This is a slice-of-history outing for Ben, Polly, and a frail First Doctor mustering his flagging strength against ignorance and demagoguery. They land in Lewes, just in time for its famous celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night by processions of Bonfire Boys.
There’s an undercurrent of wild, dangerous violence in this story, malignant mischief which the Doctor is determined to oppose. Thanks to his failing health, Polly and Ben have to step up and fill in for him sometimes. There’s horrible things out there in the dark, requiring a couple of energetic young people to fend them off. In the end, however, they’ll need the Doctor’s powers of oratory and charisma.
Polly (narrating): We both nearly jumped out of our skins. Before we knew it, the doors were being shoved open, and Ben and I were pushed back. Something was trying to get inside!
Ben: Quick, Poll! The doors! Hold the doors!
Polly is fleshed out into a fully three-dimensional character, frightened by the macabre but also determined to protect the Doctor and their newfound friend the town librarian. Elliot Chapman is again excellent as Ben, a down-to-earth sailor who’s ready to lend his fists in defense of the defenseless. While Anneke takes charge of the Doctor when he’s delivering speeches, Elliot is given a trial run in one scene voicing the Doctor while he’s off with Ben. Chapman is quite good, although he sounds to me like Hartnell as a young man.
Who’s the monster in this story— or the monsters behind the monsters? Part horror and thriller, part parable with a hefty dose of moralising, Bonfire of the Vanities is a lesson in British cultural history making oblique commentary on our modern-day civil unrest and uncivil leaders. It’s a fairly simple story, but it breathes life into regulars whose classic run is largely lost. Anneke’s and Elliot’s performances make for good listening.
Note: the opening scene of this audio recapitulates the opening TARDIS scene with Ben, Polly and the First Doctor in The Tenth Planet. While it seems to be a clunky way of shoehorning extra stories into the nonexistent narrative gap between The Smugglers and The Tenth Planet, there’s a hint that this is part of an as-yet-unexplained arc linking this boxset of Companion Chronicles together. “Oh well. I’m sure it’s not important,” Polly adds, blissfully unaware of… whatever this is foreshadowing.
Guy Fawkes has taken on added symbolism since V for Vendetta and Anonymous adopted his enigmatic, smiling mask as their symbol. They tend to suggest that totalitarian regimes can be defeated by little people performing small, anonymous acts of rebellion. But Una McCormack’s script remind us of who Guy Fawkes really was, a partisan trying to blow up Parliament in order to return England to the rule of another traditional Establishment, Rome. The story doesn’t stress that point, since it’s not bringing up religious conflict but rather the self-destructiveness of mindless populism. The portrait of a portly, wealthy demagogue whipping up people’s baser emotions for his own ends is probably no accident.
It doesn’t always make a difference, but in this case I believe having a good female author resulted in a little more nuance for Polly. Anneke’s audio presence won me right from her cameo in The Five Companions, so I’m delighted Big Finish is beginning to develop and expand the character of Polly the way they have Nyssa. (But with less angst, please!)
Also? Miss Wilson, middle-aged librarian, historian, and writer of scifi— is that an authorial self-insert I see? Never mind; she’s a good character. I was just surprised she didn’t get invited into the TARDIS or offer some shrewd guess that they were aliens themselves.