The Doctor Who Unbound series of audio plays at Big Finish were one of their earlier experimental series – you can tell it’s early because a) the plays are all the in the ‘Big Finish for Under a Fiver’ grab bin on their website and b) David Tennant is in it.
David Tennant actually turns up a lot in early (pre-2005) Big Finish plays because he was taking any opportunity he could to be involved with the franchise – previously I’ve heard him as an unrepentant Nazi in Colditz (with the Seventh Doctor and Ace) and as an outrageous Scottish hard-ass UNIT commander in UNIT: The Wasting.
This time around, in Unbound: Exile, Tennant is a bumbling, second string Gallifreyan CIA agent (that’s Celestial Intervention Agency, yes really) trying to hunt down the Doctor on that planet where you usually find the Doctor.
The trick of course being that the Doctor has managed to regenerate, rather sneakily, into a woman, and thus is even harder than usual to track down.
The Unbound series provided some seriously batty premises, the idea being that the production crew could play around with the very idea of what a Doctor Who story was, canon bedamned. The stories are mostly stand alone (though a few have sequels) and include such premises as: the Valeyard killed the Doctor and now Mel is trying to redeem and/or kill him; the Doctor and Susan never left Earth; and my personal favourite, what happened to the Brigadier if the Doctor was never exiled to Earth in the 70’s?
Taking such a bold step to the left allowed them to cast all manner of alternative Doctors, including Derek Jacobi, David Collings, Geoffrey Bayldon and David Warner, and to explore a variety of alternate time streams. At the time, it probably seemed fairly controversial to make one of those Other Doctors into a woman – these days, I suspect we’d wonder why they only picked one.
All I knew about this play coming in was that it was widely regarded as being a bit crap – and my feminist spidey senses had sparked up, wondering whether it was truly bad or if the listeners were just trying to justify why they felt uncomfortable listening to a woman play the iconic “male” role. But I still hadn’t got around to listening to it until recently when the actress in question, Arabella Weir, appeared in DWM talking about her recent experience performing in the Christmas special.
Among other things in the interview, she talked about how she was close friends with David Tennant, and how he had been part of her previous Who experience when she played the Doctor (long before he got to on TV). So I had to check it out!
And… oh. Right. Um.
It’s not a great play, not by Big Finish standards, and certainly not by the standards I expect of the writer, Nicholas Briggs, who turns out stellar material these days. It’s not as bad as I expected, but I can see why people turned away in droves as the first twenty minutes of the story is basically the (female) Doctor getting repeatedly drunk off her face, belching and throwing up with all the sound effects you would expect from such a thing.
Once the story settles down and there’s a bit less vomiting to listen to, it’s actually pretty good. Arabella Weir herself does an excellent performance, though I prefer it when she’s playing the part straight than all the comedy stuff – as would be the case, I think, of any male Doctor too.
I wonder at their choices, long before the script was written. Why is it that the only female Doctor in this series of cool, alternative Doctor Who stories is also the only one that’s a slapstick gross out comedy? Did they think that the listeners wouldn’t accept a serious story with a female lead? Why, if one of the Doctors had to work in a supermarket, was it the woman?
On the other hand, women are often derided as ‘unfunny’ because we’re not used to respecting them as comedians in our culture. Am I the one with the problem, by thinking the female Doctor SHOULDN’T get to be funny? Would I feel differently if it was Tina Fey or Dawn French in the role?
I think, in the end, it’s a bit of all those things. I actually really enjoyed the play when I wasn’t having to listen to burping and vomiting – I thought the plot twist as to why the Doctor was female and how she had got that way was interesting, I liked the friendships she had made on earth, and I thought it did some interesting things to interrogate the role of the Doctor in a domestic setting. Even the issue of characters drinking all the time on weekends to balance out their crappy lives (this was written at the height of “ladette” culture as a media buzzword) was discussed with a certain degree of gravitas. Plus, David Tennant.
I actually REALLY liked Arabella Weir as the Doctor. When she (and that script she’d been lumbered with) wasn’t grossing me out.
Ultimately I suspect that they didn’t quite think through the ramifications of depicting gross-out humour in audio (directly into your ears rather than on TV/film screen at a nice safe distance) and that it sets the play up to fail (or at least scramble to recover from the awful introduction). It’s a shame because if played far more straight, a noirish mystery about the female Doctor, why she was that way, and her attempts to stay under the radar, could have been a far more powerful piece of drama than the mixed bag we ended up with.
And maybe by now, nearly ten years later, Big Finish might have had enough encouragement from fans to portray a female Doctor more than once.
I’d love to hear other opinions on this one, if anyone else has downloaded this play.