By Matthew Kresal
"What if?" It's a powerful question, one that drives much of alternate history and fiction writing in general. It's something we can ask of histories both real and imagined, such as those of some of the most popular media franchises on the planet. It's been true of both DC and Marvel comics, with their Elseworlds and What If series, for example. It's also been the case with fans of the BBC's long-running series Doctor Who, one that for a time spin-off media producer Big Finish explored in a number of their audio dramas with a series called Doctor Who Unbound. A series whose opening entry, Auld Mortality, asked a mighty question: what if the Doctor had never been a traveler in space and time?
Doctor Who Unbound's origins lie in that era of the show's history known to fans as "the wilderness era." With the BBC having ended production of the series on TV in 1989, the series had found an ongoing existence in spin-off media. This including novel ranges, first under Virgin Books and then BBC Books, but also in a series of audio dramas that began being produced by Big Finish in 1999. With the show's fortieth anniversary approaching in 2003 and with plans for a celebratory multi-Doctor story planned in the form of Zagreus, the company hit upon the idea of producing a series of what if tales. Combined with casting actors who had previously been candidates to play the Doctor in the past or a potential future series, it would allow writers to explore the familiar with new perspectives. And Auld Mortality would set the standard for the entire run.
Given its setting on the Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey, the choice of Marc Platt to write the story was both no surprise and an inspired choice. Something especially true given his novel 1997 Seventh Doctor novel Lungbarrow is one of the definitive depictions of the Time Lords and Gallifrey. (Not to mention in many ways the forerunner to the equally controversial 2020 Modern Who episode The Timeless Children with its significant expansions on the Doctor's backstory.) It's perhaps no surprise then that this story brings together some elements from that novel (such as the furry robot Badger and the Doctor's uncle Quences), but also the Gallifrey of Classic Who at large. There are mentions of the high council, Gold Ushers, and Time Lord politics, all of which play a role in the alternative Doctor's life and never leaving Gallifrey.
Who is this Doctor, played by Geoffrey Bayldon (who interestingly turned down the chance to play the First Doctor in 1963)? He's recognizably a version of the Doctor William Hartnell played on TV, albeit slightly older, who became the celebrated author of a scientific romance called An Adventurer In Space And Time. A Time Lord whose potential is still the concern of his mysterious, politically ambitious uncle Quences (played by Derren Nesbitt, who appeared in the now lost story Marco Polo). While Bayldon certainly isn't Hartnell but, without dipping into being an imitation, he nevertheless captures the spirit of his Doctor. There's the occasional "Hmm," the moments of crankiness, but also a sense of sheer joy and wonder at times. Indeed, Bayldon captures Hartnell better in this story than Richard Hurndall did on screen in The Five Doctors in 1983, and perhaps more so than David Bradley did in the 2017 Christmas special Twice Upon a Time.
As fans of Doctor Who will know, the Doctor didn't leave Gallifrey alone. With him was his grandaughter Susan, played both then and in this story by Carole Ann Ford. Perhaps because Platt was writing for an actress four decades older than in 1963, or simply as a reaction to years of fans noting Susan's inconsistent characterization across the initial ten serials, this isn't the whimpering, often-frightened young girl we saw back in the 1960s, though. The Susan of Auld Mortality is an older and wiser version of the character, one who has come in search of her grandfather one last time and into events that will soon determine her destiny as well. While the writing does occasionally echo back to the original character in early scenes (right down to her twisting her ankle at one point), Ford plays this version of Susan very well, indeed. It also helps that, in keeping with the on-screen relationship, there's superb chemistry between her and Bayldon's Doctor which makes the entire situation all the more believable as a genuine possibility.
Into this alternate history scenario, Platt creates ones within it. Through something called a reality generator, Bayldon's Doctor glimpses a version of Hannibal crossing the Alps on the way to attack Rome, which sees the Carthaginian traveling with his trusty talking elephant (yes, you read that right, reader) Surus. As well as offering some moments of comic relief, this history within a history allows Platt to call back to the historical serials of the First Doctor era and, in a pure fan fashion, poke fun at their historical inaccuracies.
By the time its 79-minute running time has run out, Auld Mortality celebrates not just the possibilities of Doctor Who but of alternate history itself. Something illustrated in its most beautiful moments and dialogue, such as the scene marveling the possibility tree and the excellent audio montage that closes off the story, the latter offering a host of possible outcomes and sequels. As a future Doctor would say nearly a decade later: "We are all stories in the end, just make it a good one."
Something true no matter where one goes in time, space, and alternate history.