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Doctor Who Unbound - Big Finish #5
Nigel Parry

Deadline is my favourite script by Rob Shearman. It is also my favourite 'Unbound' entry. Whilst I am at it, it might even be my favourite Big Finish audio of all time. And there has been some strong competition.

When the 'Unbound' series was announced, it was made clear that it wasn't supposed to be confused with 'real' Doctor Who (whatever that is). It was always designed to provide stories that could not be achieved under the normal Doctor Who banner. Of all the six stories, no other entry hits the nail so squarely on the head as this.

This is a story of disappointment, of failure and escapism. As the original final entry into the series, it would also have provided a far better sense of closure than 'Exile', which eventually tied up the concept.

It reveals Martin Bannister, a washed up writer - and a somewhat washed-up human - who occasionally believes he is his own creation, Doctor Who. Either that or he is Doctor Who, who believes he is a washed up writer called Martin Bannister. Bannister has a failed marriage behind him, a failed writing career, a son who hates him and a horrible Grandson with who he cannot relate, although he thinks he can. He lives in a Nursing Home, either because of age or because of some undisclosed nervous breakdown, and mistakenly believes his occasional Nurse holds a candle for him. He is bitter, bad-tempered and quite unlikeable. Yet he is such a crushed spirit, that it is difficult not to sympathise with him.

The direction and sound design are perfect. Snippets of the original Delia Derbyshire version of the theme are segued faultlessly into the incidental score and from time to time this creates a quietly disorientating atmosphere to help further convince the listener that the world of dream and reality have blurred.

The cast are all top notch too, with not one performance dipping below excellent. As Bannister himself, Sir Derek Jacobi is superb, capturing perfectly the character's sense of frustration and bewilderment and yet somehow makes his scenes often quite touching.

As Sydney, the journalist from the Juliet Bravo fan club magazine, Ian Brooker is hilarious. In some scenes, he drifts from the feckless journo, to the Australian/Canadian tones of Sydney Newman, to the screaming Thalek with ease. His turn as the journalist is what stands out, though, causing me to laugh aloud every time I have heard this. And I have listened many times now.

Jacqueline King is superb as the nurse, also disappointed, crushed and lonely, but still with a vicious sense of pride. Her shifting from bitter self-pity when reflecting on her lost love life, to snarling aggression when Bannister misreads her intent, is mighty.

Peter Forbes excels as Philip, another broken character, whose initial declarations of being a successful family man are revealed to be lies to further aggravate the father he hates.

There is much comedy here, but it is admittedly, very dark, and saturated in the sense of isolation and disappointment prevalent throughout the play. It is also strangely uplifting in its suggestion that the imagination is a good place in which to escape. However, it also seems that if that imagination gets the upper hand, then sanity will suffer as a result.

Absolutely terrific, entertaining, thought-provoking stuff.

Nick Mellish

As the fifth release in the ‘Doctor Who Unbound’ range, ‘Deadline’ by all rights should be able to relax a little. Those listening by now are probably those who have heard the rest of the range, or those who are curious by it. It is a bonus therefore that Rob Shearman, one of Big Finish’s most popular writers, is the author of this play, as it may attract new listeners- those who enjoy his work. It is even more of a bonus therefore that ‘Deadline’ is as good as by all rights it deserves to be- look at what it has going for it: arguably most popular Big Finish writer (check), esteemed actor in lead role (check), thus far successful range (check), popular Director (check).

People often complain that they are sick of reviews that are backslapping towards the cast and crew, sing the praises of the author in an almost hyperbolic fashion, analyse just why they are so great and then claim to see no faults- or small ones if they are at all present, and generally drool over the finished product. If you hate such reviews as these, turn away now; look elsewhere; seek another reviewer; if you dislike that which I outlined above then this is not the review for you, because quite simply ‘Deadline’ is brilliant and more than worthy of the praise I am about to heap upon it.

The ‘What If…?’ scenario that forms the basis of the ‘Unbound’ range has already been played out in various ways, but in my opinion it is ‘Deadline’ that utilises this set-up in the most imaginative way. Whereas the previous ‘Unbound’ plays have used it in relation to the mythology and history of ‘Doctor Who’ as a fiction (for example, “What if the Doctor had never become UNIT’s Scientific Advisor?” in ‘Sympathy For The Devil’), ‘Deadline’ uses a question that takes the play out of the realm of the mythology of ‘Doctor Who’ itself: “What if ‘Doctor Who’ had never made it to television?”

