THIS STORY TAKES
REGENERATION (IN A
SOME TIME PRIOR TO
THE BIG FINISH AUDIO
"MASTERS OF WAR."
BIG FINISH 'UNBOUND'
CD# 2 (ISBN 1-84435-
013-4) RELEASED IN
1997. a lone exile
arrives on Earth,
years later than
an advanced Chinese
bomber crashes in
Hong Kong ON THE EVE
OF The HANDOVER. THE
Taskforce has just
24 hours to steal the
the passenger and
flee to international
Down by the harbour,
there's big trouble in
Little England - a bar
owned by a RETIRED
soldier, who simply
wants to forget the
past. But an ancient
evil is stirring in a
place of peace.
The Doctor finds a
world on the brink
of terror. A world
that has HAD TO live
without him for MANY
years. A world that
is frighteningly like
The second of the Unbound series, Sympathy for the Devil, is my favourite of the
lot (although Full Fathom Five does come a close second). Diverging from the established timeline between Seasons 6 and 7, we join the alternative third Doctor at the beginning of his Earth exile. However, something has gone wrong. Instead of arriving in the England of
the 1970s, his TARDIS has set down in Hong Kong, 1997… the eve of the Handover.
Playing the Doctor is none other than David Warner, star of innumerable blockbusters and certainly one of Britain’s greatest actors (my Mum used to know him, you know. True fact.) As an actor who was long interested in the role, Warner approaches the part thoughtfully, playing it dead straight, and I have to say he absolutely nails it. His Doctor is intelligent, composed and, simply put, pure class. After the first few moments after his arrival, during which time he’s seethingly angry with the Time Lords, he takes on an air of complete auth-ority and remains unflappable. It’s also amusing to imagine him in the second Doctor’s ill-fitting clothes, something he apparently never gets a chance to change out of. Watching
The Omen became a sort of Two Doctors movie for me after listening to this.
The play is set out as a sort of alternative
to the UNIT days of Jon Pertwee’s time.
As such, the Doctor soon bumps into
none other than Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (retired), who is now running
a small bar on the Hong Kong waterfront. Coincidence, or the hand of fate? Either way, it’s just fantastic to have “Alistair” back, as it always is. Nicholas Courtney
is as good as ever, perfectly portraying
a version of the man who never got the chance to become the hero we all knew him to be. Bitter at his abandonment by UNIT, it’s a deeply sad thing to hear the Brigadier like this. Without the Doctor around to help, UNIT was forced to use crude military means to stop the various alien threats it encountered, causing irreversible destruction to many areas of the planet. References to the ‘Plastic Purges’ and other such parallel versions of familiar stories adds to the feeling that things are not right in this world. However, once the Doctor is here, the Brigadier becomes more of his old self. It becomes clear that the two men need each other.
Adding to the Brigadier’s problems is UNIT commander, Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood. A competent soldier, but nevertheless an unpleasant slimy git, Wood is played by a young Scots actor named David Tennant. Wonder what ever became of him? UNIT are in Hong Kong to pick up a defector from the People’s Republic of China, trying to escape to the country before it becomes Chinese territory. One Ke Le, he is head of a mind-controlled army used by the Chinese military, and he needs something that’s in Hong Kong, some-
thing he can’t let his superiors get hold of. However, events don’t go according to plan.
After a plane crash, and an unexpected regeneration, we learn who Ke Le really is… Ke
Le = Keller = the Master. Having fled to the Communists with the mind parasites seen in
The Mind of Evil, he’s now after the last one in existence, guarded by chanting monks in
a Buddhist temple.
The Master is played by Mark Gatiss,
under the pseudonym of Sam Kisgart.
The Unquiet Dead writer plays a much
younger, more flippant version of the old
renegade that could be seen as a pre-
cursor to John Simm’s. He’s powerful,
sinister and quite, quite mad. What’s
more, he’s been trapped on Earth for
years, unable to reach his TARDIS and
hoping for rescue from a fellow Time
Lord, now that one has finally arrived,
he’s not slow to show his anger. In a
spectacular explosion of rage, the Master verbally attacks the Doctor, blaming him for the Plastic Purges, the lizard attacks, and the Probe 7 disaster. Had the Doctor arrived when
he was supposed to, things would have been better. Without skipping a beat, the fictional terrors of this timeline shift into the horrors of the real world:
“I didn’t see you in Mai Lai, Doctor, I didn’t see you in East Timor.
No interfering in Rwanda, I see. Gonna pop back later on, and sort out Cambodia, are we? Pol Pot killed every Doctor he could find, and none of them was you!”
The Master’s tirade makes its point. We know what a world without the Doctor is like – we’re living in it.
The approaching handover adds an air of urgency to the proceedings, and the use of an historical event that’s still in recent memory is effective. The plot progresses rapidly, but
has time for thoughtful exchanges between the main protagonists, and the Abbott, played
by Trevor Littledale. References to alternate versions of classic stories will provoke a smile on fans’ faces, but are not so intrusive as to spoil things for a more casual listener, making the play a good choice for both a hardcore fan and someone new whose interest has been peeked by the new show. All told, Sympathy for the Devil is a cracking story, and I for one can’t wait for the long-anticipated sequel.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2008
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The second of Big Finish’s Unbound stories is perhaps the most captivating of
the lot as it focuses less on the novelty of a new Doctor, and more on the mad world that
he finds around him. Sympathy for the Devil provides a snapshot of a universe where the Doctor never worked for UNIT; a universe where the beleaguered Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had to ward off the regular alien onslaughts of the 1970s without the benefit of his counsel; a universe where even the Master has become an unlikely victim of the Doctor’s belated exile. In a nutshell, it’s a UNIT-era Turn Left, without the luxury of a reset button.
