“…The way she’s speaking, the roar of the crowd, the rhythm, the repetition, all designed to stop people thinking and start them feeling… Sound without sense.” – The Doctor
The Fearmonger was published in February 2000, but writing about it on the day the UK votes in a referendum on EU membership, it’s hard not to believe it’s a recent work, with the writer musing on the ugliness and the tragedy that has been a part of this debate. The basics of the story involve a creature that was designed to bring people together through fear, ending up on Earth and causing problems that the Doctor and Ace have to fix. This plot is really just an excuse to explore politics, or rather the politics of fear and where it can lead to.
It opens with an extreme – or what would have been an extreme if I’d listened to it even a few days earlier – an attempted assassination of a politician. Sadly, listening to this within a week after the murder of British MP Jo Cox, it’s a tragic reminder on how poisoned political discord has become. The subject of resorting to violence is approached throughout the serial, with Walter, a student, making several attempts to kill Sherilyn Harper, a politician with the New Britannia party, first by shooting and later by bombing, because he believes this Fearmonger is inside her. What we learn in the end – spoiler – is that the monster causing fear is not, and never was, in Harper. She’s just a nasty person behaving the way she does for political gain. The monster was actually in Walter all along, making him think it’s in Harper and so causing him to behave in ways that would stir up fear in others. At some point the Fearmonger jumps into Ace and while Walter could not see the monster inside of him, she can and is able to destroy it. It’s all a metaphor for looking inside yourself and asking yourself what you see. In a time in which people are taking more and more extreme actions to try to ‘fix’ the problems in politics, they do so without wondering if they are the problem. Maybe they are the ones causing the fear and hate. Maybe they are making the problem worse instead of finding a solution.
Sherilyn Harper is a character who eerily predicted the Nigel Farages and the Donald Trumps of modern politics, the kind of politician who want to put the blame of everything that is wrong with society on the ‘other’. Harper’s pledge to speak up for the ‘God-fearing, hard-working, tax paying white people throughout the country’ is the kind of thing Farage probably wishes he could say without it causing a political shitstorm. Even her refusal to back down from her opposition to gun laws reminded me of Farage’s desire to see them relaxed. When one of the secondary characters defends Harper, it sounds just like something a UKIP supporter would say: ‘Well, yeah, she goes over the top, but that’s not the bit that really matters.’ UKIP are the party whose members have refered to women as sluts and blamed flooding on gay marriage, but defenders of the party will tell you that’s not the bit that matters. As the Doctor says, ‘you just hear what you want and call the rest noise.’
Of course, when talking about politics, the media becomes a part of that discussion as well. The media are represented in the form of a talk radio programme, whose presenter is utterly insufferable and undoubtedly a stand in for right-wing tabloids. This is a referendum debate in which these papers have scared us with how many millions of people want to come into Britain or just outright lied about the identities of people so desperate to get away from their war-torn country that they cram themselves into trucks. This fearmongering of ‘the other’ is represented with the DJ, Mick, using names like ‘one-worlders’ and ‘Euro-Nazi’s’ to describe those who oppose Harper, while referring to her supporters as a ‘mob’ and as ‘whackos’. He refers to him and his listeners as ‘us decent folks’, again making this separation of ‘us, the good guys’ and ‘them, the problem’. Walter is said to be a regular listener to the radio show and so will have heard this demonisation of the other. Mick is partly to blame for stirring up people’s fear and when Ace calls him out on it, his response is typically what we get from the media:
MICK: Excuse me, babe, but of course it’s a show, I’m an entertainer… If you take me seriously, you’re a moron. And if you think I’m being rude, you’re even more of a moron because I’m being funny. You got that?
ACE: Typical bully…you figure if you think it’s funny no ones got the right to think it’s not funny.
It put me in mind of Bill O’Reilly calling Doctor George Tiller a ‘baby killer’ over and over until he was blue in the face, but once someone put a bullet in Tiller, O’Reilly was the first to scream, ‘What? I didn’t do anything!’
As a Doctor Who serial, it’s very enjoyable. Like many Big Finish serials, it incorporates the best of classic and modern story telling, it jogs along at a good pace but is lengthy enough to sink your teeth into. The cliffhangers are very effective at making you want to keep listening and thanks to it being in audio form the scale of the events, particularly in episode four, are bigger than anything the TV show could have pulled off in the late 1980’s. It also continues themes established in the TV series, namely the idea that Ace has to face her fears, as she did in The Curse of Fenric and Ghostlight. It also references past serials, most notably when Ace is remembering political issues from older adventures, such as the ‘no coloured’ sign from Rememberance of the Daleks and the ‘Paki’s out’ sign from her own time. She feels nothing has changed, but the Doctor tells her that things do change, that someone like Harper would once be the rule rather than the exception whereas now it is the other way around, it’s just that change often happens slowly. It was a nice scene to listen to, not just because I needed that reminder in the current political climate, but also because the best scenes from the McCoy era were the quiet ones where the Doctor and Ace just talked to each other. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred have always had great chemistry with one another, and they’re ultimately what makes this serial so enjoyable to listen to.
I’d very much recommend giving The Fearmonger a listen. A lot of Big Finish‘s early dramas now cost only a few pounds. They may not be quite as polished as the ones from more recent years, there’s one or two clunky lines and one very slight editing hiccup early on, but on the whole it’s a fantastic production. The politics hit very close to home, especially on the day of the EU Referendum, and it is worrying just how well it predicted the future of politics. Hopefully in a few years I can listen to this again and be thankful that we’ve put all that behind us.