14 April 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - The Peterloo Massacre

Whatever else might be said about The Peterloo Massacre, it's undeniably individual. It's an extremely tragic story, in several respects. It's also one of the most dramatic Big Finish offerings of recent years, and makes a number of other main range releases look bland in comparison. This feels like quite a departure from Paul Magrs' usual writing style but it absolutely works, weaving a powerful character piece from appalling historical events. Believe the hype.

The story begins with the TARDIS careering out of control, as is true of so much of Peter Davison's television era, and delivers the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan to Manchester in the early nineteenth century. As you may expect, the trio are soon swept along by events without really intending to be. This is the first step on a path that will lead to one of their most harrowing experiences yet. Magrs successfully divides the plot three ways, giving each lead substantial investment and a web of sound supporting characters.

I must admit, this was a period of history I had never even heard of, let alone one I was familiar with. Like all the best stories, however, Magrs' tale has inspired me to research the topic further. Although I won't be spending days in the library looking into it, as Magrs did in preparation for writing this story, reading through a few web pages has made me realise what a significant series of events this was. The Industrial Revolution is a period I know next to nothing about but examples such as The Peterloo Massacre make me want to do something about that. Magrs' plotting of this story is very shrewd, connecting all of our supporting cast, but splitting them across the social chasm to highlight the differences that existed.

Illustrating this most clearly are Hurley, a wealthy owner of land and a factory, and Cathy, a maid employed at his house. They are probably the most vocal parties on each side, both believing they are acting in the interest of the social groups they inhabit. Hurley is shown throughout this story's four episodes to be a bully with an overinflated ego, whose perspective on the world is totally at odds with twenty-first century values. When a boy falls into the machinery at his factory, he refuses to stop work for fear of losing money, and at St Peter's Field, he charges on a peaceful protest and is directly responsible for at least one murder. Cathy, meanwhile, is very much the character we are supposed to sympathise with. She wants a louder voice for working people, and equal treatment for women - aims that can hardly be criticised, but still haven't been completely achieved two centuries later.

I mentioned earlier that this is a tragic story, and this is particularly true for the Doctor. One definition of the word 'tragedy' is when a protagonist encounters conflict with a superior force - such as destiny - with sorrowful consequences. This describes perfectly the Doctor's predicament in The Peterloo Massacre; as soon as he realises precisely when the TARDIS has deposited them, he knows what is to come, and tries his utmost to prevent Nyssa and Tegan becoming involved. In this way, there's a sense of The Caves of Androzani to this, as he rails against the inevitable impending catastrophe. Fortunately, all three emerge physically unscathed. The same cannot be said for their state of mind though.

It has been said before, including on this site, that the pair are often not given enough to occupy them for four episodes. Paul Magrs is certainly not guilty of that here, and it's really interesting to see them put into this kind of situation. Although they come from such different backgrounds, by the story's end, both are singing from the same hymn sheet. Had this been put on television in Season 19, Tegan may well have been far more concerned with extracting herself, but with the benefit of another year and all the development Big Finish (chiefly Alan Barnes) have given her, it's heartening to hear her acting so selflessly here, whilst still remaining true to the character. Nyssa admits she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but still empathises with Cathy's plight. In many ways, this isn't too dissimilar to the many revolts she has faced with the Doctor on all number of alien worlds. What makes this different for the listener is the human heart Paul Magrs sows through each episode.

What happened at St Peter's Field in the summer of 1819 was clearly disastrous, with the wealthy attacking a peaceful demonstration that was more a gathering than a protest - everyone went in their Sunday best - and Magrs makes this abundantly clear from the moment the Doctor realises the date to the scenes of Cathy lying in her hospital bed. The cast are all superb and bring a great deal of realism to the situation, aided of course by director Jamie Anderson, who is proving to be quite a talent and is bringing a new energy to the main range, which had been in danger of going slightly stale. It's hard to pick any actors out in particular, such is the quality of their work, but Robbie Stevens, here voicing Hurley, was unrecognisable as Rembrandt from January's release The Waters of Amsterdam.

Nigel Fairs' post-production work is also more than worthy of praise. Choirs have become increasingly popular for television and radio soundtracks over the last decade or so, but their inclusion here matches the tone perfectly. The peak of the story is undoubtedly the third episode, and Fairs brings it to life remarkably well. I have been slightly critical before of some of his sound design feeling very 'stock', as if pulled from a library, which I'm sure all of Big Finish's sound designers do, but there are no grounds for that complaint here. This is a very strong, and stirring, realisation of the horrific events of St Peter's Field, and Fairs' work is a big part of that.

The Peterloo Massacre is unlike any other Doctor Who story I've heard. An instant classic, it sits up there with Protect and Survive as being the best of the best. Peter Davison gives his best performance for years in a story that is structured quite unusually, but works perfectly. Hurley and William's change of heart in the latter half of the story, and the revelations of the final episode, really help to sell this powerful human drama. Every single character elicits an emotional reaction from the listener, something that can't be said about many stories. Unlike some websites, which may or may not happen to receive review copies, I don't give full marks lightly and so rest assured that The Peterloo Massacre has earned it. This story really is in a class of its own, and the most memorable Big Finish production for several years.

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