Feminism and Doctor Who haven't exactly been easy bedfellows. Most female companions are notable for their lack of character development, their tendency to scream and get captured rather than do anything useful, or having been hired mainly as eye candy. Even when the show has tried to embrace feminism through the companions, it's not really worked – cf Liz Shaw (fired for being too independent and self-confident) and Sarah Jane Smith (marked tendency to scream, get captured and just hector people a lot about women's lib rather than actually do anything).
So it was with an air of trepidation (and the idea that the play's title would be only too accurate) that I began to listen to The Suffering, a Companion Chronicle featuring both Steven (Peter Purves) and Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) that's set during the time of the Sufragette movement. My fears were calmed slightly by the fact that:
- It's written by a woman, Jacqueline Rayner, who can do reasonably good Companion Chronicles.
- It's a Hartnell Companion Chronicle and they're usually better than the others
I'm not going to say it's great and it does tread a very fine line between bludgeon-level subtlety and something a little deeper, but it's okay. But did it really need to be two CDs-long?
No. It really, really didn't.
The TARDIS materializes in England in the year 1912, a time of great social change. The Suffragette movement is lobbying for votes for women, and the skull of the so-called ‘missing link’ has been discovered in Piltdown.
While Vicki falls victim to a strange influence, the Doctor and Steven investigate the fossilized remains. The Suffering has been unleashed. Can the travellers survive its rage?
Is it any good?
First off, a great big congratulations to Jacqueline Rayner for actually coming up with a reason for both Steven and Vicki to be telling us this story and for making it an interesting reason. I've said it before and I'll say it again, these aren't supposed to be just talking books – they're actually supposed to be plays.
The story has Vicki and Steven making an audio recording of a recent adventure together – as a warning to those who might come after them – with Vicki and Steven taking it in turns to recount their sides of the stories. The first CD is pretty much Steven's point of view, with the Doctor and Steven heading off together while Vicki remains behind on her sick bed. The second CD sees Vicki recounting her side of the tale, before meeting up with the Doctor and Steven again where they alternate quickly between different points of view.
There are good points to a lot of this. The interplay between Steven and Vicki is fun and very reminiscent of the onscreen chemistry they had. Purves, who's reading his lines a bit too much like they're a book, is engrossing and does a good William Hartnell impression. O'Brien manages to sound exactly like her younger self and gives an equally engrossing performance.
The play itself is more variable. Half of the first CD is almost entirely plot filler. It's Steven running around London with a headless body, failing to enjoy old cars. It's actually considerably less interesting than it sounds, and I found myself drifting off and remembering the play's title frequently – I was half-inclined not to bother listening to the rest of it. It has all the feel of a producer thinking that because he has two companions to deal with for the first time, they should have a CD each, rather than because the story needs it.
But CD two is better. Vicki's story is considerably more interesting, as she has to try to avoid being possessed by an alien woman who wants to destroy all men. Already, this sounds like the worst kind of feminist parable, where sub-text is a word that doesn't even need to be used. But although there are big chunks of the play that try their hardest to be metaphor or a sci-fi aetiology for English feminism and fail hopelessly, Rayner actually does a good job of taking the story in directions you don't expect, including an almost tear-jerking "some men are actually quite nice" section. For fanboys, there are even suggestions that this is actually a prequel/sequel to Galaxy Four and so is in part a long-overdue feminist rewriting of that story.
Even so, despite some nice historical touches, exposing just how badly women were treated before they got the vote and why the Suffragette movement was so important, it's a bit clunky in places. It's not helped by making both Purves and O'Brien pretend to be numerous working class women, accents and all.
There are some decent character touches, with both Steven and Vicki getting explored in a way they never were on TV, but this really needed to be at least an episode shorter, preferably through the removal of the Piltdown Man subplot (which just feels like a retread of Hand of Fear anyway) and a shade more subtle. It's a good effort, but it's too long for its own good.
Peter Purves (Steven Taylor)
Maureen O'Brien (Vicki)
Author: Jacqueline Rayner
Director: Lisa Bowerman