Well, here we are then. Sylvester McCoy is back for his first solo Big Finish Doctor Who audio outing, and this time he has brought Sophie Aldred’s Ace along for the ride. How will they fare against the soundscape adventure of The Fearmonger? Read on to find out.
“You see all that hate out there and it burns you up…”
Episode 1: The ultra right-wing New Britannia party has been stirring up more than it’s fair share of fear in the community. But is there something even more frightening lurking silently and unseen behind the face and voice of the party’s leader, Sherilyn Harper? Something that only a would-be assassin can hear?
First thing’s first, this is Ace and The Doctor very much where we last left them, after the final classic era Doctor Who episode Survival, and that comes through strongly in both their characters and performances. Is this a good thing? A bad things? Well, to me it’s just a thing. I accept it, and I’m fine with it, but I am neither thrilled nor disappointed. It simply is what it is. Other’s mileage may vary.
The production team have actually taken a rather bold direction with this particular adventure. By breaking up the traditional, and perhaps expected, narrative structure, and having us, the listeners, join them at a story point where events are already well in motion, it risks confusing, or even alienating the audience. Luckily for them, any initial disorientation one might feel upon starting the first episode quickly dissipates, only to be replaced by a genuine interest and curiosity in just what is happening. And that initial show of patience was soon rewarded, as the pieces began to fall into place. Or, at least, such was the case for me.
Another thing that this approach did was to allow McCoy’s Doctor to make one hell of an entrance, very much capturing the essence of his Doctor on audio to almost immediate effect. The only downside of this being that he would have very few scenes anywhere near as good in the rest of this particular adventure, or at least until the ending eventually rolled around anyhow.
“Yes Doctor, we’ve been expecting you.”
Episode 2: As The Doctor and Ace delve further into the mystery of the fear-inducing voice behind the voice, and work on finding a way to neutralise it, they find themselves in the path of the United Front. A group of anti-New Britannia terrorists, who have plans of their own.
As we start to get into the real meat of the story now, it is worth pointing out just how well this audio has captured the feel of McCoy era Doctor Who. This is evident not only in so far as the returning main characters, and their characterisations, go, but also in the type of story being told, and in the way that scripter Jonathan Blum has it all unfold. Once again Big Finish has managed to capture the feel of a particular era on audio, for both better and worse, and it truly does help add a sense of legitimacy to these early audio adventures, and makes one want to be more lenient towards some of their initial shortcomings.
Knowing fandom as I do, I’m sure that much has likely been made about Ace trying to do The Doctor’s “look me in the eye” bit from The Happiness Patrol, probably to much derision. But to me, it works, and for a number of reasons. Not the least of which being that it helps to add a nice layer of complexity on top of where the character of Ace was previously, and shows just how much she has been influenced, some would say manipulated, by The Doctor, and how that has affected her perception of her own abilities, as well as her continuing growth as a character. Plus they put a nice twist on it, to boot. Which is always nice. And twisty. And to boot-worthy.
Now, my love of a good, old fashioned Doctor Who cliff-hanger has been well noted previously. And as we reach the end of the episode, I feel it is my duty to give The Fearmonger it’s due in this regard. Granted, the cliff-hanger to the first episode was quite good, but the second episode cliff-hanger I’d actually count as being pretty damn great. Makes me really rather pumped to get right into that next episode, just as any good cliff-hanger should do.
“Pay no attention, it’s just your worst nightmare.”
Episode 3: With Ace out of action, The Doctor must bide his time, waiting for an opportunity to proceed with his plan to separate the Fearmonger from it’s human host. But everything is not as it first appears.
And then the wheels fell off.
If you are wondering why I have thus far failed to mention the performances in this audio, it is because I have been deliberately waiting to reach this episode before doing so. Something very strange happened with episode three, everything just suddenly went flat. McCoy is truly awful in parts of this episode. Flat, emotionless, and with an sudden monotone dullness that seemed decidedly out of place. Even stranger, this happens right at a point that should be a prime opportunity for his character to emote a little more than usual. Or, you know, at all. And the words are there for it, too, or at least some of them. But sadly, strangely, inexplicably, the performance isn’t. Not even remotely. It is very odd, and decidedly off-putting, and put me in a very weird head-space as a listener.