As a lifelong fan (and I mean lifelong- my first ever living memory is of watching ‘The Curse Of Fenric’), this is a question that I have pondered before- what would my life be like without ‘Doctor Who’? Would there be another television programme that I would invest so much time, money and love in? Could there be another all-consuming passion? There are things that I enjoy greatly outside of ‘Doctor Who’, but nothing comes close, so what would life be like without it?

According to ‘Deadline’, it would be all too real, or at least this is how I interpreted the play’s message. ‘Deadline’ to me says that ‘Doctor Who’ is to be cherished; it’s pure entertainment, an escape from reality, and without it life would be a lot less interesting.

Played by Sir Derek Jacobi, Martin Bannister is the main character in the play, and he is one of a very limited number that know about ‘Doctor Who’; he was responsible for the Pilot Episode, but no series was made on the back of it. Instead he was consigned to a career spanning fourteen Episodes of ‘Juliet Bravo’, many divorces and little else. He is trapped in a diminishing body, lessening grip of reality, and a Care Home; all those around him are devoid of love, life or enthusiasm: his Nurse is manipulative, alone and bitter; his Son is alone, depressed and angry; his Grandson is bored, ungrateful and rude. None of them have the passion that Martin has deep within; Martin is able to use ‘Doctor Who’ to escape from the humdrum of everyday life, albeit briefly, and live out a life of adventures, excitement, imagination and pure enjoyment. His Nurse can grasp at a vague ability to write poetry, but ultimately she realises that nobody likes it and- worse still- she even uses it to aid with her manipulations of Martin; his Grandson can play his Computer Games, but he gets frustrated with them as quickly as he is excited with them; his Son is able to spin a yarn concerning the supposed death of one of Martin’s ex-wives, but he cannot go along with it. Only Martin can escape forever; only he has something that can be enjoyed and lived without any consequences- he doesn’t love it because it aids him, or because it earns him something, or even because it helps to convince somebody of something. He loves it because it is something to be loved- no more, no less. Martin has fallen out of love with several people, or made people fall out of love with him, but ‘Doctor Who’ alone will never break his heart, nor betray him, nor become dull and uneventful. Even if he dislikes it, it’s only because he loves it deep down, and he can always start a new adventure. When it reaches the end of the play, he has to make a choice- stop his death and continue life as it was without ‘Doctor Who’, or choose death and ‘Doctor Who’. In the end, he goes for the latter, deciding that life without escapism and life without ‘Doctor Who’ is simply not worth living- not now he knows what it could be like.

The story itself veers between the truly moving to the laugh-out-loud humorous; one second, we get Martin’s Son crying his eyes out, confessing that his marriage has failed, and the next moment he’s confessing to burning a Guinea Pig in order to create some ashes to make it look like his Mum has died- a scenario that gets more and more funny as it continues, starting off as a bizarre throwaway line and developing into an awkward but hilarious conversation between Father and Son. Likewise, the brief trips into Martin’s ongoing compilation of an Episode of ‘Doctor Who’ veer between the serious (quotations from the Pilot Episode) to some truly bizarre lines (“Doctor Who you utter bastard!”)

Shearman manages to keep a balance between the humorous and the emotional throughout the script, and the ending is truly touching. When you hear the TARDIS take off, knowing that it means he has chosen to die, rather than feel any sorrow, you are pleased because he has made the correct decision. Better still, Shearman is at pains to make sure that Martin is no whiter-than-white character, instead having more than his fair share of flaws: unwilling to commit to love, negligent of his family, Martin is no angel, but even when he does something truly despicable, you cannot help but feel that it is the people around him that are as much to blame as he himself.

A hefty portion of ‘Deadline’ is taken up with excerpts into Martin’s version of ‘Doctor Who’: there are excerpts from the Episodes we know and love, references to ideas originally pitched when ‘Doctor Who’ was being devised, throwaway remarks concerning ‘The Masters Of Luxor’, and the musical score uses portions of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune throughout. For fans it provides a nice game of ‘spot the reference’, for casual listeners it gives them a greater insight into Martin’s mind, and for the script itself, such moments provide interludes between different scenes, bridging the gaps and given a sense of unity to the play; the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune bookends the play, which provides ‘Deadline’ with a ‘proper’ start and finish and (ironically considering how much it is tampered with throughout the play) continuity.

