the future – how else could we scale the cultural plateau?”). Who can say?

Of all the other audios, Gary Russell’s Real Time is probably the least likely to crop up in a review of The Natural History of Fear – the gulf in quality is about as wide as the Atlantic. But, when discussing the former and quoting a rather inconspicuous line of dialogue, I made the following point: “the people the Doctor meets, in general, become non-existent the moment after he, and we, leave them behind.” This is always true, but is particularly worth highlighting for The Natural History of Fear. The actual involvement of the three characters we are following throughout the Divergent Universe is minimal – for about five minutes in Episode Four. They waltz in, the Doctor donates a shedload of his memories, and they sod off (more or less). These tiny characters, puny inhabitants of Light City, will never measure up to the Interzone-striding impossibilities that suddenly seem so implausible.  “A hundred of our centuries will not fill a single one of their years. We are small, and we stand on the shoulders of giants.” It’s deeply, desperately sad, and ties in beautifully to C’rizz’s confusion over the notion of afterlife. Which means the whole damn planet is fictional – and not just in the sense of ‘Jim Mortimore made it up’. It’s all a lie, a pallid, non-existent imitation of the actual shapes of things. It’s the tenebrous shadow on the wall of the cave, and whatever the real things are have long had nothing to do with it. Which is what the audio itself is, really. The Eighth Doctor and Charley and C’rizz and the Editor and the Nurse all cease to be when the tape runs out, when the top ceases to spin. There’s no finer musing on mortality than a story’s end.

“She’s like a smashed mirror, showing two different observers; some fragments of the image reflect the citizen I revised, others the hero she wanted to become. Even if you could fit the pieces together, the image would never be whole.” And such is The Natural History of Fear – a smashed mirror held up to the programme we know; both of it and yet not of it, refracting and distorting even the theme music that typically introduces it. Mortimore dissects language, history, dreams, memory, identity and authority, and he does so in a gripping, moving fashion that leaves our horizons a little bit broader. It’s an absolute wonder, and far more intellectual than even similarly laudable stories like Creatures of Beauty. You could easily make a case that it’s one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. I still don’t know whether this had to be in another universe, but it hardly matters – all stories are a kind of “what if”, a divergent universe or a ‘glimpse of the alternative’, as Seamus Heaney put it: as The Natural History of Fear shows us, all stories are a sequential variation on the elusive lie that is truth.

