Fight the power, says Tony.
The Suffering is a brave, epic undertaking of empathy, feminism and balance from writer Jacqueline Rayner.
Taking the second fully-new Tardis team of Peter Purves’ Steven Taylor and Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki to England in 1912, Rayner picks a couple of period-specific story elements, and blends them well into a story that opens up to explore much wider issues than Sixties Doctor Who was used to overtly doing. England in 1912 allows Rayner to use the discovery at Piltdown of a so-called (and eventually disproved) ‘missing link’ in Darwin’s still not entirely accepted theory of evolution by natural selection, and the very much still active fight for women’s suffrage, for the right to vote in a world governed by men in a mostly paternalistic, patriarchal society as the fundamental planks in a story that shows both a kind of avatar for the way men have used and treated women in our own history, and the very specific hardships, fears and violence inflicted on the Suffragettes who suffered for what, to the time travellers, seems like such an obvious equality.
Landing in a gravel pit (touche, Madame Rayner), the travellers find a jaw bone that, while looking distinctly simian, the Doctor assures them is entirely alien in its origins. Vicki comes over all peculiar, requiring medical aid and driving the three of them into the affairs of the natives when they go and look for help. This is territory that Doctor Who would later explore on-screen in the time of the Fourth Doctor – fossilised hands needing to live again, ancient skulls linked to alien essences and so on – but Rayner here keeps a firm grasp of both the period of Who in which she’s playing, and the elements she has to work with – jawbone, alien presence, Piltdown Man, Suffragettes. Thrusting the travellers into the world of paleontology at this point in Earth’s history, and meeting members of the Suffragette movement keeps Rayner’s story focused and moving along, and particularly in how they interact, she throws problem after problem into the path of the Tardis crew, an endless line of things to do studding the episodes from start to finish.
In a very palpable way, it’s this progression of problems that makes this six-part story feel very much of the first Doctor’s day. As a story, The Suffering could work as a four-parter, but here there’s little in terms of cut-aways. When the Doctor and Steven have to go and steal a particular skull from the home of a noted palaeontologist, leaving Vicki asleep for much of a couple of episodes, we go with them, first by daylight to get the lay of the land, and then again by night, waiting till the house goes dark, breaking in, finding the skull, battling with an alien force that aims to do them deadly harm, comforting a maid who gets possessed along the way and so on. When, subsequently, they need to go on a wild goose chase all over London, buying a replacement skeleton and some other items, there are only a few short-cuts taken as we follow Steven, in top hat and false moustache as he wanders along the streets with a carpet-bag full of bones, getting grief from the local constabulary and pulling a bus-top switcheroo. This is more or less exactly how the story would have played out in black and white if there had been six episodes to fill, and the pacing to allow for all this toing and froing brings some comedy with it – besides Steven’s adventures in pre-war London, there’s an extremely extended section of the First Doctor driving a vintage roadster, rigid suspension, driving goggles and series of increasingly comical collisions to boot.
While the paleontological palaver is a well-rendered way into the story, it’s very much the minor theme. Far more intensely rendered is the feministic, empathic angle – the alien presence needs to make contact with females in this time and space, and feels a surging antipathy towards males of any description, dividing its motivations along lines of gender. As the story surges towards its climax, Rayner, and director Lisa Bowerman, give us insights into the history of women on our own planet through the history they endured on the world of the alien force whose jawbone kicks the story off. It's a history of abuse, of forced usage and reproduction, of beatings, and pain, and degradation. The alien, which remains nameless throughout as an avatar of Everywoman, tells a story of horror that embodies the war between the historically-recognised sexes on a planet ruled by and for the whims of men. Awakening in England in 1912, it’s telling that the alien cannot see much difference between her own world and ours, especially as Rayner dips us into the emotional experiences of the Suffragettes: the beatings, the force feeding, the disgrace and indignity heaped on them, the monstrous things done to ensure that women ‘knew their place.’ It takes Vicki, with her knowledge of the Doctor and Steven, knowledge that, to coin a slightly depressing phrase, #NotAllMen are like that, certainly going forward in Earth’s history, to argue that destroying most of the men in the world is somehow a bad idea. It’s arguably a soft conclusion, but it’s also one that acknowledges that while institutions and society are as misogynistic as they’re allowed to be by those at the top, if it came to a black and white choice – kill all men for their crimes against women, or don’t - the truth of there being at least some groovy males on the planet at any given moment is a loophole that would allow men to survive.
The structure of the story is unusual in Big Finish Who stories, breaking some walls of involvement by having Steven and Vicki determined to ‘record’ the story for posterity, in case the alien comes back – a fear given some reality late in the course of the story. It’s a technique that adds minutes to the run-time, and feels like an experiment in form for its own sake, as Vicki puts on voices and is interrupted by Steven, though it does bring some of the first and oldest Target novelisations to mind in phrases like ‘the mysterious time and space machine known as the Tardis,’ ‘handsome space pilot Steven Taylor’ and ‘plucky orphan Vicki.’ In hindsight, this feels like one double-underlining of the period too far, and combined with the use of essentially the same cliff-hanger for the first two episodes, both immediately undercut by the ‘current’ speech of the companions bickering over who should tell the next part of the story, it begins to make The Suffering feel more clunky than it should, or indeed does once the story really gets going.
Vicki’s journey within the story though, learning about the need for women’s suffrage – as she remarks, ‘what possible reasons could there be why women don’t have the vote?’ – and then feeling everything the Suffragettes go through as a part of the fight, finding a kind of communion with the rest of womankind in 1912 England – is the really important element of the story. Even the alien to some extent is subservient to those lessons, acting as a key, a conduit into the fears, the feelings, the pain and suffering of our women, as much as her own, in our all too recent past. It’s this braveness in the storytelling, this truth revealed, that makes The Suffering the kind of story which, despite its six episode length, despite its funny toing and froing with the Doctor and Steven in London, despite Vicki spending a couple of episodes asleep, stays with you and makes you want to recommend it to your friends.
In 1912 in England, women couldn’t vote, because as is mentioned in this story, men in power believed women didn’t have the mental capacity to understand the questions on which a vote would be necessary, that their lives were best spent breeding and raising children, that their dress should be dictated by their femininity.
In 2017, the greatest power in the Western world (which England was in 1912), has recently allowed the restriction of female bodily autonomy, so female-specific healthcare cannot be granted without the permission of a male relative. It has expressed the opinion that women should be ‘punished’ for espousing healthcare options that make them the equal of a man. And the leader of its government has said he wants women within that government to dress ‘like women’ – meaning according to his tastes, rather than their own.
Perhaps – just perhaps – it’s time for a follow-up story, of the kind heavily hinted at towards the end of the original. Return of the Suffering, Big Finish?