One of the highlights of the script is Martin’s brief interview session with a representative of the official ‘Juliet Bravo’ magazine. Starting off as an excuse to parody fandom as a concept, with particular emphasis on ‘Doctor Who’ fans, it goes a lot further. Rather viciously, the interviewer (Sydney) tells Martin that his scripts were appalling, and are regarded as the worse that ‘Juliet Bravo’ has to offer. This comes as a shock, not only because the situation had been set up so you believed Martin to be a good writer, but because of Martin’s reaction to it all. Despite his flippant and harsh comments concerning ‘Juliet Bravo’ as a programme, he is genuinely hurt by Sydney’s comments, and his ego is battered further.

Shearman again takes a scenario and turns it completely on its head. His script is full of such moments, and they brighten the script up no end. To be honest, I have been trying to think of any flaws within the script, but have thus far come up with none. From beginning to end, ‘Deadline’ is strong throughout.

The acting throughout ‘Deadline’ suits the script down to perfection. Sir Derek Jacobi is excellent as Martin, and one suspects that if the rest of the cast had fallen below par that he would have easily been able to carry the play along single-handed. Fortunately though, this does not need to be put into practice, as everybody is brilliant. In the role of Sydney, Ian Brooker is great, making the most of the role as obsessive ‘Juliet Bravo’ fan, playing it just the right side of farcical, even at the heights of its tongue-in-cheek moments. Jacqueline King as Barbara (the Nurse) is enjoyably unsympathetic, and her reoccurring phrases (“You’re a mucky pup!”) are fun; despite only appearing briefly, Adam Manning as Tom is very good too, perfectly suiting the role of ungrateful adolescent. As Susan, Genevieve Swallow manages to deliver a pitch-perfect pastiche of Susan Foreman: she is annoying at turns, ever faithful to her beloved Grandfather and in all a tad pathetic.

However, the actor to impress me most from the supporting cast was undoubtedly Peter Forbes as Phillip. Whether crying his heart out, or shouting at his Dad, or trying unsuccessfully to converse with his Son, Forbes convinces totally, and he is the perfect actor to be placed alongside Jacobi.

Nicholas Briggs is responsible for the Music, Sound Design and the Directing, and once again he has done a marvellous job. The Music and Sound Design are really nice- every bit as evocative as his job on ‘Auld Mortality’- with the brief snippets of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune being both stirring and haunting in turns. His Directing is once more uniformly great, bringing out the best in everybody and releasing the script’s full potential, of which it has bucket loads.

In all, ‘Deadline’ is a brilliant result from a different kind of ‘What If…?’ question; the one poised could so easily have fallen flat on its face, but it does not. Far from being depressive, ‘Deadline’ ends on an optimistic note, showing that even though all around is slowly falling apart, there is something there that will never let you down: love.

Shearman once more proves himself to be every bit as good as his reputation would have you believe; Briggs again demonstrates just how good a Director he is; Big Finish yet again prove that their ratio between hits and misses is very slim indeed. Some may say that it is unlike ‘Doctor Who’ as they know it, but for me ‘Deadline’ was every bit as impressive as ‘Doctor Who’ should be, every bit as enjoyable as the programme has always been and- hopefully- every bit as beautiful as it will always be.

Sean Bradshaw

Stop with the great Big Finish audios already! Here's another one: Rob Shearman twists reality again and the "what if" of this story is less a Doctor Who story than the story of its never having existed. Sir Derek Jacobi does play the Doctor, but more importantly he's ex-television writer Martin Bannister. At his convalescent home Martin is visited by his regrets; his son, his grandson, and strange characters from the show he never got to see made: Doctor Who.

“Deadline” is a tragic story, with sadness and anger, yet it brings many smiles. As usual, Rob didn't forget the humor. He again uses odd phrases repeatedly to humorous yet disarming effect. Martin gets called a "mucky pup", making stains "that'll take ages to shift". Martin's nurse describes herself as "not much to look at, not much". There's a Juliet Bravo fan doing an interview who is the parallel of a Doctor Who fan (I hope we don't all sound like him!) with in-jokes aplenty. If you know the basic story of the creation of “An Unearthly Child”, you'll see familiar phrases and names given a new life. “Deadline” doesn't stop there, because Martin has real life issues to deal with. Martin meets his grandson in a half-hilarious/half-tragic scene, for example.

