October 4th, 2013
While Doctor Who seemed to have taken over the world in its TV version in 2006, Big Finish were being more-or-less ignored, but they were still producing regular Doctor Who audio stories, and some of them were very, very good indeed.
In particular, Nev Fountain’s The Kingmaker managed to do the kind of time travel story that had never been done before, or indeed since, in Doctor Who.
Fountain is, for the most part, a comedy writer — while he had written one Big Finish audio earlier (the excellent Omega), at the time he wrote this, he was best known for writing for the dull celebrity-impersonation comedy series Dead Ringers (which in turn was best known for Jon Culshaw’s impersonations of Tom Baker) and as one of the main writing team for the satirical magazine Private Eye.
And The Kingmaker is, very obviously, a comedy. In fact, it’s a straightforward attempt at doing Blackadder within a Doctor Who frame — even the two historical periods visited, the reign of Richard III and the Elizabethan era (in a framing sequence involving Shakespeare’s play), are the ones that were featured in the first two series of Blackadder. (One can make an argument that he’s also taking on a much-neglected aspect of the series’ history — the history-as-farce style of Dennis Spooner).
And so, while there are a number of Doctor Who fan in-jokes (the entire plot is based around the Doctor having to finish the last in the series of Doctor Who Investigates… children’s books, a real series of books from the late 70s), most of the humour in the story derives from anachronism — Richard III having a PR man who calls a press conference with all the most notorious gossips, the groundlings at Shakespeare’s play complaining about “spoilers”, or a barmaid asking the Doctor if he wants to sit in “carousing or non-carousing?” and trying to sell him a souvenir coronation mug for Edward V. The jokes come every few seconds, and while many of them are poor, enough aren’t that the story has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
But The Kingmaker is, underneath the Blackadder style, a rather pointed attack on a lot of what were fast becoming the cliches of the new Doctor Who.
Most obviously, Richard III is explicitly parallelled with the Doctor. Here Richard has spent his entire life being visited by time travellers wanting to know if he really killed his nephews, and so finds himself trapped by fate, unable to escape from the destiny he knows is coming, even though he neither desires the throne nor the death of his nephews, and he knows exactly what his fate will be on Bosworth Field, and is prepared for it.
He compares the Doctor, who knows the future but refuses to change it, to a god, giving the Doctor the chance to spare the captive princes to show that Richard himself is just playing the role he has been dealt by fate. This is one of the central moral problems that can never be answered fairly in the series — why does the Doctor intervene only at certain times, while leaving other, much worse, atrocities to take place? “You see past, present and future and make sure we all act according to the rules. You’re worse than a god. At least a god allows his subjects to repent.”
And it’s no coincidence that in this story, which starts with the Doctor listening to what is diegetically a recording of his earlier self but extra-diegetically a recording of an impersonator (Culshaw — leading to one of the better jokes of the story, where the Doctor “explains” to Peri and Erimem that everyone sounds different when they record themselves — in-story this is an explanation of him having a different voice pre-regeneration, but extra-diegetically it explains the discrepancy between Culshaw’s voice and Baker’s), Richard III is performed in a spot-on imitation of Christopher Eccleston’s performance as the Ninth Doctor (who, like both Richard and the main villain of this story, dressed all in black). The major confrontation between Richard and the Doctor in a prison cell plays out very much like a twisted version of the confrontation between Eccleston and the Dalek in Dalek. Richard even repeatedly uses the Ninth Doctor’s catchphrase, “fantastic!”, and the Ninth Doctor himself makes off-stage appearances (a “northern chap with big ears” has left a message for Peri and Erimem at a crucial point).
And Richard is right in his criticisms. The Doctor praises free will and holds Richard responsible for his actions, but allows suffering and death for what he considers the greater good just as Richard does.
And just as the story criticises the Doctor as a character, it also criticises Doctor Who, at least the post-2005 variety, just as sharply, though in a way that seems to suggest Fountain is having his cake and eating it rather.
One of the strongest criticisms that can be made of the Welsh series is that it assumes such a thing as human nature exists, irrespective of cultural context. Everyone, whether in the distant past or the fantastically far future, has essentially the same attitudes as a small-l liberal urban middle-class British person from the early 21st century with a job in the media. This attitude is simultaneously insulting to the people of the past, erasing any battle that has already been won, and profoundly depressing — if I thought this was really as good as humanity would ever get, I’d probably kill myself.
And so in the post-2005 series we get the same kind of thing done seriously (or “seriously”) that The Kingmaker does as a joke, a version of history where everyone acts like twenty-first century people playing at being people from the past.
And suddenly, two-thirds of the way through the story, this turns around and bites us.
Erimem, an audio-only companion who accompanied the Doctor and Peri, was a former Egyptian Pharaoh, but in previous stories she had been depicted as having much the same attitudes as Peri (in The Council of Nicaea, for example, she supports Arius, not because she agrees with his views, but just because “he has a right to be heard”).
Here, that’s not the case. We get this dialogue early in episode three:
“It’s still murder! It’s horrible, inhuman!”
“It’s inhuman to you. I am human. I do not worry about death. I’ve seen servants walled up so that their masters can take them to the hereafter. How many times must I hear this from you? I get very tired of having to live the world through your eyes, Peri.”
And she lives up to her word. At a crucial moment, when she and Peri are in no immediate danger, but any future action they take could have hugely damaging results to the web of time, she suggests to Peri that they kill themselves.
“Erimem, you’re insane”
“No, Peri, I’m not. I just see things differently from you.”
“You’re saying that we should kill ourselves? That you’re prepared to kill me?”
“That’s the difference. The difference between life and death is not a huge thing, it’s just a different stop on a journey.”
“Don’t come any closer”
“Peri, I do love you. You have been the most dearest friend I have ever had. The time I have spent in the TARDIS has been the happiest of my entire life. I’m truly sorry this has to happen to both of us. Maybe in the next life I will have time to explain it to you properly.”
This is an attempt to take the past and its people on their own terms in a way that hasn’t been seen in Doctor Who since The Massacre back in 1966. The people of the past are suddenly no longer just like us, but instead are people with perspectives far more alien than most of the actual aliens in Doctor Who.
The Kingmaker plays with big themes — predestination, the responsibility of a ruler to those he rules, to what extent the ends justify the means — it’s a much more Shakespearean piece than it at first appears. That it does so in an out-and-out farce, and one that makes not even the slightest pretence at versimilitude, makes it all the stronger.
It was a height to which the Big Finish main range would rarely return.