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Doctor Who Unbound - Big Finish #6
Nick Mellish

The ‘Doctor Who Unbound’ range for me has been a triumph; of the five plays prior to this one, only one of them (‘Full Fathom Five’) failed to please me, though even that had some redeeming qualities (especially the ending). I was therefore reasonably confident that I would probably enjoy ‘Exile’ too, and I am happy to say that enjoy it I did. It will certainly not be to everybody’s taste. From the very beginning with Nicholas Briggs’ tribute to Sainsbury’s, to the very end with the Time Lords lazing around in ceremonial robes, ‘Exile’ is a play that is comedic in nature, something that is sure to get a few people weary from the word go. Comedy and ‘Doctor Who’ have a very hit-and-miss relationship- when it works, it’s brilliant, but when it does not… oh, help. The humour in ‘Exile’ ranges between ‘Doctor Who’ in-jokes to observations on society to toilet humour (literally at times- the Doctor knocks herself out on a lavatory at one point). I’m not going to lie and claim that every single joke made me laugh out loud, but the majority of it made me smile and/or laugh, so I guess that qualifies as an overall success.

The ‘What If…?’ questions posed throughout ‘Unbound’ have been pleasantly different, ranging from those related to the show (“What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey?”) to those outside of it (“What if ‘Doctor Who’ had never been on television?”). Here, the question is: “What if the Doctor had escaped the sentence imposed by the Time Lords after ‘The War Games’?”

At first glance, this appears to be a disappointing re-treading of the question that ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ was based upon (“What if the Doctor was not UNIT’s Scientific Advisor?”). However, this is not the case at all. For a start, there is no Alien Invasion to foil, neither is there the presence of UNIT. Added to this, the very character of the Doctor is very, very different, for reasons that become apparent as the play progresses. If anything, branching off from the same point (or thereabouts) that ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ did just goes to show how flexible the ‘Unbound’ format is, since you could not really get two plays as different as these ones.

The Doctor in ‘Exile’ is a very different incarnation that that we have known before, or so it first appears. For a start, the Doctor is now a woman, assuming the pseudonym of Susan Foreman; the Doctor is also working at the local branch of Sainsbury’s, battling the Shopping Trolleys that never go in the right direction and getting the Pound Coins that are stuck in them out with her trusty Sonic Screwdriver. On top of this, the Doctor now also swears, drinks (a lot) and consequently also finds herself vomiting and burping on a very regular basis. At first, this appears to be a false impersonator of the Doctor but things change. It eventually transpires that she is acting as differently and as un-Doctorishly as possible in order to avoid detection by the Time Lords, since her sentence is still to be passed. Near the end, the Doctor is alone in the TARDIS, speaking to herself, and you instantly recognise the character as the Doctor we know of old. The decision to make the Doctor for the main part so different is a risky one, but totally in keeping with the script. For those worried though, the previous incarnation of the Doctor pops up regularly and tries to inject some wisdom into his new body, though with limited success, mostly due to his obsession with Quarks and paranoid ramblings that the Earth is to be invaded. Again.

The decision to make the Doctor a woman again is explained away in the script- how do you disguise the Doctor? Change the Doctor’s gender of course- simple. In some ways, this was a slight disappointment to me; for me, the Doctor will always be the Doctor regardless of gender and so I see little reason to explain it away. Having said that, it strengthened the Doctor’s plan of attack and also made for some amusing lines here and there, so all is not lost.

The plot itself is as straightforward as they come. Following on from ‘The War Games’, the War Lord as been dematerialised by two rather useless and constantly bickering Time Lords, but the Doctor has escaped before they can put him on trial. Killing himself so he can regenerate and change gender, the Doctor hides on Earth, behaving as out-of-character as possible to evade Time Lord detection and going as far as removing the Time Vector Generator from the TARDIS to disguise that too. However, the two Time Lords are soon on her case, hoping to be promoted so that they can wear fancy robes and sign pointless documents, and they try to rouse her curiosity by pretending to be Alien Invaders (rubber masks and all, since a lot of monsters have rubber mask-like faces apparently). However, the plan is not very successful (the media do not report it at all) and so they use a pub to lure her in….

Writing the plot down like this kind of misses the point somewhat: ‘Exile’ is here to be enjoyed and listened to rather than analysed to any great depth, so I shall skip the usual scrutinising such plays as this usually undergo as it would not be doing the play any real justice: it is written as a comedy and so the majority of the play revolves around comedic situations.

