The Peterloo Massacre

Posted in Audio by - March 16, 2016
The Peterloo Massacre

Released March 2016

Something of an increasing anomaly in the Doctor’s travels, a pure historical adventure is on offer in ‘The Peterloo Massacre.’ Quite simply, this is a throwback to the First Doctor’s era. There are no spaceships or invading alien threats to be seen; instead the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a certain time and forced to react to the situation around them, no matter how detestable or deplorable.

Paul Magrs, completely veering away from the more fantastical ideas and humour he is known for, pens a very dark and serious script, focusing on a the incredibly important and tragic Peterloo Massacre of Manchester, an event that most people do not know. Perhaps because of his outwardly friendliness and his seeming combination of the everyman as well as aristocracy, the Fifth Doctor is a natural choice as the star of this historical. Both he and Nyssa have an inherent calm and refinement to their characters, and so it’s fascinating to see both of them become so emotional and enraged about the events surrounding them, events that they cannot change due to their importance in history.

Following a TARDIS malfunction, the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan land in Manchester in 1816 according to the TARDIS display. It’s only after the group splits up that the Doctor realizes it is, in fact, August of 1819 and that the Peterloo Massacre is imminent. This sets up a race against time as the Doctor anxiously seeks out his companions before history takes its course, but not before the script does a great job in setting the scene and introducing the key supporting players. Events here take place during the early Industrial Revolution, and the Doctor makes no qualms of mentioning how deplorable the factory conditions of the industrial titan Hurley are. As he rescues a trapped and injured child- child labour still perfectly acceptable during this time- he ingratiates himself to Hurley as well as the surrounding public, affording him access to many people around town, most importantly Hurley and his son William.

As mentioned, though, the TARDIS crew quickly becomes separated. Nyssa befriends Cathy, a servant to Hurley’s family who is promptly released due to her supposed impertinence, and her infant brother Peter. It is through Cathy that Nyssa learns about the proposed peaceful march for equal workers’ and womens’ rights happening in town the next day, an event Nyssa sees the merits of and agrees to attend. Tegan, befriending William, ends up imprisoned for the evening after- as a woman with an accent- being found alone near the barracks, providing the impetus for the Doctor to head to town. It is through this sequence of events that Tegan and then the Doctor discover that their hosts are also part of the local militia, the force behind the dreaded upcoming massacre.

Again, the Peterloo Massacre is not one of the most well-known events in history, and by all accounts the protesters did intend for it to be a peaceful march and affair in general. Therefore, it is shocking to see how brutal and threatening the human race can be as the militia’s apparent plans take hold. After one man atop a balcony very quietly reads the riot act, something no protester hears, the militia is legally allowed to take action against the group. By blocking the exits from the Square, the militia essentially traps everyone in one area and easily proves ‘victorious’ against the unarmed civilians in their Sunday Best. This entire sequence is very well realized on audio with great sound effects and incidental music, but the cliffhanger at the end of part three is quite possibly the darkest event Big Finish and Doctor Who as a whole has portrayed. It’s quite shocking, honestly, though it certainly adds to the verisimilitude of this drama and its truthful events.

From beginning to end, ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ is unafraid to touch upon the social norms of the time, Tegan particularly aghast at what passes as normal for human rights. The deplorable working conditions and inequality of the classes and especially of women are always front and centre. And while the Doctor and Nyssa take these injustices more in stride, the Massacre and its events bring out a fury in both rarely seen through their calm demeanour. All three regulars do a truly fantastic job in playing the more heightened versions of themselves.

However, this is a story that really allows its supporting cast to shine, Gerard Kearns’s William and Jayne Standing’s Cathy in particular. The revelation of the planning behind the Massacre and his father’s involvement not only in the Massacre in general but also in that devastating event previously alluded to sends William on a very human journey. He firmly knows that these events are wrong regardless of what he is told and goes against his father and his friends to help those suffering. Cathy, also, while introduced as a servant at the beginning, becomes central to events and provides a voice to the inequality pervading her time. While it’s unsurprising what role Peter has to play in driving events forward, it still provides another example of how different times were so recently.

Overall, then, ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ can only be classified as a triumphant return of the pure historical. While it takes a little bit of time to truly find its footing and get going, the story it has to tell is a brutally honest one that holds nothing back. While the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan escape physically unharmed, it’s clear that they are all emotionally affected and scarred by the events they have witnessed, and hopefully the ramifications of these events to the three leads are touched on in the future. It’s sad to say, but sometimes humans being themselves provide the most monstrous threat, and that is certainly the case here. It’s a fitting, if surprising, conclusion to this year’s Fifth Doctor trilogy.

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