The Natural History of Fear is by Jim Mortimore, and continues the adventures of the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and Charley Pollard (India Fisher) along with their new friend C’rizz (Conrad Westmaas) as they make their way through the divergent universe. At least, it sort of does.
Since they first got their Doctor Who audio license in 1999, Big Finish has produced a lot of content. Their are literally hundreds of Doctor Who stories featuring seven of the original lead actors from the television show, and lots more starring companions, recurring characters, or re-cast versions of all favorites. What that means is that Big Finish has produced tons of stuff, and a lot of it is pretty weird. Whether it’s the musical story (Doctor Who and the Pirates) or the reversible story (Flip-Flop) or the two-actor minimalist nightmare about sentient sound (Scherzo), the producers constantly take the franchise in weird directions that the television show is usually more cautious to go to.
The Natural History of Fear is another such example. The story takes place in LIght City, which immediately comes across as one of the series’ finest dystopias. Questions are outlawed, everyone is monitored, nobody has names, disobedience is swiftly punished, and memories are frequently overridden. Charley appears to be present as a “Prole”–a low-class worker who loves the State (the only love that is allowed) but nonetheless gets in trouble and finds herself confronted by the local authority figures–the Conscience (who seems to be C’rizz), who polices crimes, and the Editor (apparently the Doctor), who “revises” memories and identities. Any or all of them may be involved in a plot by revolutionaries to overthrow the State, but in a world where history can be completely re-written, one never knows exactly what can be counted on.
I use a lot of qualifiers when talking about the regular cast because the last-minute twist to the story is that for the most part, we haven’t been listening to the real Doctor, Charley or C’rizz at all, but rather local non-humanoid beings who have co-opted their memories, which were given semi-willingly by the real deal to secure their own freedom. Those memories have become baked into the fabric of the society (which turns out to be extremely short-lived–it’s stated that over a hundred generations live and die in the space of a year) as some sort of experiment to help facilitate change. And so it turns out that even the revolution is part of a process approved by the same intelligence that runs the city. In this sense, it’s a little reminiscent of the revelations in The Matrix Reloaded. Before that, the setting of Light City draws from a lot of other sources including The Prisoner, the Doctor Who story Vengeance on Varos, and (possibly intentionally?) the movie Dark City.
The twist is legitimately surprising and actually caused me to go back and listen to the story again to see if I could make stronger sense of it. It’s also a little disappointing, as the whole story you are waiting to hear how the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz are going to recover their memories and get out of this place, but the answer turns out to be simply…they don’t. Because it’s not them. It makes the the end of the story thought-provoking, of course, but also not completely satisfying as we just find out that the real Doctor and company left ages earlier, safe and sound.
Still, it’s a gripping and intriguing story that is very well-produced and well-performed, and a big step up for me from the previous entry, The Creed of the Kromon.