Much of the comedy comes from the two Time Lords looking for the Doctor.

> From the start, when they think a Time Lord Guard is in fact the Doctor

dressing up eccentrically, to when they first arrive on Earth, dressed as Starsky and Hutch according to passers by, to the very end when they finally get promotion, they are responsible for some of the more amusing parts of ‘Exile’, and are played superbly by David Tennant (who, if my ears do not deceive me, also has an uncredited brief role as a Pub Landlord early on) and Toby Longworth.

The Doctor herself, and her previous incarnation, also raise laughs; these too arise from different situations, many of them involving alcohol. From conversations about the Quarks to her previous incarnation (they don’t need to look scary or climb stairs- they have atomic ray guns) to her eventual trial, the humour ranges between the conversational to toilet humour. It is the latter that arguably suffers the most, mainly due to repetition. The Doctor burping and vomiting is vaguely amusing at first, though near the end it loses its appeal and becomes a bit too samey. Still, there are enough redeeming moments to save it. In particular, I enjoyed the reference to the ‘TV Comic’ story ‘The Night Walkers’ in which Scarecrows comes to life to force the Second Doctor to continue his sentence; there, they were threatening. Here, they’re a little silly, as is pointed out. In fact, poor Season Six and especially the Quarks- regular villains in the aforementioned ‘TV Comic’- both come under a lot of flack- the Doctor is not allowed to have a Thought Channel in her trial because she’ll just show them the Quarks, and they’re rubbish.

The Doctor’s friends and drinking buddies are also great- Cheese and Cherrie work very well as companions for this Doctor, though quite what they’d make of Time and Space is anyone’s guess. Cheese’s pit of wisdom and obsession with ‘The X-Files’ fuel much of the past Doctor’s paranoia, and also lead to some laughs earlier on. Cherrie, bless her, fits the role of ditsy perfectly, and whether drunk, hungover and sober, she is undeniably sweet. The Doctor may claim to not really know them later on, but as they stand they are nice additions to the script, which even allow for a quick and worthwhile statement against Binge Drinking later on.

Sainsbury’s also feature heavily in the plot, giving the paranoid Old Doctor an excuse to get the current Doctor to launch an attack when Princess Anne is coming to visit and open the car park that has already been open for a long while…

The acting in ‘Exile’ is as strong as one now expects from Big Finish plays. As the Doctor, Arabella Weir is perfectly suited to the script; she manages to play ‘drunk’ particularly convincingly, and the script’s humour works well due to her performance throughout. As her bitter, previous incarnation, Nicholas Briggs is very amusing too; his lines concerning the might of the evil Quarks are humorous, and he is equally good at the more subdued moments the script has (though such moments, to be fair, are few and far between).

As already mentioned, David Tennant and Toby Longworth are very good, and perfectly compliment the Doctor.

The supporting cast of the Doctor’s Earth friends, and her boss, are also very good. Playing Cherrie, Cheese and Mr Baggit respectively, Hannah Smith, Jeremy James, and Graham Duff are good in support, with Duff impressing the most, making the awkward scenes between himself and the Doctor work very well indeed.

Nicholas Briggs’ Directing is as good as ever, making the humour in his script work well, though as already mentioned there are times that are a bit overindulgent, especially with the vomiting and burping. On the whole though, his Directing works well. His Music too is good, though I must admit that I found it to be his least impressive score yet. Whilst it is perfectly suited to the script, there is little in it that strikes me as being very memorable.

In the end then, I liked ‘Exile’, though I can see why others would not. I thought it was amusing and worked well, and I thought that all of the Cast were great. It’s not my favourite ‘Doctor Who Unbound’ play, nor is it my favourite play by Nicholas Briggs, but as it is, it was enjoyable enough, and certainly deserving of more praise than it has received in the past. The Doctor, I’m sure, would drink to that.

Simon Catlow

“I’m a man of action trapped inside the body of a drunken woman!”
“It’s a cultural thing! It’s what young women do on this planet.”

Whenever there’s talk of a new lead for Doctor Who, someone almost inevitably suggests that the Doctor should be played by a woman as demonstrated by plenty of actresses being put forward amongst the frenzy of names suggested as potential Doctors for Russell T. Davies’ new television series. But what if it actually happened? What sort of difference would the Doctor being female make? Nicholas Briggs’ Doctor Who Unbound adventure Exile is a perfect opportunity to discover precisely that as comedienne and novelist Arabella Weir becomes the Doctor in a script which serves as a fitting thematic conclusion to what has been an extremely provocative series, by taking the fantastical nature of Doctor Who and grounding it in the mundane contemporary society.

