That Other Time The Doctor Was a Lady: Unbound Exile

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.

7 comments

  1. James says:

    I must admit I’ve not listened to Exile since it first came out, but I remember having much the same reaction as you. Amanda Weir was good casting, but it did seem to be the one that all the “silly” stuff had been ladled into. You know – the one where hardcore fans complain that it’s “not serious adult drama like (insert story from when complainant was seven*)”. Meanwhile,the same person will talk at length about how wonderful He Jests at Scars is because it references Logopolis and 23 other stories.

    If “What if the Doctor was a woman?” is sufficient for an Unbound, then do a story where that’s the only element that’s different. Have the Doctor crashland on Earth, get picked up by UNIT and have to convince the Brigadier that she’s the same person as the man who fought the Yeti and Cybermen with him. Or set it a few years later – the female Doctor’s working for UNIT. Would she have them dancing to her tune in the same way as the Pertwee Doctor did? What kind of relationship would Jo have with a female Doctor? Would it inspire Jo to go off and become a version of the Doctor, rather than to marry one? Would Liz stay on and work with this Doctor for longer? How the hell would Benton cope? Throw in a gender swapped Master while you’re at it and it could all be rather fun.
    I tell you, I’m getting myself seriously interested in this. Frances de la Tour as the Doctor and Sian Philips as the Master bouncing off Katy Manning or Caroline John. What odds of a new series of Unbounds for the 50th anniversary?

    * I remember a friend dismissing Midnight with the words “It’s alright, but it’s not serious adult drama like Planet of the Daleks.” Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can say.

    • I think considering how interested people are in the idea now, the best way would be a whole season of Unbound which explored different kinds of female Doctors.

      • James says:

        I’d buy that. Possibly major events from the series with a gender swapped Doctor? The Honor Blackman Doctor steals a TARDIS and flees Gallifrey The Sue Perkins Doctor is put on trial by the Time Lords, regenerates into Frances de la Tour and is exiled to Earth, where she has to work with Brigadier Bambera at UNIT against the Master played by Sian Philips or Helen Mirren. The Miranda Raison Doctor meets her previous selves in the Death Zone. The Hermione Norris Doctor fights the Time War.

        Sadly, I can’t cast Hattie Jacques as the 6th Doctor, which is kind of a shame.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      I like your thinking. You raise all kinds of fun questions that could be explored with that Doctor As A Woman premise.

      – “I remember a friend dismissing Midnight with the words ‘It’s alright, but it’s not serious adult drama like Planet of the Daleks.’ Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can say.”

      That’s a perfect picture of geekdom right there. ;)

  2. Nightsky says:

    I wrote this at LibraryThing:
    It’s not this audio’s fault that it isn’t the story I wanted it to be. The Whoniverse’s lone attempt (officially) at writing a female Doctor could have explored any number of fascinating areas. We might have seen how the Doctor’s conception of himself as a man was or wasn’t affected by his regeneration into a woman. We could have explored Gallifreyan society in light of the fact that its members can change genders under some circumstances. Perhaps most interestingly, we might have glimpsed how some of the Doctor’s established habits (e.g. barging into a crisis, taking charge, dealing with protestations mainly by ignoring them) might have been upended.

    But what we get is a lark. It’s a very *funny* lark, with some outstanding bits. The two befuddled Time Lords (Toby Longworth and David Tennant (yes, THAT David Tennant)) not only provide a hilarious string of gags but also subtly establish Time Lord society as snobbish and insular in the extreme–completely ignorant of the larger universe, and faintly contemptuous of the notion that they shouldn’t be.

    And I suppose this fluffy audio will have to do, until the next time someone wants to have a go at a female Doctor.

    • I agree with all of that. I wanted moooore. There’s some quite good material in the play (once you get past the vomiting/burping) but I think this story itself could have done with a bit less lark & a bit more angst/gravitas. The second half is so much better than the first.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      @ Nightsky — Great point about how The Doctor’s take-charge habits of dealing with people and circumstances could be viewed under the expectations/restrictions of another gender. Would a woman who behaved the same way be considered so charming and respected for her intellectual assertiveness? Or would a woman Doctor find people not so accepting of those same qualities? This. I want to see it. ;)

      @ Tansy Rayner Roberts — Thanks so much for this review. I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to the audio plays yet, but you covered the episode and its problematic issues well so someone like myself can get a sense of it.

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