[Content Warning: I'm going to discuss in pretty horrible and potentially triggering detail a fictional portrayal of child sexual abuse and its psychological aftermath. Please read the following post with care.]
Audio Adventures In Time And Space was a range of unathorised Doctor Who spin-offs produced by BBV in the late-90s and early-2000s. Long out of print they're mostly forgotten except as the range where the Faction Paradox audios began and being the reason Big Finish didn't use the Sontarans or Zygons for about half a decade due to a gentlefan's agreement between the two companies not to pursue the same third party monster rights. Plus, they were a mail order thing before internet purchase was reliable or entirely trustworthy so they were hard to get hold of and not many secondhand copies circulate.
I stumbled across a few at a local charity shop and last night I slipped Only Human into the player... and...
… good grief, I was not expecting what I got.
Let's be clear about one thing before we start: Sophie Aldred is playing Ace, the character she played in Doctor Who from 1987 to 1989 and reprises to this day for Big Finish. “The Time Travellers” were originally billed as “The Professor & Ace” until the BBC got a bit cross about it. After that, BBV rebranded the Professor as the Dominie (a terrible name almost never used in the audios) and revealed Ace's birth name as Alice.
So, once again, Alice is 100% absolutely meant to be Ace McShane. That is something the listener is meant to actively assume.
Ace, every version of Ace, has significant issues surrounding her family. Usually, these issues revolve around her mother and is portrayed as a sort of generalised neglect. In some versions they reconcile, in others they don't but usually Ace finds a way to deal with those feelings with or without a confrontation with the woman herself (both of which are, of course, perfectly valid approaches).
Only Human decides to go in a rather different direction. Through a complicated set of events involving a telepathic shapeshifter, Ace is confronted by a perfect replica of her stepfather who, it turns out, repeatedly sexually abused her starting when she was seven years old. He accuses her off enjoying it, tells her that her mother knew it was happening, continues to call her pet names even as she screams at him.
It is absolutely chilling and I can't fault the actors for how they play it, the impact of the scene is undeniable. It has immense power.
And no resolution. Its not the point of the story, neither thematically nor in terms of the story. The story surrounding it isn;t bad, either, in fact its one of the most interesting and varied stories the Audio Adventures told. The two sides of it just never marry up and it leads me to wonder if this powerful, disturbing scene is just there for shock value.
Also, whilst it doesn't come out of nowhere (there's a precursor scene close to the beginning of the audio that pretty well signposts where its all going) it is a shocking place for an unlicensed audio based on a 1980s kids show to go. I don't know if that's a good thing.
I strongly believe these are issues that need to be discussed both in fact and in fiction. The last couple of years have proven very powerfully that these things have to be brought into the light. My only question is whether or not this does that or if it just offers a sly opportunity to trigger people who were just expecting a run-of-the-mill Doctor Who by any other name audio drama, which seems to me the most textbook definition of escapism.
Sometimes, I think, it is possible to challenge your audience too much.