Briggs’ bizarre – and frankly unnecessary – speech reassuring listeners that Sainsbury’s car parks don’t explode and extolling the virtues of their shortcake biscuits demonstrates that we’re in strange new territory, despite the familiarity of the re-enacted scene from The War Games that follows. The combination of portraying the Time Lords as believing themselves all-powerful and yet at the same time ineffectual bickerers alerts the listener that the tone is set firmly to comedy.

Throughout the Doctor Who Unbound series its basis has been to question “what if…?” whether it related to a specific event or a particular character trait. With Exile it could have been very easy to have made the fact that the Doctor is now a woman the crux of the story, but Briggs wisely develops a more interesting plot centred around the idea that the Doctor has escaped the Time Lords and has chosen to hide away to ensure they don’t find him. This self-imposed exile involves getting away from everything that made the Doctor who he was and by forcing a regeneration upon himself - and thus changing his gender in the process – then it makes his disguise all the better. The official premise of this story is “what if … the Doctor escaped the justice of the Time Lords?” but because of the intriguing scenario it has a wider scope than that, raising issues such as what if the Doctor could no longer be the Doctor or what if the Doctor had a normal life? It’s this contrast between the fantastical and the mundane that Exile is interested in.

When we first meet the Weir Doctor, she isn’t living the familiar life of a renegade wanderer and adventurer in space and time, but she’s living and working under the assumed identity of Susan Foreman in London. Her old existence was governed by the extraordinary but her new life is governed by the opposite – her mundane job at Sainsbury’s, drinking far too much with her friends and then living to regret it the next morning. All in all, it’s a very ordinary, anonymous and safe reality and light years away from our expectations of what the Doctor should be doing. Briggs cunningly uses her drinking and subsequent drunkenness to explain how she came to be in this situation through intoxicated conversations with her former self – played with suitable assurance by the author himself in a nice nod to his twenty-odd AudioVisual fan produced stories as the Doctor. Arabella Weir portrays a Doctor who believes the Time Lords are persecuting her for nothing more than being herself and it this fear that by acting in a Doctorish way will result in her capture that has forced her into accepting a routine position.

This constraint upon the Doctor echoes both Auld Mortality and Deadline in that the Doctor-figure is trapped by their reality and longs to escape, but the key difference with Exile is that the Doctor actually chose her reality that binds her. As her frustrations with her empty and monotonous life of binge-drinking grow, we can see why the Doctor was compelled to flee his homeworld and why he knows no home other than the TARDIS. It is a core characteristic of the Doctor’s to explore new possibilities and this wanderlust cannot be restricted, as shown here when the Doctor eventually decides that she cannot live without her purpose any longer as it is so fundamental to her being. Briggs misses the opportunity to play up the tragic element in this scenario, going for crude humour instead and while some of this works – such as the Doctor’s reaction to the man in the bar’s attempts to chat her up – the belching and the vomiting comes across as being very puerile, but it does serve its purpose of emphasising the uncharacteristic nature of the story and the life the Doctor is living perfectly.

Exile intentionally plays against type with its down-to-earth feel and by rooting the story so closely in the mundane Briggs paints the story in a harsh realism, producing much coarser dialogue than usual. When this is combined with how ordinary this particular incarnation of the Doctor seems we can see how far away she has moved from being who she really is and “her Doctoring.” But, as in all the Doctor Who Unbound stories – with the possible exception of Sympathy For The Devil – there is a moment of revelation which serves to both illustrate how the ‘what if…?’ element has impacted upon the Doctor-figure’s life but also how it will affect their attitude towards their future. In Exile this comes two-thirds of the way through the play where the Doctor realises that there is more to life than just getting drunk every night and that by hiding away and betraying her true instincts to be out there, amongst the stars, she is destroying herself in the process. This catharsis comes from another meeting with her increasingly paranoid former self and the whole scene where she realises that she is the Doctor and not “some kind of pissed idiot” is a fine moment of drama because it speaks volumes about the Doctor’s character. With the power to help people comes the responsibility to use that power responsibly and by getting drunk nightly with Cherrie and Cheese, the Doctor is evading that duty. Given that she believes her actions in helping others were morally justifiable, whatever arbitrary limits the Time Lords may have set, this scene marks the moment where she faces up to who she is and how she can make a difference to the universe at large.