Congratulations are also due to Nicholas Briggs who does a suitably clever job of weaving the Doctor Who theme into a menacing, haunting funereal atmosphere throughout. His sound design parallels the rich script.

The whole thing is wonderfully made and incredible to hear. Some of these audios really deserve a bigger audience; they should be broadcast on everyday radio. Yes, they require some knowledge of the TV show, but plays like “Deadline” have got to be worth introducing non-fans to. This one works effortlessly at making you proud of knowing who Sydney Newman is, reading Doctor Who Magazine (and IE!), and just being a fan who feels lucky to have this series around.

Michael Hickerson

With the good Doctor not slated to make a return appearance on our television screens until 2005, the task of celebrating the good Doctor’s 40 year run in an original fashion has fallen to the novels, a BBC web cast and the Big Finish audio dramas. Of the three, it is Big Finish that is offering up the biggest wealth of original Who material that celebrates 40 years of our favorite Time Lord.

To start things off, Big Finish offers up a series of “What if” stories in the Unbound saga. Each of these stories has taken a different element of the Doctor Who mythology and expanded on it. We’ve looked at what might have happened had the Doctor not left Gallifrey and what might have happened had the third Doctor not been exiled to Earth during the period of the UNIT stories (I will NOT open up that can of worms by trying to place a time and date on the UNIT stories). We’ve even brilliantly speculated what might have happened had the Valeyard won the day in the end of the Trial of a Timelord.

And while each of the previous Unbound stories have addressed what might have happened if Who had taken a different turn in the mythology of the series, Deadline offers a look at what might have happened if we’d never had a mythology at all.

I’m sure the question of what would the world be like without Doctor Who has occurred to many of us over the years. Certainly, I wonder if I’d be richer having not spent so much time and money on the wide variety of Who memorabilia that I’ve purchased over the years. I’ve also wondered if there would be another show that would catch my interest and inspire such a passion in me as Doctor Who does to this day.

It’s an interesting question.

But Big Finish fan favorite, Rob Sherman, takes the concept of what if there were no Doctor Who and takes it a lot further. Sherman creates a character who could have created Doctor Who—a writer who was seen as the next big thing until he “slummed” in television writing and wrote some rather badly received stories for a popular television drama at the time, that is still beloved by fans today. His stories are considered by fans to be some of the worst of the show and he has a rather standoffish relationship with the whole thing, seeing his time in television writing as being the decline not only of his writing career but of his whole life. Had he created the science-fiction drama, Doctor Who, he might be better remembered and not just a footnote to a show that he never really liked or wanted to be part of. (Indeed, the irony of the writer’s stories being considered among the worst by fans on the net works very well. It also made me think of Bill Emms, who wrote The Web Planet for Doctor Who and recently passed away. Certainly I’ve never been kind to the story, considering it one of Doctor Who’s worst…so am I really any better than the fans portrayed in this story?)

It’s a fascinating character study—made even more fascinating because the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. Shearman offers up some different takes on how the Hartnell years might have gone in the hands of his character—and they are grounded enough in the familiar Hartnell epics to be familiar, but at the same time a different enough to rouse the interest.

But the character of Martin Bannister really comes to life thanks to the superlative performance of Derek Jacobi. I have to admit it’s quite a coup for the audio adventures to get an actor of the name and caliber of Jacobi for this story and Jacobi does not disappoint. It would be easy to portray Bannister as one-note, but Jacobi brings depth to the performance. Martin is, in essence, the Hartnell Doctor as a real man. We see warmth and affection from him for his grandson and a yearning for his family, a crotchety old man who is quick to anger and even an older man who occasionally fluffs his line and doesn’t always see the fine line between reality and fantasy.

And the ending of this one ably blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Does Martin escape off in the TARDIS with Susan to have grand adventures or has his grip on sanity finally snapped? Does Martin die in the end, never having seen his dream fulfilled except in his own mind? It’s a bittersweet ending to a story and one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to easy answers. And just like the endings of all the Unbound dramas to date, it leaves you with a lot of questions that wander around your head for several days after the story is finally over.