Jonathan Clements’ storyline is borne out of a couple of simple, but devastatingly piercing, questions: what if the Doctor never worked for UNIT? What if following his trial in The War Games, he arrived in 1997 Hong Kong instead of 1970s London? Unlike Auld Mortality,
this story addresses the significance of the Doctor head-on as Clements’ script documents the horrors visited upon the Earth in his absence - the “plastic purges” following the Auton invasion; Mike Yates’ having to travel back in time to pre-emptively nuke the Earth Reptiles; the Mars Probe 7 disaster that that crippled America; even the breakdown of diplomatic relations with China. Most pointedly of all though, Sympathy of the Devil examines the two men whose destinies should have been bound to the Doctor’s, but as a result of his delayed exile were forced to suffer lives of shame and ignominy: Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and the Master.
Nicholas Courtney’s aged warhorse is the beating heart of the play. A discredited old man running a bar on the Hong Kong Waterfront, Alistair is far from being the revered Brigadier that we all know so well. His actions in defence of the planet drew criticism from all quarters, leading to his early retirement from active service and self-enforced foreign exile. Now he has to bear the impertinence of the likes of David Tennant’s Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood,
a new generation of UNIT officer whose ideals leave much to be desired. He has to watch the world burn around him as he pulls the pints.
Even more appealing though is the
Master, and the effects the Doctor’s
absence has had on him. The Doctor
could’ve been the marooned Master’s
ticket out of the 1970s, but instead
he’s had to endure a comparatively
monotonous existence, playing the United Nations off against the East
and assuming the role of disgruntled
Chinese defector. The vile schemes
that he speaks of here all sound quite constrained, somehow; it’s as if with-
out the Doctor to impress, the Master just couldn’t be bothered to try. Of course, with the arrival of the Doctor neatly coinciding with the Master’s regeneration, all of that’s about to change.
The Doctor – or “Doctor Hu” as the Chinese call him, brilliantly – is in many ways the play’s most consistent element; the audience’s link to the world that should have been. A straight arrow in every sense, David Warner’s Doctor is stern and unexcitable; the only crack in his façade is an arid sense of humour that starts to reveal itself more as the Time Lord settles into his new body. It’s a particularly interesting performance to look at from a contemporary perspective, as the last three Doctors on television have all been youngish men, played completely off the wall – the antithesis Warmer’s calm and dignified old man.
Now from the above, you could be forgiven for thinking that these three fellows don’t make for the most exciting of protagonists, but this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Whilst the play’s opening and the character’s back stories are necessarily gloomy, as events unfold this play soon becomes one of the most lively and engrossing productions that Big Finish have ever made. When the TARDIS materialises in Hong Kong and the Doctor emerges a new man, ready to begin his exile, his path is quick to cross with that of his old Yeti-hunting friend, and together the two of them set about putting this twisted world to rights, just as the newly-regenerated Master sets in motion his plan to put his hands on the last mind parasite in existence…
Like Clements, I’m a keen proponent of The Mind of Evil, and so the prospect of skewed version set within what is about to become China was a proposition that instantly appealed to me. The resultant yarn is absolutely riveting, and is satiated with such authentic ambience that one could quite easily mistake it for a David McIntee paperback.
of Warner, Courtney and the anagrammatic League of Gentlemen star
Sam Kisgart (aka Mark Gatiss). Fuelled by Clements’ incisive script,
the three stars have their listeners teetering on the edges of their seats
throughout. Gatiss’ Master is the ideal foil for Warner’s Doctor, Gatiss
preserving Delgado’s gentlemanly charm and complementing it with
just a hint of thinly-veiled mania. I love how the Master is every bit as
unflappable as his old school chum… until he is riled: “Pol Pot killed
every Doctor he could find, and none of them was you” is probably the
greatest Master line of all time, in any universe. Indeed, many of this
play’s most profound scenes are comprised of wordplay between the
two Time Lords, their repartee cutting especially deep as it reveals a
tragic flaw in the Doctor’s character and, as the title suggests, casts the
Master in an atypically sympathetic light.
I can’t help but wonder though how different this play might have been had Jon Pertwee still been with us, and the need for an alternative third Doctor had never arisen. On the one hand, an ‘authentic’ Doctor would have only served to emphasise the differences in the Brigadier, the Master and the world; on the other though, it would have deprived us all of Warner’s new, distinctive Doctor – like Geoffrey Bayldon, another one that got away.
In the early 1990s there was a media buzz concerning Warner having apparently been cast as the Doctor in a new series. It was complete claptrap, of course, but having listened to this play, I can’t help but wish that it hadn’t been. Sympathy of the Devil is a fantastic Unbound audio drama because it does what it set out to do, and does so with remarkable style and just the right level of fan service. However, it’s also a highly unusual one because it leaves the listener desperate to know what happens next - it’s not so much an experiment; more a backdoor pilot…
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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