By choosing to craft Exile as a comedy-based story, Briggs has set himself a difficult task as Doctor Who has a terrible habit of very rarely working when it’s deliberately trying to be funny with the more successful approach being for the humour to be subservient to the drama. Saying that, Big Finish have set a high standard for comedic Doctor Who with Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman’s The One Doctor (2001) sharply spoofing the series’ conventions and customs with great effect. But one of the reasons why that play was so successful was the fact that it was played with the actual stars of the show present, which in Unbound territory is a luxury that Briggs doesn’t have. He does follow the lead of Roberts and Hickman by making the humour of Exile founded upon the idea of subverting our expectations of the Doctor and who he is. The last place you’d expect the Doctor to be working is in a supermarket and so when Cheese and Cherrie have a desperate situation that only the Doctor can solve at the beginning of the play, the comedy comes from the bathetic realisation that she’s only freeing a pound coin from the trolley slot rather than saving the universe from evil from the dawn of time. There are some genuine moments of wit – such as the previous Doctor’s list of aliases for the man in the pub – but because Briggs uses the unremarkable situation to make the humour low-brow and crude, much of it comes across as infantile and tinges the story with a rather peculiar silliness, despite it being very appropriate to the way that Briggs has wanted to put the Doctor into a place you wouldn’t associate with the character. Possibly the most consistently funny aspect of Exile are the Time Lord double-act who pursue the Doctor to Earth in a vain attempt to bring her to justice. Briggs plays to the stereotype of the Time Lords being ineffectual by making them seem incompetent and illustrating how out of touch with reality they really are but even with these two characters, by the end of the play they too will have subverted the impression they gave initially.

Sadly, the biggest failing with Exile is in its underdeveloped plot, which is surprising given that it’s usually the strongest area of Briggs’ writing. The meandering pace helps to enforce the humdrum nature of the Doctor’s self-imposed exile but the lack of momentum shows the storyline is thin with only two main elements to the plot – the Doctor’s realisation of identity and her role mixed in alongside the Time Lords attempt to recapture her. While Briggs brings these together well, ultimately the ambiguous ending, which is very downbeat depending on how it is interpreted and thus continues this seeming perquisite of Unbound for unhappy endings, leaves the listener with a sense of dissatisfaction at the overall insubstantiality. But it could be argued that this is deliberate on Briggs’ part, introducing an element of social commentary in that the emptiness of the story mirrors the emptiness of the modern lives people like Cheese and Cherrie lead.

Arabella Weir proves excellent casting for this script as she conveys both the Doctor who has gone native well and more importantly the Doctor she could have been really like if given a chance to grow and develop. It’s a shame that we don’t get more of her witty and spirited Doctor she portrays during the final phase of the audio and less of the binge-drinking, vomit-faced belcher of the majority because she does show real potential. Briggs’ appearance as the previous Doctor is little more than a cameo, despite appearing on the front cover, but as always when Doctors get together – even Unbound ones! – he bickers and argues with Weir brilliantly and by showing the previous Doctor as frustrated with a growing sense of paranoia that forces him to try and show to the Doctor that everything slightly out of the ordinary is an alien conspiracy while she just wants to keep her drink down proves one of Exile’s most memorable moments.

The cast is composed almost entirely of Big Finish veterans and this experience shows as they all turn in dependable performances. As the Doctor’s friends, Hannah Smith and Jeremy James do ok despite not being entirely convincing when they’re acting drunk – which is most of the time. There’s something rather sad about the way the Doctor hasn’t made any impact upon their lives as Cherrie and Cheese as they leave her at the station and return to the pub to get blind drunk again, but its symptomatic of why the Doctor acts in the way that she does, her need to help where she can. As the two Time Lord agents trailing the Doctor, Toby Longworth and David Tennant are excellent, demonstrating good comic timing and making the most of their roles.

Exile is far too low-key to provide a rousing finale to the Doctor Who Unbound series and the misfiring humour distracts from the interesting idea of a Doctor who is awoken to the responsibilities of actually being the Doctor and thus finding herself again. Although Briggs should be applauded for trying something so radically different to his previous Doctor Who stories, he lacks the flair for comedy that he has for those dark, disturbing dramas that he specialises in and this ultimately undermines the potential of the central premise. Exile is something of an ambitious failure as there are certainly interesting themes exploring Doctor Who from a very different perspective but Briggs secretes them deeply below a surface of crude humour that obfuscates the true intention of the play.