At first I thought that maybe there was a story based reason behind it, but after hearing the whole audio, I can’t place any reason on why this happened at all. And though he is the most obvious, it’s not just McCoy either, Sophie Aldred’s performance level also drops in episode three, and everything about this episode just seemed suddenly flatter and more amateurish than the episodes before or after, or indeed in any other Big Finish production I have heard thus far. It was the weirdest thing, and I don’t know if it’s just me, or if there was some production reason that I’m not privy to, but after the story finished I actually went back and checked parts of the first two episodes, against parts of the third, and I could still hear a definite decline in overall quality.
It really did throw me for a loop, and the story lost me to a certain degree at that point. And even as things got markedly better again in episode four, I was never as invested in the story again as I had been right up until the end of episode two. Which is a bit of a shame really. Now admittedly, it may not be quite as jarring should I listen to this story again in the future, being prepared for it in advance as I then would be, but as a first time listener the sudden drop in quality this episode really did derail the story significantly for me. And a truly ham-fisted non cliff-hanger ending, where things basically just seemed to suddenly stop, didn’t exactly help matters any, either.
“Better turn on the fan, I think something’s about to hit.”
Episode 4: As the city erupts into a full scale riot, Ace makes a startling discovery of her own.
So here I was, rolling into episode four, wondering what the hell had just happened, when things started to get better again almost as quickly as they had deteriorated. Not as good as they had been to start with, mind you, but we were clearly over that weird hump of episode three. If something so terribly flat can even truly be classified as a hump. A flat hump? Pretty sure I’ve experienced a few over the years. Hmmm, a debate for another day perhaps…
Things pick up again, the story kicks back in, the performances largely return to their previous normal level of competence, and then something almost as strange as the episode three non-hump hump happens. We get an ending that blows the doors off. I mean, sure, it may not be a particularly surprising twist in the tale, but it is great audio drama, and it is delivered superbly by McCoy and Aldred, who both very much bring their A-game to bear. At this point, my brain is so confused by the shifting qualities and tonal and performance variations that I’m kind of glad it’s all over, really, lest I risk a Scanners moment.
Speaking of the performances, perhaps unsurprisingly, it truly is a mixed bag. When McCoy and Aldred are on the mark, they are great, and they still work really well together. Which only makes it even more evident when they slide off that mark, most notably during episode three, but there is also the odd other slip here and there as well. Sophie Aldred seems to have occasional moments where her performance misses the mark throughout, as if she couldn’t quite find a stable point onto which to anchor her performance, and without that baseline to work out from, the dramatic extremes of her performance suffer from a slight sense of imbalance.
Sylvester McCoy, meanwhile, falls far more noticeably during parts of the now infamous episode three, but that episode is really the only one where his performance stutters to a truly significant extent, and some of his other work, particularly his entrance in episode one, and his final scene in episode four, truly shine. I don’t know if it’s first solo audio jitters, or a lack of performance focus in the direction, but the inconsistency of the two lead performers is hard to miss, and can tend to become a little distancing at times. But at the same time, when they get it right they get it so right that you become even more confused as to why some bits feel so wrong.
As to the guest cast, the addition of Jacqueline Pearce and Hugh Walters adds a real sense of class and style to the proceedings. They do their best to inject some life into what are ultimately rather one dimensional characters, with Walters, especially, managing to bring a real spark to the audio whenever he pops up for a bit. The rest of the guest cast all fill out their roles solidly enough, though I imagine that Herderson’s DJ character may grate on some listeners. However, to be fair, I’d say that is more due to the nature of the character itself, rather than any particular shortfall in the performance given.
So, that’s The Fearmonger then. And for the first time with the range I’m at a bit of a loss, really. This really does seem to be a release of two halves. The first half is quite good indeed. The second half is one part terrible, one part solid, with a small slice of superb as a chaser. So, not exactly the most satisfying journey into Who audio then, and certainly not the most consistent, not by a damn long way. There is enough good here to make it worth a listen, particularly for Seventh Doctor and/or Ace fans, but that lack of consistency really hurt it a lot for me, even with the benefit of a top notch ending in it’s favour.
And so, this particulat Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure now falls to last on my list. Though with some small regret given the things that it did get right along the way.
Next up: Colin Baker returns in The Marian Conspiracy