“I know where talking gets you. It’s listening you might like to try”
The New Britannia party, headed by Sherilyn Harper, is starting to do very well politically in a Great Britain of the near future. But Walter Jacobs and Stephen Keyser can hear something in Sherilyn’s voice: there is a monster that inhabits her, the Fearmonger, a creature that feeds from the emotions that she stirs up.
And some people will stop at nothing to stop her stirring up those emotions, including murder…
The first time I listened to The Fearmonger I thought it was dreadful and the second time I listened to it (for this review) I thought it was actually quite good. The problem is…it’s both.
I’m sure it was a conscious decision to make the first proper Seventh Doctor play a story with Ace set shortly after Survival and I quite like the idea, it helps to make it feel like the plays are carrying on where the TV series left off.
So, the Doctor and Ace…. Sylvester McCoy does a fine job in this and, to be fair, so does Sophie Aldred. I was never a big fan of Ace, I always thought she was a bit cocky and she remains so in this although there seems to be an element of her wanting to be more than just the sidekick. She spends a lot of time seperate from the Doctor and she clearly likes being the one who knows more than the other people and has more experience but she’s obviously not as good as she likes to think she is (her overconfidence is her undoing and you do feel that she’s going through a bit of a learning curve) . It definitely feels like the old partnership but slightly moved on.
The way the story starts is different and quite fun, we hear a radio show – as if we’re tuning in – and all of a sudden, we hear the Doctor interrupt the presenter in mid-flow. It catches you by surprise and instantly draws you into the story by making you wonder why he’s there. From there, obviously, the story unfolds in the style that you would expect but there’s something about the setting that makes it feel more real than we’re used to. The use of the radio station goes a long way to help that feel and with the politics aspect to the story also well realised, you have a very real sense of something important. The best I can describe it is like the last couple of episodes of The Silurians; when the virus is released and you see members of the public dropping down dead and everything is happening in real locations, it adds a level of reality to the story and immediately ramps up the tension, making it feel like there’s more at stake than in the previous episodes.
The writing is clearly The Fearmonger’s strength and there are a number of things that make this story more grown-up than the TV series; The language is slightly more adult in places, there’s a discussion on racism and a couple of terrorist characters portrayed less as stereotypes and more like real people, and they even go so far as having one of the leads (Ace) sympathising with them, or at least their cause.
There are some great moments in this story, there’s a nice little character moment for the Doctor in Part Two when he delivers a speech about change; There are moments of skilful misdirection leading you to believe the Fearmonger is hiding inside one person when it’s actually in someone else and there’s a wonderful moment with a gunman where Ace copies the Doctor’s “look me in the eye, end my life” scene from The Happiness Patrol and what’s wonderful about it is that she’s insisting that she can talk him out of it and you’re thinking that she can’t possibly do it because Ace isn’t mature enough and it’s going to be really rubbish and this story’s rapidly going downhill etc. And sure enough, she talks the talk and is feeling really pleased with herself while you’re looking for something to scratch the disc with…and then, with one split-second sound effect, you’ve been proven wrong and everything you thought was poor writing has turned out to be great writing highlighting a lead character’s overconfidence, challenging the listeners pre-conceptions and providing a brilliant cliffhanger at the same time.
Okay, so where’s the dreadful?
Well there’s some distinctly amateurish production in the first half of the story both in editing and sound, which doesn’t help and then there are the casting problems….
There are two excellent guest stars in Hugh Walters and Jacqueline Pearce. Unfortunately Jacqueline Pearce is completely wasted. Her character is a rather nasty one with some quite questionable opinions but although at one point it feels like she’s being set up as the main villain of the piece she turns out to have nothing to do with it. She’s not evil, she’s got no sinister plot so while she’s well written and well performed, it’s a nothing character that could have been played by anyone.
Which brings us onto the character that should have been played by anyone…anyone else that is; Vince Henderson plays the radio host, Mick Thompson and he’s bloody awful. This character is vitally important to the story; he’s there from the opening seconds, right through to the end and should be grounding the show with a sense of reality and familiarity. But the performance is so utterly bad it’s cringe-worthy, I know they’re all reading their lines but he’s the only one that sounds like he’s reading his lines, any humour or emotional nuances get lost in his dull, flat delivery and the scene is wasted. He doesn’t single-handedly destroy this play though; there are at least two other cast members who, rather foolishly, do their utmost to follow his example.
It was worth a try. The story and script were fine, but three dreadful performances, a wasted guest star and some economy production bring The Fearmonger to it’s knees. This could have been a great start to the Seventh Doctor plays, sadly…
The Doctor: Sylvester McCoy | Ace: Sophie Aldred
With: John Ainsworth (Tannoy Voice); Jonathan Clarkson (Paul Tanner); Jack Galagher (Alexsandr Karadjic); Vince Henderson (Mick Thompson); Alistair Lock (Hospital Doctor); Mark McDonnell (Walter Jacobs); Jacqueline Pearce (Sherilyn Harper); Mark Wright (Stephen Keyser); Hugh Walters (Roderick Allingham)
Writer: Jonathan Blum | Director: Gary Russell | Music: Alistair Lock | Release Date: February 2000 | Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes | Number of Episodes: 4
Set Between: Survival and New Adventures novel Love and War