|The Fearmonger by Jonathan Blum|
The Fearmonger delves into three controversial and complicated worlds – those of politics, nationalism and the New Adventures. Portraying any of those three gives a writer some tricky problems. Take politics – it is very hard not to make it extremely dull. The West Wing uses lots of people talking very quickly, Yes Minister used educated humour and House of Cards had a spellbinding central performance from Ian Richardson. The Fearmonger, although set against the backdrop of an election, wisely avoids becoming bogged down in political chicanery.
Trying to do a New Adventure on audio opens the writer up to the charge of not being as good as the books. There were a lot of books – some good, some bad – and they have a following which far surpasses the later BBC novels. Going after an audience which has high expectations is risky considering you can’t use the NAs gimmicks – bad language and sex, and being in the four-episode / hundred minute format by definition prevents "too broad and too deep".
But it is nationalism which is the most difficult to deliver. Which is to say it is really easy to do badly. You see, you can’t get away with a nasty piece of work who hates blacks and Jews and Asians and queers. That isn’t how politics works. A character like Sherilyn Harper is running for Prime Minister and sounds like she’s in with a shot. Her message, though underneath it may be all about hating blacks and Jews and Asians and queers, must be dressed up in attractive language. It must sound as reasonable as possible. She talks of defending freedom, of making the country a better place for our children, of tackling crime and dysfunction. In other words, she talks in truisms which are very hard to take against.
Indeed, it is hard not to take Harper’s side. She’s got people trying to kill her, she’s got an obnoxious radio host out to get her, there is Ace banging on about hating Nazis (which she’d been doing non-stop for twelve years and it is really really annoying) and she even wears bunny slippers.
She is apparently based on an Australian matriarch rather than the former Mrs Thatcher but, like Lady T, she is a character who can be admired (for want of a better word) for being a strong, principled politician in an age of vapid and insincere corporate drones. One can only imagine the smiling Blair-esque Autons she was up against in the election and sometimes it is tempting to let out a "you go, girl". She doesn’t even let it slip in private. There are no conversations between her and her sidekick which reveal hidden agendas or plots to exile all the blacks and Jews and Asians and queers. She is simply allowed to be a strong woman who believes what she is saying and everyone who disagrees with her does so with childish insults, bullying rhetoric or a sniper’s rifle.
Which is why there had to be just one jarring reference. A single line in a single speech which talking about making Britain better for "white people". A reference which no modern politician with eyes on the prize would ever make. A line which seems to be there for no reason other than to sign-post her as a baddie. It is as if everyone was happy leaving that bit of ambiguity until a last minute case of cold feet caused its addition. Maybe it didn’t happen like that but it goes so against the way she is written elsewhere that it feels forced.
Either way, her speeches are meant to be the means by which the Fearmonger spreads fear and hatred throughout society. I’m glad that was all a swerve – too often we see human weaknesses and failings explained away by alien interference. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Like the ceiling monster in "The Long Game" – it didn’t need to be there except that the alternative was a human media magnate controlling the population of the world and that would be an admission that such things are possible. Much better just to blame a monster and then kill it. Sherilyn Harper is a nationalist. Her message is one of nationalism. Lots of people hear it and agree with it. Thankfully they opted to say that this was indeed perfectly possible and didn’t need mind control to happen.
The Fearmonger is a story which gets better the more often you hear it. All the things which leap out as bad at the first go can be put to one side and underneath is a clever story with plenty of logical twists and turns, plenty of grey areas to think about and it manages to sit nicely in that imaginary place where Doctor Who continued for another couple of seasons and developed the more mature themes which had been bubbling under during the McCoy era.
Part 1 - Tracks 1-6
Part 2 - Tracks 7-11
Part 3 - Tracks 1-5
Part 4 - Tracks 6-9