Other things:
“There is no alternative” is replayed here as an infotainment chunk; those words have such a phenomenally flexible meaning – even just within Neverland itself, as we observed back then – that they take on a whole new sinister, authoritarian light in this story.
Like Spare Parts, there’s an old 40s feel in much of the trappings, right down to the “all-clear” signal, and the direction and soundscape are both wonderfully in tune and suitably minimalist. It’s Stalin’s Russia if he had branched out into outer space.
“Questions breed questions!”
“But I love you!”/“Very soon we’ll never have met. We’ll be happy again.”
“Why is it a crime to ask questions? Why is it a crime to love?”
Nice (and surprisingly gruesome) sound effect when the Prole throws himself off the parapet.
“Will…anyone…even…ask…why?” Chilling, and nicely paralleled with the story’s ending.
“Who can really say whether the things we think of as real, as meaningful, even exist except in our own minds? Wondering is the province of those luckier than you or I.”
“There are eight basic era types. Cross-referencing for companions and villains is straightforward.”
“Bad filing is how wars start.”
“An efficient perspective should never be unique.”
“There are lost episodes, of course. Stories that were commissioned but never made, or made but mis-filed after broadcast. With several million records here, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see White Noise, for example, or Dark Rising.” Hehe.
“Chances are we will recover only ambiguous, deep-level symbols. They can be difficult to interpret.”
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
“Someone has had an idea.” (Rather like Simon Pegg’s Editor from The Long Game, isn’t he?)
“Our rank does not grant us privileges above the median.”
“Rules are never made without good reason. Think of it as a reminder of the things we sacrifice for the common good.”
“The deeper levels, like Russian dolls, nested at the cerebellum.”
“I love the state. I venerate the regime.”
“You may think that the worst thing I can do to you is hurt you.” Jesus.
“Questions lead to answers. Answers lead to knowledge. Knowledge leads to freedom. Freedom leads to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to unhappiness. The state wants you to happy. The state wants all of its citizens to be happy.”
“There are truths that make our great metropolis work. A builder builds, a healer heals, an editor performs revisions. For each his proper place. Happiness through acceptance. A citizen serves. A citizen does not use questions. A citizen does not enjoy freedom. Only the deviant use questions, only the perverse crave freedom. You have used questions, you have enjoyed freedom. Therefore you can no longer…be. It’s for your own good. The state loves you. It loves you… Say goodbye to everything you ever knew.”
“You have children?”/“We’ve applied for permission. The paperwork is extensive.”
“My life up there on the screen. You must think me very boring.”/“Not at all. I come here very often, I watch the people watching themselves, validating their lives. They come here frightened, confused, occasionally with thoughts they shouldn’t be thinking. Later they leave stable, confirmed, happy. I find the experience uplifting, even joyful.”
“Self-referencing topics can be confusing. Objectivity. That’s the key word. Fortunately it’s still one we’re allowed to use. Objectivity is essential to happiness. Happiness through acceptance.”
“Didn’t you ever dream of freedom, not even once?”
“The word is not the problem; the word is just a symbol; it is the idea that is proscribed. The idea that there could be somewhere other than this, better than this, a land from which our ancestors were taken against their will, and brought here, and caged in their heads – for the good of the state!”
“They’re not stories, not adventures… they’re suggestions, instructions they use to direct the way we think.” The Doctor, and indeed his adventures and the show itself, has here become a systematic tool of oppression, a phalanx of the state’s propaganda machine, much as he was in Jubilee. And of course – because we recognise the clips – we, the audience, know these stories to be true. Yet that changes nothing. A little truth mixed in with a lie makes it far stronger, as CS Lewis said.
“They’re terrified, you know, of change, choice, evolution, imagination…freedom.”
“We are free. We make choices every day!”/“The choices aren’t ours. The choices are theirs… One hint that you see beyond the limits they set, and off you go on holiday, and back you come with a shiny new personality.”
“The truth is addictive, but it cuts so deep. Deeper than flesh, deeper than muscle or sinew or bone, and it hurts. It hurts so much.” Right now, this is one of my favourite lines in all of Doctor Who.
The shipping clerk with his receipt, tracking order, and request for signatures is a great bit of black humour, and the Disc Jockey is a wonderfully cheeky element of the story too.
I won’t quote the Editor’s whole speech when he first “sees” the Beyond, but there is no way that “man, woman, eternity in a snowflake, infinity in a grain of sand… a figure, a child” wasn’t written with William Blake in mind – the man who urged strong imaginative visions to help us overcome our self-made prisons – indeed, bits of it are almost word for word from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” (1803).
“Put the truth back into its cage…if you can.”/“You’re right; this truth can never be caged.”
“A fist is not a threat. A gun is not a threat. A word is a threat. An idea is a threat. Ideas are patient; they like to grow.” (It’s very, very V for Vendetta, isn’t it?).
“You think there is no revolution? Were you not born with eyes to see, minds to think? The top is a symbol, it goes round in circles, round and round, always moving but never travelling. It’s a metaphor for the state and the symbol of the revolution. Dormir comme un sabot. Sleep like a top. Don’t you understand? We are all asleep! But now, the sleepers must awake. Break the symbol. Tear down the revolution. Or everything we stand for, everything we love, everything is lost!”
“The last thing a Conscience needs are feelings.”
“We are a species predated from cradle to grave. From our waking thoughts to our sleeping dreams there is no escape. Every person alive today is a battleground; a war is being fought in our heads every moment we exist, a conflict so violent it can destroy individuals and nations alike – yet one fought with weapons possessing no weight, or mass, or moment of inertia, no quantifiable physical presence whatsoever. Even ideas have a natural history, evolutionary trends, passive and aggressive species; I’m talking about predatory concepts, ideas that attack, engulf, direct the actions of the host mind, spread by simple contact through language and movement, consuming and converting social and ethnic groups, even entire species in the name of survival, of progress.”
“Prisoners of an endless today, isolated by infection of tomorrow.”
“You’re both just as odd to me as I am to you. I think it’s the fact that your skin doesn’t change. And I can’t see your skeleton – not unless I stare very, very hard at you.” (Nice C’rizz moment)
“You humans, you’re so funny! On the one hand you have Einstein, the Dalai Lama, toasted teacakes, and on the other you’d run squealing at the thought of someone seeing you without any…”/“Yes, thank you Doctor, that’s really quite enough small talk for one day.”/“The Dalai Lama, that’s some kind of animal?” Fantastic interactions between the TARDIS trio.
The Censor is “the shore against which all sin breaks.”
“The success of any social group rests upon a fundamental truth: if society is ripe for change, then change will happen. Every so often a revolution is required; social evolution demands it. There have been revolutions in the past, there will undoubtedly be more in the future – how else could we scale the cultural plateau?”
“The truth is often more complex than we can imagine, and always too big to be used as a mere tool.”
“I saw…potential. For good, for evil. Everything we could be, everything we mustn’t be, all mixed up at the same… the same…a rainbow. An infinity of colour from a single tone.”
“What happened to them? The Doctor, Charley, C’rizz, did they die?”/“You could ask that question for the rest of your life and never get an answer. They left this place and passed into memory, into urban myth. No one will ever know what happened to them.”
The final sound is of a skipping record, over and over, fated to recur like a humming top…

Extra bits: Although the end bit (infotainment theme, ambient music and other sound effects) does slightly feel like Mortimore going “visit my website to hear more experimental samples!”, that’s …well, pretty fair enough, actually.

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