‘Unnatural Selection – A Natural History of A Natural History of Fear’ reviewed

❉ The evolution of the most polarizing story that Big Finish has ever released.

The time from 1990 to 2005 when its television parent was largely out of production is widely – and sensibly – regarded as a period of immense creativity for Doctor Who. In recent years, these “wilderness years” have become an object of examination in a similar way to the show’s original run being put under the microscope in the 1990s. As most fans know, Big Finish Productions emerged as one of the most prominent contributors to Doctor Who during that time. With their monthly releases of audio-plays featuring past Doctors acting as an ongoing reminder of the period when fans were doing far more than the BBC to keep the series alive, it’s not surprising that they’re a significant part of this ongoing discussion.

As such a consistent presence, Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories also reflect a demarcation between the “wilderness years” and the show’s return to the mainstream. Despite a strong streak of fan-pleasing traditionalism, the first few years of Big Finish stories were equally noteworthy for their willingness to push boundaries of form and content. Stories like The Holy Terror and Doctor Who and the Pirates were decidedly unlike anything the TV series had produced. This, in concert with having different Doctors and companions from month to month, gave the line a very eclectic feel.

Miwk Publishing’s Unnatural Selection – A Natural History of A Natural History of Fear, Jim Mortimore’s account of his 2004 audio story A Natural History of Fear, is a fascinating time-capsule from that period. It’s also a testament to the adventurous spirit of those making Doctor Who when the BBC didn’t particularly care and something of a tribute to a vision of the series that receded as the Corporation finally decided it was worth their while again. Doctor Who’s transition from a legacy series that made money for the BBC without them actually having to make new episodes themselves to a global franchise impacted all of its narrative extensions.

With Big Finish the impact was first felt in the stories starring Paul McGann. Curtailing an ongoing storyline in an alternate universe so that the Eighth Doctor could encounter the Daleks shortly after his successor defeated them on television was a leading indicator that the experiments of prior years would be fewer and further between. From a business standpoint, the quality and quantity of Big Finish’s current output makes a strong case for that shift, but for all that’s been gained its hard to avoid the sense that something has been lost.

That “something” is hard to define but almost certainly tied to to the difference between stories having writers as opposed to authors. In this respect A Natural History of Fear, whose full script is reproduced here along with material that didn’t make the final version, is an ideal story for examining this distinction. Though its mix of ingredients – derived variously from 1984, The Prisoner and other Doctor Who stories – isn’t especially unique, Mortimore’s approach to the material is. This authorial approach, which is thoroughly documented in the book’s early sections about the writing and production of the play, is what made the end result so special.

The end result is also among the most polarizing stories that Big Finish has ever released. Though its many fans include Paul McGann (‘… the best Doctor Who script I’ve read”), a significant number consider the worst of the worst. This is not opinion but rather an empirical fact supported by the many online reviews reproduced at the end of the book. Mortimore deserves a lot of credit for being as thorough and unvarnished about the story’s reception as he is about its genesis and production. Even in the field of writing about cult media, a book devoted to a single audio play is a rather niche item, but this one truly merits closer attention.

Three decades ago, Doctor Who Monthly described the book Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text as a book you probably wouldn’t give a younger fan for Christmas while noting that it was something they might enjoy when they’re older. Though Unnatural Selection isn’t nearly as scholarly as Tulloch and Alvarado’s volume, a similar sentiment applies. If Doctor Who’s behind-the-scenes history shows anything, it’s an excellent “gateway drug” for understanding how media and narrative work. Today’s fan may well be tomorrow’s producer or writer. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if this book wound up on one of their shelves.

Unnatural Selection – A Natural History of A Natural History of Fear’ by Jim Mortimore is available from Miwk Publishing, RRP £16.99 £12.99. Buy it here

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