In all, it’s a mark of good Doctor Who. Yes, Deadline isn’t technically a Who story, so much as an examination of the show and its fans. But in the end, it’s an interesting idea to think about and contemplate—what if we had no Who? (Another interesting question I think would be: what if Terry Nation hadn’t come up with the Daleks to save Who way back when..where would be today? But that’s another series of stories, I think)

Deadline is thought provoking and entertaining. There will be some who take offense at Sherman’s portrayal of the fans and his attitude toward the series. But just as Greatest Show did back in season 25, this anniversary story examines the state of Doctor Who 15 years later. And it’s an interesting and unique portrait. Whether you agree or disagree with Sherman, you certainly won’t find yourself able to pull yourself away from listening to this release. As with all the Unbound stories (so far), this one comes with my full, ringing endorsement.

Lawrence Conquest

After a couple of mediocre releases, the Doctor Who Unbound series gets back on track with Deadline. “What if Doctor Who was a work of fiction” is the spin this time, a decidedly post-modern take on the series. Here we are presented with a reality where the series was scrapped before ever being made, and we witness the shows failed writer living out his fantasies in a residential home.

It’s good stuff, and a lovely idea to play with, but it’s not wholly satisfying. While appropriate for the 40th anniversary, there does seem to be a little bit much of the play ‘blowing it’s own trumpet’ by contrasting the perceived brilliance of Doctor Who against a bog-standard drama Juliet Bravo, and the appearance of Sydney Newman was a mistake in my opinion. The reporter who turns up later, while amusing, is little more than an uncomfortable caricature of a fan, being even less subtle than Whizzkid. The strength of the play lies in it’s shifting perception between reality and the fantasy world of Doctor Who. The revelation of what’s in the wardrobe being a particular highlight for me…

The cast are uniformly excellent, and Sir Derek Jacobi shines in a fairly demanding role. Martin isn’t a particularly likeable man, but he manages to evoke some sympathy for the character as he tries to put his mistakes right.

Undoubtedly the most adventurous story released by Big Finish thus far, Deadline makes a nice companion to the literary themed Mind Robber, and is a pertinent reminder that while fantasy is an important escape from reality, it’s possible to spend too much time in the realm of the imagination…

Andy Kitching

The fifth release in what has become a very popular range from Big Finish is the Unbound play, Deadline by Rob Shearman – a man who with Big Finish has made quite a name for himself in the WHO world although outside of it of course is quite an accomplished writer already.

With there already being some quite impressive casting with these Unbound scripts I was pleasantly surprised the Big Finish folks managed to acquire the services of the extremely reknowned and talented, Sir Derek Jacobi.

This Unbound play is quite a step in another direction compared to previous releases in the range. Here, the ‘What if’ scenario is ‘What if Doctor Who never made it to the screen?’. The play tells of a writer, Martin Bannister (Jacobi) and his failed career and similarly failed life, indeed in the play he is housed in a nursing home.

Bannister has lived through many failures in his life, with penning some of the worst episodes of Juliet Bravo seem to bother him a lot more than his failures by his family.

Martin is approached for an interview by Sydney played by Ian Brooker. Brooker plays numerous parts in this production but it’s with this role he really steals the show. Sydney is a reporter for the official Juliet Bravo magazine..ring any bells, folks? It may also interest you to know they have videos, spin-off books and an audio range which boasts some members of the original cast…..now if only we could do this with Doctor Who eh? Ooh? What? Ah right, I see…

The opening of the play is a re-working of the scene from Unearthly Child where Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS for the first time, as if from an author’s point of view, very clever stuff with some very nice and subtle changes. We even find out where the idea for a TARDIS comes from…a wardrobe.

Deadline really does throw in a few things that will make the listener chucke and never gets boring. Although Jacob is not really playing the Doctor ‘proper’ he certainly does make Martin Bannister a truly delightful character and the listener is genuinely taken in by what is happening around him.

Sound design of the piece is equally good with one part really sticking in my mind when the familiar starting of the theme music been audible very slightly in the background of some scenes, adding an altogether new kind of atmosphere to the piece.

A good release from the Unbound range and a nice new take to the theme of these plays. Well done Shearman, Ainsworth and Briggs!