Lawrence Conquest

“What if the Doctor was a woman” appears to be the alternative angle in this final Doctor Who Unbound instalment. Unfortunately a better description would be “What if Doctor Who was an appallingly awful comedy?”

As a writer Nicholas Briggs has had his ups and downs, but Exile is easily the worst thing he’s ever written – yes, even episode 1 of Sirens of Time is better. Exile is such sustained drivel that it leapfrogs straight into the all-time-clunkers list, alongside the likes of Minuet in Hell and Nekromanteia.

My major fear on perusing the inlay was that Briggs would try to take over the production with another one of his “I am the Doctor – no really, I am!” performances, with Briggs acting as writer, director, script editor, actor, musician and cover star. However, despite the infuriatingly smug pre-story introduction from the author, Briggs cameo as the ‘Previous Doctor’ never intrudes unnecessarily into the story. Unfortunately it soon becomes clear that nothing else is subdued about this release.

This is comedy with a capital C, with the actors delighting in playing over the top. It’s also deeply unfunny. The story is divided into two strands; the Doctor’s exile on Earth, and the two Time Lords tracking her down. The whole thing is a broad parody of the 3rd Doctors exile, yet almost any Pertwee story has more laughs. In fact, I’d bet that almost any other Nick Briggs story has more laughs, as I didn’t smile once during Exile. The humour is very obvious, and without any wit soon descends into the Doctor burping after every other line, and copious amounts of vomit substituting for humour. The jokes, such as they are, fall deathly flat, and the whole thing has an end of term school play feel of amateurism about it. Here are some of the better examples of the brilliant and sophisticated humour on offer:

“I hate trolley’s, they’re just Daleks without the interesting bits” (The Doctor working in a supermarket)

“They’ve had to find her something to do at the last minute, apparently the old peoples home has fallen through.”

“Oh – was anyone hurt?” (The Doctor’s oh-so-witty response when it turns out Princess Anne is coming to open the carpark)

It really doesn’t get any better than this.

Of the two strands the two Time Lords hunting the Doctor are more interesting, as the culture clash offers better scope for comedy material, and the actors are better at delivering the material, though it’s still too obvious to actually be amusing. Arabella Weir however has a thankless task, as her Doctor spends more time burping and vomiting than coming out with amusing one-liners.

The Doctor Who Unbound series has had a fairly even strike rate, with half of them (Auld Mortality, Sympathy for the Devil & Deadline) proving successes. Exile is not only the least impressive of the Unbounds, it’s also a strong contender for the worst Doctor Who story ever.

Somewhere, in an alternative universe, there’s an exciting, witty, clever and amusing adventure starring a female Doctor – but Exile isn’t it.

Keith Mandement

Without doubt this is the worst BF play since The Rapture. Made worse for me by the fact I actually wanted to see what could be done with a female in the lead role. It is not a concept that scares me like it does other fans. My only caveat is it should be well cast.

Now the casting is the start of the problems. Arabella Weir, as an actor, is known predominantly for comedy roles which immediately undermines the role and the play from the start and shows the intent to be a spoof rather than a serious attempt to look at this concept and deliver something truly groundbreaking. Cast someone who can act in a comic or serious manner such as Lesley Sharpe or Julie Graham in the role then you are onto a winner.

Look at the script and it is nothing but banal, cliche ridden, self-referential pap with the sort of juvenile humour that was passe by the time one reached college. I have gone out and drunk to excess on many occasions and never felt the need to belch repeatedly as these characters do. It is just extremely infantile.

The characterisation of the female Doctor is merely a mass of cliches of the middle aged pre-menopausal woman that I am sure most of us have known at one time or another. Drinks too much, works in a supermarket. Oh please. If the Doctor truly wanted to hide the last place she would hide would be in South East England on Earth.

If I was a cynic I would position the viewpoint that Big FInish did this to completely undermine the concept of a female Doctor. It certainly does nothing to enhance it.

To me Nick Briggs is like Bob Baker/Dave Martin. He gives us some good stuff and some average stuff but nothing outstanding. This is by far and away his worst effort to date.

Whereas stories such as Deadline and Full Fathom Five really take the concept and stretch it and add so much to the overall Who Canon this poor effort adds little. Still the CD makes a nice coaster.